The limits of human nature – and books I have read Part II

This is a post about the Amish, diversity and Thomas Sowell’s visions. I’ll try to keep it brief.

Just to remind anyone who’s interested, this is part of my response to the post directed at me over at ‘A Life of the Mind‘.In the aborted response to my post ‘Ten Degrees of Difference’, Lisek noted that:

Under the current semi-capitalist economic system of the U.S. there is a functioning example of a group that can live under a more or less free-market and yet not display the social pathologies common in the West.  That group would be the Amish.

Lisek rightly points out that there are two reasons why the Amish seem able to handle life under a semi-capitalist regime: Their social conservatism and their exclusivity. Implicit in the latter is that the US state is ok about groups going their own way, collectively if they wish.

I agree entirely but would add a couple of observations. They are a group, so far as I’m aware (which isn’t much to be honest), who still maintain some degree of reciprocity and communality to their work.

Interestingly, Stephen Marglin in his book ‘Dismal Science: How thinking like an economist undermines community‘ points to Amish emphasis on the importance of community, manifest in processes such as community ‘barn raising’ which highlights the differences between materially providing for oneself and family via networks of reciprocity, on the one hand, and via disembedded processes of exchange through a market, on the other.

Modern markets inevitably undermine – almost by definition – more community-based forms of providing for ourselves and, therefore, undermine communities.

Read the opening segment (Chapter One is linked below) on the anguish of two Amish parents over a decision relating to expensive medication for their young son, and the reason for their decision. Read further and get a sense of his argument as to why economics and economists undermine community through their focus on markets. In fact, read the whole book (as I have, in case anyone’s wondering).

Marglin Dismal Science Chapter One

This interesting link discusses, amongst other things, how Amish and Hutterite church districts are limited to roughly 150 members. At around that point, a new district forms (some say over doctrinal differences). Fascinatingly, this links to Dunbar’s Number:

Interestingly, certain sociological concepts seem to back this Amish practice of worshipping in tight-knit community.  Dunbar’s number refers to the number of individuals one can be expected to maintain workable social relationships with.  British anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that this number is connected with the size of the neocortex, an area of the brain, and thus the human capacity for maintaining social ties is limited.

The same is found with the Hutterites:

Hutterite communities follow a similar size guideline.  In Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference, a Hutterite leader comments that  ”Keeping things under 150 just seems to be the best and most efficient way to manage a group of people…When things get larger than that, people become strangers to one another.”

What might underpin Dunbar’s number (apart from supposed cortical processing constraints)? Well, perhaps it’s something to do with working together and having things in common – no doubt both in terms of practical ‘things’ (communal farm tools, etc.) and norms, etc..

The Hutterite leader goes on to explain that “In smaller groups, people are a lot closer.  They’re knit together, which is very important if you want to be effective and successful at community life…If you get too large, you don’t have enough work in common.  You don’t have enough things in common, and then you start to become strangers and that close-knit fellowship starts to get lost.” [emphasis added]

Interestingly, Lisek seems to agree that it is the rejection of market-based, individualist modes of existence that underlies the Amish’s ability to sustain community in the midst of capitalism:

It seems to me a not unreasonable assumption that the Amish social conservative lifestyle is what keeps them from displaying the pathologies common in the West.

Their ‘social conservative lifestyle’, as the quote from the Hutterite leader shows, is based around communal production and worship, not unlike many indigenous peoples around the globe. Given that it is their ‘lifestyle’ that saves them from harm then why did Lisek claim previously that modern, market-based capitalism is not the problem?

What communities like the Amish and Hutterites actually prove is how incredibly difficult it is to maintain community within a capitalist, individualist, modern market-based system. It requires, in their case, strong religious faith but, far more importantly, historically viable means of communal subsistence that are an alternative to the modern market system.

If capitalism’s effect on community is so ‘benign’ then how come long-lasting, deeply connected communities are so rare within it? And how come they have to have strong social norms not to participate in the surrounding system? What are they afraid of? Haven’t they heard that modern, market-based capitalism is no threat to community – especially for ones like theirs which so obviously have the ‘right’ deeply-held values to maintain the reality of community even in the presence of large corporations that might offer them lucrative jobs beyond their communities?

The case of the Amish proves my claim: That our variant of capitalism is a prime force for the destruction of community, family and the individual. Strong words but I think their basically accurate words.

A second point mentioned by Lisek involves sociocultural diversity and it follows from his/her discussion of the Amish. In making it, Lisek quoted from a study reported by Richard Putnam (of ‘Bowling Alone’ fame) to the effect that:

People living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down,’ that is, to pull in like a turtle,” … people ”withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more but have less faith they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.

It’s instructive to contrast this selective quotation with a rather fuller summary of the findings in the article taken from the abstract (emphasis added):

New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down’. Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer. In the long run, however, successful immigrant societies have overcome such fragmentation by creating new, cross-cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities. Illustrations of becoming comfortable with diversity are drawn from the US military, religious institutions, and earlier waves of American immigration.

So, yes, unsurprisingly people who come from different cultures and backgrounds are initially wary of each other. This is not a startling revelation. It is also not – or should not be – a startling revelation to find that as time passes, and given the stability of the situation of diversity, human beings learn that they can, indeed, trust each other, cooperate with each other and live perfectly fine lives with each other. In short, the ‘other’ becomes the ‘ordinary’.

I’ll concede, however, that ‘forced’ diversity and rapid cultural ‘diversification’ of a society are never easy. I’m afraid, however, that the culprit for most of this ‘forced’ diversity and rapid cultural ‘diversification’ is modern, market-based capitalism. Demand for cheap labour explains the presence of Mexicans in the US, Turks in Germany and an increasing Muslim presence in Holland and Sweden (amongst many other countries). Add to that the ‘blowback’ from colonialism (see the UK and France for good examples) and the reason for our modern ‘diverse’ communities clearly cannot be laid at the door of ‘lefty liberalism’ I’m afraid.

Further, the link about the Amish, above, also mentions how internally diverse their own communities are yet there’s also the point about splits over doctrinal differences. Of course, there’s diversity and then there’s diversity but, as anyone who has ever been politically active knows, some of the deepest and most emotive divisions are between those who ‘split the same hair’ rather than those who are working on completely different hairstyles altogether (the divisions within the early Christian Church over incredibly ‘minor’ theological issues are a good case in point). Group homogeneity and heterogeneity are either present or absent depending upon the level of focus.

All Amish might seem the same from the outside but, obviously, they are ‘diverse’ from within (often leading to conflict and splits). The same goes for all groups. What causes the kinds of problems noted by Putnam, and focused on by Lisek, is how circumstances ‘highlight’ some aspects or dimensions of diversity over others.It may well be, for example, that doctrinal differences may be able to be smoothed over until the group size reaches a certain point. That ‘material’ change in the circumstances then leads to those doctrinal differences resulting in communities splitting off.

It’s in ‘our nature’ to be wary of diversity, if you like, but it’s also in ‘our nature’ to only notice difference when some circumstance brings it to our attention or allows its salience to arise.

Finally, what of Thomas Sowell, especially his book “A Conflict of Visions”?

Personally, I think it’s an excellent and intriguing analysis, as I’ve implied. In many ways the dual visions refract some enduring dichotomies in Western philosophy. The poles of ’empiricism’ and ‘rationalism’ that have been present since the Ancient Greek philosophers, for example, echo – though ultimately cut across – the constrained and unconstrained visions, respectively. ‘Rationalists’ have always favoured the mind as the road to truth; empiricists, distrustful of fancy thinking have always looked to the Royal Road of the observable world as the site of our imperfect salvation.

More intriguingly, the two visions echo an utterly fundamental philosophical duality: The relationship between the actual and the possible. The constrained vision is basically Sowell’s pursuit of that distinction into the realm of ideology (whether he realises that or not). Simplistically, the constrained vision is grounded in the actual, while the unconstrained leans heavily towards the possible.

So, I not only enjoyed the book but saw it as a fascinating intellectual suggestion. It also provided me with my first coherent insight into the ideological position of people who I find myself often opposed to. Oddly, however, as I tried to show in my earlier posts, I found that I shared much (if not all) of the basic ‘constrained vision’ that Sowell documents.

This is one of the main ‘faults’ I find in the book: The way that Sowell tries to ‘line up’ the visions on either side of the issues of the day (at the time he published it) – e.g., ‘judicial activism’ (a term that means more to Americans than it does to the rest of us); spending on the military; abortion; Third World development debates, etc.. When he does this his ideological ‘slip’ starts to show. He fails to see, for example, that there is nothing in the constrained vision that would stop someone with it from arguing against a strong military because it becomes a concentration of power that is a real danger to a free society (‘military-industrial complex, anyone? And that from someone who could not be accused of having an unconstrained vision.).

It is not the visions that lean people to one side or the other on these specific issues because they can be recruited to either side depending on the particular historical circumstances and, perhaps crucially today, the ‘ideological conversation’ that is in the air. In the first part of the twentieth century conservative, ‘constrained vision’, working class people had no ideological difficulty joining socialist and communist movements around the world. The same conservative, ‘constrained vision’, working class people today, however, may well align themselves to a greater degree than they would have historically, with the right in countries like the US and UK.

You see, Sowell was reviewing the written words of Western, male, intellectuals since the Enlightenment. Yes, there is some use in dividing up such thinkers along the lines Sowell suggests, especially given his many caveats to that distinction. It is entirely another matter, however, to try to claim that ordinary people tend one way or the other (‘left’ or ‘right’) because of the visions, the ‘causal intuitions’ they possess. No, they tend to line up as a result of how their lives are going and how the lives of those around them are going.

In many ways, though, Lisek and I may have been disputing over something and nothing when it comes to these things called visions. As Sowell notes at the end of Part One of ‘A Conflict of Visions’ (p. 115 in my edition):

Inconsistent and hybrid visions make it impossible to equate constrained and unconstrained visions simply with the political left and right. Marxism epitomizes the political left, but not the unconstrained vision which is dominant among the non-Marxist left. Groups such as the libertarians also defy easy categorization, either on a left-right continuum or in terms of the constrained and unconstrained visions. While contemporary libertarians are identified with the tradition exemplified by F.A. Hayek and going back to Adam Smith, they are in another sense closer to William Godwin’s atomistic vision of society and of decision-making dominated by rationalistic individual conscience than to the more organic conceptions of society found in Smith and Hayek.

It’s good to read (good) books. They make you think.

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