Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Personal May Need to Be the Political -- But Not the Other Way Around

I wonder if healthcare “reform” will in fact pass now simply because so many people will think “Ted Kennedy would have wanted it that way.”  Perhaps humanity’s single biggest problem is that the human brain longs to navigate complex situations with instincts built for sizing up simple interactions between a few people — deciding who seems nice enough to share food, who seems likely to throw a rock at you, etc.

Even cultural-big-picture philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor (despite the latter in particular condemning the West’s tendency to focus ever more on interior, psychological struggles instead of big questions about the wider world) are, like religion, encouraging people to think in terms of “personal virtues” (a certain vision of a classical hero type), in a world where our biggest problems may increasingly hinge on more systemic thinking: economics, filtering sound science from pseudo-science, escaping the sclerosis of bureaucratic politics, etc.  The temptation to think that simply being a warm-hearted person or doing what (Jesus, Howard Roark, Ulysses, whoever) would do is enough to solve larger systemic problems is dangerous — comforting, heartwarming, reassuring, and frequently wrong, a legacy of Christianity’s emphasis on reforming one’s own soul, mutated by modern liberalism’s self-centered emphasis on personal growth, politically correct thought, consciousness-raising, and the like.

At the same time, though, for a social system to be sustainable, the core tenets that make its broader, more far-flung rules function must seem to average people to be observable/felt in their own lives (both in the sense of being confirmed by observation and in the sense of inviting everyday participation, lest the moral rules be left to self-interested elites to administer).  So the silver bullet we need, with ever-greater urgency in a world of increasing media noise, is a code that is easily enacted on a personal level but has the broadest possible beneficial implications for governance and for the proper maintenance of social processes that dwarf the individual and transcend the current generation.

And that’s where, it seems to me, the principle of property comes in, with all its myriad positive implications, from the narrow personal level to the establishment of global (and someday perhaps even interplanetary) trade and peace.  Anything foisted into policy debates mushier than property adherence is either directly counterproductive or at best a dangerous distraction.  Particularly dangerous, then, are the growing number of liberals, conservatives, and even libertarians who say, predictably, “I see value in property-adherence — but here are the unique new embellishments I would add to that dry, simplistic moral/legal rule…”

That way, as we’ve seen, lies the stagnation of the welfare state, the ostensibly-regulated economy, mercantilism, attempts to steer whole cultures through clumsy military strikes, the near-worship of nature and biological processes combined with a disregard for often subtler economic processes, and selective invoking of God’s purported will.  End this madness.  Lay down property lines — secure and clear and legally enforceable — across the world, and let humanity begin the recombinatorial process of trading and thereby improving the world, one mutually-beneficial exchange at a time.

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