Fair Heidi

We have seen that fairness, deferral of pleasure and expressions of group solidarity are all necessary for cooperation. But it is just as easy to see that these three are in tension with each other.

If my close compatriot is involved in an altercation with an outsider, loyalty and fairness might pull me in opposite directions. Furthermore, it is plain that requiring deferral of pleasure and conformity to social norms exacts a higher price from some people than for others; some people have idiosyncratic preferences. A sense of fairness inclines us to be solicitous of such preferences, while social norms regarding restraint and loyalty only work, in the ways we described earlier, if their violation is met with disapproval.

On the whole, Judaism tries to find a balance between fairness, on the one hand, and restraint and loyalty, on the other. But, inevitably, some Jews will pull more strongly in the direction of restraint and loyalty and others will pull more strongly in the direction of fairness. As I discovered in the encounter with which I began these essays, Heidi is firmly entrenched in the latter group.

Eventually I’ll get to the pathologies of super-particularistic Jews, but our subject for the moment is Heidi. To put it bluntly, Heidi’s attempt to downgrade restraint and loyalty in favor of some greatly generalized notion of fairness can’t work. Without restraint and loyalty, there can be no fairness. Fairness requires a low discount rate – that we value the future almost as much as we value the present; as we saw above, those who live for today are not reliable long-term partners. Fairness is only possible in a society that values virtue – qualities of character like courage, temperance, prudence and gratitude – that can only be cultivated by a rich system of social norms. Fairness must be rooted in a spirit of generosity that is first learned within the family. The circle of those with whom we interact with special generosity can be gradually expanded, but only if it remains anchored in kinship and shared norms. To love everybody is to love nobody.

Heidi speaks and comprehends only the language of rights. Despite an occasional atavistic pull in their direction, Jewish ethnic and religious solidarity are ideologically offensive to her. She’s also offended at the idea of a society promoting virtue. So long as my behavior doesn’t directly and visibly affect anyone else, Heidi is convinced this isn’t her business and it shouldn’t be any of your business (or, at least, so she says; much more on this in future posts).

It’s obvious that a society of Heidis is not a viable form of Judaism; Heidis have little interest in Jewish continuity. My point here is that it isn’t even a viable way of life. Heidi and her new friends share similar academic and professional backgrounds and, especially, political views. But these similarities are mostly defined by what they are not. Diversity, so central to Heidi’s world, is merely the absence of unifying qualities. Heidi’s crowd is not held together by kinship or ethnicity, or by a shared history, or by a rich system of social norms. It is held together merely by the disdain with which it regards all the shared qualities that it so manifestly lacks.

Shimen can walk into a Gerrer shtiebel anywhere in the world and find people who remember his family, who share friends and acquaintances with him, who speak his dialect, who know what he knows, who understand what he needs, who exchange just the right kinds of stories and jokes with him, who invite him into their homes as a matter of course, and who do business with him on the basis of a handshake and a nod. Heidi can walk into a progressive conclave and find people who share with her a passion for fair trade coffee and a fear of Republicans.

But limited social capital is a small part of the problem with Heidi’s world. Heidi is quite certain that she greatly values the future — that she has a very low discount rate – and she has her profound concern about global warming to prove it. But the rest of Heidi’s lifestyle suggests otherwise.

Like almost all her new friends, Heidi chose not to marry until she was near 40 and chose to have only one child. She regards the family structure that sustained most human societies for millennia as an option no more valid than any other; her admirable compassion for those for whom traditional family life is unsatisfying blinds her to the devastating long-term consequences of low birthrates and the breakdown of the family. What is seen and immediate is more important to Heidi than what is unseen and long-term.

Heidi is a pacifist. She doesn’t identify sufficiently with any country to wish to make sacrifices in its defense; she discounts alarm about evident threats to societies of which she is a member as paranoia and war-mongering. In the short term, her society can withstand military threats based on residual deterrence and the efforts of others, but in the long-term, her society will lack the force and spirit required to withstand the barbarians. Heidi favors economic policies that mitigate inequality in the very short-term, but distort incentives in ways that slow economic growth that would alleviate poverty in the long term. Heidi’s subversion of traditional norms regarding the inception and end of life alleviates distress in the short term, but cheapens life in the long-term.

Heidi’s high discount rate diminishes her society’s prospects and the dimness of these prospects further raise Heidi’s discount rate. Conversely, as Mary Eberstadt explains, religion makes us have more children and having children makes us more religious.

Note also that while Heidi’s society slouches towards oblivion, it isn’t the relatively wealthy and educated like Heidi who will be the first to bear the brunt of the decay. It’s the poor and uneducated who will suffer the most from the disintegration of families and religious communities, who will have the dimmest prospects in a slow-growing economy, and who will fight the wars that Heidi and her fellow social justice warriors won’t.

So, if the consequences of Heidi’s world’s high discount rate and lack of social capital are long-term, how does this play out? What pathologies can we detect already? To answer these questions, we need to meet Heidi’s revenge on humanity and God’s revenge on Heidi: her one and only daughter, Amber.


One thought on “Fair Heidi

  1. Fascinating analysis so far, and I’m eager to see where you’re going (and end up).

    Reading this reminded me of the philosopher Lee Harris who (in his book “The Suicide of Reason” and other writings) points out that the society of individuals who live their lives and interact with others based on reason represent a culture (not the natural order of the universe), a culture with its own historic roots and its own set of beliefs (and even rituals).

    When this culture of reason emerged, it was led by some of the most thoughtful people who ever lived who were well aware that they were forging a new direction for mankind (and what might be gained *and lost* in going down that path). I suspect the Heidi’s of the world are stranded, lacking the rootedness of cultures left behind, but also lacking the philosophical skill and will to understand the culture they have joined.


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