Mark Steyn takes on the subject I'm so addicted to:  the problem of balance between anonymous markets and warm families as a model for human communities.  I've often argued that what works brilliantly under our own roofs is a disaster on a large scale:
In their book The Size of Nations, Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore argue that, if America were as centrally governed as France, it would have broken up long ago.  But hey, that’s no reason not to try it!  In a land where everything else is supersized, why not government?  Obituaries for the late Andy Griffith generally glossed over his career finale as a pitchman for Obamacare.  But he was a canny choice to sell the unsellable, for is not “health” “care” “reform” the communitarian virtues of beloved small-town Mayberry writ large?  The problem is you can’t write Mayberry large.  And, if you attempt it, it leads not to Mayberry but to Stockton, Calif., and to a corrupt, dysfunctional swamp.  A large Sweden is a contradiction in terms.  It cannot be done, and the more determinedly you try to do it, the more you will preside over a ruined wasteland.  The road to hell isn’t paved at all, and the street lamps went out long ago.
My own neighborhood is much closer to Mayberry than to a Wall Street populated by Gordon Gekkos.   We dispense almost entirely with formal enforcement mechanisms and operate, if not on the basis of pure charity, at least on an extremely loose barter system that's more like the old social convention of alternating entertainments than like a ledger.  But it's a small neighborhood, and the close-knit aspect is earned, to some extent, by each getting to know the others and demonstrating a willingness to act right. We don't try to incorporate even the local town into the system, let alone the nearest city.  But shouldn't we be trying to expand the brotherhood of man rather than build walls around our own private Camelot?  I believe that, so the question for me is what's most likely to succeed in that ambition.  Experience tells me that giving strangers respect as autonomous beings, but extending charity to them if necessary, is more likely to bring people together evenetually over a wider and wider area than encouraging each to treat the group as his private teat.  I don't know why dependency on strangers corrodes most people, but I'm convinced it does.

H/t Maggie's Farm.


Grim said...

Steyn's right about that. It's part of the issue of scale that we have to get right.

Just like you need to push decision making down to the lowest functional level, it's good to keep a community sized so that people can get to know each other and work out a common ethos. If people don't fit in, it's good if they move on to another community where they do. This is just as, under a Federalist model, if you don't like Georgia's laws you can move to Texas or California depending on how you feel about things.

The economics issue, though, is problematic. People live clustered in these big cities for a reason: that's where jobs are, or were before the collapse. There aren't jobs elsewhere. Living in a small town community isn't an option for many of them.

The loss of the small town spirit of charity and fellowship is part of the reason for the growth of centralized power and enforced charity. So: how to address that problem? How do you unwind the watch?

Texan99 said...

It's possible for people to make small communities for themselves even in large cities -- certainly without collectivizing the whole city.

Grim said...

Right, that's true; but how is it possible? There are two sort of normal cases I can think of:

1) An ethnic enclave, where immigration has created a language and/or prejudice difference that tends to separate the community and bind it together. Prejudice can be, and often is, on both sides of this equation. This kind of division can produce useful charity, though, because anyone from the right ethnic group is part of the 'in group' and will be extended charity if they need it.

2) An enclave of wealth, where richer people force poorer ones out. These seem to show some resilience to ethnic divisions -- a gentrified city block will admit anyone with enough money, and the right mores, to be of the right class -- but at the cost of creating a real division by class. This is just the kind of group that produces the liberal collectivism that you're worried about on a broader scale: they want the poor and disruptive kept away from them, and are willing to pay taxes to sustain programs that keep them controlled and supported elsewhere.

Is there another way? If you don't have the wealth to keep the disruptive members of the poor class out, how do you do so? It seems like this community, in a city, requires walls -- either traditional ones or the less visible ones of high costs of living and policemen intolerant of the loitering of the not-fully-employed.

Texan99 said...

That objection puzzles me. Is it possible you're assuming that a community must be both geographically bounded and exclusive? My idea of a community is people bonded to one another. In a neighborhood it may include only a fraction of the residents. It's helpful, but not necessary, if all of its members live close to one another.

Enclaves may or may not be successful communities, depending on how successful they are. "Gated communities" are generally a misnomer, in my experience. The only other enclave I have much experience with is a Hassidic community that one of my old law partners lived in, which seemed to work pretty well, but wouldn't have suited most people, perhaps.

Grim said...

I'm not sure that a geographical boundary is needed, but the idea is to produce a system that can replace the need for a government-backed charity-by-force. That means that a system built around possession of wealth won't do it; the wealthy aren't the ones generally in need of charity (and when they do need it, their need is small and infrequent, thus much lowering the burden of providing it!).

So, you know, an ethnic enclave seems to work -- or a religious one. The poor Jew might get a hand up from the rich Jew, and the Mormons seem to do this for each other. These kinds of communities don't necessarily address the broader community, though: they work precisely because they are minority communities who feel bonded with each other across class lines by the ethnic/religious minority status.

So what do we do with big cities? Is there a way of replicating this process for the poor, in large cities? If not, is this really the alternative we'd like for it to be?

Texan99 said...

I see two kinds of activity you might characterize as charity. One is the informal sort of sharing you see in close-knit communities. The other is the voluntary giving of resources to strangers that you see are in trouble -- a transaction outside of the usual market, so to speak. Neither of these systems is very much like a large-scale collectivism enforced by the state.

My point about how collectivism can work in close-knit communities is not intended to prove that we can ever expect every needy person in the U.S. to succeed in joining a community that will see to his every need. Nor will collectivism succeed in that goal. In fact, I don't believe that any system currently within our grasp will eliminate poverty or want.

The question, for me, is different: what kind of human interaction is likely to lead in the right direction. I think that dealing with our intimates in a fairly collectivist manner, and with strangers in a fairly autonomous manner (mediated to some extent by charity) is like to lead in the right direction, and that enforced collectivism on a large scale is not.

For one thing, in societies where strangers are free to deal with each other autonomously in a free market, there's lots more extra wealth to go around, which not only increases the likelihood that the poor can advance, but also increases the pool of wealth available for charity. Large-scale collectivism among strangers, on the other hand, tends to impoverish everyone.

Eric Blair said...

There is no getting 'the scale' right, and there is no 'unwinding' the watch. That's been clear since Sumer.

Grim said...

We sure haven't so far. Not for long, anyway.

It's a problem, though, because there's a huge difference in quality of life between getting the scale right, and not getting it right. But it's hard to get it right, and it seems to me that it requires a lot of money.

Texan99 said...

I don't understand that. The Amish don't have much money, and they do it beautifully. Poor immigrant communities often manage it well. Israelis kibbutzes often were poor. I know poor extended families who pull it off. Having a safety net that alleviates the most desperate want doesn't require making everyone equally rich.

I don't think money is the issue, just bonds of trust. People who trust each other are very likely to take care of each other's needs. Strangers are not, and if a government forces them to, the society degrades along with its economy.

Anyway, if anything really does take a lot of money, that's an even better argument for free markets rather than collectivism.

Grim said...

Well, right, those are variations on two of the three examples of successful models: rural or small-town ones, and ethnic enclaves.

But even here, you have to have an economic model that sustains it. The reason we saw so much movement to the cities in the 20th century is the same reason that China is seeing it now: the cities are where the jobs are. Lacking some sort of economic basis, you can't live in the rural areas; and we've pretty much managed to destroy small farming as an adequate basis, between regulations and the crony capitalist systems that favor corporate farming.

People in the rural areas still need services, so you can manage it by being a plumber or by being a dentist or something like that. But services are just trading money between people who already have it; you need something that is producing wealth. Around here, the productive engine is corporate farming: the wealth that the services are trading around originally comes from Tyson or other chicken farms. The big industries are feed mills, poultry slaughter and production plants, and so forth.

So there's a certain number of jobs for people, between production and services. But there aren't enough jobs for 300 million Americans; we can't sustain everyone in the small towns.

As for ethnic enclaves, if you're not already part of one you probably can't become part of one.

I guess maybe I took your post as a suggestion for how things ought to be; and there's a degree to which I agree that people would be happier if they lived in communities that were stable, and which provided charity to their members. I'm just not sure how you make that work; and I'm not sure if it can really address the problems associated with poverty that we're currently using government to address.

In other words, I'd also prefer it, if it can work; but I'm not sure it can work where real poverty exists. We probably can't expect to see them turn into self-sustaining communities that provide their own charity.

It might be that if we cut them off of all government aid, at least some of them would form up into such communities out of self-defense. Maybe government aid is just easier than doing the work of building and sustaining a community. You don't have to reciprocate favors; you just cash a check.

Texan99 said...

I'm not getting why the rural areas are a special problem. However many jobs there are there, is how many people can afford to live there without arranging for someone else to support them (voluntarily, would be my preference). Rural places manage to provide themselves with a lot of services locally, but their residents also generally find they've got to head to the nearest city for some things. It sounds to me almost as though you were arguing that rural areas can't hack it without collectivized, government-imposed charity from the cities, and that's just not my experience.

My post isn't about a utopia we might reach some day. It's about the way things are in the world now: in nations where people are free to trade and deal with each other, they have healthy economies and can afford safety nets for the unluckiest among them. Where the economy is collectivized and the state provides not just a safety net but a dependent way of life, economies stagnate and everyone is increasingly poor together. I brought up communities, not as an aspirational alternative to a nationwide system of free markets involving autonomous adults, but as a local exception that can't be expected to prevail except among closely bonded, trusting people. (And note that it's the bonds that must be close, not necessarily the physical location. But it's crucial that the bonds are voluntarily assumed. The state cannot magically bond people.)

Grim said...

I thought you intended communities not as an aspirational alternative to free markets, but as an aspirational alternative to government dependency. Where we have such dependency now, wouldn't it be nice to have communities instead?

To which I wanted to respond, "Yes, it certainly would be: but how would these communities be sustained?"

I don't think the rural areas require the urban ones (although the economy I mentioned here does depend on having a market for all those chickens!). Rural economies are more sustainable in times of economic collapse, if they are not so regulated and taxed (or leveraged) as to drive people off their land. If you're content to grow your own food and live very simply, the rural area doesn't require the city at all.

The only special problem for rural areas is that there aren't enough jobs for everyone to live in such an area. The cities are the problem, from my perspective, but they're an unavoidable problem given current economic reality. There's no way to provide for the numbers of people we have except via the kinds of economies of scale that require cities and large clusters of populations.

That, though, is just where it's hardest to sustain a community. Thus, we end up with government taking on things that used to be done through private charity within the community.

Texan99 said...

I didn't really mean to posit communities as an aspirational alternative to government dependency. My point was only that you can make collectivist behavior work within a community (or more broadly any voluntary private institution, tradition, family, group, etc.), but you cannot make it work when it is imposed by government, and the larger the scale, the more drastic the failure.

That's not to say that I think we should wait to eliminate government dependency until after we or the government or anyone else has set up communities to replace the government dependency with. I think the government dependency has to go because it doesn't work; it is destructive of both society and the economy and therefore the welfare of everyone including the poor. That there is another model that may ease the burden of people who otherwise would have depended on the government is nice, but it's not the reason the government dependency should stop.

How would communities be sustained? Well, the same way private institutions, groups, families, etc., always have been sustained: by the people who use and benefit from them. It's not the government's job or business (or even ability) to make it happen or sustain it once it's started, and succeeding in that impossible job is not a precondition to any kind of freedom, including economic freedom.

Governments, as I say, have no power to make people bond. People have to choose that for themselves. If they don't bond, for whatever reason, it is not possible to force collectivist behavior on them and expect it to work. The free market is the only system that has proven to be fairly successful so far for large numbers of strangers. Is it perfect? No, but we have nothing more effective to replace it with. It avoids more poverty and misery than any other system. Robin-Hood systems sound superficially as though they'd be kinder and more effective, but they don't actually work out that way: they actually just impoverish more people and degrade freedom to boot.

Grim said...

Yeah, that's probably true. Shame, though, that we can't make it better; the best we can do is to stop trying to make it better, in the hope that things might get better on their own.

Texan99 said...

Of course we can make it better. We can root out the BS collectivist Robin Hood schemes, and we can form more bonds with more people ourselves. The solution is in us, not in making other people do more, because that's the part that's up to us instead of up to other people.

Grim said...

Right. That's pretty tactical, though. We're in an age that needs strategic solutions.

But maybe tactical is all we can get. If so, well, it's going to be an interesting decade or two.

Texan99 said...

The strategic solutions I favor have to do with eliminating the government's power to play favorites in the economy. In particular, we would do a lot of good by getting rid of forcible wealth redistribution, which means flattening taxes and confining social safety nets to extreme, temporary cases. It would also help to remove tax gimmicks intended to influence behavior rather than raise revenue. (My number one candidate would be eliminating the tax treatment that strongly favors employer-provided health insurance over portable individual insurance.)

Oh, and get rid of public employee unions, and rein in government spending.

An improved economy means more jobs. More jobs means less dependency by workers on government, or for that matter dependence on employers. It also means more paths out of poverty, as well as more charity available for those few who are too disabled to navigate a path out of poverty even when it's available. It's our economy, not our collective kind-heartedness, that accounts for the fact that the American poor are relatively well off in comparison with, say, the slums of India.