Posted by: erichosemann | November 10, 2009

The Moral Equivalent of War

The Moral Equivalent of War is the title of a speech given by William James.  I think that Kerry Howley’s recent essay in Reason magazine offers a libertarian justification for the concepts James describes in that speech, as well as a justification for actual military war.

What follows is the first part of my analysis of her piece.  It will be followed by others as I delve into Howley’s essay in more detail.  I wanted first to grapple with some ideas I had about culture, and work them into a criticism of one of Howley’s points, that perceived private restrictions on liberty are as bad as any state restrictions on liberty.

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A few days ago I finished Kerry Howley’s controversial Reason magazine essay and read the responses to it by Todd Seavey and Daniel McCarthy.  I was struck by the naiveté and cynicism of Howley’s argument, to say nothing of her freewheeling ex post manipulation of narratives of cultural change.

Her argument is naïve because it treats age-old liberal dogma as if it is novel and new and hyper-applicable to the problems of the day.  Howley buys into the liberal cultural determinist idea that there exists somewhere in the ether an ideal social state absent pesky, private restrictions on freedom.  She believes things would be better if lovers of liberty focused more energy on undermining those infringements than on protecting property rights.  Her argument is cynical because its syntax is cribbed from that dogma.  For Howley, libertarians “for whom individualism is important cannot avoid discussion of culture, conformism and social structure.”  Notice the imperative “cannot avoid” that casually informs the trio of liberal social science pet peeves “culture, conformism and social structure.”  But we can avoid such discussion; we are free human beings.  Statists, libertarians, conformists and central planners, all human and all similarly endowed with free will, can do likewise.  There is nothing obligatory about Howley’s argument, but it is deeply revealing.  For a self-described classical liberal, using such language is a major concession.  It means Howley believes there are forces at work, historical, epochal forces far stronger than individual will, and far more deeply imbued with political will to power, that must be propitiated.  A discussion one cannot avoid is not a discussion, but an admonishment, a warning.  Howley is warning those she considers “paleolibertarians” to get with the program or be brushed aside.

Culture exists quite apart from the static conception of it used to browbeat college freshmen and insensitive business executives.  Culture is not static, but is the result of the continual generation and intersection of personal narratives inside narratives of community.  Culture doesn’t stop and it doesn’t get frozen, especially in a growing, globalized economy.  But culture doesn’t exist without conformism or structure either; it doesn’t replicate without replicas, it doesn’t regenerate without standard bearers and authorities capable of determining what those replicas should look like.

It is reasonable for a liberty-minded person to chafe at the thought of standard bearers and authorities determining a culture’s traits, but reality shows us this process isn’t purely top down.  People gravitate to other cultures if they find them more valuable than their inherited culture, and the end result, the narrative those people tell, isn’t always one of clean-slate creationism.  The end result of their cultural journeys includes both their past and present cultures.

Right out of the gate, Howley risks the success of her argument by providing an example that proves how flexible culture, and the individuals that comprise it, can be:

“It was amazing to me how quickly she overturned the power structure within her family,” Leslie Chang writes in Factory Girls, her 2008 book on internal migration within China. Chang is marveling at Min, a 17-year-old who left her family farm to find work in a succession of factories in the rapidly urbanizing city of Dongguan. Had Min never left home, she would have been expected to marry a man from a nearby village, to bear his children, and to accept her place in a tradition that privileges husbands over wives. But months after Min found work in Dongguan, she was already advising her father on financial planning, directing her younger siblings to stay in school, and changing jobs without bothering to ask her parents’ permission.”

Min’s journey from rural patriarchy to urban sophistication is not a simple narrative of a young girl defying cultural norms on her own.  There is an entire city that beckons to her.  Her own father, presumably one of the people in her life with a vested interest in her staying home, is humble enough to take her financial advice once she starts earning money.  Were her culture strict enough, he could have shunned her outright.  Could her father’s willingness to accept her advice be a sign that her home culture is undergoing a transformation?  That one of its standard bearers is realizing that women should have more value if his culture is to survive?  In the language of this blog: the economic development of Dongguan created a scarcity of labor.  This scarcity painted the culture of Min’s village in stark relief.  Being an enterprising person, Min perceived it as an opportunity for her to have something more.

Howley’s insistence that libertarians cannot avoid discussions of culture, conformism and social structure gives too much weight to cultural rigidity while ignoring the sensitivity of marginalized members of the culture to its flaws and shortcomings.  The value Min’s culture placed on husbands over wives was a signal to Min that her life was less valuable to it than to a factory in Dongguan.  Min picked up on this signal and high-tailed it for a better life.  Thus we have a confluence, or compounding, perhaps, of forces: Min’s culture was pushing her out just as the factories of Dongguan were pulling her in.

That is not to say that Min is a passive cipher.  She has a will of her own that helped her see opportunity and take it, while still honoring ties to her family.  In Howley’s view, people like Min aren’t as capable of determining the value and shortcomings of their culture as they should be; they need avatars—i.e. standard bearers and authorities like Howley—to show them where and how their culture restricts their behavior and growth.

This is a curious stance for a libertarian to take, particularly in light of the work of one of this year’s selections for the Nobel Prize in economics.  Elinor Ostrom’s study of the success of communities in conserving shared resources absent the meddling of third parties shows culture and community to be both resilient and flexible.  People are capable of making choices and solving problems on their own.  If one considers the general welfare of the members of a culture a shared resource, surely those that benefit from the maintenance and alteration of that culture are those best equipped to solve problems the culture has in dealing with change.

This story is not a new one.  At one time in world history—say pre- or early-industrial revolution—labor provided by women was not very valuable.  Whether this was because of oppression, discrimination, or legitimate physical and psychological differences between the sexes , or whatever, is not within the purview of this post.  But what is certain is that economic and technological progress increased the value of each additional input of previously less valuable labor.  In other words, because production became more capital intensive, and capital intensive production became more widespread, women had more opportunity.  I don’t think you can attribute the increased presence of women in the work force to mass “I am Woman, Hear Me Roar” sing-ins. It is the result of an organic process of economic growth and cultural action and reaction.  Scarcities and inequalities came into being because of economic growth; these changes in economic topography brought traditional lifestyles into a brighter light; that light allowed closer scrutiny of a culture by those suffering from its more restrictive traits.  Challenging restrictive cultures without giving those that live within them the chance to organically modify them severs this chain of action and reaction and keeps such organic modifications from taking root and becoming substantive and real.  After all, it’s not important what Howley thinks about a culture, ex post, but what the members of that culture think about it ex ante: who and what will it protect, and when; who and what will it shun, and when; how will it maintain itself in time and space.

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