Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The dark ages

At the very end of After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre makes an analogy that even he admits is a little outrageous. I've never thought we were really on the cusp of such a moment and I don't think we are there yet. But I can see how, with just a few more steps down into unsustainable nanny statism, we could get there.
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and the most misleading of such parallels are those drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify with the maintenance of that imperium.
That's a good point but it lacks something. And it lacks something because MacIntyre never quite shook off Marxism and he never grasped that people enter into social arrangements out of self interest. The thing he misses is the important role that taxes and culture played in this turning aside.

It wasn't that taxes were too high in the late Roman empire—although they certainly were too high—but that the government could no longer deliver the protection that people expected in exchange for those taxes. This was felt first on the outer edges of the empire and then more and more towards the centre.

At the same time, the culture was changing. Simple social relations that didn't seem like they were the foundations of Roman society, the way the military was organized for example, were being changed and these changes had far-reaching effects. MacIntyre goes on to say that the people who turned away from the Imperium began constructing new forms of community but that gets things backwards. It was precisely because those new forms of community already had begun to exist that people could turn to them with greater dedication when the empire started to fade.

MacIntyre's analogy is not appropriate at this time because even the most incompetent governments, excluding perhaps Greece, have been able to continue to deliver basic social protection so far. But it's not had to see how it could all start to crumble very quickly. If it did, self-interest would move people to start looking at other social arrangements. To use the over-used cliché, life as we know it would end.

But something would take it's place.

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