(do not use, moved to Workflowy) Character, policy, and institutions

My boring life

A few years ago, I was bored and looking for something to do. I remembered an old movie I've never seen, but always wanted to, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I'd always loved It's a Wonderful Life, so I thought I would enjoy Mr. Smith, too. (Both movies star Jimmy Stewart, and both are directed by Frank Capra.) Boy, was I wrong! I couldn't watch more than about 15 minutes before I had to turn it off. Why? Because I got a whiff of its underlying politics, which I hated.

Basically, the message of Mr. Smith is that there are some bad people in our government (and by extension, in other institutions), and that we can solve our problems by replacing them. Frankly, I thought that was stupid (I still think so). At the time, that mindset was one of the reasons I was not a liberal. Liberals (so my thinking went) believe that our institutions are basically sound, we just have to "clean house" every once in a while, to get rid of corrupt people. So making things better is mostly a question of character, not of policies, nor of institutional design. I believed that this is what set me apart from liberals. After all, every four years we're inundated by stupid people on both sides proclaiming that their candidate has the better character, while no one seems to paying attention to policies or institutions.

A few things have happened since that time:

  • I became a liberal. I still don't buy the bullshit about character (see below), but there are some institutions (like markets) I think we have to keep, at least in the short term.
  • I came to realize that the misplaced concern with character is not just a liberal thing. It's actually more pronounced among conservatives.
  • I saw It's a Wonderful Life again (on the big screen!), and I realized it has the same stupid politics as Mr. Smith. But It's a Wonderful Life is such a great movie, I still love it (only slightly only slightly less than I used to).

Character is often a poor explanation

Recently I responded to some stupid posts on Facebook. My interlocutor said "you just like to argue." Which is true, but irrelevant to the substantive issues I thought we were discussing.

I see this a lot on both sides of the political spectrum. It's a rhetorical move in which we switch from talking about the actual issue to talking about what character traits might motivate someone to hold a particular position (or to express that position). But it's a crap strategy, for two reasons:

  • since it can apply equally to anyone holding any position, it can always be turned around…so why bother to use it? it doesn't get us anywhere
  • like analogies, character-based explanations can only show that something is plausible, it doesn't serve evidence for the truth of any proposition

Any particular person, when they're making any particular assertion, may indeed be motivated by something other than pure goodness and wisdom. But that in itself is not relevant to the substantive point they're trying to make. In fact, that generalizes from motives to causes.

What follows is the best expression of this idea I know of. The example used in this snippet is about mathematical and moral facts, but it could apply to any kind of assertion:

I say that 537 times 24 is 12,888. There's certainly a story about my upbringing, education, and the workings of my brain that explains why I say this. But the statement that 537 times 24 equals 12,888 isn't a statement about me, and in fact it's a true statement. My upbringing and the workings of my brain made me into the kind of person who's a reasonably reliable source of information about basic arithmetic.

…If Mary says punching kids is wrong, there's certainly some complicated story about Mary's upbringing, influences, and brain that explains why she says this. But for any statement there's always some such story, and that doesn't usually give us a reason to doubt that what the person says is correct. (It could, of course; maybe the person is on drugs. But the fact that some causal stories give us reasons to doubt what someone says doesn't mean that all of them do.)

- Allen Stairs, Questions | AskPhilosophers.org

Character is not correlated with the liberal/conservative spectrum

I hate Rush Limbaugh, and one of the reasons is that he constantly pulls this bullshit move:

  • He finds some liberal policy that he thinks is immoral and/or will lead to bad outcomes
  • Then he asserts that such a policy springs from liberals' supposed character defects
  • Therefore, character is correlated with policy, and character determines policy
  • Therefore, if you favor liberal policies, that proves you have a defective character

This is fucking stupid. I'm a bleeding-heart, big-government liberal. I talk to people from all over the political spectrum, left, right, center, and libertarian. And I have never noticed any correlation between people's politics and their character. There are good people and bad people, and that does not align with their political beliefs. I think anyone who "sees" such a correlation is either deceiving themselves, or out to enrich themselves by serving power (which is what Rush Limbaugh is up to).

And even if there were such a correlation, it wouldn't mean anything. Suppose you found out that (by some measure), members of your own political "tribe" were found to be less moral than than folks on the "other side." Suppose that there were no question about the facts. Would that cause you to abandon your beliefs? I doubt it. We believe what we believe for interesting and complicated reasons, but the supposed character defects of people we identify with are not among them, as far as I can see.

Oh, and I don't want to imply that liberals are immune to this sort of thing. I see it almost as much on the liberal side as the conservative side. There seems to be a certain type of person who can't believe there might be such thing as an honest disagreement between honorable people. For these people (on both sides) everything is about character.

Idiots.

Conservatives over-moralize

So, conservatives are always going on about people's character. To hear them tell it, all the world's problems are caused by individuals and groups, and how fucked-up they are. No analysis of policies or institutions or other things that might influence people's behavior. It all comes down to “personal responsibility” and choice. One consequence of this is that it leads to terrible policies. So if people commit crimes, throw 'em in jail. Don't try to reduce the causes of crime. Don't even think about that, because it takes the focus away from where it belongs, which is the character of the individual who commits a crime. Criminals are bad people and they deserve to be punished, and that's all there is to it. (So the story goes.)

From one point of view, this just another political opinion, but from another it's the denial of politics. It's saying there's nothing we can do at the policy or institutional level, and we make things worse if we try. Everything has to be at the individual level (or maybe the family). Remember what Margaret Thatcher said? "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families." That's not political, it's not even apolitical, it's anti-political.

Chomsky often talks about how it's not very useful to concentrate on the character of powerful people:

The big business lobbies, like the Chamber of Commerce, American Petroleum Institute, and others, have been very clear and explicit. A couple of years ago they said they are going to carry out — they since have been carrying out — a major publicity campaign to convince people that [global warming is] not real, that it's a liberal hoax. Judging by polls, that's had an effect.

It's particularly interesting to take a look at the people who are running these campaigns, say, the CEOs of big corporations. They know as well as you and I do that it's very real and that the threats are very dire, and that they're threatening the lives of their grandchildren. In fact, they're threatening what they own, they own the world, and they're threatening its survival.
….
It's not because they're bad people or anything. If they don't do it — suppose some CEO says, "Okay, I'm going to take into account externalities" — then he's out. He's out and somebody else is in who will play by the rules. That's the nature of the institution. You can be a perfectly nice guy in your personal life. You can sign up for the Sierra Club and give speeches about the environmental crisis or whatever, but in the role of corporate manager, you're fixed. You have to try to maximize short-term profit and market share….because if you don't do it, either your business will disappear because somebody else will outperform it in the short run, or you will just be out because you're not doing your job and somebody else will be in. So there is an institutional irrationality. Within the institution the behavior is perfectly rational, but the institutions themselves are so totally irrational that they are designed to crash.

- Noam Chomsky: Human intelligence and the environment (emphasis mine)

Liberals under-moralize

During the sixties, many people recognized that a lot of what they'd been told about morality was bullshit. So, for instance:

  • there's no moral dimension to who you choose to have sex with, as long as it's consensual, and
  • whether you believe in God is not a moral issue.

So people rightly threw out a lot of those crazy rules about sex and religion. The problem is, the pendulum swung too far, and some people threw the baby out with the bathwater (how's that for a mixed metaphor?). Just as some people came to believe that reality is subjective, that something can be both true and not true at the same time, some also became moral relativists. They think that all moral systems are equally valid, so they don't dare to judge others' actions. Steven Pinker talks about this in The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Liberals pay too much attention to the bad effects of overly-harsh moral judgments, so they lean toward not judging people at all. Here's an example that drives me crazy: often, liberals are afraid to label anything as morally wrong. They'll use idiotic euphemisms like "inappropriate." Take a stand, you wimpy fuckheads!

We have the morals we can afford

The good life, as I conceive it, is a happy life. I do not mean that if you are good you will be happy; I mean that if you are happy you will be good.
- Bertrand Russell

The effect of corruption I find most under acknowledged is a contraction not of economic possibility but of our moral universe. In my reporting, I am continually struck by the ethical imaginations of young people, even those in circumstances so desperate that selfishness would be an asset. Children have little power to act on those imaginations, and by the time they grow up, they may have become the adults who keep walking as a bleeding waste-picker slowly dies on the roadside, who turn away when a burned woman writhes, whose first reaction when a vibrant teenager drinks rat poison is a shrug. How does that happen?…
I believe it had a good deal to do with conditions that had sabotaged their innate capacity for moral action. In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of a mutually supportive poor community is demolished. The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.
It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in under-cities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be…
- Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers

…his whole position and environment involves the strongest temptation to immorality. He is poor, life offers him no charm, almost every enjoyment is denied him, the penalties of the law have no further terrors for him; why should he restrain his desires, why leave to the rich the enjoyment of his birthright, why not seize a part of it for himself? What inducement has the proletarian not to steal? It is all very pretty and very agreeable to the ear of the bourgeois to hear the "sacredness of property" asserted; but for him who has none, the sacredness of property dies out of itself. Money is the god of this world; the bourgeois takes the proletarian's money from him and so makes a practical atheist of him. No wonder, then, if the proletarian retains his atheism and no longer respects the sacredness and power of the earthly God. And when the poverty of the proletarian is intensified to the point of actual lack of the barest necessaries of life, to want and hunger, the temptation to disregard all social order does but gain power. This the bourgeoisie for the most part recognises. Symons observes that poverty exercises the same ruinous influence upon the mind which drunkenness exercises upon the body; and Dr. Alison explains to property-holding readers, with the greatest exactness, what the consequences of social oppression must be for the working-class. Want leaves the working-man the choice between starving slowly, killing himself speedily, or taking what he needs where he finds it — in plain English, stealing.
- Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England

If any person will walk through St. Giles's, the crowded alleys of Dublin, or the poorer quarters of Glasgow by night, he will meet with ample proof of these observations; he will no longer wonder at the disorderly habits and profligate enjoyments of the lower orders; his astonishment will be, not that there is so much, but that there is so little crime in the world. The great cause of human corruption in these crowded situations is the contagious nature of bad example and the extreme difficulty of avoiding the seductions of vice when they are brought into close and daily proximity with the younger part of the people. Whatever we may think of the strength of virtue, experience proves that the higher orders are indebted for their exemption from atrocious crime or disorderly habits chiefly to their fortunate removal from the scene of temptation; and that where they are exposed to the seductions which assail their inferiors, they are noways behind them in yielding to their influence.
- Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England [here Engels is quoting someone else]

This lyric from REM seems apropos, but maybe only to me:

You're beautiful more beautiful than me
You're honorable more honorable than me
Loyalty to the bank of America

Balancing character and policy

Until recently I avoided talking about character (for the reasons I mentioned above). Instead I've focused my political thought on how to design policies and institutions (that is to say, structures of power).

But I see now I was missing half the story. This realization came as I was listening to series of lectures (the Yale Intro to Political Philosophy, session 8). the subject was the form of a society versus its content. In this conception, the form is institutional structure, while the content is the character of the people in the society. Both are complementary aspects of a working society.

Another reason I had avoided thinking about character is that I had understood it as synonymous with human nature. And since I think human nature does not change (except over very long timescales), character seemed to be sort of a dead end for inquiry.

Thinking aloud…let's grant that human nature itself doesn't change. Could it be that the character (of a person or a group) is something that can change? Maybe not on a scale of months, but perhaps over decades. This would help to explain the increase in crime in the 1960's that Pinker discusses (although there are other possible explanations). Maybe policy and character are locked in a dance, each influencing the other, for better and worse.

So….what if the character of US society changed for the worse in the 1960's, and is only now improving to what it was before the change (as evidenced by the recent, hard-to-explain drop in crime)? If the character of a people changes, shouldn't policies change, too, in response? During the period of increased crime, did we spent more resources on police, courts, etc.? I'm not sure if we did, but if not I believe we should have. I've come to believe that policy can (and should) respond to changes in character (assuming the character of a group can change).

Can the reverse be true, too? Can we design policies that over time, improve the character of a people? Or can bad policies allow the character of a people to deteriorate? At this point, I've come full circle. This is exactly the kind of thing conservatives talk about, how a permissive welfare state causes people to lose their entrepreneurial spirit and sink into dependency. And I tend to think there's a grain of truth in that (but maybe not much more than a grain). It's something we need to watch out for, but we're miles away from the welfare state being too big.

Some possibly relevant quotes:

It would be a mistake of major proportions to assume that legal rules are a dominant force in shaping individual character; family, school, and church are much more likely to be powerful influences. The people who run these institutions will use their influence to advance whatever conception of the good they hold, no matter what the state of the law.

- Richard Epstein, Libertarianism and Character

For [Paul] Ryan, ‘curing’ poverty is a matter of infusing some private virtue into particular individuals: this is the sense of eye-to-eye, each-person-at-a-time. There are cases, I’m sure, where poverty is a result of failures of private virtue; similarly there are many cases where wealth is a result of the exact same failure of virtue. But the question of widespread poverty, especially that which affects the absolutely morally unimpeachable (e.g. elderly, disabled, children) is why we, the enfranchised, allow it to persist. This would appear to be a failure of collective virtue, seeing as we have options here.

In that case, the answer is not pinpointed infusions of virtue into the supposedly degenerate poor, but rather an overall correction of the culture that views the persistence of poverty as tolerable. And while we’re in the business of inculcating superior virtue, Milbank reminds us this is not a one-way street:

“It follows that the wealthier should also receive as reward, in terms of salaries, bonuses and state benefits, only what can be justified in terms of both their needs and their social contribution….if ‘workfare’ invokes mutual fairness then this implies that such a principle should be applied all the way up. And that would be both radical and Christian.”

So I’m with Ryan: let us be more virtuous. But rich and poor, not privately, but publicly.

- Elizabeth Stoker, Collective Sins

The funny thing is that whenever sensible policies produce episodes of full employment, as in the late 1990s, the long postwar boom, or the World War II economy, the supposedly feckless poor get decent jobs and their incomes go up.
- Robert Kuttner, David Brooks’s Worst Column Ever

Getting things done: culture or government

On Quora, Kent Fung talks about how there is no litter in Tokyo , and not because of anything the government does. Rather, it's because nearly everyone makes an effort to pick up after themselves. This could never happen in the US, our culture is just too different from Japan's. Instead, we could (and do) have anti-littering laws, but evidently lots of folks don't pay attention to them. So what determines whether there is a litter problem? We could just chalk it up to culture and leave it at that, but it seems to me that there's something important going on here…..but I can't put my finger on it.

Wait, we do have something similar here. When the US Post Office Department introduced ZIP codes (in the sixties?) somehow they got everybody to use them. How?

Misc, to-do

  • The way we generally conceive of character is odd: we think it's basically not changeable, yet we disapprove of people who we imagine have a bad character, and we are happy to punish them for the behavior it causes.
  • Liberals over-moralize too, in at least a couple of ways:
    • In regards to corporations, liberals see them as morally bad, instead of looking at their features and trying to figure out which might be beneficial.
    • Many liberals are obsessed (almost as much as conservatives) with purity. On the right this plays out in racism and (in a different way) in religiosity and denial of science. On the left it plays out in other ways, such as opposition to GMO foods.
  • I came across an interesting book along these lines, called The World of Patience Gromes, which seems to be about a change in character (or values or virtue) in a Black community, starting in the 1960's. It's kind of an uncomfortable book for a good liberal like me, especially since it's written by a white guy. In fact, I never would have picked it up, except that it was recommended by a black professor, Glenn Lowry.
  • I wonder if it's possible that there is a single deep feature of human nature that underlies both the following:
    • the conservative tendency to frame things in moral terms, even when it doesn't make sense, and
    • the human tendency to perceive agents where none exist (which is one of the roots of religion)

[I]t appears to me that this is a critical time for him, a lesser climacteric—a time that will settle him in that particular course he will never leave again, but will persevere in for the rest of his life. It has often seemed to me that towards this period (in which we all three lie, more or less) men strike out their permanent characters; or have those characters struck into them. Merriment, roaring high spirits before this: then some chance concatenation, or some hidden predilection (or rather inherent bias) working through, and the man is in the road he cannot leave but must go on, making it deeper and deeper (a groove, or channel), until he is lost in his mere character—persona—no longer human, but an accretion of qualities belonging to this character. James Dillon was a delightful being. Now he is closing in. It is odd—will I say heart-breaking?—how cheerfulness goes: gaiety of mind, natural free-springing joy. Authority is its great enemy—the assumption of authority. I know few men over fifty that seem to me entirely human: virtually none who has long exercised authority.

- Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License