The New York Times article linked below exemplifies a general pattern that’s played out since the beginning of the COVID pandemic. The pandemic began, and started taking a terrible toll on many people rendered helpless by circumstances beyond their control. Calls for leniency were reasonably enough made to prevent such people from being swallowed alive by those circumstances–eviction halts, rent freezes, mortgage forbearance, changes to grading policies, diminished scrutiny on unemployment and insurance claims, and so on. But that leniency has brought with it huge amounts of moral hazard and other sorts of imprudence and dishonesty, incentivizing almost unimaginable levels of fraud, near fraud, and quasi-fraudulent but morally dubious claims. Until you look, or are personally affected, you’d be amazed by how many people are trying their hardest to exploit the chaos of the moment, or to exploit the noble intentions of this or that benefactor–always easiest when the benefactor has deep pockets, or appears to.
Eventually, the leniency will end, as it already has in some quarters. This change in attitudes will, predictably enough, be followed by a phase of superlatively cruel austerity, or covert austerity operating under the cover of nominal leniency. That in turn will be followed by suffering, resentment, and righteous indignation, whether from completely innocent victims, from whining bullshit artists, or from people falling somewhere between those extremes.
The Times article describes only the tip of a pretty large and looming iceberg. The larger pattern involved lays bare a whole culture that encourages graft, and that habitually turned a blind eye to it well before the pandemic. Some but not all of this can be blamed on rich and greedy capitalists, out to make a buck at anyone’s expense. But some of it can also be blamed on regulation-intoxicated liberals who seem never to have dealt with actual lawyers, actual judges, actual courts, or actual regulatory agencies, but feel great moral satisfaction at invoking them to regulate the behavior of people they’ve never met, in lines of work they don’t respect and don’t understand.
One small but poignant example of the preceding is the landlord-tenant dispute I described here back in September 2019, and which I unfortunately have not been able to write about here at PoT since. That said, I’ve reviewed the legal documents in the case, which show–to put it mildly–that bien pensant liberal journalists can’t be relied on to give an accurate account of landlord-tenant disputes. Believe it or not, you can’t track the truth in an L-T dispute by assuming from the outset that the landlord must be the villain and the tenant a victim in any such dispute. That tenants take advantage of landlords; that landlords are human beings with rights; that tenants might be taking advantage of COVID-based leniency to squat for free in rental units that aren’t theirs–none of this seems to figure in the ontology of the left-leaning press or left intelligentsia (until they become landlords themselves). And yet it happens. I hope to return to writing about that case at some point. It’s telling that while initially reported in the mainstream press, no mainstream outlet has bothered to follow the developments in this story since September 2019, if only because those developments made the initial reporting look pretty stupid and pretty incompetent.
The broader moral of the story, as I see it, is that you can’t have a viable society based exclusively on commercial values. “So will that the maxim of your action maximizes your net worth or your net yield in a given commercial transaction” is not a recipe for “social harmony,” or even a maxim worthy of human beings, but one worthy only of moral trash. Thin (or wafer-thin) theorists of “liberty” who think we can make our way to a just and prosperous society based on nothing but the imperatives of commerce are sadly out of touch with reality. They’re also influential well beyond the merits of their views.
Unfortunately, we live amongst a great deal of moral trash, and the tragedy is that those who mention this fact out loud are penalized and stigmatized for doing so. The pattern I described in this post with respect to academic life is a general pattern that one finds throughout the workplace, and throughout the amoral, positive psychology-besotten culture of corporate America.
If you don’t have something nice to say, why, we’ll write up an incident report full of bad things to say about you, and fire you. Good luck finding another job! Because when they ask for references, who do you think they’ll contact? And what do you think we’ll say? And who do you think will discover or regulate what we say over the phone? And if you badmouth your past employer to a prospective employer to rebut the insinuations or accusations you surmise that we might have made, how do you think that will look–however true it may all be?
This is what a lot of “pragmatic” sorts of people are proud to call “the real world,” while demanding unlimited “amenability,” “flexibility,” and “accommodation” to it. Then people wonder why the world they live in is so fucked up.
If you penalize truth-telling, as we certainly do in American society, be prepared to live in a cesspool of fraud and lies. If you live in a society bound together by nothing but pleonexia–by the desire to make more and more and more money, and consume more and more and more stuff without moral limits–don’t be surprised when your “society” crumbles like powder in your hands. What society? It wasn’t a society at all, but a joint venture for mutual predation carried on by manipulation, deceit, evasion, and concealment.*
To end on a personal note: a lot of people have asked why I insist on doing a low-paying, high-risk, labor-intensive job when there is, let’s say, a better-paying white collar job over here or over there that they could, if asked, recommend me for. I appreciate the gesture, and decisions of this kind are complex, driven by more than one factor. But one thing I’d say is that I’d rather be uncomfortable and poor than participate in the white collar culture like the one described in the article, and that I’ve experienced for most of my life. I’d rather be so-called “trailer trash” than moral trash, and rather be homeless than live in a den of thieves.
Middle class people might be amazed to discover how many of their class compatriots are checking out of bourgeois life and finding ways to escape its constraints. Money is great, and so are the security and creature comforts it buys. But there’s something frankly disgusting about the moral sacrifices one is called to make to live as a “normal” person in our society, where “normal” means middle class, and one unintended consequence of the pandemic has been to clarify that fact. More on that in the months to come, as I make my “descent”–really an ascent–from the one class to the other. Cryptic, I realize, but I’m happy to explain in due course.
Thanks to Mike DeFilippo, Britt Long, Diana Lysius, Michael Young, and Vik Kapila for helpful conversations that influenced this post.
*I don’t mean (through the hyperlink to Nagel’s famous paper on concealment and exposure) to be holding Nagel personally responsible for everything I’m condemning, or even to take his paper as entailing a commitment to it. My point is that Nagel’s defense of concealment is part of the dysfunctional culture I’m condemning here. He’s done a good job of articulating (and ironically, exposing) its moral defects.