I do get annoyed and some people are good at annoying me. David Brooks is one such person. I was especially annoyed when I saw Tyler Cowen quote and link to his column and refer to it as ‘interesting throughout.’ I found that so annoying that it made me question why I like Cowen.

Brooks annoys me because he comes across (to me, at least) as a pompous elitist who fascinates himself and rarely considers that he might be wrong.

While there was much that annoyed me about the quote that Cowen found interesting, I’ll pick on one thing.  In one part, Brooks wrote this:

So the story I’d like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.

I’ll point out a few things I find dumb about this. I’m willing to consider that I’m the dumb one and maybe you can help me see what I’m missing.

First, his evidence of society becoming more individualistic was that the use of the word “preferences” had increased in books that Google can search over different time periods. Is it possible this isn’t a reflection of society becoming more individualistic? Is it possible that it really has nothing at all to say about society?

Second, society is breaking down, but government is trying to help? Society, seems pretty strong to me. Where is it breaking down? It appears to breaking down in the very parts where government has inserted itself the most. 

I wonder if Brooks has ever considered that it is the elitist folks of his ilk, who fancy themselves competent diviners of society’s problems and providers of solutions to those problems (of which, they never pay any direct consequences for being wrong), who may be CAUSING the breakdowns in society?

9 thoughts on “Annoyed

  1. I think you’ve diagnosed Brooks well. As for Tyler, he impresses me as a left leaning secularist who is often confused as a conservative or moderate because he’s associated with the Econ department at GMU. I guess he shares that similarity with Brooks (a leftie who’s often confused as being a righty – sorry for the labels, Wally!!!) The other impression I’ve had of Tyler is that he’s obviously very intelligent, but there seems to be something missing in terms of “theory of mind”. I believe he suffers from a very mild form of autism or Asperger’s syndrome.

    Now, as for Brooks idea that “the atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address,” I would submit that it has been the ill-conceived policies and machinations of our federal government (and the liberal wing specifically) that has caused, or exacerbated, any detrimental fragmentation and/or moral decay. You can’t demand that religion – and specifically our JudeoChristian heritage – be removed from schools and preach a doctrine of moral relativism and then wonder why there has been a moral decay in our society (at least amongst the segments where government “interventions” have been greatest. Note – Seth, I think that from a moral standpoint, we have had a battle between the big federal government/liberal types on one side promoting moral relativism (which is basically moral decay because if there are no moral absolutes, then anything goes) and the limited government/Christians on the other side advocating for moral standards based on a Judeo Christian tradition. While many may argue against mixing religious beliefs into state affairs, if we don’t have some absolute standards, we do slip down that slippery slope where (eventually) anything becomes OK and we have no standards and hence no stability – and this is problematic for a society that depends upon a reliable and stable set of rules.

    • No apologies necessary. 🙂

      In what segments of society has government intervention been the greatest and what is the evidence that the people in those segments have suffered from moral decay?

      What absolute moral standards did we have 50 years ago that we don’t have now?

      The position of moral relativism is not a dictum that “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” (that’s Alister Crowley) – rather it is a philosophical theory that there appears to be a fundamental difference between judgements about facts and judgements about values.

      The theory goes like this:
      Judgements about facts reference events, people and/or things in the real world. Judgements about value reference beliefs or values that people hold.
      Moral statements are judgements about values and therefore have no absolute reference. (When we say murder is bad, there’s nothing we can point to in the same way that we can point to a set of fingerprints or a DNA test to say who committed the murder.)

      Now it is entirely possible that when people talk about moral relativism, the mere statement of the theory causes moral decay among the populace. I have certainly heard philosophical arguments that have changed/blown my mind. And it is also entirely possible that people are deliberately stating the arguments of moral relativism to accelerate/create moral decay. Finally, it is also entirely possible that people make these kinds of arguments to create a more secular culture and or to undermine the religious culture.

      • “In what segments of society has government intervention been the greatest and what is the evidence that the people in those segments have suffered from moral decay?”

        I think education is a good example. Government at local, state and Federal gov’t is heavily inserted into K-12 and becoming more involved in higher education.

        Is it right that it is generally accepted that we give high school diplomas to people who have not earned them? I don’t think so. Yet, I think that’s a primary reason a high school diploma has lost its value over the generations.

        Unemployment insurance is another example. As far as I know, the only private market for unemployment insurance is private individuals saving for a rainy day. And, that use to be standard that was expected of folks. You were expected to protect yourself from the risk of unemployment by ‘saving for a rainy day’, ‘taking what comes along for now’ and ‘diversifying your skill set’ and all of this was geared to the idea that if you are able-bodied you are expected to do something productive and not be a burden on your fellow man, so that we could focus our efforts on those truly in need.

        Gov’t put itself into the unemployment insurance business and the new standard became ‘you are entitled to take the time to find a job that paid as much as the last one’, it’s okay to be a burden on your fellow man if it was ‘through no fault of your own’ and what I’ve heard from otherwise moral friends who have received unemployment ‘benefit’s, ‘you’d be dumb to get an official job and give up the free money if you can keep doing side jobs for cash.’

        • So what segments of the population have suffered the most moral decay due to this increased government involvement? Everyone who collects unemployment? Everyone who receives a high school diploma from a public school?

          Or am I misunderstanding your point?

          • Hi Wally — I don’t think ‘the most moral decay’ is pertinent to the discussion. My statement was that society seems to be breaking down in parts where government has inserted itself the most.

            For example, I do think it it is a breakdown when people go from being humbled and appreciative of assistance they get from others when times are tough, feeling like they need to repay and/or provide something of value in return, and seeking to get off that assistance (or avoid it to begin with) asap to expecting it, riding the gravy train for as long as possible and feeling it is okay to not accept jobs and accept off-the-books jobs so they can continue to get it.

            No, it’s not everyone who gets a high school diploma from a public school. It’s the folks who give diplomas to people who haven’t earned them and put their own job security ahead of giving parents more choice in education. Though, it certainly doesn’t help those who receive diplomas — especially the folks who haven’t mastered what they need to. It sends the message to expect others to lower their standards to accommodate you, rather than putting in the work to raise your own standards. So, I do think public education is a bit of a double-whammy of breakdown.

            These problems are caused by distorted incentives the government intervention brings to the feedback loops. I think unemployment is a clear example. If you were in tough times and getting help from family, friends and private charities, those would carry more signals that you need to tighten your belt, get back on your feet asap and repay the help somehow — even something as simple as a ‘are you kidding me?’ look on your face when you tell your friend who’s giving you a place to stay that you turned down a job offer because it was 20% less than what you use to make.

            With government unemployment those signals are replaced by employees in an unemployment office whose job depends on giving you money from faceless third parties and a one-size-fits-all policy of X% assistance for Y months as long as you make a basic effort to find work, which is easy to feign.

            At a high-level, the root of all these might be classified as reinforcing a ‘something-for-nothing (or very little)’ feedback loop. Receivers of unemployment are only asked to look for a job. It’s too easy to do that, but turn down offers that aren’t attractive. K-12 attendees don’t necessarily have to mast much to graduate. In some cases, they might earn a diploma by being a troublemaker that teachers and administrators want to get rid of and graduating them is the easiest way to to do that. And, teachers want to keep their jobs, regardless if the true clients (parents) would pick them if they had more choice.

  2. In re-reading your post, that’s exactly what you said before. I think I was getting the comment and the post mixed up in my head.

    To re-iterate your point, (to make sure I’ve got it), you’re saying that government intervention in education and unemployment is removing a feedback loop and preventing people from learning from their mistakes. Yes?

    • Deadening the response of the consequence feedback loop is one of the feedback problems from government involvement, yes. In addition, that deadened response is often coupled with positive reinforcing loops for unproductive activities – like getting money from others for being unemployed or keeping a job in education when you’re not doing a good job.

  3. I think we had a discussion a few months back where it was mentioned that a significant correlation existed between the absence of a father in the home and successful outcomes for the children. Indeed, I believe the mention was that this was the most significant factor related to successful outcomes for the children. The statistics regarding the change over the past half century (a period that corresponds with eliminating religion in public schools, a change from teaching that there are absolute standards such as the 10 commandments – or even “do unto others…” or “love thy neighbor…” – to teaching that right and wrong are simply subjective choices determined by the actors, etc.) in households with and without a father present as well as out of wedlock births, etc. may have also been mentioned.

    While I believe that one’s belief and (admittedly imperfect) adherence to such absolutes is fostered and more likely if one also is a “believer” of the religion, even an atheist or agnostic who labels Jesus as merely a “good man” might agree that such principles are useful, or even necessary, for a republic such as ours to survive. As John Adams stated, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” This isn’t meant as an appeal to authority, but simply to note one of the underlying assumptions of at least some of those instrumental in the Constitution’s development. In anticipation of those who suggest, “then why don’t we just abandon the Constitution,” I’ll reiterate a previous point that stable societies depend on certain unwavering and reliable standards and protections in order to thrive. If one proposes to blithely abandon or change the Constitution, what’s to prevent a new change in whatever replaces it a few years down the road?


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