Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Freedom and Virtue

A host of economic news, really too much to note here, has lately been blazoned across the headlines and editorial pages of our nation's newspapers and widely disseminated on the internet. Much of it speaks of the challenges the nation - and the world - face as we confront an array of limits. Most immediately the world is experiencing rapid inflation of the cost of basic goods and commodities, a phenomenon experienced by individuals as an inexplicable constraint of their spending power, but the source of which can be traced back especially to constrained supplies of petroleum and the concomitant associated costs of higher industrial agriculture - so deeply reliant on petroleum inputs - as well as the short-sighted policies that provide incentives to turn food into fuel.

In his column on Monday, Paul Krugman confirmed that a major source of "grains gone wild" (NB: will Georgetown students begin protesting the NYTimes because of his insensitivity?) is the rising cost of oil imports used in the production of food, costs that are the result of constrained supplies combined with growing demand. One source of the increased cost, he writes, is "the price of oil. Modern farming is highly energy-intensive: a lot of B.T.U.’s go into producing fertilizer, running tractors and, not least, transporting farm products to consumers. With oil persistently above $100 per barrel, energy costs have become a major factor driving up agricultural costs.

"High oil prices, by the way, also have a lot to do with the growth of China and other emerging economies. Directly and indirectly, these rising economic powers are competing with the rest of us for scarce resources, including oil and farmland, driving up prices for raw materials of all sorts."

However, in enumerating the causes of the "food crisis" - higher costs and increasingly limited supplies worldwide - he counts the increasing cost of oil as among the factors "that aren't anyone's fault" - in addition to rising oil prices, factors like bad weather. That is, only those causes that are directly attributable in particular to government policy are regarded by Krugman as "someone's fault." The rising price of oil is comparable only to uncontrollable acts of nature, such as weather patterns.

I disagree. In every respect, the rising cost of oil and the concomitant constraints, limits, and even suffering it is inducing is very much the fault of particular humans, above all we Americans who consume on the order of 25% of the world's oil every day. While these are the largely unreflected and unconscious choices of millions of people, collectively and every day we engage in continual and deeply habituated society-wide acts of gluttony, avarice and greed. As a nation we have greatly enjoyed the benefits of this exploitation, particularly during the decades during which our nation reached its peak oil production - along with the absence of real competitors for resources following World War II - and transformed our civilization from a patchwork of local and distinctive communities to a nation, and increasingly globe, of homogeneous and identical commerce, culture and patterns of life. We have wallowed in our wealth and luxury, employed every conceivable machine to replace human labor and endeavor, abandoned traditional patterns of living in the pursuit of individual satisfaction, and adopted the belief that the best means of providing for our young is to shower them with stuff and educate them to mimic our own gluttonous ways. Above all, we dispensed with virtue - and particularly, the constraints upon actions that aimed at the governance of appetite in the name of the good of our communities, the natural world that surrounds us and provides our sustenance, and future generations - in the optimistic belief that we had superseded a need for virtue in light of a civilization that no longer required the restraint of appetite.

Many readers, respondents, and critics of the arguments I have made here in many of my postings point to one simple fact as dispositive proof that arguments on behalf of virtue are a fundamental repression of natural human liberty or at best a lifestyle option for traditionalist minded people. Namely, they point out that, given the option, people have chosen to dispense with traditional notions of virtue, to pursue their individual satisfaction and make choices without great thought or regard for future generations. Given the option, people have moved off the farms and into the cities or the suburbs. Given the option, people choose to live in suburban developments and not in traditional towns or "new urbanist" communities. Given the option, people prefer to shop at Wal-Mart than the town general store, at Home Depot rather than the town hardware store, at McDonalds rather than the local diner. Given the option, people would rather engage in hook-ups rather than date and marry. Given the option, people prefer educations that ensure upward mobility rather than a moral formation. Given the option, people prefer mobility over community. Given the option, we prefer a conception of liberty that represents an absence of constraint rather than a conception of liberty that rests upon self-governance. And so on.

At the base of this argument - a compelling one, it must be granted - is a more fundamental argument that what the pre-moderns called virtue was really mere necessity. Indeed, the ancient phrase "to make a virtue of necessity" - originally coined by Chaucer and later immortalized by Shakespeare - might even be construed to mean that virtue itself is a way of re-defining necessity itself. Given the lack of the many options that modern man enjoys, pre-modern man argued on behalf of self-governance as the path to human excellence and human flourishing, and thereby (it might be assumed) endeavored to make otherwise poor and opportunity-less premodern peoples more reconciled with their impoverished condition. People could congratulate themselves for their great virtue and their limitless capacity for self-governance only because of the absence of other options. However, given the option to live differently, people chucked off virtue faster than their bodices and chastity belts.

In recent weeks and days, there have been an equal number of articles and stories that oddly suggest that we may be returning to this condition - assuming, at least for the moment, that this is an accurate portrayal. A recent story in the New York Times writes with some sense of tragedy of a couple being "tied down" in their unsalable home and unable to engage in the American norm of mobility. As expressed by its author, problems in the housing market "is distorting the normal workings of the American labor market. Mobility opens up job opportunities, allowing workers to go where they are most needed. When housing is not an obstacle, more than five million men and women, nearly 4 percent of the nation’s work force, move annually from one place to another." Note that our "housing" is now an "obstacle" to our mobility - rather than mobility being a destroyer of our capacity to settle in a home. A front page story on Monday's Washington Post relays the news that long-fought battles over housing growth vs. restraint have been rendered moot in the face of a constricting housing market and a withered mortgage market. On the editorial page on the same day, Sebastian Mallaby explores the possibility that our financial woes are more than a mere correction of the business cycle, but rather could be the comeuppance for several decade's worth explosive indebtedness readily embraced as a consequence of America's unwillingness to live within its means after the heyday of its economic dominance (uncoincidentally, occurring at the time of America's experience with domestic peak oil in the early 1970s). The downside of our debt party is likely to be as unpleasant as our gorging was enjoyable. He writes, "The nightmare is that this long party will be followed by an equally extended hangover. Savers will lose confidence in the United States, preferring to hold euros. Financiers will re-evaluate their models and bring borrowing levels down with a bump. This "deleveraging" will depress the economy, further encouraging savers and financiers to ration credit. The growth-fuelling debt expansion of the past quarter of a century could be followed by a growth-dampening contraction."

In effect, these articles and countless others suggest that we are beginning to enact a new austerity, a confrontation with limits and consequences from which we have pretended ourselves to be immune. Just as anyone who believed that pre-modern humanity wasn't virtuous because it wasn't really a choice, so too we would be wrong to confuse this new austerity with virtue - unless we want to call necessity virtue. But then, we might just be kidding ourselves.

We should notice an accompanying presupposition of the theory that pre-modern virtue wasn't really virtue, but merely a kind of feel-good patina on widespread misery in the absence of any other good options. What this argument assumes is that pre-modern humanity had a pretty good idea of what life might be like absent all those miserable constraints that necessity forced upon humanity. That is, such an argument can only hold if we can imagine that pre-modern humanity was keenly aware that their condition was comparatively worse than some other unseen, unexperienced and yet unknown condition that we now know to be industrial modernity. If so, then our forbears described self-governance of appetite as virtue only by imagining the possibility of a life unproscribed by necessity, even perhaps vaguely envisioning the ease and comfort of life enjoyed by modern humanity. However, if this is this case - as suggested implicitly in this argument - then, in fact, the calls for virtue were in fact calls to avoid efforts to engage in activities that would lead or promote just those liberating and ultimately costly alternatives. There is an implicit contradiction at the heart of the claims of those who would dismiss pre-modern calls for virtue as only the fact of brute necessity and the absence of other options.

I think that this notion represents an overstatement in lots of ways. Still - if we credit some part of the insight of those critics who suggest that ancient "virtue" was nothing other than necessity - then we must simultaneously credit the possibility that such calls to virtue were made not wholly as a result of necessity or the absence of options, but from some other source of knowledge about the undesirability of an ungoverned life or unrestrained appetite. Otherwise, there would be no need in the first place to suggest that necessity should be defined in any other way - given that it was permanently and inescapably necessity. One only need to read Plato or Aristotle to recognize that ancient thinkers regarded a life lived in accordance with unrestrained appetite to result in the deformation of the human character and the likely rise of tyranny, which would use any and all other humans, as well as the world, for the means of the tyrant's personal satisfaction. While we might regard ancient conceptions of appetite as permitting only comparatively unsatisfactory satiation, nevertheless in matters pertaining to a range of conceptions of common good - from seeming private behaviors of eating, sex, work, childrearing, to more public matters pertaining to politics and commerce, pre-modern thinkers argued on behalf of restraint of appetite as a fundamental necessity for human flourishing. Absent self-governance, we were nothing more than slaves to our desires.

Here's the intriguing part of the argument: by dint of the widespread acceptance of such conceptions of virtue, ones embedded deeply within cultures that habituated their young in virtue and which transmitted this culture from generation to generation - one especially seen in the institutional and cultural life of the Church that was at the center of cultural life for pre-modern, post-classical European humanity - pre-modern civilization effectively forestalled the development of modernity and prevented the release of appetites that we now see culminating in the ravaging of the planet and the obscenity of modern culture, so-called. What some attribute as "the lack of options" in fact was the cause, not the effect, of those lack of options. Conscious of the human capacity for limitless appetite, without even knowing the possible outcome of a society premised upon the release of unrestrained human appetite, nevertheless pre-modern theories of virtue were keenly aware of the deforming results of such a course. While one won't find predictions of resource depletion and food inflation in pre-modern arguments on behalf of self-governance, we live all too familiarly with their anticipations of the deforming experience of enslavement to desires and the tyrannies that arise as a result.

Presented in this way, we must understand the eventual abandonment of old forms of life not as the eager and wholesale rush to escape pre-modern forms of virtue, but a long-term and concentrated assault by the progressive and elite agents and proponents of modernity upon the limits that pre-modern culture enforced. This long and ferocious battle required three victories. First, it required an understanding of nature as an opponent which we rightly sought to master. Second, it required the redefinition of human beings away from the pre-modern conception as creatures of and in nature whose flourishing required cultivation in keeping with our nature, instead to an understanding of humans as fundamentally self-interested and utility-maximizing creatures - homo economicus. Lastly, it required the displacement of God by man and the prospect of humanity achieving the creation of heaven on earth. While there were many proponents of this assault, three of its generals (respectively) were Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes and Friedrich Nietzsche. What these, and many other modernist thinkers share in common, was a shared objective of assault on the limits that had traditionally been imposed by a long-standing culture which rested upon longstanding belief in the central necessity of human virtue. While such ancient conceptions could not have exactly predicted our contemporary and frightening confrontation with awesome and irresistible limits, pre-modern humans well understood that the consequences of unrestrained appetite were severe and inescapable. Icarus may fly high for a time, but his plummet to earth is swift and merciless.

Even in the course of my lifetime one can think of the transformation of residual virtues that seemed to govern even a generation or two earlier. My parents eschewed credit card debt, and only bought automobiles when they could purchase one outright. One understood one's home to be a place of some permanence, a settled homestead within a community. Commerce was considerably more local, and even as a young person we would watch movies in the local 99 cent movie theater located in the heart of downtown (easily reached by walking a few blocks on ubiquitous sidewalks), to be followed by camaraderie in the local ice-cream shop. Our fathers expected to work for one employer or to practice one craft their entire lives, vastly preferring the settled state of affairs over the fantasies of better opportunities elsewhere. We considered ourselves from a place, and even as young people many expected to return. And many did, though many left, and many more left after that.

I reject the notion that given the "option" of freedom, people abandoned settled cultures and ways of life with the alacrity of rats from a sinking boat. One must see a vaster and even more nefarious story of concerted and ferocious efforts to weaken and undermine persistent forms of local culture, whether by dint of official policies that promoted mobility and encouraged indebtedness and gluttony, or more often by the subtle and nearly irresistible seductions of commerce that ultimately demolished every persistence of virtue in its path. We should note, too, that it was not easy - the battle was hard-fought and not-easily won - but being now won in most places, it is deeply and firmly entrenched and is highly satisfied that, having destroyed the necessary connection of a culture based in virtue that requires continuity between past and future, that the field has been captured and only some isolated immolation of a few injured opponents remains. Yet, even as it congratulates itself upon its victory, envisioning a globalized future of infinite prosperity, limitless growth, unchallenged mastery of nature and unending self-creation, the ancient premonitions daily assert themselves and doubt crosses the visage of the apparent victor.


brierrabbit said...

Great, thoughtful article. I have always considered the idea that people gave up small town lives, localism, farms, etc, because of "How are you going to keep them down on the farm, when the've seen Paris"} as entirely too simplistic. Like you said, scociety changed because of large forces playing out, not necessarily because people wanted it that way. My father, who grew up on the farm, still sadly wishes he could go back to farming in some degree. Granpa eventually had to give up most of his farm because of changes going on in farming in the 50's. Not because he wanted to. i have heard this from many people. I have detected, subtly, a general sense among people these days, that something is inexplicably wrong, but they cannot verbalize it. People go tp Walmart, like the prices, but feel odd about it. Hate the sprawl, and long drive to work, and feel somehow, it wasn't supposed to be this way. Everything has a lock on it in these, "trust no one" days. People look suspiciously at the food they eat, so much cheap food, so little quality. Wincing at the vulgarity that seems to come from everywhere. And all this having unpleasant effects on children. Life seems cheap, in some sad way, yet people can't really explain. I do think that there is starting to appear in the culture, something like "please stop me, before I hurt myself" beginning to show up, in subtle ways. We can only hope it continues.

Anonymous said...

Just brilliant and insightful, and, sadly, all too true.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. A lot here (you need an editor!); I agree with much but think you often miss the mark, confuse much. Quick example: you write,

Given the option, people prefer to shop at Wal-Mart than the town general store, at Home Depot rather than the town hardware store

Due to manufacturing, most production is done far, far away from the user. This is a good thing because of efficiency (see Adam Smith's pin factory). And since we don't make our clothing, grow our food, nor smelt our metal, why in the world is it important to "retail" small and local? Why not just buy from large warehouses and quit trying to immanentize the shopping eschaton?

For example my family buys literally all our food and goods at Costco, always in bulk (we buy milk and eggs locally).

If you demand small, inefficient local retail as a sign of virtue, then you must also regard all manufacturing this way. The old smiths and shoemakers said the exact thing you are here about manufacturing. It's crazy, having each man grow his own food or make his own goods. In the same way, why not buy direct from the maker?

Personally, I think our culture would demonstrate more virtue if they simply cut back on the whole shopping thing: buy only in bulk, and quit trying to turn shopping into some sort of social event that is quite costly - basically, it's a luxury to shop in small retail outlets, and to my mind the opposite of virtue. Buy from the manufacturer themselves. I should rather put the community focus on activities that are productive, not consumptive.

Oskar Chomicki said...

Professor Deneen, another excellent post. I entirely agree with the roots of our present malaise being in the Baconian quest to subjugate nature. But how exactly could you limit that impulse? For instance, how could one argue against broad goal of medical advancement? Doesn't the progress of medicine require economic growth? It would be difficult to imagine the same advances being made in an America of small towns and farms.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the discussion of virtue, limits, and the city, I'm reminded of the "soul in fever" in Plato's 'The Republic.' This soul totters between tyranny and insight, does it not?

Not sure what this means for our current situation. Might we chose a tyrant or act more viciously rather than face limits?