Monday, December 9, 2013

New Hopes for a Changing World, Full Time

[The review of the first part (man v. nature) of New Hopes for a Changing World is here, and the review of the second part (man v. other men) is here.] This full-time review will concentrate, therefore, on the third part of the book, that devoted to man’s internal struggle.

Competition, an ideal for many economists, is almost the villain of the piece for Russell (as it is for Marx). The adverse consequences of competition, which receive frequent attention in the third part of New Hopes for a Changing World, are foreshadowed in part 2, in the chapter “Economic Co-operation and Competition.” Competition was individually rational when subsistence was at stake, but that need not be the case anymore. Market competition leads to misery for workers, and has proven unstable within large industries (on the labor side and on the production side), as monopoly power grows. International trade is no free market realm either, because governments eventually take control (or businesses take control of governments). In Chapter 16, wars and socialism are laid at the feet of a misguided obeisance to free trade. Our commitment to competition is a position which has become obsolete, in the sense that it no longer serves our interests, not that it has disappeared. Economic cooperation, not competition, would lead to better results for all. Competition for academic scholarships among school children is pernicious as well.

How to overcome our perverse attraction for rivalry and aggression? Russell recommends, among other things, that we face our fears, especially fear of the unfamiliar, and recognize that these fears, too, generally are irrational. The purging of irrational fears is difficult, in part because much traditional morality pushes in the opposite direction, stoking fears of sin and guilt, and some politicians see their wellbeing as tied to excessive fears in the populace. The mechanism seeking to instill traditional morality involves the fear of worldly or extra-worldly retribution – even of the eternal sort. These fears are supposed to be sufficient to deter people from indulging their desires. Russell anticipates modern research on willpower, which sees self-control as a resource that can be depleted in the short-run through overuse – and hence willpower is a thin reed to rely on if your goal is to prevent succumbing to temptation.

Humans (in much of the world) have only recently stopped existing as flies to wanton boys – our increased control in the conflict between man and nature makes it possible to widen our sympathies, to identify with all of humanity. It is economic progress that has rendered fear to be more excessive than it used to be, but it is also that progress that should make us hopeful. The world will continue to advance, one person at a time, if we maintain our commitment to hope – rational hope, like irrational fear, is contagious. Policy can help, by improving the distribution of the means of subsistence, and by offering social insurance to reduce the fear of destitution. Global governance can minimize adverse environmental spillovers and lead to better stewardship of our natural resources. Education can help, too – after all, as cooperation is consistent with enlightened self-interest, we should spread enlightenment, in part by forbidding the state dissemination of nationalistic propaganda, and by rendering foreigners more familiar. Information about contraception, and contraceptives themselves, can be made available. Human flourishing also requires that we subsidize non-conformity, ensuring that committed non-conformists have the time and means to indulge their eccentricity: the most valuable ideas are hatched within non-conforming minds. Excessive respect for customary ways is one of those ideas which have become obsolete (Chapter 16).

Russell’s contention that our commitment to aggression can be successfully combatted is made more plausible, I think, by the analogy with dueling which he mentions in Chapter 16. The intellectual and social respect that often is accorded “hawks” can be withdrawn as we become more aware of the risks of hawkishness – “witch-hunts within, and wars without [p. 170]” – and reduce the scope of our fears to a reasonable level. (Russell also raises (again, and here) the physical punishment of children, a longstanding practice that lacks an evidentiary base and is seeing its social approval dry up.) Perhaps we will find, as Russell suggests, that the occasions for which hawkishness makes sense will themselves diminish once the behavior of hawks is no longer countenanced.

Though hawkishness is itself irrational, humans cannot be indifferent about the outcome of the Cold War. The Soviet cult of the state is sure to enervate humanity, to the point where mankind might not be worth saving.

The hopes that Russell is making a case for are reasonable, not beyond humanity’s grasp: the changes with respect to dueling and the physical punishment of children are part of the relatively recent substantiation. In The Conquest of Happiness, Russell described the sort of positive feedback that dominates the happiness realm, where (for instance) a smiling face is received well by others, whose approval then helps both to justify the initial smile and to spread it. Hopes have the same facility to cascade. A hopeful person avoids irrational fears, and responds in a calm, prudent fashion to those fears that are rational. The open nature of such a person tends to diminish aggression from others. Russell’s goal is to widen the group of people who themselves have widened their sympathies, until a sort of herd immunity against aggression can be established. The achievement (or perhaps the stability) of that immunity will require the standard Russell prescription of a monopoly on force controlled by a global body.

Russell saw great promise for the cinema in contributing to education and in broadening horizons. What would he make of the internet? Those histories that are composed by foreigners, a global university that is available to anyone who is interested (Chapter 21) – these are now more-or-less realities. Yes, the internet is full of “predatory nationalism [p. 209],” and worse, but the voices of reason and compassion are there, too. If Russell is correct, that an enlightened self-interest would be enough to spur “The Happy World,” then the internet surely can help us to achieve it. (And if Russell is wrong, well, we have his old compensation of returning the globe to “harmless trilobites and butterflies.”)

Somehow I find recent events within Mormonism to be, well, hopeful, in this regard. The internet has made available information (along with, no doubt, some misinformation) about the church’s history – information that has not been featured in official church teachings. This information raises doubts among some believers. At times the initial reaction of church leaders, it seems, was to try to suppress the information, but this is a strategy that the internet renders rather impotent. From the linked New York Times article: “In the last 10 or 15 years, [a Mormon history professor] said, 'the church has come to realize that transparency and candor and historical accuracy are really the only way to go.'” It may be that the virtues of candor and accuracy are becoming wise policy more broadly, now that clear inaccuracies are likely to come to the public’s attention via the web. Or at least one can hope.

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