Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Important statement about (modern) American society from David Brooks in his latest column.

Social support and community building are critical to a society's development. Given the dissolution of traditional norms and structures during the process of modernization (see "anomie"), we need to find new forms of association that provide support and moral guidance, and allow children to grow up in stable, healthy conditions with access to education.

Okay, I probably sound kind of conservative and/or Confucian and/or Singaporean, but I'm recognizing more and more that it's not just personal freedoms or market freedoms that matter in being able to live a good life. The form of community in which we live, and the education we receive when we are growing up (both inside and outside the classroom) also play a crucial role.

As David Brooks points out, the two political parties are focusing on material gains instead of looking at key social questions afflicting America. It's not the hot button social issues we should be looking at (abortion, marriage equality, stem cell research), but more basic concepts like family integrity and humanistic values (like not being greedy and materialistic; caring for others, not just oneself). Aside from the individual, there is the family as the basic building block of society, as well as the larger neighborhood/community/networks of care setting norms and expectations and helping to maintain them.

The "materialistic ethos" of both political parties means they're focusing too exclusively on economic questions without understanding the social context in which they sit. For example, Brooks finds that the Democrats now emphasize "reducing inequality instead of expanding opportunity. Its policy prescriptions begin (and sometimes end) with raising taxes on the rich. This makes you feel better if you detest all the greed-heads who went into finance. [Admittedly there's something satisfying about this.] It does nothing to address those social factors, like family breakdown, that help explain why American skills have not kept up with technological change. If President Obama is really serious about restoring American economic dynamism, he needs an aggressive two-pronged approach: More economic freedom combined with more social structure; more competition combined with more support."

Without looking at human beings as part of the equation, and in particular, considering human beings as moral, communal and spiritual beings with beliefs and ideals and worldviews -- then the economics-only approach, the technical-engineering-only approach, the "install the hand pumps-but-ignore-the-programmatic-side" approach, will not be sufficient to right our society. This doesn't mean we can't use numerical metrics to look at social support and evaluate progress. But without countenancing norms and ideas, we are ignoring something fundamental in society.

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