Last Friday, I made a point that much of our difficulties in modernity come from a bad starting point. We begin from shaky foundations, and then try to keep compensating for the issues that inevitably arise:
I have described the various schools of economics as a set of increasingly dazzling castles built on a foundation of sand. Whenever the tide comes, whenever crisis occurs, different groups bicker about where to build more support beams to ensure the castle doesn't collapse. There is never a discussion about abandoning the perpetually-at-risk-of-collapsing castle, salvaging what you can, and moving to build a new foundation on more stable ground. After all, the castle is quite comfortable.
So why do we have these foundations in the first place if they’re so shaky?
First, we should understand that our foundations tend to stand above rational consideration (perhaps they are what makes rational consideration even possible). That does not mean they can't be changed: our values exist in a web and play a role in justifying each other, which is why our foundational values can be "overruled" given sufficient weight from other values we hold.
Second, our foundations are akin to the water that fish are immersed in, yet unaware of. Whether that is through socialization, narratives, or inborn tendencies, we all have developed our maps of the World and accept/reject information (at least in part) based on its compatibility with this pre-existing map:
Inside of our heads, we assimilate (or reject) information into our mental model of the world. Each one of us does this. We construct a mental map of how the World truly is, and we then judge further experiences based on that mental map.
And so, I already have my Truth before I encounter a new event. I may not be consciously aware of this, but there is information that can be assimilated and information that must be rejected…
Which brings us to our third and final point: I want to emphasize the phrase , “the castle is quite comfortable,” that I mentioned earlier. Because the foundations make us feel good, we decide that we would rather bend ourselves into pretzels trying to figure out ways to make all the pieces of our beliefs fit together. Of course, the tide cares not about our futile flailing against the inevitable: if the foundation is shaky, it will all come crashing down eventually.
But it is crucial to understand that we typically resist attempts to change our foundational values because that feels bad. The terror of an existential crisis awaits those who admit their castle is swaying side to side.
And so, we arrive at yet another delusion: that you can "have it all."
I'm not here to give you a lecture on opportunity costs, even if that would be a better use of my econ degree than me rambling on here about my thoughts. Instead, I want to discuss two elements of this delusion, how they piece together, and how the (arguably quite justified) sentiment that supports the delusion is also at the core of a variety of other ideological beliefs.
"You Can Have it All" is a Justificatory Veneer for the System
This goes without saying: If you genuinely can "have it all," then the fact you don't must be a personal failing and not a systemic issue. You can see this in the American Dream/Bootstraps/Hard Work ethos/mythos that is so common in the United States. If you can have it all, it means anyone can make it. If you can have it all, it means the system is working.
This is a central component of the legitimization scheme of our society. Remember that every power structure legitimizes itself through an ideology:
The overlaid ideology truly transfigures the power structure: the structure transforms from a brute fact to a legitimate system, justified by a higher ‘Good’ than mere Power.
Is it any surprise that the people who most strongly believe in the American Dream/Bootstraps/Hard Work mythos are the same ones that believe that "liberal democratic free-market capitalism" is the ideal system? (It shouldn't be)
"You can have it all" necessarily begs the question "all what?" Perhaps it is the ability to have a career and children without having to do 18 hours of work a day. Perhaps it means being able to travel the world. Perhaps it means simply being able to go to the grocery store and not have to worry if the coupons you brought will let you get what you want this time.
Of course, some people can juggle career and children (with the help of a nanny, etc.), travel wherever they wish at any time, and go to any store and buy what they like without looking at the price tag.
If you notice the common thread here, it is that "having it all" in our society generally means being able to do what you want, without constraints. It is not being able to do any of the things listed above, but being able to choose between all of them, and do whichever one you desire. It is, in effect, the same autonomy-centered incoherence that we see everywhere. That isn't particularly surprising, but here I want to delve a bit into a particular incoherent aspect of our Liberal thought: how freedom demands equality, and how getting there necessarily undermines both.
Part 1: Equality of Opportunity = Equality of Outcome
What does "equality of opportunity" mean? Well, obviously two people have equal opportunities if they are both provided with equal quality education, parenting, peer groups, childhoods, etc. Any meaningful equality of opportunity demands, well, equality.
The idea with equality of opportunity that makes it more palatable to people is that equality of opportunity will eliminate any unearned advantages people have and that any differences at the end of the time period will be due to differences in talent x hard work. That's all well and good, but what about the next generation? What happens if we set the playing field level in generation 1, and then all those people start having kids and we get generation 2. Well, certainly, some kids in generation 2 will be born into less well-off families and areas than other kids will be. If you want equality of opportunity to persist for longer than a single generation, you have to equalize the playing field constantly.
Part 2: How Freedom Demands Equality (and then explodes)
Let's expand on that "unearned advantages" point. In general, we see a mindset that perceives profiting off of something you didn't work for to be "unearned" and therefore "unjust." Now I want you to consider what happens when we take this fairly common mindset (seen everywhere from Adam Smith's opposition to rent-seeking all the way up to today's Woke people demanding that "whiteness" and all of its advantages be renounced), and combine it with the other fairly common mindset that autonomy is a good thing.
Of course, being constrained economically limits my autonomy (see the examples above). But see here is the issue: any kind of difference that isn't chosen can be seen as limiting autonomy (or at the very least limiting our "self-respect" which is tied closely to autonomy):
Constitutional scholar Kenneth Karst draws on Rawls (who identifies self-respect as "the main primary good" in his A Theory of Justice) and explicitly ties equality to autonomy. In his mind, the substantive core of the equal protection clause is that equal citizenship demands society treats all people with respect and dignity. For Karst, when individuals perceive an inequality as an index of their personal worth, their primary good of self-respect is damaged and diminished. (If this sounds like "Social Justice" to you, well,....yeah). Karst, who wrote on many issues of women's rights, argued that equal citizenship does not contain a specific right to contraceptives or abortion, but rather a "right to take responsibility for choosing one's own future".
The Supreme Court endorsed this rationale in Casey:
"The ability of women to participate equally in the economy and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives."
What we are trying to say here is simple: if you truly believe in autonomy, and you believe that all people deserve autonomy, then you necessarily must endorse some degree of equality, especially economic equality. This is, of course, why your typical left-anarchist is more coherent than your typical right-anarchist. They at the very least understand that a genuine commitment to autonomy demands a full commitment to equality. And so long as autonomy is entirely undefined, so long as you refuse any limitations on your "freedom", you must endorse a similarly all-encompassing equality.
Of course, as you may have guessed, the left-anarkiddie is still wrong because the only way you can enforce this kind of equality is with a strong state. Assuming you believe in autonomy, this of course destroys that. So, you get autonomy demands equality which demands a strong State which destroys autonomy. Caught in quite the bind, aren't we. (And anarkiddie explanations of spontaneous cooperation in a world rife with conflict for millennia don't really move me)
The Way Out of our Bind
The solution is simple: a substantive ethics instead of a voluntarist one. Rather than the alluring but formless void of "autonomy"/"freedom", we should provide a far more substantive answer to what all refers to in "You can have it all." Perhaps that means the ability to raise a family. Maybe we should turn back to Adam Smith's claim that the minimum possible wage should be enough for a single worker to support himself, his spouse, and 2 children.
Ultimately, autonomy/freedom as the basis for a moral stance must be defeated. And that means that our notions of "you can have it all" cannot be "you can reach a stage in life where you can do whatever you want." We need to develop clearer and more meaningful pathways towards good lives for people to achieve. Raging against reality will do nothing, but sentence more and more people to a life without living. We cannot accept this.