Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

7. The Efficient Society (part 1)

Note: This post is the seventh in a series, Parts one, two three four fiveand six

After a post on the concept of Pareto efficiency, it is natural that the next book I want to talk about is Joseph Heath's, 'The Efficient Society'

Much like Systems of Survival, this is a book I've already discussed at length her on the blog so for this post, I'm simply going to be lazy and reprint my earlier post on chapter 2 of The Efficient Society, where Heath contrasts a society based on the notion of a shared set of what is right with one which tries to allow people to pursue their own vision of what is right in as efficient a manner as possible.

A few notes before I cut and paste my old post in:

* I reproduced the post, but there were a number of excellent comments on the original which are worth reading.

* At the time, I commented that chapter 2 was the one I found most interesting, but now I consider chapters 3-7 (to be covered in the next post or two in this series) as the heart of it.

* In the comments to the original I mentioned that, "All this stuff is like pieces of a jigsaw in my head, which I can't quite put together" so you might consider the current series of posts as an effort, not so much to put the jigsaw together, but to at least set all the relevant piees out on the table, so to speak.

* The concept of efficiency that Heath is using, is Pareto efficiency, as defined in the last post - meaning situations where nobody can be made better off without making someone else worse off.

Same-Sex Marriage & The Efficient Society: Perfection vs. Efficiency:

In chapter 2 of The Efficient Society, Joseph Heath compares two possible value systems for a society: trying to achieve perfect virtue vs. trying to be as efficient as possible.

Heath argues that throughout time most societies have viewed the pursuit of good (virtuous) living as the goal of society. Whether in the world of Islam, Europe in the middle ages, or Communism in the Soviet Union, society functioned by requiring everyone to buy into the same set of moral values. Of course this required getting agreement on what actions are virtuous and which are vices - here religion traditionally (although not always, as the Communist example shows) plays a big role in determining which actions are good (those which please God) and which are bad (those which offend God).

The (potentially) fatal flaw in this type of arrangement is pretty clear - it only works if there is near unanimous agreement about what is virtuous and what is bad. Seen from this perspective, the greatest threat to this type of society is the heretic or dissident - which helps explain why heretics and dissidents have been treated so appallingly (by modern standards) throughout history and why so many societies/religions work so hard to 'convert' people to their beliefs.

Heath argues that the combination of advancing technology (which made disagreements much more lethal) and the Reformation which split the church in Europe and caused numerous civil wars led people to reconsider whether this was a sustainable model for society. He suggests that it was the 'social contract' theorists, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke et al, who developed a new set of values for society. In this new model, the state would no longer seek to impose values on society but would only use the powers which society agreed (contracted) that it should have, most notably a monopoly over the use of force to enforce contracts and prevent disagreements over values from getting out of hand and causing more civil warfare.

Heath calls this new model 'the efficient society' because, with the state's role reduced to enforcing contracts rather than values, legitimacy is shifted to those transactions which both parties enter into voluntarily. And since both parties enter voluntarily, it is presumed that both gain something - i.e. it is a win-win transaction. But in order for both parties to gain, the transaction must be doing things more efficiently than in the past. Since nobody stands to lose anything from these win-win contracts, there is no reason for violence over clashing values, and everyone can just get along.

In this model, everybody keeps their values to themselves, since to impose them on (unwilling) others would require the use of force, and this is reserved to the state which is mandated not to intervene in matters of values (what we generally refer to as the separation of church and state).

This should become a lot clearer with an example. For a topical example (which Heath also dwells on at length) let's consider the debate on Same Sex Marriage.

In a society which depends on a shared set of values, it is necessary to assess the virtue of various activities, with sex being a major topic of interest. Pretty consistently, societies have decided that the virtue of sex (God's purpose in creating sex, if you will) was for the creation of children - which makes a fair bit of sense. From there it is an obvious next step to say that all sex which can lead to the successful upbringing of children (i.e. intercourse between a married couple) is good and pretty much everything else (gay sex, straight sex which won't lead to children, contraception, abortion, etc.) is bad.

Now consider sex in a contractual society. In this society, the state's role is simply to enforce contracts and to maintain it's monopoly on the use of force. So as long as some sex act has been agreed to by two (or more) consenting adults - that is a win-win 'efficiency' gain1 and the state has no right to interfere. Only where there is a lack of consent (rape, pedophilia) has the monopoly on force been violated and the state needs to step in and punish the offenders.

So, as Heath says, opponents of same-sex marriage may question the values which lead us to accept this act, but these are the same values our society has been built on for hundreds of years now and approval of same-sex marriage is just an artifact of these values finally being reflected in our laws after a long lag time.

We can see this clash of values: perfection vs. efficiency, very clearly in the Canadian blogosphere.

Consider this post from Curt at Northwestern Winds. He quotes an address to the UN by Chris Kempling,

"One would think that tolerance would mean that social liberals would be tolerant about our religious beliefs. In the Newspeak of today, however, tolerance means everyone is obliged to take a liberal attitude towards immoral sexual behaviour, but those who practice that immoral behaviour do not have to tolerate Christian beliefs which oppose such behaviour."

...and then concludes with,

"This trend is appalling abuse of the vaunted separation of church and state, itself ironically an American concept. Too many people think that slogan runs only one way. Get a clue: it means the churches can't set bars to the levers of government and it means that the government will not hinder the thoughts and teaching of the churches in the private sphere. What is happening, and this is why the trend is so alarming, is that the understanding of what is private is shrinking, and very rapidly too."

By suggesting that same-sex marriage supporters are being intolerant themselves and trying to deny the rights of religious people to enter into contracts (speaking engagements for example), same-sex marriage opponents can use the efficiency values of our society against same-sex supporters, and feel as though they have the upper moral hand, even on an efficiency basis.

The trouble is that there is really no significant movement of any kind to prevent churches from doing whatever they want on the issue of the treatment of gays. The catholic church still doesn't allow women(hardly a particularly downtrodden group, especially in comparison to gays) to become priests and the government isn't stepping in and forcing them to and it's not going to.

The reason statements against gay marriage by church leaders draw opposition in our society is that, while the statements are obviously made in the private sphere (where else could they be made?), their objective is to influence the public sphere. Specifically, the objective is to use the coercive power of the state (as Bishop Henry so honestly stated) to prevent gays from entering into win-win contracts (in this case marriage). That is where the opposition to church statements against gay marriage comes from - because, while accepting that society in general operates on values of efficiency, many religious people view the particular case of gay marriage as being so extremely unvirtuous that it requires state intervention to impose the values of one group on another.

Previously, I had never really understood why gay marriage opponents would put themselves through logical contortions and make exaggerated claims but I see now that a lot of it stems from trying to find a rationale for opposing same-sex marriage which doesn't conflict with our society's efficiency values.

Now, consider this post from Skippy over at The Amazing Wonderdog:

"I can understand why some people are so vehemently opposed to gay marriage, why people simply feel that something about this is, well, wrong - and it's why I feel that I'm not vilifying anyone by accusing Stephen Harper of pandering to the homophobe vote.

But there's a difference between me and the people Harper is pandering to: I recognize that this [being uncomfortable with the idea of gay sex] is my problem, and mine alone."


"We have no right to limit their rights, or their happiness, or to place obstacles in their lives purely to make ourselves comfortable.

Your right to swing your fist ends at the end of my nose, as the old saying goes."


"Tolerance is not a matter of having no qualms; if it were, we wouldn't call it "tolerance." It's a matter of putting aside your qualms and recognizing that you cannot impose them on others."

Skippy has fully internalized the efficiency values of our society. The monopoly of the state on the use of force (coercion), the true nature of tolerance and why it's important, and the fact that in an efficiency based society we have no right to deny others from entering into win-win contracts.

For a final word, see why Andrew at Bound by Gravity is such a good blogger in this recent quote from him:

"If we [the Conservative party] are ever going to unseat the Liberals then we MUST stop acting like the Christian Heritage Party, and start acting like Canada's next government. Canadians, by and large, don't give a rat's ass about issues of conscience - they care about day-to-day things like money, medicare, and infrastructure. Talk their language and you might be surprised at how so many of them are willing to listen."

I had to give Andrew the last word because he sums the whole situation up in a few short sentences. Canadians, by and large don't care about perfection of virtue (issues of conscience), what they care about is efficiency (money, medicare, infrastructure). Therefore the Conservatives have to stop speaking the language of shared virtue (acting like the Christian Heritage Party) and talk to Canadians in terms of efficiency. Well said.

Anyway, this was probably my favourite chapter in the book because, even just in the week since first reading it, it has really sharpened my understanding of both history and some current debates such as same-sex marriage.

One thing that I'd like to investigate further is a possible link between these two value systems Heath describes and the two systems of ethics described by Jane Jacobs in 'Systems of Survival'2. Jacobs argues we have two different sets of ethical rules, one for activities which are generally based on taking things (generally government/military activity - things involving the use of force) and one based on trading things (affecting commercial activity primarily).

Clearly there is some overlap here, although Jacobs argues that successful societies need to use both ethical systems simultaneously with each supporting the other, whereas Heath argues that 'efficiency values' have gradually been driving out 'Perfectionist/Common Virtue' values ever since the days of Thomas Hobbes (centuries ago). Food for thought for another time I guess.

1 keep in mind that Heath uses the word efficiency in the sense of increasing overall welfare, not in the narrow manufacturing sense of producing more widgets per worker

2 I've posted on Systems of Survival a few times, most thoroughly here in the context of the NHL lockout.

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