Economy & Business

A Time for Choosing, Still

Workers install Waterford Crystal triangles on the Times Square New Year’s Eve Ball on the roof of One Times Square in Manhattan, December 27, 2018. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
There is a world of miracles out there, and a darker one, too.

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of clicking a link to a video or a news story and taking a second to realize that what you’re seeing is real life — life as we knew it in 2018: Boston Dynamics and its dancing robots, drones delivering vaccines to children in remote areas, MIT and its brain-controlled prosthetics for amputees. SpaceX nails the landing — holy smoke.

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of clicking a link to a video or a news story and taking a second to realize that what you’re seeing is real life — life as we knew it in 2018: horrifying hunger in Yemen and South Sudan; police-state repression in Venezuela and North Korea; migrants in Libya captured like animals and sold as slaves; monarchies that still take themselves seriously.

It is astonishing that these things exist in the world; it is inexplicable that they exist in the same world. And it’s a small world: If you want to see what conditions on the ground are like in Kazakhstan, it’s only a click away. “How do people live like that?” we wonder, even as the hungry souls reaching out to embrace us from the other side of that observation see San Francisco or Miami and ask the same thing.

We know what Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, thought about this: “To seek ‘causes’ of poverty . . . is an intellectual dead end, because poverty has no causes. Only prosperity has causes.”

What causes prosperity? It seems like a ridiculous question: If we know what causes prosperity, why is there any poverty? Who would choose poverty? Even the wealthiest people in poor societies, the ones who are never obliged to lift anything heavier than champagne, still must live in poor societies, and suffer the ugliness and stagnation of general poverty even if they escape the direst consequences of personal poverty. There’s a reason why all that residential real estate in New York City and London got bid up over the past couple decades, and it isn’t that the people in Southern California finally discovered the unique charms of Staten Island. It’s because even the wealthiest people — especially the wealthiest people — in the backward countries would rather live where there’s a Whole Foods and reasonably clean sidewalks, and where they are not always living one economic downturn away from Red October. It’s not like the oligarchs in China don’t know the history of their own country.

In the 1990s, we came to believe, if only for a couple of years, that “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” had been replaced by Moore’s Law, the observation that the computing power practically available doubles roughly every two years. Everything that Moore’s Law touched got better and cheaper every year — and it continues to do so. This has produced radical changes in how we live: Twelve years ago, there was no such thing as a smartphone, much less was there the omnipresence of handheld screens that distinguishes (and in part disfigures) life in the developed world in 2018. But Moore’s Law is not a force of nature, and it is not the case that our items of technology and our manufactured goods must get better, less expensive, and more widely available every year. They do, but they don’t just.

The miracle of modern life — modern life itself, really — has one ultimate source: the division of labor. The division of labor is not just a term from a dusty undergraduate economics textbook — it is the secret sauce, the fuel in the rocket engine of capitalist development that has transformed our world. It took about 66 years go to from Kitty Hawk to Neil Armstrong landing on the moon — Jeff Goldblum is 66 years old. In the course of one Goldblum — one Goldblum so far — we went from standing on the Earth and wondering about the moon to standing on the moon and observing the Earth.

And nobody did that. An enormous number of people each did a little part.

Because of the division of labor, the people who are searching for a cure for HIV do not have to spend their days baking their own bread — or growing their own wheat, grinding it into flour, gathering the rest of the ingredients, and then, finally, if they haven’t starved to death in the interim, baking their own bread. We like to say that “all work has dignity,” and that is true, and worth remembering. But it is a much more profound observation when understood in the context of human effort as a whole: The team that cures HIV will go to Stockholm to collect the Nobel prize, but the guy who delivered their late-night pizzas, the Uber driver, the police officer, the crew that fixed the potholes in the roads, the laborers who framed and roofed their houses and laboratory buildings — they all play a part. The work we do, no matter how seemingly unexceptional, is what makes the life we live together — this remarkable, wondrous life — possible.

For some people, that’s a petty point about paying taxes. “You didn’t build that!” as the teacup totalitarians like to say. “Government,” they say, is just the name we give to the things we do together, but, in reality, government is only a minor part of what we do together, and far from the most important. We always emphasize the competitive nature of capitalism, and that competition is important in that it provides the means by which capital is allocated to its most effective uses. But that competition is not an end — it is the means to the much more significant project of enabling human cooperation on a scale that had been unimaginable until the day before yesterday.

Government is a small part of that, and politics is — in theory — only a small part of government.

Small, but not insignificant. The function of the state is to protect property. Another way of saying the same thing is that the function of the state is to secure the conditions under which the division of labor may take place. That means protecting the physical security of our possessions and persons, operating courts and other systems of dispute resolution that keep us from descending into mob rule and vendetta justice, and providing such other public goods as are necessary to keeping the peace domestically and would-be marauders at bay.

That isn’t so much, really — but why is it that so few societies manage it? With the exception of the English-speaking countries and a few happy communes such as Switzerland, most of the world — including much of Europe — has been subjected to barbarism and despotism within living memory. Spain, Portugal, and Greece all have been in the grips of fascist dictatorships during my short lifetime. Those are normal countries, places where sun-seekers might go on vacation, not malarial hellholes in places we don’t think about very much.

How is that possible? It is possible because, contra the good-natured delusions of President George W. Bush, it is not the case that the desire for freedom beats in every human heart. Some human hearts harbor darker stuff, and many of them are willing to pay a high price in the service of their dark appetites. It’s not like the men who rule Venezuela and North Korea don’t know why they’re poor.

And it’s not like we don’t know what made us rich and blessed us with relative domestic tranquility. But we happy Americans are not immune from the darker desires. We have not been liberated from hatred, envy, or resentment, and we are just dumb enough to act on those impulses, politically, every now and then.

There is a world of miracles out there: Global poverty has been plunging for decades, medical advances have come at a remarkable pace, and while we never got those flying cars, we have robots that are far more advanced than in the dreams of science fiction only a few decades ago. There’s another world out there, too, one that is hungry and miserable, full of violence, vendetta societies organized not around human cooperation but instead dedicated to punishing and humiliating real and perceived enemies, even at great cost to the punishers and humiliators, who must of course punish and humiliate themselves along with their enemies. How proud is Pakistan, really? I guess they showed those Hindus a thing or two, maybe, but nobody gets up in the morning thinking: “I wish my country were more like Pakistan!” Not Pakistanis, surely.

Ronald Reagan famously laid out the challenge: “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness.”

That speech was called “A Time for Choosing.” This, too, is a time for choosing. It always is.

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