My Moral Awakening
The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: The Ends of the World as We Know Them
A society contains a built-in blueprint for failure if the elite insulates itself from the consequences of its actions. That's why Maya kings, Norse Greenlanders and Easter Island chiefs made choices that eventually undermined their societies. They themselves did not begin to feel deprived until they had irreversibly destroyed their landscape.
Could this happen in the United States? It's a thought that often occurs to me here in Los Angeles, when I drive by gated communities, guarded by private security patrols, and filled with people who drink bottled water, depend on private pensions, and send their children to private schools. By doing these things, they lose the motivation to support the police force, the municipal water supply, Social Security and public schools. If conditions deteriorate too much for poorer people, gates will not keep the rioters out. Rioters eventually burned the palaces of Maya kings and tore down the statues of Easter Island chiefs; they have also already threatened wealthy districts in Los Angeles twice in recent decades.
When I was in high school I was a great fan of Ayn Rand. In fact, I read her complete works from Atlas Shrugged to her essays in For the New Intellectual which, at 15, I thought was addressed to me. I liked the feel of her scheme as it seemed to me at the time: hard, intense and angular, achievement through energy and striving, power, glory and heroism. It was a gut feeling, a sensibility--I hated soft. I also believed that Capitalism, the untried ideal, if it were ever implemented would not only raise all ships but give me the chance to exert myself to the fullest and achieve glory.
Then one day when I happened to be awake during American History class, I learned about Market Failure. Mrs. Paul nee Miss Weiss (she got married during the term I was in her class) lectured on the Great Depression. She described how farmers plowed under mountains of grain while people in the cities were starving because it couldn't be any other way. If there were an oversupply of grain farmers wouldn't get a decent price for it and they would starve, so they buried it and everyone was worse off. That and all the other vicious circles ground round and round and things became worse still. It made perfect sense and absolutely no sense at all: all the stuff people needed was there--there was no shortage of food, land, water or natural resources but people were badly off and there was no way out. The disaster was man-made but couldn't, in any way that I could see, be unmade since everyone was behaving rationally.
That was when Morality grabbed me by the throat and shook me until until my eyes bugged out--like my lab worrying his stuffed koala. Before then, as an aspiring New Intellectual I thought I knew all about Morality and was convinced that it wasn't for me: Morality was a matter of making oneself worse off so that others could be better off and I didn't see any reason why I should do that. Mulling over this puzzle it seemed that everything I'd believed was washing away from under my feet: flawless rationality generated the most absurd, pointless waste and not just accidently but with the inexorable a prioricity of a proof in geometry. I realized that Ayn Rand was wrong. But I got a D in the course anyway.
It's still those man-made disasters that get under my skin. News of the tsunami in South Asia, dead children, villages destroyed doesn't grip me in the way that the stories of ongoing war, lawlessness and corruption that ruin people's lives and whole societies do. I remember reading somewhere that Indian pashas became fabulously wealthy because British colonialism freed them from the duty of burning up their resources through socially obligatory warfare. It's the nature of Nature, blindly irrational, to be red in tooth and claw. We can't complain, but just fight it for all we're worth. It's the irrational results of human rationality that haunt me.
The linked article from the NYTimes rehearses that theme--how nations and cultures collapse under their own weight, how the Norse in Greenland and the Mayan elite made rational self-interested decisions that destroyed them and wiped out their civilizations while, predictably, the Germans and the Japanese planned, regulated and flourished. Will we ever get it? The author bravely but without much conviction thinks that we might since, unlike the Mayan kings, Easter Islanders, Norse Greenlanders and Mangarevians we have the benefit of the Historical Perspective and his books.
I'm not convinced because I don't know many people who spend their time worrying about the Mangarevians or have a clue about the Historical Perspective. Most policy makers don't seem to get it either and even if they do they have to answer to voters who don't.