Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A really dumb article in the New York Times

I genearally don't make political commentary on this blog.  However, since the author of the article I am about to discuss is also a professor who works on the philosophy of the life sciences, I will break from my general rule.

A few days ago, I was having my morning coffee, and as is my custom, I grabbed a pile of discarded newspapers, leafed through, and found something to read.  There it was, an article entitled The Myth of Universal Love, by Stephen T. Asma.  The article constructed a convoluted argument against Western liberalism, which Asma somehow related to the impracticalities of trying to buy a nice pair of shoes for his son, weighed against the desire to buy a pair of shoes for a poor child in Chicago. 

The argument reminded me of the kind of excruciated hypothetical arguments that I would often hear in school.  These discussions would often be punctuated by some obscure classical reference.  Unsurprisingly, Stephen T. Asma references Cicero.   He then goes on to argue for tribalism and against what he calls emotional Western liberalism.
He also suggests that we should only "invest" in those to whom we have an immediate emotional connection and to whom we are closest.

As a parent, I can fully appreciate the allusion to constraints on time and the focus it takes to raise a child.  Time and financial constraints do mean that most of our immediate energies are focused on our families. This however, does not mean that I need or want to live only in a narrow circle of my own "tribe."  It is not because of "emotion" that many economists, theologians and philosophers have argued against tribalism.

We cannot build roads, hospitals and institutions of learning on tribalism.  We cannot plan for the future on tribalism.  We could try, but very quickly, we would start to look like the most isolated parts of the Balkans or Scotland, several hundred years ago.

Speaking of the Balkans, my husband, an MIT grad, often laughingly tells me about his late night MIT discussions with some of his libertarian lab mates.  He would often bring up the road argument and the hospital argument.  His libertarian friends would then respond that roads and hospitals could be run on charity and tolls.  This always elicited a loud laugh from my husband, who grew up in New Jersey.  He would then ask if said libertarian lab mates had ever driven in New Jersey, the land of toll roads.  Eventually, after working for a few years in the Garden State, one of the libertarian friends got kind of quiet about the wonders of toll roads.

Perhaps he had finally figured out that it is pure self interest that stirs us away from tribalism.  We cannot construct a broad infrastructure on tribalism.  We cannot predict or construct what our grand children and great grandchildren will need on tribalism.  The best we can do is construct infrastructure, institutions and policies that are broad enough and forward thinking enough to perhaps enable future generations.

Another reason that I think this article is dumb is that it ascribes to all Western liberals a kind of infinite, all flattening impracticality:  "One of the more deeply ingrained assumptions of Western liberals is that we humans can indefinitely increase our capacity to care for others, that we can, with the right effort and dedication, extend our care to wider and wider circles until we envelop the whole species within our ethical regard."  Really? Is that what Western liberals are doing?  Isn't it simply a necessity in a modern world to extend some economic fairness to less fortunate people and nations?  Professor Asma may be isolated enough, too enraptured in his OM position or a little too young to remember the lessons of the Twentieth Century.

You do not need Western liberalism to tell you that tribalism is a despotic deadend.  Perhaps, Stephen T. Asma might want to add to his reading list.  Adam Smith, the economist, George Marshall, the author of the Marshall Plan and Lester B. Pearson, the organizer of the United Nations Emergency Force, would be good starts.

No, tribalism does not a fair, good or efficient economy make.

I do wonder about who is paying Professor Asma's salary.   

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