Selfishness as Virtue
The health of American society is a perennial favorite topic for pundits, intellectuals, professors and politicians, as well it should be. The Founders understood the fragility of a free society and would take comfort knowing that our chattering classes keep watch over it. “A republic, if you can keep it”, warned Benjamin Franklin. Yet the gaze of today’s watchmen too often strays toward the meretricious. As ever, some confuse cause and effect. In these sped-up times, many fixate on the urgent while ignoring the essential. A great many, especially in the social science field, seem mesmerized by metrics, reminding us of Nietzsche’s famous remark that “were it not for the constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, men could not live.” Some see numbers nearly everywhere: GDP, GNP, Gini coefficients, median income, unemployment and demographic data, the fluctuations of the Dow and the S&P indices, and much more besides.
It is widely assumed that we know a lot more about our social circumstances thanks to all these numbers than we did before they were crunched. That is not entirely obvious. With increasing momentum ever since the establishment of the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1913, for example, we have become progressively obsessed with economic data to the point of neurosis. Our 19th-century forebears did not lose sleep or get caught up in herd-like trading behavior upon learning that growth in the third quarter of 1873 was much lower than expected, because they never expected anything in particular in the first place.
More generally, one suspects that method and data have too often displaced the search for wisdom and the skills to apply it, hiding ideology and more subtle forms of bias along the way. Perhaps things were clearer when we spoke of political economy and political philosophy, before we hived off social sciences under the name of economics and political science. Perhaps the separation of moral sensibilities rooted in religion from intellectual endeavors is not so enlightened after all. A case in point may be developed through an appreciation of sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s new bookGoing Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.