Tuesday, April 26, 2016

So, What Does a Good Balance Between Depth and Breadth Look Like?

So, if one accepts my proposal that there is a trade-off between social breadth and social depth, that the trade-off is unfortunate because both are good, but that it is real nonetheless, where does that leave us?  Can a reasonable balance be found between depth and breadth?  And, if so, what does it look like and how can it be achieved?

Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is Albion's Seed and its account of the Quakers and the remarkable degree of both depth and breadth they managed to achieve at the same time.  I am not suggesting that this achievement is limited to the Quakers.  Jains (I believe) have done something similar in India.  Jews have sometimes managed something like it in parts of Europe.  Early Christian communities were spectacular in both regards.  But the account of Quakers in Albion's Seed is the most detailed description I know of any of these societies, and most revealing.

The Quakers made a very deep social commitment to one-another.  Quaker communities in England pooled resources to allow members to move to America.  Quakers who could not afford passage came over in indenturement (about half did so), confident that their fellow Quakers would would help them rise above their condition and start a new life.  (This was in contrast to Virginia, where indentured servants, even if they outlasted their bondage, could expect little on the other end besides poverty and degradation).  Quakers formed extended commercial networks. doing business especially with each other and allowing each other special breaks. Throughout Pennsylvania they build "loving neighborhoods" of clustered farms, living in mutual support.  Quakers joined together for Sunday meetings, for church business meetings, and for gatherings like barn raisings and house raisings. Quakers were forbidden to take their differences among each other to court, but instead brought them to the meeting to be arbitrated.

This social depth was not without its problems, some of which are inherent to close-knit societies.  For a religion focusing so strongly on individual conscience, the Quakers were remarkable conformist.  The meeting regulated the minutest details of its members' lives, setting forth exacting standards of clothing and everything else, and requiring members who did not follow the rules to stand before the meeting and "take shame upon themselves."  Marriage required approval of the men's and women's meetings (and of separate meetings if the spouses belonged to different congregations), the opportunity of all members to comment on the marriage and voice objections, and the signing of certificates by numerous members.

But if this social depth could sometimes be stifling, it was not purchased by a loss of breadth.  Quite the contrary, Quakers showed a degree of breadth in their commitments almost unheard of in their day.  Pennsylvania had no established church and admitted all monotheists, even Catholics and Jews. Only Rhode Island granted broader religious freedom.  The Quakers admitted not only other religions, but other nationalities, particularly German Mennonites and other pietists.  They made a sincere effort to maintain good relations with the Indians and respect their rights.  (If they were not always successful, they did better in this regard than anyone else).  They were also the first people to challenge race slavery on moral grounds and to turn it back, not as economically unfeasible, but as morally unacceptable.  Significantly, David Hackett Fischer notes, they extended to everyone else the same rights they demanded for themselves.  While other people, from New England Puritans, French Jacobins, and Israeli Jews, were eloquent in proclaiming their own liberty, when given power they often did not respect the same freedom in others.  The Quakers did.  They rejected the long-standing assumption that freedom was a zero-sum game, that one person's (or group's) gain in liberty was necessarily someone else's loss and instead proclaimed universal "reciprocal liberty" for all -- a freedom rooted in the Golden Rule, that if you would not have other people infringe on your rights, you should not infringe on the rights of others.

How did they do it?  Fischer does not address this issue directly, but one can see some hints about what made such a combination possible, including some factors that may not be easy to duplicate.

Geography may have contributed.
Pennsylvania was a land of rolling hills and valleys "like waves of the sea."  (p. 580).  Each valley could form its own tight-knit community and be geographically separated from other communities to experience little infringement.

Quakers favored limited government.
Quakers were also unusual in distinguishing between state and society.  To many contemporaries, these were not distinct categories.  It was the state's responsibility to ensure a proper social order, including religious conformity, an all-encompassing social hierarchy, and the like.  The Quakers developed the radical concept that some things were simply not the government's business.  It need not enforce uniformity in society.  Rather, the separate communities regulated a wide range of behavior outside the state's purview.  The state's role was to ensure that these communities did not infringe on each other's peace.

Quakers cultivated rigid self-restraint.
Quakers were famous for their asceticism.  Even the Puritans seemed like hedonists by comparison. Quaker meetings had strict dress codes, amounting to a uniform.  Puritans favored recreation insofar as it was necessary to maintain physical and emotional health, opposing it only when people went overboard and indulged in recreation just for fun.  Quakers distrusted any recreation that did not also serve some useful purpose.  Their concept of the limited state did not keep them from outlawing "all prizes, stage plays, cards, dice, may games, masques, revels, bull-baitings, cock-fightings, bear-baitings and the like." (p. 552).  While Puritans were strict in forbidding sex outside of marriage and "unnatural" sex (i.e., anything that interfered with conception), they encouraged it within marriage.  Quakers distrusted sex even within marriage and were so prudish that women would not admit to having anything below the waist except for "ankles."  Puritans were supporters of education at all levels from elementary to university; Quakers distrusted education that did not serve a useful purpose and frowned on "needless" learning.  Even visiting and socializing were looked upon with distrust unless they served a useful purpose such as a barn raising.

Quakers were a commercial people.
I have come to the conclusion that capitalism really is "liberal" in the sense of encouraging social breadth because it encourages non-hostile interaction between groups and broadening of horizons in search of trade.  Quakers were merchants and traders, who did frequent business with each other, but also built expanded and far-flung networks.

Quaker immigration policy was religiously, ethnically, linguistically and (sort of) racially expansive, but culturally restrictive.
As previously mentioned, Quakers admitted all monotheists to their society.  The Quakers themselves were both English and Welsh.  They admitted a large German population and had German-speaking communities and a German language press.  They did not admit immigrants who were not white, but they went farther than anyone else in seeking (however imperfectly) to respect the rights of the black and Indian residents in their midst and include them in their society.  But they did expect non-Quakers admitted to their society to play by Quaker rules.  This did not mean becoming Quakers, or behaving exactly like Quakers, but it did mean behaving in ways acceptable and non-scandalous to Quakers and following something like their rules of self-restraint.  This meant not infringing on other people's peace, but also behaving with proper decorum, dressing in a plain style, and so forth.

While Quakers got along just fine with German pietists and made at least the attempt to find room for blacks and Indians, they could not abide the rowdy British borderers who became the back countrymen.  The borderers were a rowdy, hard-drinking, violent bunch, prone to taking the law into their own hands, and their young women wore scandalously revealing outfits.  The problem was not just that they did not play by Quaker rules, but that their numbers were overwhelming.  (Fischer estimates the total Quaker migration at around 25,000 and the back country migration as closer to 250,000).  The Quakers' first response to the borderers was to send them off the the frontier to serve as a buffer against hostile Indians.  But in the end the back countrymen's overwhelming numbers made them dominant.  (To this day, my law professor said that Pennsylvania is known as "Two fine cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh -- surrounding Alabama.")

So, what lessons can we take from that in this day and age?  Well, Pennsylvania geography is not readily duplicated, and becomes less relevant in the modern world.

Limited government is an interesting matter.  On the one hand, government is bigger now than ever before.  On the other hand, the Quakers' revolutionary ideas about the proper relationship between the individual and the state, and that many things are simply not the state's business, have by now become mainstream and are widely taken for granted.  I should also note here another shortcoming of very tight-knit societies. Just because a community enforces its mores informally without the intervention of the state does not mean that abuses of power can be excluded.  Quite the contrary, abuses of power can be rampant in close-knit societies, and be universally concealed and protected without recourse.  See, for instance, sexual abuse by the clergy.  The Quakers had the admitted advantage of not having a clergy and of being generally anti-hierarchical.  But cultivating separate, close-knit communities, each tending to its own with a minimal state merely keeping order between them.

As for self-restraint, certainly we don't exercise the same kind of self-restraint that the Quakers did, but I have gone on record saying that we exercise a lot more of it than we may give ourselves credit for.  Look at two lanes of traffic merging and how well everyone has developed an unwritten rule the each car shall let exactly one car merge ahead of it, no more and no less.  To fail to allow a car to merge ahead of you is to be unfair to the other stream of traffic.  To let more than more ahead is to be unfair to the other drivers behind you.  Or when traffic lights go out, the two streets do the same, with each allowing one set of car go through in turn.  (It is slow and inefficient, but peaceable).  Or look for a parking space in a crowded parking lot and notice how well respected handicapped parking spaces are, no matter how frustrating the lack of open spaces may be.  Foreigners visiting the US marvel that restaurants can leave condiments on the table without their being swiped, and that stores put displays of pumpkins and firewood in front, and the vast majority of customers carry them in and pay for them.  All fine and good, a social conservative may say.  It is certainly good that Americans are courteous drivers and respect private property, but that is not enough.  What about our shocking degree of sexual indulgence?  I suppose I would say that it is much exaggerated.  Americans fully condone sex outside of marriage, but not so much out of a committed relationship.  And in many ways our society demands an unparalleled degree of sexual restraint.  Throughout most of history, interaction between men and women has been closely restricted on the assumption that if men and women are allowed to mingle freely, nature will inevitably take its course.  Our own society allows free mingling but demands that people (read: men) put their libidos on hold except in appropriate contexts.  And it turns out that men are capable of doing just that.

As for the commercial nature of Quakers, well, our society is the most commercial that has ever existed and it has, indeed, done much to advance the cause of social breadth, though at the cost of social depth.  And, interestingly enough, this is something that many liberals freely acknowledge and deplore, while conservatives lament the result while remaining willfully blind to the cause.

As for immigration policy -- well, that is especially relevant nowadays, isn't it?  And I would take it to mean that racial, ethnic, religious and even linguistic diversity do not have to undermine a healthy society, and that differences in culture can be tolerated -- but with limits.  A society can open its doors to immigrants and maintain its social health, but it must make its rules clear, and it must make clear to immigrants that if you want to move to our society, you will have to play by our rules.  And finally, the Quakers' experience with back countrymen goes to show that a society not strong enough to enforce its rules will see them come to an end.

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