Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Why Has Community in America Collapsed?

I recently saw a TED Talk in which the person was talking about the seeming rise in DTSD among soldiers. He noted that there are fewer soldiers than in past wars, that the experiences are far less traumatic than in past wars, but that PTSD is much higher now than previously.

What is going on? The speaker suggested that what was happening was that soldiers who had formed close social bonds with their comrades came home to a society that is radically fragmented. They moved from a tribal situation to a radically individuated situation, and that it was that which was traumatic.

I think he's mostly right.

American society is deeply fragmented. I'm not just talking about the increasingly deep divisions among political views, though that's certainly a contributor (and a consequence). I'm not just talking about the increasingly deep divisions among racial and ethnic groups, though that's certainly a contributor as well.

I'm talking about individuals becoming increasingly alienated from each other. We not only do not rely on each other, we are actively discouraged from doing so. We are encouraged to mind our own business--and we then in turn empower government to do all the minding we used to do in our neighborhoods. We even tell our children to mind their own business, as though their friends and families and neighborhoods aren't their business. If other people aren't our business, what is?

There is a certain libertarian thread that emphasizes exactly this kind of minding one's own business that is very common and popular. We are told not to judge anyone for anything they do--and while this has of course resulted in growing acceptance of a variety of lifestyles and ways of being human, cultures and cultural practices, etc., it has also meant not seeking out commonalities and not creating communities. You cannot have a community of people who mind their own business. If you want to destroy a family, have the parents insist the children should mind their own business, and have those parents insist their spouses mind their own business. The fact is that family members ought to be one's business. We ought to be concerned with the way people behave. That shows we care about them.

The irony of this libertarian emphasis on minding one's own business is that in creating more radically individuated and thus isolated people, the social fabric disintegrates, leaving a space for governments to come in as the solution. We need social bonds and to work together, and if those natural bonds disintegrate, governments will offer ways to force those bonds, or the social outcomes those old bonds once made. Neighbor pressure to keep your property looking nice has been replaced with local government passing ordinances to keep your property looking nice, with professional busybodies to enforce them by driving around and looking at everyone's property. The problem with the government solution is that, even with local government, there is a lack of local and tacit knowledge. One's neighbors, when one is close to one's neighbors, knows more about your situation than does some bureaucrat. The bureaucrat doesn't even care about your situation--they just care about being obeyed no matter what. The neighbor knows what your situation is, and adjusts their expectations (and complaints and pressure) accordingly.

This attitude of minding one's own business extends even to our institutions that have historically provided the kinds of social bonds that create community. For example, my wife and I have grown completely frustrated with the church we have been attending because, though we have tried to be involved through such things as having Melina in the children's choir, we have felt almost completely unwelcomed there. Not in an active way, but rather just completely ignored by everyone. It's as though they could care less whether we were there or not. Another example would be our local schools, where we send our children without really ever getting to know the teachers or fellow students, let alone fellow parents. Once the centers of our communities, our schools have become yet another institution of practically faceless, impersonal bureaucrats who seem annoyed more than anything if anyone wants to help or contribute in any real way.

Zoning laws separate neighborhoods from any sort of social meeting places. I have to get in my car to go shopping. If I want to hang out at a cafe, I have to get in my car and go there. And the people there won't be the people from my neighborhood. Even if I get to know a few people at the local Starbucks, I won't know them outside of Starbucks. I won't know where they live. I certainly won't be invited over to their homes. With mixed neighborhoods, where there are local cafes and stores where you see the people from your neighborhood all the time, you get to know people and as a result, you end up looking out for each other more. Zoning thus keeps neighborhoods from becoming true communities by isolating various aspects of our lives from each other.
Licensing also contributes to this problem. It' worse than ridiculous that you have to get a license to hold a yard sale or for your children to have a lemonade stand. These are among the opportunities lost to connect with your neighbors and transform them into communities. Local businesses are less likely to crop up as a result as well. So not only is are community bonds suppressed, but community economies are depressed.

The problem is that there are inevitably anti-social people who don't want any of these things taking place in their neighborhoods. But why should only the anti-social elements of society get what they want? Just because they are going to complain about what's going on, while nobody's going to complain about what's NOT going on? This is a problem of the "seen" taking precedence over the "unseen" that all too often plagues the insights of economics and sociology. We are trading the "tyranny" of community for the tyranny of government, persuasion for force. It's a pretty stupid trade.

The real problem is that when people come to understand that there is something missing in their lives, they then look to government to fix those things when the source seems to come from the outside. We are missing something in our societies, and we then ask the government to provide all the things strong communities once provided. The problem is that when governments do things, they tend to crowd out private solutions. And that undermines the creation of strong communities even more. Licensing and zoning are the consequences of anti-social complainers, and they work to make us all more anti-social and isolated.

The fact is that humans are naturally social, naturally community-minded, naturally compassionate. If we find a group of people not behaving that way, behaving rather more selfishly and anti-socially, we need to ask what is happening in their societies, in their institutions, in their governance that is causing people to behave this way. What is actively encouraging them to behave in ways that are, quite frankly, unnatural? We love to blame "capitalism," but we have had capitalism far longer than this situation. Further, the system we haven't isn't even free market capitalism anyway, but is rather extremely regulated capitalism. Those regulations, as we have seen, have more than just economic consequences, as bad as those are. They have social consequences as well.

We all know there is something deeply wrong with American society. What is wrong is that we have been actively replacing community with government. We are regulating ourselves into isolation. Natural connections are replaced with government regulated interactions. Yes, my traveling several miles to sit at a cafe is a government regulated interaction precisely because I cannot sit at a cafe anywhere near where I live. My having to get in my car to grab a few avocados for dinner rather than walking to the neighborhood fruit stand is a government regulated interaction. We do not even recognize we are being controlled and being separated from each other, but we are. The consequence is more and more government regulations to try to make up for the losses caused by government regulations, causing more and more separation.

The increase in PTSD among returning soldiers is the canary in the coal mine. How many must stop singing before we get the message?
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