Will the Push for Social Equality Undermine Social Harmony?

Politicians, political theorists, economists, and sundry social critics have offered critical comments regarding America’s present state of disharmony.

A recent book by Senator Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska), Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How To Heal, captures these critics’ apocalyptic tone. He writes: “Why are we so angry?”; “We are in crisis”; “Something is really wrong here”; “We’re literally dying of despair”; “We are doubling down on division”; “We really don’t like each other, do we?”; “our contempt unites us with other Americans who think like we do”; and “[a]t least we are not like them!

Sasse candidly admits that “[m]ost policymakers don’t seem to understand the problem—and they certainly don’t have any grand answers.” He resorts to vacant cliché: “America would be a healthier and happier place if we all agreed to set aside superficial differences more of the time, and instead struggled together.” The editor of the Claremont Review of Books, Charles Kessler, more ominously characterizes the situation Sasse describes as a “cold civil war.”

Neo-Hobbesian warfare seems a more apt characterization. Consider, for example, political theorist Francis Fukuyama’s recent book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.

The synopsis on the book’s dust jacket notes that the republican values “on which [America’s] liberal democracy is founded has increasingly been challenged by restrictive forms of [progressive] recognition and resentment based on nation, religion, sect, race, ethnicity, and gender.” One indicium of this trend is the growing use of aggressive, angry, hateful, and violent language, which has strategic value for neo-Hobbesian warfare: it softens hearts and minds by instilling fear, thereby lessening resistance to supply-side social entitlements; and it hardens demand-side resolve within factions.

Anger and hatefulness project a purposeful tone of righteousness. As the biologist and evolutionist Richard Alexander explains in The Biology of Moral Systems:

We gain by thinking we’re right, and by convincing our allies and our enemies, because of the motivation it gives us. People often seem to like this aspect of self-deception: it provides an excuse or a rationale for sinking deeper into otherwise self-deception about motives and for justifying acts that could not otherwise be justified. […] no other species has accomplished this peculiar evolutionary feat, which has led to an unprecedented level of group-against-group within-species competition. It is this competition that draws us toward strange and ominous consequences.

The economist Paul Rubin, in Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom, extends Alexander’s insight to political economy:

One relevant implication for political analysis of this self-deception is that humans (acting as individuals or as members of interest groups) wanting special favors from the government can easily convince themselves that these favors are actually in the public interest. They convince themselves that the benefits are not just for the private benefit of the interest group.

Self-deception regarding victimhood and entitlement have cash value, which loosely qualifies them as pragmatic truths. These truths self-justify pseudo-moral endeavors, righteous indignation, aggression, intimidation, anger, hatred, and violence. As Shakespeare wrote of Hamlet’s delicate condition, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”

Nemesis predictably follows hubris. Fukuyama, in an earlier book, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy, characterized America as being in an advanced state of social and political decay due to successful entitlement demands by identity groups. Social death by accretion is a recurring theme within political economy as well. The late economist Mancur Olson, in The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities, concluded that:

The common interests that all or most of the people in a nation or other jurisdiction share can draw them together, as they are drawn together when they perceive a common interest in repelling aggression. In distributional struggles, by contrast, none can gain without others losing as much or (normally) more, and this can generate resentment. Thus when special-interest groups become more important and distributional issues accordingly more significant, political life tends to be more divisive. […] The divisiveness of distributional issues, and the fact that they make relatively lasting or stable political choices less likely, can even make societies ungovernable.

Resentment and division eventually ripen into aggressive blow-back.

Restoring civility entails reversing disruptive social incentives and constraints. The overarching tradeoff is not merely between progressive Rawlsian moral equality and mundane economic efficiency, as the late economist Arthur Okun famously argued, in Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff. Rather, it is between equality and civility.

The majority of today’s pundit class overlooks this tradeoff at our peril.

James A. Montanye is a retired consulting economist in Falls Church, VA.
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