Choice and disruption

Freedom is the generation of choices and the ability to act on them.  We Americans consider the generation of choices to be a bringer of the good things in life.  Self-improvement, innovation, the technological miracles for which we are rightly famous, all derive from the possibility of seeing the future as different from the past.  The ability to act on the choices we have conceived is consequently held by public opinion to be an inalienable right, and enshrined in the constitution.

Choices have consequences.  The greater the number of choices allowed to a population, the greater the number of equivalent consequences that must work their way through a community and its culture.  Not all choices are wise, and the community must live with those consequences.  Not all wise choices are painless in the short term — or even, as the proliferation of pornography on the Web shows, entirely in the long term.  Yet if the choices are allowed, the pain must be absorbed somehow.

The cumulative effect is great disruption.  One must deal with a present that is very different from the past one trained and prepared for, and one must live with the stress of knowing that one’s current skills won’t necessarily carry to the future.  That is the bargain.  Self-improvement, innovation, and miraculous technology are paid for by disruption of settled habits, uneasiness, and uncertainty.

I have posted on this before.  Today the great disruption is called globalization, and it is considered by opponents and advocates alike to be identical to Americanization.  Those who resist the uneasiness caused by a multiplication of choices, whether in Paris or Buenos Aires, imagine they are battling the Great Satan.

That is only partly true, and it obscures an important problem.  No question but that the disruption roiling the world today has an American face.  While many of the disruptive gadgets are designed by the Japanese, manufactured by the Chinese, and sometimes assembled in Mexico, the enabling culture is America’s.  Globalization speaks English.

Yet we are only the flag carriers of the moment.  The process began decades before our country was founded, in England, with what was eventually christened the industrial revolution.  And anyone unfortunate enough to follow our endless presidential campaign will know that, when it comes to globalization, many Americans will match (and raise) the grumpiness of your Parisian boulevardier.  The left decries jobs fleeing to India and China; the right condemns illegal immigration and the destruction of ancient values; the uneasiness of the great disruption is felt powerfully by both.

The problem that gets ignored in the fog of anti-globalization and anti-Americanism is that of the relation between freedom and culture.  It can be boiled down to two questions.  Why should anyone reject freedom of choice, even when it brings unpleasant side effects?  Conversely, if the side effects are judged worse than the benefits of globalization, why isn’t the latter simply rejected and the old ways maintained?

Let me outline, however briefly, what I consider to be issues of fundamental importance to the future that arise from those two questions.

Nobody, I suspect, has ever rejected freedom of choice.  The idea that people in traditional or restrictive societies prefer obedience to choice strikes me as implausible.  The question is one of context.  In traditional societies, choices are embedded in a matrix of rules and limiting circumstances that infuse the decision with meaning.  In this, a traditional society resembles a modern sport, like baseball.  Consider the batter:  he has multiple choices — to swing or not at each pitch, to bunt or hit away, to hit opposite field or aim for the fences.

The batter’s decisions within the matrix of baseball rules and circumstances give his at-bat meaning.  If he were to start dancing a jig, or detonate himself in the name of Allah, that would be, in terms of baseball history, meaningless, incomprehensible.  So too the choices offered by globalization often appear meaningless and incomprehensible to the traditional societies in which they rather suddenly appear.  Such choices fall outside the community’s matrix of meaning.  Disruption and uneasiness follow.

Opposition is thus sparked not by choice as such, but by choices that lead beyond the habitual behavioral boundaries of a community.  This opposition has been ideologically fierce, and often grounded on ruthless violence.  I judge the great totalitarian movements of the twentieth century to be efforts at restricting choice within a matrix of rules.

The ideologies of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Soviet Union, Richard Overy has shown, required the invention of a cunning, seductive, and powerful enemy — the Jew and the bourgeois respectively.  A perpetual wartime morality was imposed by both regimes,  demanding self-limitation by the citizen and justifying savage purges of the body politic by state power.

The squeezing back of choice within a clear matrix of rules defines totalitarianism of every stripe.  It defines Osama bin Laden’s ideal community, which like Nazism and Marxist-Leninism is a contemporary invention rather than a return to old traditions.  Totalitarianism collapses around this paradox:  in the war against arbitrary choices, such ideologies are the most thoroughly arbitrary choices of all.

The Nazis and the Soviets failed, and I’ll venture to predict that, long-term, Islamists will fail just as abysmally.  But traditional societies are failing also.  The opposition to globalization in places like Latin America and the Arabic-speaking world is rooted in the latter’s disruptiveness, but also in a sense of its inevitability.

Choice is the apple in Eden.  It can’t be resisted.  Traditional societies work on the baseball principle:  alternate rules, or disregard of the rules, are unimaginable.  Once imagined, the meaning of the game — of the whole fabric of community life — is lost.

The American idea about the fruits of freedom is objectively correct.  A proliferation of allowed choices appears to stimulate human genius in every field, with inventions and benefits quite out of proportion to the populations involved.  Three clear examples are classical Athens, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, and America over the last century.  The civilization of the West, parent to the global civilization now in the process of difficult birth, rests almost entirely on the achievements of genius under conditions of freedom.

The results are irresistible because they are so beneficial.  People live longer, healthier lives.  They are better educated than the elites of old.  They are prosperous beyond the dreams of a Croesus.  They wear magnificent garments from the world over, and live in homes with comforts denied to monarchs just a century ago.  They travel where they wish, and communicate everywhere and at any time.  Most of all, they are free.  They marry according to their desires, and raise their families according to their lights.  Their choices, while by no means infinite, are unprecedentedly many.

As noted, all this is paid for.  Freedom isn’t really free.  We Americans, who have led the disruption and stamped our culture on it, think mostly in terms of the benefits.  People elsewhere may most keenly feel the cost.  When they do, they start to dream of alternatives.

Globalization arises at the intersection of open markets with liberal democracy.  The open markets deliver what Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction”:  new and improved living conditions, at the cost of old familiar ways.  Liberal democracy can work to attenuate the disruption, but often acts as a magnifier.  Tolerating pornography or a nihilistic political perspective may seem like lunacy rather than a right.  Allowing the election of a bully-boy — think Hugo Chavez — may feel less like democracy than its opposite.  Those exposed to such circumstances also dream of alternatives.

But short of totalitarian violence, no alternative exists.  Individuals in traditional societies don’t vote for free markets or for democracy.  They vote with their feet for better jobs, modern medical treatment, home ownership, security and better education for their children, and the leisure to enjoy the fruits of their labor.  They don’t much care about the cost, which from their perspective appears remarkably cheap.

The poor and the wretched of the earth embrace globalization the only way they can:  with their labor.  One should not minimize their miseries, and one should not pretend that these will be a temporary side-effect in each case.  But since the poorest continue to seek out the global labor markets, one must grant them the rationality of their choice.

It’s the elites in those countries that breed large populations of the poor and wretched who feel disenfranchised.  Those already wealthy and powerful discern in globalization a threat to their rule.  The artists and intellectuals, the keepers of the old culture — they are understandably the first, and often the only, to man the barricades against the multiplication of choice.  They invent or embrace new isms that will return them to Eden.  I have said that modern artists played an ignoble part in the grim battle for freedom that was the twentieth century.  This, in part, is the reason why.

But the apple of good and evil has been eaten, and there is no going back.  If the twentieth century was a bloody battle for freedom, the twenty-first will be the age of choice.  The great disruption will sweep the world, like it or not.  The advantages will be inconceivable, but there will be a cost.  The manner in which the price is paid will determine how the century is remembered.

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