Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

03 March 2013

Our Global Moral Crisis


Unbeknownst to urban sophisticates, our species is in a moral crisis. Materially, we have never had it so good. Yet we are full of angst.

In the space of a single lifetime (mine), we have more than doubled our population, from 2.5 billion to over 6 billion. Yet we are not ever more mired in poverty. A greater proportion of us has overcome poverty than ever before. Every year, tens or hundreds of millions more rise above it.

We have conquered most acute diseases. The ones that still threaten us are chiefly those associated with aging. We haven’t beaten death, but we have made life much longer, healthier and happier than ever before.

We are mostly at peace. There has not been a major conflict among major powers fighting on their own territory since 1945. Today there are wars in Syria, a few small ones in Africa, and the remnants of the United States’s misguided nation-building in Afghanistan. That’s it. If you had looked at the globe at almost any time up to this century, you would have seen bitter conflicts all over it, as numerous as weather systems but far bloodier.

Governments are infinitely better than ever in our history. The vast majority of powers on earth have democratic governments, with varying degrees of freedom of expression. China has a cautious, meritocratic, collective government with term limits. Russia has something similar, but less collective. The notable holdout tyrannies you can count on the fingers of one hand: Bloody Syria, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Zimbabwe. (Despite their present authoritarian leaders, Bolivia and Venezeula are still teetering on the brink of democracy. Certainly they are nothing as bad as Argentina during Perón’s regime or Chile during Pinochet’s.)

Yet the country (ours) that helped lead this transition to a much better place is paralyzed. Its voters and leaders are so split along ideological lines that it can’t function. Its leaders, and even this author, talk of secession.

At the same time, the Catholic Church (which has no term limits) is imploding in a welter of scandal. Not long ago, its supreme leader helped spark the movement that threw off the yoke of Communism and freed Eastern Europe and the Baltics. Today, that same Church has become the butt of jokes and, for members, a source of doubt, embarrassment and shame. The venerable institution, having withstood the wars, heresies and empires of two millennia, may soon fall prey to the arrogance and insularity of its own internal leaders’ unchecked power.

The other muscular, proselytizing religion (Islam) is faring no better. Its 1.3 billion adherents are trying to decide whether to embrace the modern world’s weak, semi-secular religiosity, or to return to the certitude of a bygone age. Some of them still dream of global conquest by jihad, killing innocent people without scruple or care as they seek that goal. No genuine religious leader considers those acts wise or moral.

The problem, I think, is a moral crisis—a species-wide, global one.

In the last century, the great powers fought many battles—both internal and external—over capitalism and Communism. Capitalism won. Now some of us want to continue that cold war with the mild socialism of Europe, or with Medicare. Like good jihadis, they yearn to expunge any taint of uncapitalism with sword and fire.

But these struggles will never satisfy, no matter how they come out. For they are not the moral struggle we need to have. They are just struggles over means.

Capitalism and profit are only tools. They are better tools than Communism because they motivate people in natural ways. They excite our evolutionary desire to survive, proposer and help our families do so. So they are more “economically efficient” than central control.

We proved that beyond dispute in the last century. Two great nations that had adopted Communism and tried it for decades both abandoned it of their own free will. The one (China) that abandoned it sooner and quicker surpassed the other (Russia) by miles. It now bids to become the world’s strongest economy. Capitalism works.

But like any tool, capitalism doesn’t tell us how it should be used. What are its ends? What are its limits? What purposes should it serve? It can no more answer these questions than can a hammer.

My mind turns to the chilling opening scene in Stanley Kubrick’s film masterpiece 2001. The ape, having killed his rival using a bone as a weapon, leaps and screeches his triumph and throws the bone aloft. It turns lazily over. In a few heartbeats, it becomes a space station, rotating slowly through empty space to the tune of Richard Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz.

As brilliant that scene is, Kubrick’s film doesn’t show us the denouement. Does the ape henceforth use hand tools to kill, or does he use them also to build? What is the purpose of the space station: to explore, to understand, to gain military supremacy, or to relieve a world full of famine, pollution and strife? Kubrick doesn’t show us.

Free markets and capitalism are powerful tools. We know that now, beyond dispute. We don’t have to keep exhuming the corpses of Marx and Engels and shooting them down again to prove the point.

But what next? What do we do with these tools? Do we build a society where the strong and smart live in obscene wealth and the rest get by in near poverty and squalor? Do we Yanks—the self-appointed apostles of capitalism—continue to spend almost half what the whole world spends on “defense,” while neglecting infrastructure and education, let alone moral advancement? Aren’t hospitals just as capitalistic, at least here in America, as arms makers?

Do we admire people like Bill Gates, whose business tactics were every bit as rapacious as John D. Rockefeller’s, but whose philanthropy is even broader and more inspired? Do we seek to emulate people like Donald Trump and Jamie Dimon just because they are rich and successful? Do we think them admirable? Should we?

As our lives get richer and more comfortable, should we work harder to achieve even more? Or should we devote more time to leisure, our families, moral philosophy, and the arts? We’ve heard a lot about faith recently, but whatever happened to hope and charity?

And what do we do about market failure? What happens when banks get too big to fail and disconnect themselves from market discipline and capitalism itself? What do we do with our private health insurance, which is surely a gigantic market failure, and which every other developed country handles differently than we?

Our Congress can’t tell us. It’s so busy angrily disputing means that some day we may see fisticuffs in its public chambers. As good and smart a man as he is, our President can’t help us. He’s too busy keeping our government working and our enemies at bay. The Catholic Church can’t tell us; after two millennia, it’s falling apart before our very eyes and losing credibility even with its own members. Islam can’t tell us, for it’s undergoing the same conflicts and doubts, as recently became self-evident in Egypt.

Our businesses, engineering, law and medical schools can’t tell us. They teach us tools, not morals. (If the truth be told, that’s part of our problem.) As for science, it teaches us only the laws of the natural world, not our own, let alone what our laws should be.

Nor can capitalism itself help us. Should we worship a hammer?

We need a new Plato. Or at least we need to reread the old one. We need to think and study what makes a good life. Not just students; all of us.

Today more people than ever before not only have adequate food, clothing, and shelter. They also have means of communication and transportation, as well as chances to travel, of which the ancients could never have dreamed. Yet they won’t be happy, and their discord and angst will continue, until they seek moral clarity.

Tools don’t dream or set goals. Only humans do. We and our leaders need to think more about our species’ dreams and goals, in the long term. We need to think more about what makes us human, not what makes us rich.

The quest for profit has swept the world, even Arabia and Africa. But profit is only a tool. It’s not a religion or a moral guidepost. We need to think harder about its ends.

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