walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: March 19, 2013
Hey, You’re Truly Unlimited: Didn’t You Know?

It’s both satisfying and terrifying to finish a book. It’s satisfying because it’s a little like finally getting a Haystacks Calhoun clone to remove himself from your prone chest cavity. It’s terrifying not so much because of what others may think of it—though that’s not an entirely negligible concern—but because of the fear that the book might have been lots better if you’d worked harder or had more time.  Sometimes the best sentences finally form and key data points only become available after you’ve closed up shop, and that fear tends to be sharper the more expansive and open-ended the book’s topic.

That’s certainly how I feel about my new ebook, Broken: American Political Dysfunction and What To Do About It. I’m gratified that at least some people have already expressed appreciation for what I try to do in that book—and that includes Thomas Friedman’s generous call-out in this past Sunday’s New York Times, under the somewhat improbable title “Lose-Lose vs. Win-Win-Win-Win-Win.” But I’m finding it hard to let go of the subject despite having let go of the subject (if you know what I mean), because everywhere I look, it seems, I see more grist for my recently shuttered mill.

Thank heaven, therefore, for this blog—where I have the opportunity to supplement Broken on an ad hoc basis on those occasions when I can’t bear not to, and I can do it here without leaking footnotes all over the place.

That’s exactly what I’m about to do now, but in all fairness, especially to readers who have helped me with this project along the way as it rolled out in pieces here starting last year, take a warning: Below you will encounter a long, somewhat esoteric discussion in political theory/sociology that only eventually reaches a conclusion you might (or might not) care about. That conclusion takes as its prooftext, so to speak, the new Sprint advertising campaign that most of you resident in the USA will have noticed by now: “Be Truly Unlimited.”

My argument is that “Be Truly Unlimited” is not just an ad campaign, although it obviously is that, too. Sprint is trying to sell unlimited minutes for some carefully calculated market price, and the deal appeal resides largely in its simplicity: No more counting minutes or wondering about budget thresholds breeched, no more fuss with rollovers and so on. (I’m not in a position to comment on the commercial proposition, since I’ve never owned or paid for my own cell phone.) But I think the marketing team is aiming to leverage a strengthening American meme the larger consequences of which are somewhere between capacious and portentous, depending on one’s point of view. To see that, however, you must be able to decode the glitz and glitter of our crowded semiotic environment to find the core attitudes and assumptions, some we’re self-aware of and some we’re not, beneath. So if you’re ready, warnings be damned, let’s turn over some symbolic rocks and get started.

*  *  *

It in the introduction to Broken: American Political Dysfunction and What To Do About It, I take some pains to explain why I choose a middling level of analysis, a Goldilocks level that’s neither too superficial nor too deep. I offer a teaser pointed toward deeper explanatory templates for our current difficulties, but soon leave off from them. The reason, as I explain in the book, is that deeper cultural explanations, however interesting and even true they may be, have close to zero chance to gain policy traction. They don’t speak wonk.

That said, there are a few verities about political life that simply cannot be ignored despite their falling outside the ambit of practical policy analysis. The first and most important of these is that most societies, most of the time, tend to govern themselves to one extent or another without much help from formal political structures. The glue, metaphorically speaking, that enables societies to do this is referred to as social trust, or sometimes as social capital.

All this really means—and in the book I refer to this key concept on several occasions—is that people in their communities establish over time certain reciprocal standards and expectations of conduct. These standards and expectations may be the result of a religious culture whose institutions tutor young people during their socialization to conform to behavior that is understood to be commanded from outside the human world. In such cases, moral behavior is ratified by the theotropic inclinations of human nature, in other words, by the sacred. Presumably, other forms of social authority, fully intrinsic to the community, can accomplish the same ends. Sometimes, usually in fact, both occur simultaneously, bringing about a merger encouraged by the fact that as people mature they learn to appreciate the virtues of civility, integrity, honesty, politeness and other social-guidance systems through which people reassure one another that we are allies-in-common by virtue of sharing a basic interest in the safety, security, prosperity and beauty of our surroundings. Government can encourage and structure the formation of such benign attitudes, but it usually cannot create them de novo.

The point here is that healthy societies create networks of expectations that work thanks to the magic of reciprocity, not because agents of a state constantly enforce them. Reciprocity amounts to sets of implicitly matched or parallel promises of future behavior, and it is the cumulative consequence of making and keeping such promises that is the font of any moral order. (This is something Nietzsche and Hannah Arendt well understood, but that most modern moral philosophers have managed somehow to miss, possibly because the insight  has been tarnished in their eyes by association with Abrahamic theologies.) I don’t steal your backpack and you don’t steal my wallet not just or mainly because of a worry about the police catching us in or after the act, but because we know it’s wrong, and we know at one level or another that if everyone did wrong we’d all be in a total mess, police or no.

Generally speaking, the better a society can maintain social order on its own dime, the less government, and the less coercion, is required to keep civic life clear of Hobbesean nastiness, brutishness and brevity. This observation is the source of anarchism as a political philosophy, just in case anyone is interested. At its essence, the idea is that if people can refine their behaviors sufficiently through some form or other of enlightenment, then, very much pace Hobbes, the need for government can be dispensed with altogether. I confess to a youthful infatuation with anarchism. Some decades ago I read and sometimes thrilled to Bakunin, Krapotkin, Emma Goldmann, and, closer to our own time, the irrepressible Murray Bookchin (1921-2006).

Anarchism is based on a very optimistic view of human nature, or rather of human social nature, which is why it tends to appeal to youth. It was Don Marquis who had his cockroach hero Archie say, to Mehitabel the Cat I think it was, that “an optimist is a guy without much experience.” There is nevertheless a case for such a view beyond youth, and a recent case well made is that of James C. Scott (Two Cheers for Anarchism, Princeton University Press, 2012)—recommended for young and old alike.

That said, I do not know of any large-scale human civilization that has not needed at least some government to establish the basic parameters for justice and economic activity, as well as for collective defense—the first and historically the most compelling and popular reason for government. But clearly, some societies are much better at creating their own internal stabilities than others. Some societies need and want less government than others. To generalize boldly (and perhaps foolishly), high-trust societies needing less government tend to be more homogeneous with respect to language, ethnicity, work profile and religious culture. In theory, anyway, these are enabling but not necessarily limiting factors. Low-trust societies needing more government tend to be more diverse, more urban, more functionally specialized and complex—in a word, ironically enough, more modern.

In a sense, this general observation parallels that of Edmund Burke when he observed that the less discipline a person exerts on himself from within, the more discipline will need be imposed upon him from without. What is true of individuals may also be true of entire societies; as John Adams said: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Translation from 18th to 21st century vernacular: A limited government devoted to liberty can only work if society’s own high-functioning moral order keeps expressions of liberty within certain bounds. Or, to put it in far more common, but analytically vaguer, language: Self-government requires civic virtue.

If so, it follows that even a complex and specialized modern society—if it cherishes liberty—should strive for maximum feasible anarchism, even if that ends up being far short of the utopian outcome anarchist theorists have sought. It should strive to be as much of a self-regulating social system as possible, the basis of which is, in my view, the Jeffersonian principle of subsidiarity (to which I also make reference in the book). The best way to reduce both the demand for government and its propensity for coercion is to layer government in ways aligned with the location of problems, building in as best we can protective buffers between them—just as the natural world builds buffers into interdependency to reduce the dangers of systemic contamination and collapse. The fastest, most economical and most sustainable ways to solve most problems are to solve them as close to their points of origin as possible. What neighbors can handle neighbors should handle.  What local communities can handle local communities should handle. What smaller jurisdictions can handle, smaller jurisdictions should handle, and so on. That is how a federal system should work. Any so-called federal system that congenitally drives decisions up and toward the center is a federal system that is malfunctioning, just as any non-governmental organizational form that gratuitously overloads leadership is a form that is inefficient by definition.

Obviously, some standards do cry out for a one-size-fits-all, nationalized (so to speak) solution. In the book I specify a few even as I debunk presumptions to several others. There are also cases where centralized economies of scale work well in organizational life, and they may be important ones. But as many such cases as there once were, they are becoming scarcer at a time when distributed systems are the bellwethers of efficiency.  All the more reason not to clutter the channels with marginal issues better handled at lower levels of governmental or social responsibility.

But again, all this depends on people being able to learn and apply standards of conduct over a wide range of interactive domains, from business to sexual proprieties to recreation to rules of the automotive road. To do that, people have always gleaned the harvest of face-to-face interactions by reading not just words but expressions and body language. The moral ballast of any society starts at the capillary level, when any two people interact. At the other end of the spectrum, therefore, as we consider a nation as a whole, we can say that no society can be more refined than the mean refinement of the individuals and families that compose it.

*   *   *

What also follows from this is a second verity of political life, namely that the political institutions of any society emerge from that society far more than the other way around. The United States is a democracy because its founding society was egalitarian-minded, not the other way around. All of the American Founders and all of their tutors, from Locke to Montesquieu to even the great bad-boy of the time, Rousseau, understood this. The idea that a governmental form could remold or create a society after its desired image earned the derisive label “talismanic” at the hands of William Taylor Coleridge. Yes, sometimes the bully pulpit can make a difference, as the mid-20th century American experience with desegregation shows; but even here, I think, a changing society for the most part led the government, not the other way around.

Social authoritarianism, which exists in both soft and hard, leftist and rightist versions, denies this, or at the least wants to overturn it through the force of a supposed vanguard will. Social authoritarians believe that the state can and should shape society. They want to raise our consciousness. They want to make us unselfish, or pious, or prim, or whatever the virtue d’jour happens to be. They want to squeeze our egos until they bleed compliance. Above all, they want us to conform to explicit standards regardless of any expectation of natural reciprocity. Moral obligations in this kind of command-morality world resemble Kantian categorical imperatives. Whether they want us to worship Karl Marx or the god of John Calvin makes little difference in this respect. Whether they want us to abjure private property or stigmatize tobacco smoking makes little difference, too. They want to create community, whatever its standards may be, by fiat.

Anarchism and statism are thus opposites, even though both have made and may yet again make use of similar radical methods. Anarchists want the least amount of government and the least amount of politics, while statist authoritarians want the most government and the most politics (as long as they control its vicissitudes). The utopianism of anarchism depends on human nature overcoming the distortions and barriers and bad faith accumulated in a history once described by Hegel as “a butcher’s block.” The utopianism of socialist statism depends on changing human nature from a “fallen” state to a pure one. Anarchists see true toleration, as against mere forbearance, as natural; statists do not. If you like the extension of a polarity from Western religion, anarchism is a Hebraic extremism, statism a Pauline one.

All the same, both have in common the idea that for human beings to live fulfilled lives, they must do so together, in communities. The difference between them is this: For anarchists, social trust develops naturally and organically as long as artificial hierarchies can be prevented from perverting and diminishing it; for socialists, social trust has to be imposed from the top down along explicitly devised lines. Both fear too much individualism untethered to the social commons. Both see hubris as the sin that turns the wondrous gift of individual human creativity into that which boomerangs to harm the community that ultimately nurtures us all.

*  *  *

So now, finally, let’s talk about contemporary America, and about Sprint’s new advertising campaign.  Let me continue by quoting a bit from Broken—from the aforementioned tease.

Recent widespread commercial applications of information technology extend broader trends toward the individuation of American society. The gossamer stuff from which the American dream has been spun is all about maximizing individual freedom, and about giving substance to that freedom by maximizing individual efficacy. We have willed our individualist myth into reality, for, as an old professor of mine, Erving Goffman, once put it, “Social life takes up and freezes into itself the conceptions we have of it.” Individuals in cybernetically advanced America today are autonomously powerful as never before, with worlds of information, education, training, products, social exchange and means of expression at their fingertips. But they are also apparently lonelier, less happy and more anxious as the interpersonal glue that ratifies our corner of humanity as a social species dissolves. . . . I suspect a Goethe moment at hand: We have got what we wished for as a youthful civilization, but now that we are older we are not sure what to do with a society made up of Protean individuals, or even why we wanted it in the first place.

Some few of us, anyway, are unsure. Most Americans, and most young Americans in particular, are downright enthusiastic about the I-am-an-island power they have at their disposal these days. They overwhelmingly see the upsides of the new technology insofar as education is concerned, for example, and are mostly oblivious to the tradeoffs.

Of course, that doesn’t mean they have made a conscious choice to care less about community, or friends, or about the natural pleasures of face-to-face relations. (Thank God for sex, or the prospect of it anyway.) We are so early in this new era of mass cybernetic connectivity that no one knows how social-trust friendly or social-trust unfriendly the gadgets will ultimately turn out to be.  Look hard enough and you can see signs pointing both ways. The new stuff doesn’t have to be as isolating and destructive of social capital as television has been, for example, over the past half century. But the fact that Sprint has chosen to mount the individuating, Protean meme and ride it all the way to the bank suggests that a tendency, at least, may already be discernable.

Why should we be concerned about this? Because if the individuating tendencies inherent in the technology are not offset by creative balances that can restock social trust, or social capital, in America, it means that we will drift ever further from a high-trust social equilibrium conducive to liberty to a kind of order that needs ever more government to make it work. We will have to face what David Brooks has called “brutality cascades”, a kind of positional arms race to the bottom that ensues when it becomes difficult to impossible for standards of behavior to form out of interpersonal relationships.

Similarly and closely related, it also may mean that the social authority signals that flow from a naturally evolved social equilibrium will weaken, flattening a bit (or more than a bit) too much the bell curve of moral conformity. If that happens it will erode the constraints against extreme views and behaviors that are in every society the guardrails of civilization itself. One at least has to wonder whether that flattening hasn’t already contributed something to episodes like Buskerud, Norway, Aurora, Colorado and even Newtown, Connecticut.

Don’t misunderstand, please: I love liberty as much as the next American, and perhaps more than most. I am well aware that the concept of individualism that infuses the American ethos is the essence of Enlightenment modernity, and that it explains why both Hobbes and Locke, whatever their differences, were similarly the avatars of modern political life. I can find in my heart little enthusiasm for earlier ages suffused by superstition, smothering conformity, racist and misogynist hierarchies, stultifying fatalism and more besides. But a refined social order is nevertheless the indispensable base for individual fulfillment and dignity, no less than an infant’s willingness to roam and explore is a function of propinquity to parental security.

As Edmund Burke understood so well, tradition is not the mere accretion of habit; it is the wisdom of the ages hard accumulated, often a wisdom difficult to articulate but no less essential to basic civil order for so being. The yawning extent and accelerating trajectory of our individuation, I fear, threatens that order, threatens the natural moral balances in American society and, in their absence, lures many of us, at least, into seeking governmental solutions for everything that may displease us. (Yes, you guessed it: I suspect that American society, as more a creedal or covenantal nationalism than the bloodline forms of European nationalisms, is particularly vulnerable to the depredations of excessive individuation.) Our obsession with self-gratification, self-expression, self-fulfillment—in short with the “imperial me”—and the concomitant rejection of the old virtues (patience, humility, thrift, inter-generational responsibility) as quaint enough for museums but not much good for anything else, has made our country increasingly in need of government and at the same time increasingly ungovernable (other reasons for the latter are explored in the book).

So here I go beyond the book: Yes, globalization and automation have upset some very effective and fairly longstanding arrangements and elements of our political institutional dysfunction have made it much harder to adjust. Corruption is running rampant in a third historical wave of plutocratic assault, and it mixes in myriad ways with the dislocations of our political economy and the frailties of our political culture, making everything worse.

Above all, perhaps, never have plutocrats had it so easy, since countervailing collective action has become more difficult in an age of individuation. Where are the 21st century populists or progressives? Where is the outrage? Do we see so little extra-parliamentary activity because things are simply not so bad (yet)? Or is it rather that the natural social platforms that used to serve as the basis for such political mobilization (from ward politics and community churches to fraternal lodges, quilting bees, Bob Putnam’s bowling leagues and even our colleges) have been hollowed out by our headlong individuation? Sure, Facebook and Instant Messaging can facilitate 20-something bar-mobbing, and Twitter can help crowds gather in Midan al-Tahrir, but today’s American social environment arguably offers up to small groups of the specially interested a door flung more widely open than ever when it comes to looting the  public weal. The logic of collective action has never been less limited.

What I am suggesting is that our crisis of governance, which is reflected but only partly expressed by the mess our political class has made in Washington, is ultimately anchored in a cultural shift that is both a source for and a consequence of revolutionary technological change. Increasing numbers of young and well-educated Americans love the gadgets that help isolate them from one another because they do not wish to be obligated by civilities, do not wish to be constrained by responsibilities to others, do not wish to be limited in any way.  We are witnessing the eternal temptation to self-indulgence raised to both principle and art.

The marketeers at Sprint are clever folks; five will get you ten that they know all this. If we want to be radically free, autonomously powerful, they are eager to pose as our helpers. If we want to escape social gravity, to propel ourselves into orbit around our own egos, we can sign that cell phone contract. And, ironically enough, in all this we are encouraged because everyone else seems to be doing the same thing. This is pseudo-individualism, narcissistic faux non-conformity in a crowd.

Where will this lead, if it keeps up? Well, there’s a very old story, let me suggest, that succinctly speaks to this. It is about a certain tower in a place called Babel. Are you confused?

All I can say is that I liked Sprint’s older, Beatles-inflected advertising slogan better: “All. Together. Now.”

show comments
  • WigWag

    It seems that Adam Garfinkle has developed quite a fan club over on the op-ed pages of the New York Times. Not only did Tom Friedman give a shout out to Adam’s new E-Book, but David Brooks wrote a compelling and highly complementary forward to Adam’s last book, “Political Writing: A Guide to the Essentials”

    In his introduction to Adam’s book on political writing Brooks wastes no time getting to the point when he says,

    “In these pages Garfinkle holds up a standard of excellence for how to think, argue and be that very few of us can match.”

    I mention this not to flatter Adam (though he has every right to feel flattered by the admiration that luminaries such as Brooks and Friedman have for his work) but because this post put me in mind of a recent column by Brooks that appeared in the March 7th, 2013 edition of the New York Times entitled “The Orthodox Surge.” This extraordinary column can be found here and is well worth a look,

    In the column Brooks deals with many of the same themes that Adam touches on in this post although he does so in microcosm. Speaking of society writ large Adam says,

    “… most societies, most of the time, tend to govern themselves to one extent or another without much help from formal political structures. The glue, metaphorically speaking, that enables societies to do this is referred to as social trust, or sometimes as social capital.”

    This is precisely the same point that Brooks is making in his warm, affectionate and insightful essay about the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York. Using the metaphor of the Pomegranate Supermarket (sort of a Kosher Whole Foods) that he visits, Brooks is captivated by what the strong social capital of this community has wrought; strong and loving families, a healthy appreciation of the pleasures of sex (as evidenced by the community’s extraordinary fecundity), the delight in debating different interpretations of God’s commandments and the ability to function at a high level in two communities, the secular and the observant.

    The same issues that animate Adam in this post also seem to animate Brooks in his column. Brooks says,

    “Those of us in secular America live in a culture that takes the supremacy of individual autonomy as a given. Life is a journey. You choose your own path. You can live in the city or the suburbs, be a Wiccan or a biker.

    For the people who shop at Pomegranate, the collective covenant with God is the primary reality and obedience to the laws is the primary obligation. They go shopping like the rest of us, but their shopping is minutely governed by an external moral order.

    The laws, in this view, make for a decent society. They give structure to everyday life. They infuse everyday acts with spiritual significance. They build community. They regulate desires. They moderate religious zeal, making religion an everyday practical reality.

    The laws are gradually internalized through a system of lifelong study, argument and practice. The external laws may seem, at first, like an imposition, but then they become welcome and finally seem like a person’s natural way of being.”

    Busy as he’s been getting his new E-Book out, I don’t know whether Adam has followed the controversy surrounding the Brooks essay, but the obvious respect that Brooks has for the Orthodox community that he encountered in that Midwood, Brooklyn neighborhood has been roundly criticized by the secular Jewish establishment; in fact Brooks has been excoriated. Ironically (or perhaps not so ironically) the most vitriolic criticism has emanated from both Reform and secular Jews.

    In the pages of the Jewish Telegraphic Association (March 17th), Shai Franklin calls Brooks praise “misguided” and “agenda driven.”

    In the March 8th, “Jewcy” column in the “Tablet Magazine” Dvora Meyers ridicules Brook’s “Orthodox Fantasy” and claims that Brooks has been taken in by the Orthodox Jews. Doesn’t he realize, she wonders that “Passover is to competitive piety as the Olympics are to Gymnastics-it’s the biggest stage on which to show your neighbors how much more religious you are then them?” Remarkably, Meyers isn’t trying to be funny. She may not realize it, but she has become a parody of herself.

    In the “Forward” (March 14, 2013) Jordana Horn, complains the Brooks’ expression of admiration for the Orthodox people he met at the Pomegranate Supermarket is somehow denigrating to her experience growing up in a conservative Jewish household and attending Jewish summer camp. At “JBog Central” at the “Israel Forum” the Brooks column is described as “terrible” and “deceptive.” At “Open Zion, Gershom Gorenberg accuses Brooks of finding “God in a supermarket.” I guess the idea that God might be everywhere is simply too unsophisticated a concept for the urbane Gorenberg to contemplate. Gorenberg goes on to heap additional disdain on Brooks. He says, “…He does mention God twice in passing, but he devotes much more loving attention to shopping. For Brooks, you are what you buy.”

    It would be easy to chalk up all of this idiocy to the internecine disputes that characterize virtually every religious tradition, but I think that it goes deeper than that. Adam says,

    “People in their communities establish over time certain reciprocal standards and expectations of conduct. These standards and expectations may be the result of a religious culture whose institutions tutor young people during their socialization to conform to behavior that is understood to be commanded from outside the human world. In such cases, moral behavior is ratified by the theotropic inclinations of human nature, in other words, by the sacred. Presumably, other forms of social authority, fully intrinsic to the community, can accomplish the same ends. Sometimes, usually in fact, both occur simultaneously, bringing about a merger encouraged by the fact that as people mature they learn to appreciate the virtues of civility, integrity, honesty, politeness and other social-guidance systems through which people reassure one another that we are allies-in-common by virtue of sharing a basic interest in the safety, security, prosperity and beauty of our surroundings.”

    What drives the secular and reform Jews who are incensed with the Brooks column so insane is that Brooks so clearly agrees with Adam’s view that,

    “Government can encourage and structure the formation of such benign attitudes, but it usually cannot create them de novo.”

    The irony in all of this is that it’s the secular community that has become intolerant, bigoted and even hateful while the religious community that the secularists love to hate has become more tolerant, more open minded and far more open to spiritual enlightenment. What these uber-liberals fail to realize is that it’s their form of liberalism, which denies liberalisms roots in the Judeo-Christian world-view, which represents the biggest threat to the Liberal enterprise.

    Two last thoughts; (1) kudos to Adam Garfinkle. I never thought I would see Haystacks Calhoun mentioned in the same blog post as Kropotkin and Bakunin. (2) I hope that the next New York Times columnist to rave about Adam’s work will be Paul Krugman or Ross Douthat. If Adam ever gets a shout out from Maureen Dowd, he should head for the hills. After all, the reprehensible Dowd’s last interesting insight came during the 2000 Presidential election. She claimed that Al Gore was so “feminized” that he was “practically lactating.”

    • Adam Garfinkle

      I met David Brooks a long time ago at the offices of National Affairs. David used to come around to talk to Irving Kristol, Adam Wolfson and other staff at The Public Interest. I was across the suite at The National Interest. The two magazines existed in the same office, separated only by air and a bookkeeper common to both magazines. Tom Friedman I have known for a shorter time and not as well. I went to David to ask him to write the foreword for the political writing book, but Tom came to me based on his admiration for TAI On-Line, Walter Mead’s work, Frank Fukuyama and Peter Berger’s work, as well as mine. Just so you know the backstory.

      As to social trust, that’s a theme important to nearly every serious political sociologist for a long, long time. Fukuyama wrote some years ago an excellent book about trust, but even before that I was tutored by Robert McIver, Karl Polanyi and many others in the importance of this, and it was a constant in all the anthro courses I took back when.

      As it happened, I guess I missed the Brooks column on the Orthodox to which you refer, and I know nothing of the ensuing controversy. All I can say is that there is a difference between the individuation of a society and its segmentation. In many Middle Eastern societies social trust is low among those not kin to one another, but very high within tribes, families and clans. (And in ultra-Orthodox communities here and elsewhere.) This gives the result of a social trust stratification that looks metaphorically like the mountains of Afghanistan–shark’s teeth, with valleys separated by mountains one after the other. A society whose social trust profile is narrow but deep and segmented has challenges different from a society in which low social trust is more homogeneously distributed.

      Otherwise, Brooks has discussed trust lots of times, including in his most recent book, The Social Animal, and in a recent column about “brutality cascades.” I think a lot of people agree that it’s an important metric of social well-being. Obviously, I do too.

      Finally, I don’t worry about Ms. Dowd becoming a Garfinkle fan. We don’t vibrate on similar wavelengths.

  • Anthony

    Social trust, how to engage it and successfully sustain it in both creedal and globally interactive world, remains billion dollar question. Yet, your many inferences (within essay) suggest social trust (reciprocal standards and expectations) as sine qua non to America (Americans) coming to terms with her (their) Sprint’s zeitgeist. However, for me, human interactions are less an affair of institutions and systems (anarchism – statism) than of people and an interplay of motivations (conscious or unconscious) and abilities. In this regard, current American individualism benefits from convenient institutions, ideologies, gadgets, etc. while heedless perhaps to the hallowing out of societal social trust (gobalization and technology present revolutionary challenges). “Where will this lead.”

  • dan berg

    You “generalize boldly” that high trust societies (i.e. America)needs less government whereas “low trust societies (ie. China)need more government”. But the descriptions which then follow don’t seem to apply.
    The “individuating tendencies inherent in the technology” in America reverberate very differently in China. If you’re looking at the horned end of the beast – it looks quite different from this end. Looking foreward to reading the book.

  • Pingback: Adam Garfinkle on Emergent Institutions | Mercia Rising()

  • Adam Garfinkle

    Who, hold on there. I never said flatly that America was a high-trust society, and I never mentioned China at all. I think the levels of social trust in America have fallen, and I said that. I also said that, generally, less less modern and more homogeneous societies tend to be higher trust, and more modern and less homogeneous societies tend to be lower trust, all things equal. In this I break no new ground; this is what all the literature says, pretty much. But things are never “all else equal” and different, large and complex societies–like America and China–are obviously going to display case-specific differences. Not, please, to put words or points in my mouth, and then critique something I never said.

    So how does galloping individuation look in China, compared to the U.S.? Please do tell.

    • dan berg

      I said: America is a high trust society, even if the levels have fallen.
      You said (and repeat): “less modern and more homogenous societies tend to be higher trust.” Then I thought: who, hold on there. China is less modern, rather homogenous, but trust is spectacularly low.
      The point I was attempting to make about “recent widespread commercial applications of IT”: it apparently works very differently in China (which you did not mention)than the US. You say: this technology “trends toward the individuation of American society.” ok. I say: in China, the same technology trends toward community, concern for the environment, anti-govt criticism, ect.

  • Jim.

    While I’m in general agreement with Garfinkle’s insights on social authoritarianism vs. anarchism (and most of his specifics, really), I have to question his religious metaphor. In Paul’s time, Judaism was anything but tolerant (“Samaritans need not apply”), and was also famous for being tremendously rules-centric (Pharisaic). This has changed in many Jewish traditions (though not all!) in the years since the fall of the last Temple, but since we’re talking 2000+ year old intellectual traditions here, it’s a fair comment to make.

    To accuse “Pauline” ideas of being socially authoritarian is similarly dissonant; sure, he has an enormous number of helpful guidelines for leading a good life and directing strong communities. However, underlying and undermining the whole litany of rules is the concept “Yes, but no one can ever hope to follow them all. God’s Grace through Christ trumps the Law.” Antinomian? Hardly. (Neither was Jesus.) But certainly not “authoritarian”.

    Are you sure it isn’t the “Petrine” tradition you’re thinking of? The one with infallible authority, rigid hierarchy, and the rest?

    • Adam Garfinkle

      I do not concur with your descriptions; these all come from early Christian apologetics, which were anti-Judaism for both political and proselytizing reasons. But that is beside the point I was trying to make. I was trying merely to point out that Judaism’s view of human nature is sunnier than that of Christianity, as anarchism is sunnier in that respect than socialist statism. The hallmark of Jewish thinking, from Patriarchal times through First and Second Temple times and into Rabbinic times is that humans are free to create their individual and social circumstances as a consequence of their behavior. Life is not cyclical, but it progresses. Gods in the dome of Heaven, or the stars, do not determine human fate. Humans can freely choose to do good, or evil–hence the statement in Deuteronomy, “therefore choose life.” Mainstream Christian views (maybe I should have said that instead of Pauline, but I think they’re the same) denies human freedom to do good–even Augustine’s doctrine of free will doesn’t go that far. Humans are inherently sinful, fallen–doctrines alien to Judaism–and can only be saved through grace, which comes from outside the human realm. Some even believe that this theology is a regression from the Abrahamic revolution back to the cyclical/deterministic pagan beliefs prevalent in Hellenic culture, from which early Christianity took as much or more than it took from Judaism. I am not expert enough in the period to have a firm view on that proposition.

      Obviously, a lot more can be said about this, and has; but I stand by my remark, on this basis.

  • Adam Garfinkle

    Ah, now I see what you mean. You’ll recall that I mentioned Tahrir Square and said that it’s so early in the cyber-era that we don’t yet know how the gadgets will play out. China, it seems to me based on no expert knowledge, is best described as a segmented society in terms of social trust. Among patrimonial clusters (extended families, clans) trust is deep but narrow; in society at large it is low. That’s how in transitional societies you get cronyism and clientalism, because people tend to trust those to whom they are related. It’s similar in many Arab societies. So there’s a difference between low/high trust measures on the one hand and how segmented across groups trust is in general. I think that’s part of the explanation for the different trajectories you note. But clearly, this is an interesting and still open-to-research subject.

  • victoria wilson – mn

    Tying social exchanges to morality is where acumen is deflected from the essence of social economics. The complication of such a pairing has been mentioned by others. If social trust is the result of religious choices why do thugs and bandits like the mafia have high social cohesion within their group yet profit from amoral behavior?

    On a subtler note, I recently heard a local debate flushing out the prerogative of the central city to draw subsidized housing funds versus relocating them to the suburbs. The center city folks thought their need was greatest, so receipt of the funds was the ‘right’ way to go. The opposing voice argued that in order to keep the greater metro strong it would be ‘right’ to house disadvantaged peopled in outer lying areas where they could potentially tap greater resources in wealthier communities. Both parties can be ‘right’ if you distinguish which public they are championing. From the central city prospective it is ‘right’ to demand greater funding for their poor. Form the greater metro public perspective it is ‘right’ to deter a core of highly concentrated poverty (because in the end the pocket will be supported by the greater group). From the mafia boss perspective he is ‘right’ in providing for his family.

    Social trust is developed through reciprocal exchanges all over the world. But I think it is a mistake to build a model that bases the motivation of these exchanges on religion.

    • adam garfinkle

      Faith communities are good examples of nodes where social trust develops. Traditionally, these communities have been the major node. There are others, as I said. I was making a sociological observation, which you apparently misunderstood as an advertisement for religion. As for your housing example, I am afraid is relevance to the discussion is completely lose on me.

      • victoria wilson – mn

        When I read your text, references to social exchanges are soon followed by references to religious culture, moral behavior or the font of any moral order. This tie between the mechanics of social exchanges to a gradient of morality is what I was trying to point out.

        I would like to see more discussion on the actual exchanges and their outcomes. Instead there is an admission of their existence, that they in fact bring structure to self-governance within a society, and with the accompaniment of a little social trust, they are quite successful.

        The housing example was an illustration of how activists claim higher moral ground (they need to take care of their inner-city poor) to obtain public funds; whereas others view the distribution of housing funds to a greater metropolitan area as a way to engage other public funds in the care of the poor. Both claim the greatest good without a verifying measure.

        We need fewer activists claiming the highest moral ground and more pragmatists evaluating the trade-offs that occur during reciprocal exchanges.

  • Shai Franklin

    Thanks to WigWag for flagging my op-ed response to David Brooks. As my old friend Adam can attest, I am no secular Jew. I am Orthodox. My previous job involved representing the Orthodox Syrian Jews of Brooklyn. Most of my Orthodox friends appreciate Brooks’ promoting of Orthodox Jews, while also sharing my apprehension at his misrepresentation of our socio-economic status as a measure of our piety. Mo’adim le-simcha!

    • WigWag

      In your critique of David Brooks column, Mr. Franklin you say,

      “The average Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn cannot afford Pomegranate, and thousands each week rely on food pantries stocked by organizations like the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and Sephardic Bikur Holim. Approximately two-thirds of New York’s needy Jews live in Brooklyn. The average Orthodox family, including those living in the suburbs and on Manhattan’s swanky West Side, lives on a tight budget, and that includes many of those 10-percenters. They struggle to keep up with household bills, yeshiva tuition for their numerous children, support for community needs and extravagances like any other American.”

      Perhaps you can explain what if anything this has to do with the point that Brooks was trying to make. It seems to me that the socioeconomic status of the average shopper at Pomegranate could not be more irreleant to Brook’s thesis.

      Brooks was trying to share the nature of a devout lifestyle with his readership, the vast majroity of whom are not pious. Why the fact that he did it in a warm, affectionate manner so irritated you and other critics is a mystery to me.

      Whether observant Jews are rich, poor or middle class isn’t what interested Brooks; it’s the fact that the choices they make in every day life are governed by their understanding of the nature of the covenant that they have with the deity. It’s a lifestyle that the vast majority of Americans have no familiarity with and Brooks was merely pointing out that it comes with many psychic and communal benefits. The prices that they charge at Pomegranate couldn’t be more besides the point.

      In your article for the Forward you say that Brooks praise is “agenda-driven” but you never actually come out and say what you think his agenda is. I would be interested to know what you think Brooks agenda is and why you worry that its so nefarious.

      As for suggesting that you were a secular or reform Jew, my mistake; I apologize. No offense intended.

  • Jeff Campbell

    Fascinating stuff. If you could only recommend one book for a layman to read on the subject of “social trust”, what book would it be?

  • Adam Garfinkle

    Well, Francis Fukuyama’s book Trust is the place to start, but Robert Putnam’s famous Bowling Alone is also very good. These two will certainly get you going.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2015 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service