The Stranger Problem

Have we been too successful at insulating ourselves from harm, and from one another?

The purpose of government is to make it safe for human beings to deal with strangers. We don’t need the state to regulate our interactions with people we know and trust, but the same cannot be said about our interactions with those outside our circle of acquaintance. Knowing my family and my friends as well as I do, I can be confident that they would not try to hurt me, steal from me, or do me any kind of harm. I can also be confident that if any among them were to do me harm, my grievance would get a fair hearing among the others in my circle. But none of this obtains when I step out of my circle of acquaintances and into the broader world. Walking in the middle of a city or along a sidewalk, I have no idea whether the strangers I see are saints or sinners. I do not know if they harbor good or ill intentions toward me, or if they harbor any at all.

In order to make this perilous situation of mutual estrangement palatable, governments are instituted among men. At least in their classically liberal form, governments make the same conditional threats of violence against everyone in society, which allows all of us to relax in the presence of strangers. Knowing that the penalty for theft is unpleasant, we content ourselves with the fact that the strangers walking past us as we carry our shopping bags are unlikely to risk incurring this penalty. Undoubtedly, we also factor in a baseline expectation of goodwill from strangers as well in civilized countries, but few would be willing to trust their safety to such goodwill alone absent the rule of law. Ultimately, there is a set of rules by which all are expected to conduct themselves, and failure so to do results in punitive consequences. Governments allow us to trust our safety to the self-interest of strangers, whereas anarchy puts us at the mercy of their goodwill.

Markets — which are, after all, creations of governments — take this process one step further. Whereas basic laws of self-preservation (against murder, theft, etc.) make it safe to deal with strangers, markets actually allow strangers to look after one another. The price system allows us to freely exchange goods with those who are not our immediate friends or acquaintances. In today’s globalized economy, even the most basic household items are often the product of a dizzying amount of cooperation that habitually crisscrosses entire continents several times over. To buy a book from Amazon you don’t have to meet and make friends with the author, the editor, the printer, the publisher, Jeff Bezos, or the mailman. All can remain strangers to you while at the same time providing you with the good or service you’re after.

Governments and markets, then, are two steps in a process of managing the idea of the stranger in society. Government neutralizes the threat of strangers, and markets allow strangers to care for one another’s material needs. But is it possible for this dual process to be too successful? We in the West appear to be reaching a stage in our economic development at which it is not only safe to deal with strangers, and profitable to deal with strangers, but also sufficient to deal with strangers. We have fewer and fewer needs that compel us to associate and cooperate with one another face-to-face in order to meet them. The welfare state and technological capitalism are both designed to make the individual less and less dependent upon the people around him who know him personally, and more and more dependent upon abstract and faceless entities to whom he is an equally faceless customer or recipient. As I wrote earlier this month in a different context:

The Democratic Party appears increasingly to want the federal government, the faceless benefactor of the redistributive state, to meet all of our individual material needs. The starkest example of this Democratic impulse was Barack Obama’s infamous Life of Julia — the government as spouse, provider, babysitter, and guardian for every citizen. No need to look to your neighbor for anything.

Meanwhile, the technological capitalism championed by the Right is becoming increasingly adept at meeting all of our material needs more efficiently than any government program. The faceless benefactor of big business supplies us with everything we need. No need to look to your neighbor for anything.

In short, the shared, bipartisan aim of our political economy appears to be the increasing estrangement of each from all.

All of this is especially salient in light of Lyman Stone’s recent report on the replacement of American community life, which was released at the end of last month by the American Enterprise Institute. As one might expect, Stone finds that “Americans are spending less and less time together. This decline is most severe among younger Americans. Time spent with friends among people under age 30 is down almost 40 percent since 2005, but only down about 15 percent among those over age 60.” The two major culprits he singles out, technological innovation and the welfare state, accord well with the analysis I offered above of two rival economic strategies — the business innovation championed by the Right and the welfarism championed by the Left — both tending toward a social climate of heightened estrangement and anomie:

Most of the change in associational life can be attributed to essentially one factor: technological improvements leading to a higher standard of living. A wealthier society provides more benefits via the state instead of private organizations, even as the invention of radio and television displaced many traditional information networks.

A lot of the problems that compelled human beings to associate with one another in the past have been solved instead either by commercially available commodities or by improved public services. As Yuval Levin has often pointed out during the course of his work on institutions, people do not form associations simply for the sake of it; they form associations in order to do something — to accomplish some task or another. Much of the work that associations carried out in the past is simply carried out by other organs today. As Stone points out, many of the fraternal societies that were so common in America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries functioned as little more than news centers where members could learn from others about the events and gossip of the day. The advent of 24-hour news networks and social media has made this function redundant.

As a result of the aforementioned technological advances and welfare expansion, Americans are now filling their time with one pursuit above all others — sports. Whether as spectators or participants, Americans are organizing their lives increasingly around sports as other forms of association fall by the wayside.

Despite a widespread intuition to the contrary, sports appear to do little, if anything, to improve or preserve the social fabric of society. As Stone writes:

In 1987, the GSS [General Social Survey] asked members of 15 different kinds of groups if that group “tries to solve individual or community problems.” For fraternal groups, 84 percent of members said yes. For professional societies, 69 percent. For labor unions, 66 percent. Only 36 percent of members of sports clubs said their clubs tried to do anything to solve individual or community problems, the lowest response of any group category besides “hobby clubs.”

This is striking, because there is a mythology of sports as a problem-solving activity. Movies about people overcoming life hurdles or community problems through sports are a staple of American entertainment. And yet when push comes to shove, sports club members acknowledge that their associations don’t actually do very much. As much as the defenders of “sports as social capital” might want to argue that sports have large beneficial effects, most people who play sports basically just like to play sports and don’t look to receive any greater benefit.

Fascinatingly, Stone also notes the link between sports and the welfare state:

Academic research explicitly links sports participation and the interventionist role of the state. Research on Danish sports clubs specifically identifies such clubs as part of the welfare state. A study of Canadian sports culture outlined the “broad impact” of the welfare state on sports culture and highlighted various direct interventions by the Canadian government to support and promote sports. A study of six Western European countries outlines the specific links between the welfare state and the sporting system in each country. Modern governments actively promote sports, not only for nationalistic reasons but also as benign, politically nonthreatening entertainments to accompany the welfare state.

Clearly, as the need to focus time and attention on practical problem-solving is alleviated by political and economic progress, people turn to sports as a low-stakes substitute with which to fill their time. Indeed, this was one of Alexis de Tocqueville’s many criticisms of the indolent slavers of the Old South. Tocqueville described the plantation owners of Kentucky like so:

He covets wealth much less than pleasure and excitement; and the energy which his neighbor devotes to gain, turns with him to a passionate love of field sports and military exercises; he delights in violent bodily exertion, he is familiar with the use of arms, and is accustomed from a very early age to expose his life in single combat.

Tocqueville, that great champion of association, clearly took a dim view of sports, something Stone himself notes in his report. But why is it that sports, now our primary national pastime, appear to generate a negligible amount of social capital, and to contribute nothing to the solution of the stranger problem outlined above?

The answer is that sports function far too much like government to be socially constructive. As we observed at the outset, government functions by setting rules for people to follow that have punitive penalties if violated. This means that dealing with people politically, legally, or economically means negotiating these rules successfully. Sports is very similar. Even in team sports, success is defined as negotiating a set of impersonal rules to one’s own benefit. One doesn’t need to like one’s teammates or even know them that well in order to succeed, provided that everyone knows the rules and agrees to abide by them. The same is true in politics and in the marketplace. Impersonal rules and regulations are what allow us to deal with one another without knowing one another. Once the proliferation of these rules in society reaches a certain saturation point, one doesn’t really have to have any personal communion with other human beings in order to make it through the day.

This problem is exacerbated by the increasing amount of time that children are spending in public schools. Public schools are infested with overregulated behavioral codes that prevent children from learning to problem-solve with their peers without appealing to authority. School is yet another arena in which we are in the process of replacing relationships with rules, guaranteeing every child his or her right to regulated isolation.

Ultimately, the phenomenon is the same in the realms of politics, economics, culture, and education. Whether consciously or not, we are engaged as a civilization in the mass erasure of the tacit dimension of life: the aspects of work and relationship that are unquantifiable and indeterminate because they rely on a real communion of souls for their realization. This face-to-face participation of each life in another has been the cost of our successful disarmament of the threat posed by strangers in society. The problem we face now is in many ways far more difficult than the stranger problem, because by definition there can be no abstract or systematic solution to loneliness in a free society. Only freely chosen, concrete, self-sacrificial relationships can roll back the tide of mutual anonymity in our society. It’s just unclear as to whether we see the sacrifice involved in friendship as worthwhile when Jeff Bezos and Joe Biden can keep us fed and amused at a much cheaper cost.


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