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Among the most common ideas I see put forth in regard to the Baltimore rioting is that “the city” has suffered from decades of neglect and that the people of Baltimore have systematically had their environment poisoned (e.g. lead paint and dirty soils), their housing crumbled (e.g. large swaths of vacated and abandoned buildings) and their labor market opportunities crushed (e.g. over 50% unemployment or worse in some parts of the city).

Leaving aside the entirely obvious fact that Baltimore has, like many American cities, been an experimental ground for the policies most favored by the progressive left (and no, the argument that “there are some policies in place that are not favored by the progressive left” does not fly – no place on Earth has 100% conformity of implementation to idealization), I’d like to air what I think are two unpopular thoughts – one perhaps for each “side” of the spectrum of ideas.

  1. My thought for the rightish side of the spectrum: suppose you were given the chance to change one or two bad policies that you believe contribute to the problems in Baltimore and other cities. For me, I would suggest that the drug war enforcement is a huge one, but I am sure others will suggest thinks like minimum wage laws, HUD policies, public schooling policies and so forth. Suppose you actually get to implement, “school vouchers” and perhaps couple that with “abolish the minimum wage.” While I am sure that at the current margin we’d see some improvement in labor market conditions and educational conditions, do you really believe that abolishing these obviously bad programs would turn Baltimore and other cities into “Shining Cities on the Hill?” I’d hate to say it folks, but I am just not at all convinced that any one or two economic policy changes would have that much of an impact. This is obviously fodder for a book length blog post.
  2. My thought for the leftish side of the spectrum: it seems that you are completely obsessed with placing blame for the plight of Baltimorians on people like me. First, as a favor to me, can you explain quite literally what I did to make the city of Baltimore so unpleasant? Of course, you might say that by my teaching of market principles (itself by the way having nothing to do with ideology any more than a medical school professor teaching circulatory principles does, but hey, why not straw man a bit more to the Kool-Aid swilling masses?) that I am contributing to a culture that systematically ignores places like Baltimore by promoting an atomistic and atavistic set of ideas (again, total Straw man – the essence of markets and even of classical liberal thought is cooperation and engagement, quite the opposite of the caricature). These arguments get very close to saying that while direct and overt signs of racism in America seem to have diminished today, that we are all subconsciously racist. That’s a handy rhetorical strategy by the way. Think of how fun it would be to apply it to other ideas. “While all of the public rhetoric of the climate community expresses that the reason we want to take aggressive measures to reduce CO2 is to improve the human condition fo r future generations, actually everyone who is interested in climate issues is unconsciously anti-human, socialist and wishes to see an end to anything resembling modern capitalism!” I like playing these games, they’re quite fun – if you want to suggest that all kinds of horrible thoughts are unconsciously expressed by us, it can’t just be the case that only people with particular world-views hold unconscious thoughts, right? If you want to suggest that, is there any science that shows that people are born this way, or that unconscious thoughts seep into only some people’s heads based on some observable (or unobservable) characteristic?So, back to my point. If you wish to continue to obsess and place blame on the plight of Baltimore on people like me, we can continue to play this game. Why are people, not right now, protesting all over America in support of the people being slaughtered in the Middle East? Why are people, not right now, protesting all over America about the unjust treatment of many South Americans and Africans by their local police, corrupt governments, and other institutions that systematically abuse, exploit, dehumanize and murder them? At best you will post some hashtag saying #Icareaboutsomefarawayplacethati’veneverthoughtaboutuntilsomeonesentanarticletomyfacebookfeed and you certainly wouldn’t be holding protests, teach-ins, or even rioting until some extraordinarily bad catastrophe hits the news. So you, and all of the citizens of Baltimore, are contributing (unconsciously of course, because you SAY otherwise) to the systematic exploitation and corrosion of lives all over the planet. You’ve allowed this to happen. Where, my dear friends of the left, are you making such arguments? The very poorest people of Baltimore are spectacularly wealthy by poor country standards. So, hey, even if you want to accuse “me and my ilk” of being responsible for Baltimore, then we are ALL responsible for the suckiness of the rest of the world. My suspicion is that I am also guilty of screwing over the world. It all has to be unconscious, because it really would be very hard to do it all on my known time.

None of this is popular of course. I have a question. My wife and I have two children, aged 9 and 7. Since I want to raise them to be socially just and conscious and all of the “correct” things, can you please help me be a better parent? First, tell me when my children themselves become responsible for all of the awful things happening to the people of Baltimore and around the world? Was it the second they were conceived? The second they were birthed? When they first spoke? And should they be “normal” good citizens from now until adulthood, at what point do they obtain obligations to “undo the systematic injustices” that have occurred in Baltimore and around the world? Should they drop out of high school to … do .. what, exactly? Should they forego majoring in engineering or marine biology (the current interests of my two kids who wish to build safer and lighter structures and to promote oceanic health) in favor of outrage studies? Of course, no one is suggesting that they dedicate 100% of their lives to activism, whatever that means, but what portion of their lives are they to dedicate to it, who says so, and exactly when do they have to start doing this? Or should they just go off and kill themselves, and me and their mother too, to purge society of current and future unconscious exploiters?

The point is that among all of the pontificating about the horrible lives that the people of Baltimore obviously live, and among all of the pontificating about whose fault it all is, there are very seriously difficult to handle questions that are either being assumed away or swept under the rug. I think thoughtful social scientists have a lot to add to the conversation if people were interested in thinking about logical, reasonable ideas, and I think thoughtful philosophers have a lot to add to the conversation if in fact we all shared a common heritage of reading and debating the Western Canon and not using any particular position as a club to impose values on others that are not universally shared.

Here are a few previous posts on our obligations in lieu of events like this. There are many more.

UPDATE: you’ll notice that I have not commented on the riots themselves or this case in particular. Part of the reason is that, well, I don’t think …, well, Interfluidity says it better than I do:

Fuck you all and your firehose of useless, self-serving, careerist punditry, your giant spotlight that cares not a whit about all the things it pretends to illuminate but will blather with equal earnestness and concern about the next thing tomorrow just like it did about the last thing yesterday and hope to get paid or praised for it all. Fuck me for adding to the noise, I barely have the stomach for it anymore.

There’s much in there and hard to excerpt, here is his ending:

We don’t know the counterfactuals. But I will say this. Although it is not thought out into policy papers, it is not tactical, it is emotional and impure and corrupt, it provokes and sustains war, and it puzzles a certain kind of economist, human affairs would be intolerable without altruistic punishment. In small matters, the fact that people will bear disproportionate costs to protest small ripoffs is essential to the integrity of everyday commerce. In larger affairs, the human propensity to altruistic punishment means we all bear costs of perceived injustice, we all have a stake in finding some mix of society and legitimating ideology under which outcomes are perceived as broadly right. We’ve been doing a bad job of that lately.

Not to trivialize this stuff, but as he was writing I was thinking both about how I and others criticize higher education – his point about emotion (I would extend it to “consumption value of higher education”) rang for me, but I was also thinking about the dozens of times in my adult life that people tell me I wear too much of my heart on my sleeve, or expect too much. In almost all of those instances I have done my very best to control the urge to say, well, some of the things said in that post. Note that my linking to the post neither confirms nor denies my condoning of any or all of it nor obviously does it confirm or deny my condoning of what is happening in Baltimore.

One Response to “Uninvited to Dinner Parties, Episode 45903759”

  1. […] promise to stop beating a dead horse soon. Reflecting on one of last week’s posts on Baltimore, two students send me two good […]

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