John Jay’s latest article, Whatever Hits the Fan is Never Evenly Distributed, explores the nature of social progress and conservatism. He opens it with a passage from from an interview with a Japanese Colonel Sumi, “talking about how the WWII generation wasted the gains of the Meiji and Russo-Japanese war generations”:
When a man is bringing up a household he has to be capable enough himself, and work hard. This is true in business or any other activity. Whereas the father starts from scratch, the second generation doesn’t have to work so hard or have to face such travails. Still the son knows how hard the father struggled, and is able to carry on the business. Then comes the third generation boy, with no recollection of the difficult life of his father or grandfather. The grandson is very well educated, extremely cultured and sophisticated. He is superb in calligraphy and uses it to paint a sign: “House for rent”
John Jay notes that “in medieval times this was called the wheel of fortune,” and it seems to apply to societies as well as families:
If I take a step or two back and look at recorded history with a macro view, I get the feeling that the fact that mankind has an extremely short recorded and civilized history relative to our species’ past is extremely important. Each generation of a successful society (prior to the modern world) wasn’t quite sure what parts of its culture contributed to its success, so it clung to tradition like a security blanket. That kept society going, but it perpetuated some ugly habits, too. We cling to some counter-productive habits, such as racism and sexism, but in their day, when other automatically meant danger, and when large numbers of women who didn’t produce lots of kids meant societal death, those were survival traits.
We are slowly casting off the bad habits of millennia, habits developed to defend against societal death in an age of scarcity, famine, and unpredictable natural and man-made disasters. Some of those habits are retarding progress in our modern world, and some are part of the over-stressed glue that holds us together. Trouble is, because of our limitations in making dynamic models that include a temporal dimension, we can’t always predict the effect of eliminating a habit of thought.
So, as Zenpundit pointed out, the opposite of progress can happen, too, when societies get to the third generation outlined by the Japanese Colonel, and decide to do away with all those notions to which the old fogies cling, forgetting that the experiences of the previous generation shape the next one – change the experience of your kids’ generation, and the grandkids may well grow up wild. The modern West, especially the generation of ’68, has assumed that the material success it enjoyed was either accidental or inevitable, and so set about dismantling social constructs that did not meet the approval of the avant garde, sometimes finding out the forgotten reasons for creating those ancient constructs when things fell apart.
He cites a long passage from Jane Galt’s really, really, really long post about gay marriage that does not, in the end, support one side or the other:
Marriage, it turns out, is an incredibly important institution. It also turns out to be a lot more fragile than we thought back then. It looked, to those extremely smart and well-meaning welfare reformers, practically unshakeable; the idea that it could be undone by something as simple as enabling women to have children without husbands, seemed ludicrous. Its cultural underpinnings were far too firm. Why would a woman choose such a hard road? It seemed self-evident that the only unwed mothers claiming benefits would be the ones pushed there by terrible circumstance.
This argument is compelling and logical. I would never become an unwed welfare mother, even if benefits were a great deal higher than they are now. It seems crazy to even suggest that one would bear a child out of wedlock for $567 a month. Indeed, to this day, I find the reformist side much more persuasive than the conservative side, except for one thing, which is that the conservatives turned out to be right. In fact, they turned out to be even more right than they suspected; they were predicting upticks in illegitimacy that were much more modest than what actually occurred – they expected marriage rates to suffer, not collapse.
How did people go so badly wrong? Well, to start with, they fell into the basic fallacy that economists are so well acquainted with: they thought about themselves instead of the marginal case. For another, they completely failed to realize that each additional illegitimate birth would, in effect, slightly destigmatise the next one. They assigned men very little agency, failing to predict that women willing to forgo marriage would essentially become unwelcome competition for women who weren’t, and that as the numbers changed, that competition might push the marriage market towards unwelcome outcomes. They failed to forsee the confounding effect that the birth control pill would have on sexual mores.
But I think the core problems are two. The first is that they looked only at individuals, and took institutions as a given. That is, they looked at all the cultural pressure to marry, and assumed that that would be a countervailing force powerful enough to overcome the new financial incentives for out-of-wedlock births. They failed to see the institution as dynamic. It wasn’t a simple matter of two forces: cultural pressure to marry, financial freedom not to, arrayed against each other; those forces had a complex interplay, and when you changed one, you changed the other.
One last excerpt:
Most modern people take material progress for granted. Many on the Left see something wrong, and they want it corrected right now. They rarely ask more than rudimentary questions about how things got to be this way, and their mental models are usually lacking a time dimension. This is why I have such a huge problem with the historical revisionists who want to emphasize the slave-holding hypocrisy of many of the founding fathers or this or that other historical habit that offends modern sensibilities. It’s a form of temporal bigotry. American society of 1789 produced the children who became abolitionists of 1859. Why? Because those later generations had been given enough of a material advantage to be able to consider questions of morality. But they also carried on the traditions of their fathers, making them better. They had been given language in their political documents such as “all men are created equal”, and it fell to that later generation to begin to question the definition of “man”. But facing the slavery question head-on in 1789 would have destroyed the nascent confederation before it had time to grow abolitionists. I can celebrate the achievements of the generation of 1789 without buying in to their entire worldview.
Read the whole article.