Friday, January 31, 2014

Is social libertarianism a product of elite self-interest?

Because if the heart of your social analysis, the core of your conclusion, is the idea that the homogamous new elite’s social behavior is essentially (if perhaps unknowingly) self-interested — that the pursuit of meritocratic success has led the mass upper class to “walk away without a care … from people who in other circumstances, even in the not so distant past, would have been our friends and coworkers, lovers and spouses” — then perhaps you need to apply the same cold-eyed perspective to that elite’s cultural assumptions and attitudes as well, and to the blend of laws and norms those attitudes incline its members to support.

By which I mean … is it just a coincidence that this self-interested elite holds the nearly-uniformly liberal views on social issues that it does? Is it just random that the one idea binding the post-1970s upper class together — uniting Wall Street’s Randians and Harvard’s academic socialists, a left-leaning media and a right-leaning corporate sector, the libertarians of Silicon Valley and the liberal rich of the Upper West Side — is a hostility to any kind of social conservatism, any kind of morals legislation, any kind of paternalism on issues of sex and marriage and family? Is the upper class’s social liberalism the lone case, the rare exception, where our self-segregated, self-interested elites really do have the greater good at heart? ...

Maybe so — but for the sake of argument, let’s consider the possibility that they don’t. Not infrequently in culture-war arguments, conservative complaints about liberalism’s hostility to “traditional values” (or whatever phrase you prefer) are met by the counterpoint that liberal regions of the country seem to embrace bourgeois norms more fully than conservatives communities. ... In upper class circles, liberal social values do not necessarily lead to libertinism among the people who hold them, and indeed quite often coexist with an impressive amount of personal conservatism, personal restraint.

But if we’re inclined, with [Steve Randy] Waldman, to see our elite as fundamentally self-interested, then we should ask ourselves whether the combination of personal restraint and cultural-political permissiveness might not itself be part of how this elite maintains its privileges. ...

If the path to human flourishing still mostly runs through monogamy and marriage, who benefits the most from the kind of changes that make that path less normative, less law-supported, less obvious? Well, mostly people who are embedded in communities that continue to send the kind of signals that the law and the wider culture no longer send. ...

...a community low in explicit moralism but high in social capital and social pressure, where the incentives not to date or sleep with the wrong person at the wrong time are sharpened by the immense rewards for not making personal mistakes, where divorce and single parenthood are regarded as major threats to the all-important intergenerational transfer of success, where young people are inculcated with the kind of self-control required to dabble in libertinism but not take major risks, and where the influence of a libertine culture is counteracted by the dense network of adult authority figures whose examples matter more than what you watch and read and consume. A place where the norms and rules and script don’t have to be made explicit to carry immense weight. A place where everyone understands the basic secret of success.

A place like, well, the modern meritocracy. ...

So again, if you were inclined to view all of this suspiciously, you might look at the culture industry — networks and production companies, magazines and music labels — and note that the messages it sends about sex are a kind of win-win for the class of people running it. They get to profit off various forms of exploitation directly, because sex sells and shock value attracts eyeballs. And then they also reap benefits indirectly – because the teaching they’re offering to the masses, the vision of the good life, is one that tends to ratify existing class hierarchies, by encouraging precisely the behaviors and choices that in the real world make it hard to rise and thrive. In this sense, one might suspect our cultural elites of being a little bit like the Silicon Valley parents who send their kids to computer-free schools: They don’t mind pushing the moral envelope in the shows they greenlight and the songs they produce, because they’re confident that their own kids have the sophistication required to regard Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus as amusements rather than role models, the social capital required to keep the culture’s messages at arm’s length.

Now do I actually think there’s some kind of elite-liberal cultural conspiracy to keep the masses in their social place? No, of course not – there’s nothing so conscious and cynical at work. But then again, neither do I think there’s a meritocratic conspiracy to withdraw into walkable-urban enclaves and leave the rest of society to fragment and decay. Yet that withdrawal and its consequences are still important facts for understanding the decline of marriage, just as Waldman says. An approach to life doesn’t have to be calculated to be effectively self-interested, and in the context of a stratified country that self-interest is well worth pointing out. ...

And it is still a fact that if you tallied up winners and losers from the sexual revolution, the obvious winners would tend to cluster at one end of 1975’s income distribution, the obvious losers at the other.