The Public Good
I worry that the idea of a common good is declining. Suddenly, for example, that dour intellectual battleaxe of the 1950s, Ayn Rand, has found an enthusiastic new audience among young adults. This is the same Ayn Rand who identified self-interest as the highest good and preached that caring about others was a fake value invented by the contemptible weak as a means of hobbling the heroic strong.
Somehow, her ideas have acquired a patina of cool.
I was fulminating about all this the other day, sounding, I’m sure like the crusty old codgers of my youth. Picture skinny old men shaking their canes and yelling in high-pitched, cracked voices, “Young people today! No respect!”
My wife heard my fulminations and took me to task. “Young people are no more selfish than they ever were,” she said. “In fact, less so. Just look at websites like Kickstarter and Kiva and Indigogo, and how popular they are.” For anyone who doesn’t know, these websites let anyone seeking money for a cause connect up with people who want to donate (or loan) money to their exact cause. And it’s working. People really are getting funding for all kinds of good works, and a lot of it is coming from the young; maybe most of it.
But I never disputed the idealism. I’m not saying young people are getting more selfish. I know lots of young adults who have compassionate feelings and want to reach out. They just want to choose who they reach out to. They want their giving to reflect who they are. Helping others becomes, to some extent, an act of self-definition, self-realization. Self-expression.
Which is fine. But I’m just saying, the social compact of old offered a different proposition. It proposed that individuals relinquish their idea of themselves as the center of the universe and see themselves as smaller parts of a greater whole, a society whose collective promise was that no one would be left (entirely) behind.
At the leftist end of the axis, that compact was expressed as socialism. And when I was young, though “communist” might have been a curse word to older folks in mainstream America, calling someone a “socialist” was no worse than calling them “European.” Many young people cheerfully embraced “socialist” as a label. They saw no stigma in it. In many quarters, “socialist” had a positive connotation. It meant you believed it was right to care about the well-being of the whole society and that you had a duty to contribute to that well-being. Giving money to a beggar was fine, but it was merely charity. Fighting for a social program that would help thousands was on a higher plane, more noble, and that’s what being a socialist was all about, that struggle.
That’s the thing that’s vanishing, seems to me. In its place, rising up like swamp gas, is a notion that the whole will take care of itself if only every individual looks out for his or her own interest vigorously and competitively, giving now quarter and asking for no help. Seeking the well-being of one’s own individual self is what has glamour now.
I overheard a conversation between two twenty-somethings in a bookstore one day about an election. The guy was telling the woman that he was not going to vote for a certain candidate.
Why not? she asked. After all, the candidate had the right stand on many issues; and she went on to list positions of which she and her guy both evidently approved.
Yes, the guy admitted, “but on the other hand…” And he cited a list of issues on which the candidate was at odds with him. In fact, declared this fellow, he had decided not to vote at all, because: “There just isn’t any candidate out there who really represents ME.”
I thought about his expectation. I thought about the implication that the only candidate worth voting for is one whose preferences and positions exactly match your own. At some level (polls tell us) that is what many voters look for in a candidate now—a surrogate self: someone who “represents” them by looking, sounding, talking and thinking exactly as they do.
I have to say, I’m not one of those voters. A candidate who held exactly the same positions and preferences as me would be ineffective. And a candidate exactly like me would be a disaster. I’m good at some things, but I know I’d be no good at being president. Or vice president. Or the Senator from California. Or dogcatcher of a small town. I’m looking for someone whose positions and approaches I can approve of in the main, and who also, in my judgment, would be able to work with enough different people to effect some worthwhile changes and who could take decisive but judicious action when needed.
To me, if you’re looking for a candidate exactly like yourself, you’re looking at voting as a form of self expression.
What strikes me is the way this development in politics mirrors a modern trend driven by technology. This goes back to the algorithms that power all search engines. These identify the preferences of the person searching and offer them (the algorithm’s best guess of) what they’re looking for and also of what else they might like.
As some hi-tech professional once put it (I forget who or where) “each person who visits Amazon.com enters a bookstore visited by no other person on Earth.”
That’s because anyone with a history of purchasing books on Amazon is offered a range of books that have been selected by the search engine based on that consumer’s earlier choices. The same is true of Netflix. Pandora, Youtube, et al.
The same is true of Google: every single person who seeks information from Google gets a different set of options. When I Google the term “Egypt”, I get lots of information about the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian elections, the Arab Spring, etc. When a friend of mine Goggles the same term on her computer, she gets a list of websites about mummies, the temples at Luxor, airlines offering bargain flights to Cairo, etc.
But that’s not the worst of it. Another friend mine has enthusiastically embraced the idea of “seasteading”—of building floating cities on the ocean and declaring them sovereign countries. He tells me the idea is catching on wildly; there’s a virtual prairie fire of enthusiasm about it in the country. “Just Google seasteading,” he urged.
He said this because when he Goggles the term he gets endless lists of blogs that rave about seasteading. When I Google that term, I get sites on which people are ranting about how naive, dopey, and possibly unethical the idea is.
Here’s the creepy thing. I got these sites the first time I Googled “seasteading.” The list Google gave me wasn’t derived from choices I had previously made about this term Somehow, Google’s algorithm had an opinion about my opinion of seasteading. It turns out that Google’s algorithm has its opinion about my opinion of any topic I might look up, every topic I might ever look up.
What does this mean? To me it means that we’re slowly losing the capacity to see what the universe looks like from any place except where we are standing. As people do less and less live interacting with communities of other people in problem-solving settings—in offices, schools, town hall meetings, union sessions, conferences, and so on—and let their interactions with the world be mediated increasingly by search and information technology and its algorithms, this trend will speed up. Every person will in fact be the center of the universe.
Politically, my whole life I have been committed to the notion of a public good and to the idea that each of us has a duty to contribute to it. But that enterprise depends on a common vision that all the members of a society can enter into. Politics is partly about building that common vision. I fear for the prospects of such a politics in a world from which the very idea of a public good has vanished and nothing remains but private interests duking it out in a competition of all against all.