Saturday, June 07, 2014

What do we owe?

I take it as obvious that the family, tribe, and nation rely on successively more attenuated affection. In “tribe” I include your church, whether this is a classical religion or a modern ideology. Modern ideologies direct your responsibilities to the institution rather than to your neighbor, but otherwise both ideology and classical religion demand similar loyalties and provide a framework worldview.

Within a family you readily sacrifice to provide for and protect each other. If a son is crippled in an accident, you don’t leave him on an ice floe, you try to arrange responsibilities in the family so he can be cared for and still have a role. The infant will have a role one day, and the aged and infirm served their role already; in between you try to find something for everyone. If it isn’t possible you suck it up and support them anyway.

OK, sometimes Uncle Ted makes you want to throttle him, and there are sots and shrews. But by and large the family works well. A nuclear or a blenderized family is not very robust dealing with problem characters: the extended family is stronger here.

Within a tribe there’s still sacrifice to provide and protect, but this is neither as intimate nor as strong. You’re fine with cutting food up fine for your aged mother, but not so keen on doing it for somebody else’s mother. That may not sound very Christian, but last time I looked the world wasn’t populated by perfect saints. Within a Christian church you might find more people willing to do this than average, but still not very many.

In a tribe you inevitably find parasites and predators. Shaming only goes so far. The tribes may have to exile or destroy, and you may have to help. But don’t let an outsider try that.

A nation is also characterized by “We’re all in this together,” but the factions and interest groups are much more prominent and the sense of responsibility substantially less. Trust is less too. And the sense of solidarity can evaporate, leaving a civil war or an empire (held together only by force).

That seems fairly elementary. It is almost as obvious that none of these institutions coheres without some understood framework of right and wrong, responsibilities, and fairness.

If we use “just” to mean rewarding or punishing someone according to the benefit or the offense, a well-run home is not particularly just—and they want it that way. The parents work the hardest, but the 13-year old boy probably out-eats them both. The same offense results in different punishments for the 10-year old and the 5-year old. Things are tailored to the individual.

This kind of tailoring is impossible at even the tribal level. The best you can hope for is uniform rules. You can try rudimentary tailoring to circumstances with jury nullification and letting judges decide sentences out of a range of possibilities, but this doesn’t address rewards at all.

Here, and more especially at the national level, we have the problem of what we owe to the less-than-excellent. Within the family we try to provide support and a role—people need both. But on the larger scale you have to use rules rather than tailoring, and any set of rules is going to be incomplete and problematic.

There’s no dodging the issue using faith in education and early nutrition. Those can help people who suffer from some deficiencies, but we are always going to have the dim as well as the bright. That’s life with the bell curve.

The bell curve and the knowledge-based society

I'll borrow the terminology from Brave New World, but in my own variant. Let Alpha represent that section of the population with outstanding gifts in something: raw intellect, musical ability, or other art. Beta is those who are good at something, Gamma the average—which is most of us. Delta are those who need guidance to work, and Epsilon those who need guidance to live.

I take it as given that the value of an individual does not depend on their gifts. Their economic value does, but history shows what horrors results when economic worth is mistaken for human worth. Our culture has plenty of problems with this already.

I also take it as obvious that top-down social changes rarely work. My focus will be on what individuals and communities can do, not what sorts of scrambled legislation the feds may disgorge on us. You, your family, your church, your neighborhood—those are the real centers of change.

Whatever we do or don't do will have unintended consequences. Knowing upfront what some of the bad consequences might be would be very useful, so I want lots of eyes on proposals.

Begin with illustrations. You really want your doctor to be at least a Beta, but the truth is that with modern technology and resources quite a few Gammas can be adequate—provided they spend the time to look things up. Teachers, likewise. Some jobs like cleaning and simple repair a Delta can manage quite well. Researchers are Alpha or Beta, and similarly planning administrators should be—though as Scott Adams reminds us they often aren't even close.

What we owe: encouragement in virtue

The most gifted Alphas aren't always the most productive or fastest—other traits besides giftedness determine whether their gifts ever flourish. That's a whole other set of issues.

One of the most important variables (after health) determining how useful the gifts prove is how virtuous the person is. Recall that laziness is a vice, and that seemingly radical claim becomes obvious. It turns out to be easier to encourage people to become worse than to become better, but all the same we should try to make sure we don't encourage vices. As a case in point, our schools promote slogans encouraging respect, but substantial subsets of our pop music (e.g. much rap) encourage disrespect.

You probably know plenty of people who have screwed up their lives with stupid choices. Some will say “Their life, their choice” and in some sense that’s true, but we owe them some warning about what won’t work, and some model roles that usually do. Choices about intoxicants and sex seem to cause the most damage. The broader culture is willing enough to offer guidance about drugs, but serious suggestions about disciplining sex are considered offensive.

I know how difficult it is to run counter to the culture: within the church, and even within the family, it is hard to persuade people that the classic sex roles actually work very well in courtship and marriage.

The rich can afford their vices, for a time anyway; the poor have no such margin for comfort. They are, in fact, endangered by the vices of the rich.

But when the poor emulate them in vice, as they emulate them in most things, the result is disaster: not a man at the club, mooching a claret from his friends, but a man in the ditch, or behind bars.

So in Dickens we have the miserable corpse-robbing thieves at Old Joe’s pawnshop, and they are but Scrooge himself, and his money-hungry class, shorn of top hat and watch fob and man-of-business etiquette.

You can probably come up with more than one set of parallel lives, where each made similar choices but the impact was much worse on the one with less money or less intelligence. You can rely on the old man’s money: perhaps, but it is cruel to pretend that everyone can.

What we owe: education

We owe each other is the opportunity for education appropriate to one's gifts.

This doesn't mean a college degree. I'm not sure what a college degree means now. Credentialling for some kind of engineering skill, mastery of some body of knowledge, successful apprenticeship (MD or researcher), familiarity with the liberal arts, or certifying an OK IQ and patience—pick one. Some of those are suitable for almost everybody at some level: the liberal arts for example. IQ certification would be cheaper than college if that's the purpose.

Continuing education can be inexpensive when self-directed—we have lots of resources already. Entertainment is a much more popular substitute. This is exactly where family, friends, and church have impact—by example and encouragement. Maybe one group will be reading Herodotus and another Treasure Island: each learning according to his ability.

If I recall correctly, one of the works of mercy is to instruct the ignorant—perhaps your church has some adult education program? A lot of people need repair to their education, or something more suitable to their gifts. There are a lot of ideas floating around universities (e-learning, etc), but I suspect that changes will have to be driven by people outside the incentives to maintain the status quo.

What we owe: home

The next thing on my list is a “home” or the opportunity for one. Some small fraction of us are too crazy or too addicted or too vicious to fit in, and I don't pretend to have any answer for what to do with them in general. This group is outside the scope of my discussion.

A “home” does not mean independence, or solitary life. Most of us live with family among mutual responsibilities and care. Ideally those not capable of independent/solitary living, and most of those who are, should live with family. The luck of the draw means that some have no competent family, or a toxic family. We need some additional arrangements for mutual living and support that allow for some degree of mutual responsibility. The most obvious grouping is a grouping of siblings, but since some families are problematic, a grouping of friends should also be made straightforward. These arrangements will not always be of equals: one might have guardianship of another, for example.

Here I seem to break my rule about no top-down solutions: this probably requires some changes in statutory law. However, experimentation starts at ground level.

Some distinctions are fairly easy. First order responsibility for children falls on the parents, and fallback responsibility on near kin. Thus in a partnership of siblings, children of one are owed second-order (fallback) care by the others, but in a partnership of friends, children of one are not owed fallback care by the others. Designing asymmetric partnerships will involve some trial and error: I leave to your imagination how someone like Manson could abuse them. (In fact he needed no outside support to dominate his clan, so maybe the worry is moot.)

There's a complicated problem when a Delta has a family to support, and the income is not steady or large. We have to have inexpensive housing available, and neither zoning nor builders are our friends in this. Builders put inexpensive housing in high-density environments that seem to make crime easy, and zoning drives up the complexity and cost of housing.

What we owe: work

People need to be needed. We need some work or role to play.

Here we run afoul of the Spirit of the Age which dreams that a “knowledge based economy” is the wonderful wave of the future. That's great for Alphas and Betas, sucks for Gammas, and leaves Deltas in the trash or moldering on the dole with no purpose. (Epsilons always need help anyway.)

Exceptions abound. Erdos, one of the finest mathematicians of the 20'th century, was never independent because he could not understand something as simple as taking a shower with the curtain closed to keep from flooding the floor.

A bas der Zeitgeist, then.

What roles or jobs can we imagine in our families for our own Deltas? That's usually fairly simple—there's almost always some set of chores you can find. I've seen this happen automatically, though if the family is so relatively rich that they have servants this might prove hard to arrange.

Expand a bit. What can your church do, not to provide subsidies, but to find or arrange for work? Network freelance opportunities? Encourage members to hire within the church? Repair jobs, maintenance jobs, construction jobs? Freelance gardening? At one church I was a member of one such man was the moving committee. When someone needed to move this man called up a team of volunteers and vehicles and arranged it.

Will you spend a little extra to have local tailoring or local music from your fellow church members? Economies of scale price out the small local guy, and exposure effects mean you're more likely to hire a DJ playing known songs—unless you know the hardware store owner or the pianist.

And that is exactly the point. Is knowing the people personally—enough to care about them—enough to make a difference in how you spend your money? In a church or neighborhood, maybe. I don't see how this can scale beyond that small circle, though.

How will people react?

Freely ye have received—freely give: whether native gifts or charity?

If the role/job comes impersonally, you can't easily work up any gratitude. If it stems from superiority rather than “you're one of us” it will rankle. I can't guess how anyone will react; people are funny that way. But unless Gamma and Delta people are valued as people just as much as Alpha or Epsilon, we'll have a sense of inferiority/superiority dividing us. It will be even worse if different populations have different Alpha/Beta/Gamma/Delta/Epsilon distributions since this will be taken as evidence of bias.

It might be better if there wasn’t a sense of gratitude because there was a sense of belonging.

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