Friday, November 16, 2007

Note taking a comment at CT.

Something else to add, since the two posts following this seminar on individualism at Crooked Timber are one on the perils of atomized culture and yet another celebration of it: Isn’t it great to be a middle-aged man who spends all his free time reading comic books?.

The problem isn’t one of institutions or individuals but of how individuals relate to institutions. Books that concentrate on rules for economic policy are about as useful as books that promise to teach you how to pick up girls.
Rules don’t make societies any more than rules make games. Games exist in the playing, and since there are no umpires in society who are not also players themselves, we have to trust our playing partners to make the honest call more often then not even when it’s in our favor. Ever play tennis?
Crises in society come about not because the rules break down but because rules are all there are left. The gearbox is fine, but there’s no grease. And what’s grease?
That’s the unasked question.

What percentage of the population in any country takes individualism as the model for behavior, up to and including the sort of sociopathological individualism economic science seems to prefer as it model? Both American political and economic liberals think mostly of social and religious conservatives and looney leftists as anti-individualist. And of course there’s the army. But the Scandinavian model is based on it. Social democracy is based on it. Religious conservatives counter the ideal of individual freedom with limits originating in god, social democracy with limits originating not in the state but in the community of which the state is a creature. That’s not a problem if we think of individuals as creatures of community. I speak and write in English, and I try to do so “well.” That means I do so expecting to be judged by others. As an individualist why would I care what others thought? Again the posters at CT celebrate individuation and bemoan atomization by turns. What can I say?

Europeans aren’t nearly as afraid of determinism as historically Americans have been. The question of free will is seen as an amusing conundrum not a problem with an answer. Cartesian philosophy never stopped being literature. But the formal structures of social democracy are beginning to appear now in US. While the academy is discussing libertarianism from above, academically mandated anarchism as the last hope for modernism, everyday post-modern [second modernist?] social-democracy is coming up from below.

So I’ll ask you: What percentage of the optimism now permeating academic thought can not be explained by reference to social determinism, as pathology? My sense of cautious optimism is based on something else entirely, the sense that people are getting used to there being unsolvable problems and are developing the capacity to accept the ad hoc. The academy is drying out, but the world’s getting greasy.

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