Fundamental Questions

Maybe it’s old age, or–even more likely– my growing concern that I may be watching human civilization disintegrate around me, but I increasingly find myself mulling over what i call the “fundamental questions.” How should humans live together? What sorts of institutional and governmental arrangements are fairest? What sort of society is most likely to facilitate human flourishing? What sort of economic system might ensure the subsistence of all members of a society without depressing innovation and productivity?

These aren’t new questions. But for those of us with grandchildren who will have to navigate this increasingly chaotic and angry world, they are critical.

Aristotle described the good society as one that encouraged and facilitated human flourishing. It’s been awhile, so I no longer recall how–or whether–he defined “flourishing,” but I can’t imagine people flourishing (however defined) under a system that ignored the requisites of what we call the common good.

I favor John Rawls’ approach to questions of the common good. Rawls–the pre-eminent political philosopher of the 20th Century–begins by insisting upon a “veil of ignorance.” The veil of ignorance is a scenario in which  individuals are placed behind a metaphorical veil that strips them of knowledge about who they will be and where they will live; they cannot know whether they’ll be rich or poor, talented or not, brilliant or mentally disabled, healthy or sickly, etc. From behind that veil of ignorance, the individual must design a society that they  would consider to be a just one no matter where they landed and no matter what their personal attributes.

The goal of the veil device, rather obviously, is to encourage respondents to think deeply about the structure of society, and to ignore to the extent possible the influence of his/her actual attributes and situation.

If Rawls is a bit too theoretical for you, several years ago my friend Morton Marcus penned a more accessible but no less important set of questions. Morton distilled the study of economics and economic systems into the question “Who Gets What?” In that essay, he pointed out that social and material goods are allocated in a more complicated fashion than most of us recognize. Depending upon the good being accessed, it might be allocated on a “first come, first served basis” or via the force/authority exerted by one’s government or family. The allocation might or might not be tied to merit–or at least, what society at a given time regards as merit.

Morton’s exposition was lengthy, but its major contribution consists of the reminder that “who gets what?” is a question that permeates our social and legal relationships and involves multiple decisions by government and the private sector.

Humans have a habit of thinking that the culture into which they’ve been socialized is “natural”–it’s “the way things are.” When “the way things are” is challenged– by technology, displacement, social change, whatever–most people will dig in, defending our world-views and beliefs about the way things should be. Typically, we believe they should be the way we think they’ve always been–the familiar cultural touchstones to which we’ve become accustomed and with which we’re comfortable.

What if we used these scary, unsettled times to consider what human flourishing entails, and to think about the kinds of systematic and social supports that would encourage that individual flourishing?

What if we responded to the uncertainty and chaos in Washington, D.C. and around the globe by purposefully retreating behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance, and trying to envision the outlines of a better, more just society?

What if we didn’t respond to uncertainty and fear by clinging more tightly to what we know, to our fears and prejudices and ideas about what constitutes merit, and instead pictured different ways of allocating goods, of answering the question “Who gets what?”

What if?


There it is In Black and White

Since I’ve been on the subject of bigotry of various kinds…..

Recent news reports have highlighted academic research that confirms the degree to which animus toward President Obama is based on simple racism. I know that many readers will file this research under “duh,” but the fact that it merely confirms something we felt we knew, rather than telling us something we didn’t know, doesn’t make it any less valid or valuable.

The first study looked specifically at Obama’s election and the rise of the Tea Party.

Researchers at Stanford University found that when they showed white subjects photos of President Barack Obama with darkened skin, those people became more likely to support right-wing political organizations like the Tea Party.

According to the Washington Post, sociologist Robb Willer and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments from 2011 to 2015 in which they demonstrated that some white voters may be driven by unconscious racial biases against people with darker skin.

The study came about when Willard found himself pondering why racist hysteria has ratcheted up in this country since the election of President Obama in 2008. The ranks of white supremacist groups swelled after Obama entered the White House and watchdog groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center report that hate groups have become more active in recent years.

Willard’s study group published their work a few weeks ago on the Social Science Research Network. This research joins previous studies confirming  that racism has been an essential factor in Republican electoral victories.

In another study reported by the Washington Post, researchers from Harvard and Stanford found that racist attitudes remain stronger in areas of the South where slavery was most prominent. Not only was racism harder to eradicate in the counties where slavery had been most integral to the economy, but white Southerners who live today where cotton was king are substantially less likely to identify as Democrats.

Among otherwise similar counties, a difference of 20 percentage points in the enslaved population in 1860 was correlated with a difference of 2.3 percentage points in the share of white Democrats…

Polls consistently show that Republicans are more likely to hold racial prejudices, and not just in the South. Nationally, almost one in five Republicans opposes interracial dating, compared to just one in 20 Democrats, according to the Pew Research Center. While 79 percent of Republicans agree with negative statements about blacks such as the one about slavery and discrimination, just 32 percent of Democrats do, the Associated Press has found.

Other researchers have reached similar conclusions about the present-day composition of the party of Lincoln.

Sears of the University of California has found that even among white voters with equally conservative views on issues unrelated to race, those with more negative views about African Americans are more likely to vote Republican. He and Michael Tesler, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine, showed that there were many racially conservative white voters who supported John Kerry and President Clinton when they were candidates, but who voted against President Obama.

It is worth emphasizing that–just as all chairs are furniture, but not all furniture items are chairs–the fact that people with racist attitudes are more likely to be Republican is not the same thing as saying all or most Republicans are racists.

But these research findings–which tend to corroborate anecdotal observations–do help explain why Donald Trump’s attacks on “political correctness” and “those people” found enough fertile ground among the GOP base to make him the Republican nominee.

And the research also reminds us why America’s effort to eradicate the legacy of its slave-owning past is such a hard slog.