The post on amending our social order by enclosing the commons generated by the universal franchise provoked an animated discussion, not just at the Orthosphere but in the comments thread of a post devoted to the proposal over at Nick Steve’s site, The Reactivity Place. I also had some interesting email exchanges with Orthosphere readers on the proposal. Out of these various threads, there are four topics that I think merit further discussion.
In a previous post, I asked:
… what if the current positive feedback circuit [now operative in our politics] could be re-wired so that it was a negative feedback circuit, like that of the steam engine and its governor? What if the penalties for vicious and imprudent political decisions were immediate and severe, while the rewards for virtuous, prudent political decisions were both explicit and compelling?
This in reference to the pervasive moral corruption of our lawgivers, and by extension of everyone involved in politics; for:
As things now stand, the people charged with the reformation of society – chiefly our legislators, but by extension everyone who participates in politics, from executives and bureaucrats to lobbyists and electors, both the regulators and the regulated, and especially the media – are rewarded for increasing the noise of our social system. Where there is a problem, especially of the sort caused by the brakes they have already installed, they are encouraged to apply further brakes to the brakes, and brakes to the brakes to the brakes, and so on ad infinitum. This is why our code of laws has metastasized, so that laws proliferate without let or hindrance, and so that they more and more pervade every aspect of our lives, no matter how humble.
And this is due to the fact that:
… the basic feedback circuit of a democracy characterized by universal suffrage is positive, a vicious cycle: the electorate is strongly motivated to vote themselves more benefits and lower taxes, more liberty to act out with fewer limits or constraints, or costs, for doing so. The more people see they can get from the state, the more they vote to get from the state. Nothing signals to them that they are demanding too much, that they are eating cultural seed corn. In the circumstances, any other behavior on their part would be irrational. So the bankruptcy of the system – economic, moral, and intellectual – is hardwired in.
Something must be done, or we are headed for a systemic crash. Indeed, we may be headed for such a crash no matter what is done. If so, so be it; the instability of evil is the morality of the universe; let God arise.
But whether we are headed for a systemic crash or not, it behooves us nonetheless, as at any time, to do our best to stave it off. It behooves us always, as our plain duty, to do our best.
How might we arrange things so that the success or failure of policy fed back to the development thereof, so that the present vicious cycle of wickedness had at least a shot at a phase change into virtuosity?
The basic operation of every society is maintaining its essential order – the order that makes it the society that it is – in the face of adversity. It is the work of tradition: of transferring to rising generations the essential order of their forefathers, amended at the margin, or accidentally, so as to cope with changes in the environment.
This interminable project of social reproduction requires practical wisdom. And practical wisdom is possible only to the virtuous man, and then only to the extent of his virtue. Societies live or die, then, depending upon their preponderant degree of virtue. This is just as true for societies of multi-celled organisms – i.e., for men themselves – as it is for societies of men. It is true for any social organism: for the family, for the tribe, clan or people, for the church, for the guild or business enterprise, for the town or for the nation.
Thus the basic task of social existence, the quotidian moral housekeeping that is the sine qua non of successful social life, is the attainment and maintenance of virtue. The first and most basic product of society then, is righteousness. All other economic production is founded upon it. Worldly success – survival, vigor, prosperity, strength – is the fruit of practical wisdom, of applied virtue. Prosperity, then, is a fairly good indication of virtue.
There are to be sure in this Fallen world many ways to get rich by wickedness. Thus the fact that a man is rich is no sure indication that he is mostly righteous. But even ill-gotten wealth, such as that of the thief or gangster, is the product of a kind of virtue – a corrupted and ill-directed excellence, yes, but an excellence nonetheless (the competition among gangsters is keen, and ruthless; only the best survive). Likewise for the wealth of the corrupt executive or politician. The excellence of these sorts of men lies in their ability to game the system: to exploit the niches created by defects of the social order.
Such men are always with us. And indeed, they are not altogether useless, or they would never have succeeded at what they do. The corrupt politician succeeds by pleasing his constituents and his customers; the thief succeeds by pleasing his fences with the goods he offers; the Mafioso succeeds by pleasing the customers of his drug distribution system. The social utility of such men derives quite directly from their gaming of the system. In effect, their exploitation of defects in the system design corrects for those defects, or at least compensates for them. Their gaming activities are similar in some ways to arbitrage. Like the arbitrageur, the wicked exploiter restores some equilibrium or other, and compensates for a defect of society.
Can the system be gamed? It will be. Indeed, it ought to be.
The Kermit Gosnell case is very interesting to me. On the one hand, most people seem rightly horrified at the prospect of plunging a scalpel into a baby’s spine because mom wants to backpack across Europe next summer (or whatever). On the other hand… hello, this just is what abortion is like, as anyone can see who isn’t being medicated futilely for something. Gosnell wasn’t lying when he said that “that’s how it was supposed to go.” That’s how it goes every single time. The right’s affectation of disproportionate horror over Gosnell is more or less a tacit concession of the leftist conceit that it doesn’t really “count” as murder if the baby is on the wrong side of the birth canal.
This case is indeed a horror show, not because it’s so exceptional but because it’s so banal for us, so utterly routine.
This story of a cuckolded man court-ordered to continue paying child support to his adulterous ex-wife (with whom he fathered only one of her four children) got me wondering about the appropriate reactionary position on paternity testing.
On the one hand, prudence alone would seem to support it. “Just take her word for it” might have made sense when adultery was severely socially punished and divorce nearly impossible, but today, cuckoldry is cheap, easy, socially permissible, and legally facilitated. The consequences of that cuckoldry for hapless husbands can be absolutely ruinous (financially, socially, and emotionally), and paternity testing provides a fairly quick and inexpensive remedy against it. Signing a birth certificate shouldn’t be like clicking through the terms of service on iTunes, after all.
Actually, the only downside I see would be the hurt feelings of a genuinely faithful wife treated with (what she would no doubt experience as) suspicion by her husband. But I’m also not very bright, so I’m probably missing some things.
I recently came across an intriguing article by Catholic canonist Ed Peters. It turns out that not only is the married (and sexually active) permanent diaconate a historical divergence from the Latin Church’s ancient theological patrimony of clerical continence, it may even be a departure from the plain letter of canon law.
I had no idea this was the case, but it suggests the possibility of something deeply pernicious: widespread disobedience to Church law on the part of Catholic bishops during the immediate postconciliar era, and especially in the United States, where something like half the world’s permanent deacons reside. An effort to stir up agitation against priestly celibacy, perhaps?
This is not addressed to the leaders or ideologues of the pro-abortion movement. They, I suspect, are too far gone to be reasoned with, though I would be very happy to be proved wrong about that. Nor is it addressed to the increasing number of ethicists who argue that the killing of newborn infants ought to be legalized, since what I said about the pro-abortion movement’s leaders and ideologues goes double for them. (Including the part about me being happy to be proved wrong about them.) No, this is addressed primarily to those ordinary people who on balance consider themselves “pro-choice,” and who have repeated or accepted the common slogans and arguments of the pro-abortion movement without giving them too much thought. If you are one of those people—or, for that matter, if you know such people—keep reading.
Those convinced that the postconciliar Church has repudiated its own moral-theological tradition often point to its apparent reversal on ecumenism or religious liberty as proof of their claims. Personally, I see its incoherence on the issue of capital punishment far more damning in this regard.
Here are two useful articles from my favorite modern apologist, Edward Feser, on the topic. In the first, he defends the moral liceity of the death penalty in terms of natural law. In the second, he blasts the ambiguity and equivocation of those clergy eager to chuck the Church’s historical teachings in their zeal to align themselves with the leftist zeitgeist. In the latter article, Feser ultimately concludes that the Church’s supposed opposition to the death penalty in the present age has been badly exaggerated; but it’s telling that the Church is quick to speak in terms that can be so easily misconstrued and slow to correct those misconstructions.
Which reminds me of a conversation I had with a Franciscan on the topic not long ago. I voiced my dislike of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is bulky, difficult, terminologically ham-handed, obscurantist, and peppered with passages plucked out of badly-needed context from papal encyclicals. Too many Catholics have read, for instance, its treatment of “conscience” and walked away from it with the impression that the Church gives us free license to dissent willy-nilly from teachings held since the dawn of the faith — and then proceeded to do exactly that. The exasperated Franciscan rolled his eyes and said, “That’s because the Catechism isn’t for the laity. It’s for the theologians!” Which is rather the problem, isn’t it?