Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Wishing Doesn't Make It So, Or, Wouldn't It Be Great If Everyone Had A Pony?

I've been trying to figure out for a long time why most of my critiques are directed at the contributors to Alas and similar progressive blogs. Yesterday, after reading Maia's post about how it should easy for young women to raise children, it finally clicked. The people who write for this class of blogs frequently have insightful things to say about what's wrong in the world, but then they go and tarnish their track record by screwing up the details. The following shouldn't be read as an attack against Maia specifically; she just happened to be in the right place at the right time to furnish appropriate examples. So, returning to Maia's post, I'll start by saying that I've reservations about teenagers having children, but on the whole I agree with her that the world would be a nicer place if childrearing weren't such a burden to women. But her analysis of the root cause of the problem is utterly inane:
Why does that mean that you can’t make music - and if you make music people want to listen to, why can’t they get to listen to it? The answer is, of course, ‘capitalism’.
Capitalism has nothing to do with it; the need to divert resources to the raising of children is endemic across all economic systems. A family in a closed household economy, about as far as you can get from capitalism, still has to answer the question "Who is going to raise the kids?". This reflexive blaming of capitalism for a particular social ill is unusual, being more representative of sterotypes of progressive thought than progressive thought itself, but is none-the-less a good example of the tendency to reductively attribute complex problems to a single cause. Other favorite catch-alls of this nature are racism, sexism, "the power structure" (my personal favorite), etc. It is true that these things are often contributing factors; capitalism probably exacerbates the pre-existing problem allocating person-hours to the care of children. But if such problems would still exist absent the cited influence then its inappropriate to point to that influence as the sole cause. Even if the root cause analysis is crude it's still possible to come up with a good solution to the problem. Maia's solution, such as it is, seems to be as follows:
We could organise our world so that parenting wasn’t just supported, but treated as the necessary work that it is.
This is a vague statement (a problem in itself), so its hard to tell exactly what she means. But, combined with her previous observation that "[p]arenting gets no economic resouces and no support", it seems to be calling for society as a whole to subsidize the parenting process. Again, this is an example of a common progressive response to a problem, suggesting that society should band together and "do x" without
  • Providing a rationale for why it is proper for society as a whole to do x.
  • Examining the broader implications of doing x outside the immediate domain of the problem at hand.
As an illustration of why this is bad practice, let's now consider both of the above as they relate to the proposed policy of subsidized parenting. Are there any reasons why society should make it easier to have children? From a pragmatic standpoint society may have a legitimate interest in self-perpetuation, so such a policy could be justified in the case where birth rates were unacceptably low. However, self-perpetuation isn't currently an issue in the world at large (see "population, over-"), so this rationale is a non-starter. Can the policy be justified on moral/ethical grounds? Here's where a fine, but important, distinction comes into play. Society should, as a general rule, refrain from interfering with individuals' child-bearing/-rearing in the interest of preserving individual autonomy. But the question raised by Maia's plan is not whether society should promote a policy of non-interference, but whether society has a positive duty to facilitate individuals' child-bearing/-rearing. Are people entitled to bear and raise children? In order to justify a policy of public support it becomes necessary to answer "yes" to this question. We've addressed the first point, but to do so we had to invoke a principle which isn't self-evident, that people are entitled to have kids. Why are people entitled to have children? Does Maia believe that this is axiomatic, or is it a derived result? You cannot judge the merits of Maia's proposal without filling in these relevant details. Moving on to the second point, let's accept entitlement as axiomatic; what are the implications/complications arising from this assertion? A brief list:
  • To how many people are children entitled?
  • What level of support is mandated?
  • Does a policy of public support for parenting implicitly devalue people who do not have children?
  • Can public support for parenting be reconciled with a commitment to preventing overpopulation?
These complications are non-trivial; its not immediately apparent whether the desire to support parents can be reconciled with other, equally heartfelt values. Again, the above isn't directed specifically at Maia; many of the critiques are equally applicable to other topics which I've written about in thes past. What it does demonstrate, however, is a pattern of reasoning characteristic of a particular class of progressive blogs. Contributors to these blogs are very good at spotting social disparities, but when it comes to finding solutions for these disparities they tend to treat the problem as if it exists in a vacuum. They either aren't aware of, or choose to ignore, the fact that their proposed solution must be integrated into an existing social framework. When it comes to actually integrating their solution all sorts of previously-unexamined conflicts crop up, making their solutions unworkable. It is often the case that reframing the problem can resolve at least some of those issues. For instance, Maia is concerned about the burdens that childcare imposes on parents, preventing them from leading fully actualized lives. By why limit your solution to just parents? Certainly other people deserve to live fully realize lives as well? As I've written about in the past, unless you're independently wealthy the constraints of having to work for a living often conflict with living a well-rounded life. So why not ask society to provide support for the self-actualization of each individual? By re-framing the proposed solution you've resolved some of the integration prolems. You're no longer faced with the parent/non-parent conflict. Additionally, by eliminating the link between subsidy and child-rearing you avoid the other complications on my list as well. However, but, yet, and still, you run into the problem of justification. You've replaced "people are entitled to be parents" with "people are entitled to be self-actualized". The latter in no more self-evident than the former. Which brings me to my final thought. Sometimes a solution, no matter how pleasant it would be, can't be justified. Sometimes a problem has no solution. Thinking about the details of a solution, rather than glossing them over, can identify an unworkable solution in its infancy, preventing wasted and ultimately fruitless effort. This, in turn, is beneficial to society because it allows us to focus on those problems which can be fixed.

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