2013-05-15

Virtue Versus Policy

Somehow I overlooked this Tyler Cowen post, a comparison between "the culture" of guns to "the culture" of alcohol.

It is interesting to readers of Stationary Waves readers first because it further highlights what I have previously identified (here and here) as a growing temperance movement in America. Given all the favorable things Cowen has to say about Mormons (and, indeed, he does it again in this post), I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to discover that he opposes alcohol consumption, but surprised I was, nonetheless.

Being a fairly harsh critic of recreational drug use (and all other aspects of Whore Culture) myself, one might expect me to agree with Cowen here. I do not. The original temperance movement in the United States was thoroughly discredited when its policies failed on all fronts. Not only did the ban fail to prevent alcohol consumption, it caused both violent crime and accidental death; the net effects of temperance were much worse than the effects of a nation of drinkers. Of course, the failures of temperance don't validate alcohol consumption, they merely demonstrate that temperance is self-refuting.

In truth, I suspect that any activity that is such a ubiquitous part of the human experience is something that we must all live with. It's true that alcohol causes a lot of misery. It's also true that red wine improves insulin sensitivity, lowers blood pressure, improves heart health, and can alleviate stress if consumed in moderation. Cowen acknowledges that there is such a thing as responsible alcohol consumption (and gun ownership):
Guns, like alcohol, have many legitimate uses, and they are enjoyed by many people in a responsible manner.  In both cases, there is an elite which has absolutely no problems handling the institution in question, but still there is the question of whether the nation really can have such bifurcated social norms, namely one set of standards for the elite and another set for everybody else.
I have to question his implied preference, however. The solution to our having "bifurcated social norms" is not to legally mandate a third set of norms that force everyone into sub-optimality. Similarly, that some children play well with others while other children do not is certainly no argument against socializing children.

More importantly, why does Cowen consider it more viable to promote temperance among 100% of the population than to promote more responsible drinking among 50% of the population?

***

On a more positive note, Cowen does acknowledge the fact that an outright ban was not a productive way of dealing with alcohol. He writes, "It is obvious to me that alcohol is one of the great social evils and when I read the writings of the prohibitionists, while I don’t agree with their legal remedies, their arguments make sense to me."

This is the second aspect of the post that makes it of interest to readers of Stationary Waves. Cowen's proposed solution to such problems exists outside the scope of governmental policy. He would like to see society tackle certain problems, but he does not want society to do so with new laws.

So, while I might quibble with Cowen about his thoughts on the demerits of alcohol, I have no objection to his solution. This is how decent people can coexist despite their having strong disagreements with each other. When we resist the urge to bring the heavy arm of government down on our adversaries, we foster a live-and-let-live environment of persuasive dialogue. There is no doubt in my mind that Cowen and I could calmly and rationally discuss guns or alcohol face-to-face over a cup of something Cowen does drink. We would not walk away hating each other.

On a similar note, I have a friend and faithful reader, DA, who is happy and capable of discussing any political issue with me calmly and rationally. Together, we build a sense of mutual respect even when discussing the things about which we are most passionate. How is this possible? Well, thus far neither of us has called the cops on the other...

Ayn Rand wrote that "morality ends where a gun begins." I doubt that even the most passionate leftist would disagree with her there.

The point is simply this: In a world were people prefer to debate and persuade, human relationships are rich and mostly positive. By contrast, a world in which all philosophical disagreements are settled by Johnny Long-Arm, we are all deeply resentful of each other. Paul resents Peter because the Peters of the world made it impossible for Paul to get a drink. Peter resents Paul because the Pauls of the world made it impossible for Peter to own a gun. Jack resents Jimmy because Jimmy supported an increase in Jack's taxes. Jimmy resents Jack because Jack supported a decrease in Jimmy's welfare check. And so on...

As I have already noted, on average, we oppose everything. That has a greater impact on human relationships than it does on individual liberty. Or perhaps a better way to say that is that our obsession with passing ever-more laws to address social problems has the effect of undermining both personal freedom and the social order.

***

Thus, I believe government overreach is a problem for both individualists and collectivists. Incredibly, the optimal solution is precisely the one Tyler Cowen overlooked in his blog post. Confronted with a bifurcated society that has opposing standards, the optimum is not reached by promoting a solution that nullifies both standards. Rather, the solution is calmly relax, step back, and acknowledge the simple truths that permeate all moral issues:

Despite the awesome power of government, we cannot ultimately prevent unethical behavior or punish it in such away that everyone walks away satisfied.

Allowing people the autonomy to make their own decisions, even when we disagree, creates an environment of mutual respect.

Some disagreements - especially moral ones - can never be "solved" with a single, one-size-fits-all solution.

Above all, life is complex.