Summer Woolly Mammoth Moon
Installing solar panels, 2015
Here’s a surprisingly existential sentence from economic journalist, Annie Lowrey, “The way things are is really the way we choose for them to be,” she writes. Her new book, “Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World” (Crown),is considered as part of a New Yorker article, “Who Really Stands to Win from Universal Basic Income?”
UBI is an interesting idea, made more interesting by Nathan Heller who offers a good summary of its possibilities and pitfalls, and I recommend the read; but, I’m much more taken by that single sentence of Lowrey’s. Lowrey is, as Heller says, a policy person, so her comment in this instance refers to our economic reality. Our economic life is not a divine endowment from a class loving God, rather it is the sum of choices we make as a people, choices reflected in our laws, our deference to the wealthy, our moralizing (Calvinist driven in large part) of personal income and wealth (more, better person, less, worse person), even the choices we make as consumers. In sum we live in a created society, one that we can choose to recreate or even uncreate.
Why are we so reluctant to recognize that racism, sexism, homelessness, income inequality, white fear are the result of decisions we’ve made collectively and individually? I think the answer lies in ideas Arthur Brooks identifies as the bedrocks of conservative thought. Below is a portion of that article, Republican or Conservative: You Have to Choose.* NYT, June 25, 2018. Though it may surprise readers of this blog, I have considerable sympathy for these ideas.
They challenge the Lockean idea of a social contract among independent actors, a notion at best abstracted from common life. They challenge the fabric of a liberal political worldview. I agree that we are not wholly autonomous individuals. Heidegger’s notion of thrownness underlines this point by reminding us that our life begins in a particular time, in a particular place and in particular circumstances over which we had no choice whatsoever. Brooks says something similar, “…individuals emerge out of families, communities, faiths, neighborhoods and nations.” To this point, I’m with him. There are unique realities that shape us.
But, to sacralize that unique reality, “…conservatives have always placed tremendous emphasis on the sacred space where individuals are formed.” says Brooks, serves to deny its perniciousness, its damning of so many to lives of desperation, marginalized from both economic and cultural blessings. Once we emerge in the era, the family, the town or neighborhood or rural place, the religious or areligious space gifted to us, the nation of our birth, once we are over being thrown into circumstances beyond our volition, we gain the power of choice.
It is decidedly not the case that though thrownness may come first, as Brooks says “The order comes first.” that “…individual freedom is an artifact of that order.” No. Order is neutral, neither a moral good, nor a moral constraint. If the order into which we are born nourishes lives, lifts people into their best possible existence, then, yes, let’s sustain it. If, however, the order into which we are born is itself pernicious, damning us to poor education, inadequate nutrition, a lifetime of social doubts about our worth, then we must recognize the truth of Lowrey’s wonderful encapsulation of the liberal perspective: “The way things are is really the way we choose for them to be.”
*”Conservatives said we…think you’ve got human nature wrong. There never was such a thing as an autonomous, free individual who could gather with others to create order. Rather, individuals emerge out of families, communities, faiths, neighborhoods and nations. The order comes first. Individual freedom is an artifact of that order.
The practical upshot is that conservatives have always placed tremendous emphasis on the sacred space where individuals are formed. This space is populated by institutions like the family, religion, the local community, the local culture, the arts, the schools, literature and the manners that govern everyday life.
Membership in these institutions is not established by rational choice. We are born into them most of the time and are bonded to them by prerational cords of sympathy and affection. We gratefully inherit these institutions from our ancestors, we steward them and pass them along to our descendants.”