Monday, August 24, 2015

Mencius: the Economy and Legal System

I'm still working my way through Mencius in my own haphazard way and the following paragraph jumped off the page at me.

With a constant livelihood, people's minds are constant. Without a constant livelihood, people's minds are never constant. And without constant minds, they wander loose and wild. They stop at nothing, and soon cross the law. Then, if you punish them accordingly, you've done nothing but snare the people in your own trap. And if they're Humane, how can those in high position snare their people in traps?
(Duke Wen of T'Eng, Book One, part 3. David Hinton translation.) 

There's a whole universe of ideas in that paragraph. It contains a psychological theory. It implies an complex understanding of the relationship between economics and the criminal justice system. It also warns of the dangers of a punitive legal system. And, it implies something about the responsibilities of rulers. All these problems plague today's society. Which is why we can all benefit from the insights that Mencius brings to bear on them.

First of all, "With a constant livelihood, people's minds are constant". This is a statement that says that people are not totally isolated individuals who bounce around like balls on some great snooker table. Instead, who they are is modified and changed by the economic and social conditions that they find themselves in. This point of view is radically at odds with the theories that underlay both our economic and legal systems.

In economics, people are assumed to be totally "rational" in that they are able to clearly identify what particular economic choice is in their best interest and which is not. This "rationality"---or so the theory goes---allows people to compete efficiently in a free market. This assumption underlies several lies that people tell themselves in order to perform specific functions. For example, I once heard a talk by some advertising executives about marketing. When I suggested that they were serving a public disservice by artificially ramping-up artificial demand, they blandly asserted that all advertising ever does is allow people to choose between brands. They said that it never has anything at all to do with encouraging people to buy things that they don't need.  (Were they lying because it was in their rational interest? Or had their jobs created/selected for a specific type of delusion?)

Our legal system similarly assumes that all people are totally equal moral entities that can choose at any given moment the "right thing to do" totally independently of their life experiences and the individual subculture that they currently inhabit. The very fact that people do spend a lot of time trying to parse out the subtleties of ethical reasoning (like this blog post) would suggest that this isn't true. But as near as I can tell, the people who run the criminal justice system live in a totally different world from people like me, so they never have to smack themselves up against that awful cognitive dissonance that results from seeing evidence that contradicts your assumptions.


I came across an example of the interface between the economic and legal system in a podcast by KMO last week. He was talking about his experience as a low-level employee at when it was just a start-up. He was talking about the weird street life of Seattle, where up-and-coming tech types would rub shoulders with destitute street people from both the black and American Indian subcultures. He used to often sit in a cafe with big windows and watch the "War on Drugs" play out in front of him. He said that people would come to buy drugs from street people. He identified three groups of individuals: the police, the dealers, and the customers. The customers and police stayed the same, but the dealers kept changing as they were arrested and dumped into the prison-industrial complex. In effect, they were desperate, disposable people. (I can't put a link into KMO's podcast because it is behind a paywall---we all got to eat---but if you can, I would encourage everyone to buy a subscription.)

There was demand for the drugs, because people are "hard wired" to want to get high. And because the drugs were illegal, they were sold for artificially inflated prices. This meant that a criminal distribution network was created to sell them. And because police officers build their career by creating idiotic statistics about how many bodies they put in jail, there was a demand to arrest disposable people. And because there was very high unemployment rate in Seattle, there was a large pool of desperate people who would do anything in order to make some money. And, this whole war was focused on urban neighbourhoods because these unemployed, underclass people didn't have the connections to be able to raise a fuss for the way that they were being treated.


So, as Mencius would say, take away people's constant livelihood, and they will "wander loose and wild". This is exactly another point that KMO made. The street people in Seattle were totally acclimatized to their life in "the wild". They were feral people who lived totally in the moment and had given up any pretense at civilized notions like privacy, cleanliness, decorum, etc. (Look in the downtown of any modern city and you will understand what I am talking about.) And, if you live like that and are desperate for money, if someone comes along and offers you "easy money" to sell street drugs. What are you going to do? Especially if getting busted just results in going to a prison, which is not all that much different from living on the street except that it has better creature comforts? 

As Mencius would say, the legal system punishes people by snaring them in their own trap. 


But here Mencius does something that is totally alien to modern sensibilities. He says "-- if they're Humane, how can those in high position snare their people in traps?" This is because he is a Confucian, not a Legalist. Legalists try to create a perfect system where the "human element" has been totally removed. Mandatory minimum sentences, for example, are a Legalist tactic, because it lessens the ability of a judge to show compassion and adapt a ruling to fit the reality of the criminal's life.  A certain degree of Legalism is perhaps necessary for a modern, industrial society because as people learn to live in huge cities and giant nation states people have to be able to depend on standardized ways of relating to one another. In a village, people could adapt to each other's personal quirks, but most modern people interact with thousands and thousands of strangers in their daily life. If there wasn't a very standardized set of behaviours, negotiating these interactions would eat up much more time and energy than available to anyone.  But IMHO, our society has gone way past the point where Legalism becomes oppressive instead of merely practical.

Many people simply cannot follow our world's extensive and constantly growing list of standardized behaviours. My wife, for example, has a psychiatric illness that means that for randomly selected six week periods of time, she descends into psychotic episodes. This means that no matter how much she might want to, she can never be a "dependable employee". It also means that anything from a doctor's appointment to a meeting with a judge is always provisional. Everything comes down to "I will attend, if I can". This lack of predictability not only means that she is pretty much unemployable, it also fosters a state of mind that is often hard for people to understand. 

If you do not know what tomorrow will bring----and have fate force you to really know that it in your bones through a thing like a psychotic episode---then you will have to develop an attitude that Christ described.  
"And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don't work or make their clothing."            
 Matthew 6:28, New Living Translation

This is the attitude of street people, and it isn't something that they "just choose", it is a point of view that has been forced upon them by grim necessity. Yet it is totally "out of sync" with with the way middle class people have to live. (Indeed, KMO said that the street people and up-and-comers passed each other in the street totally oblivious to each other. He said it was as if they were "out of phase" with each other---like in some sort of Star Trek episode.) It is hard enough to live "out of phase" with mainstream society, but I suspect that it also sometimes positively enrages middle class people who find this attitude not only incomprehensible, but also mulish and willful.

The movie Monster pretty much encapsulates this clash between the psychology of "lilies" and middle class respectability very well. The lawyer idiotically assumes that the woman in front of him is someone

who has had the same opportunities in life that he has had. He perhaps had to work hard to get a job as a lawyer. Aileen (the character based on the real life of a serial killer named Aileen Wuornos) had a childhood so brutal and horrible that I doubt if most people could even believe it possible.  At a young age, she drifted into prostitution because it was the only way she could survive. As a result, she simply doesn't have a clue about how most people go about getting a job or work at one.  While being attacked by a John, she killed him in self-defense, which horrified her. This job interview is a desperate attempt to find herself some way out of this horrible life.

This scene really struck home to me when I first saw the movie (isn't YouTube wonderful for making a point like this?), as I grew up on a subsistence farm with a dysfunctional family (nothing as bad as Wuornos) and had an awful time trying to find work as a young man. I literally didn't have a clue about how most people make a living or go about finding a job. I had interviews that were as uncomfortable and embarrassing as the one in the movie. Fortunately, I had enough control to avoid the nasty blow-up at the end, but inside I ended up seething with rage both at the unfairness of the world around me and my utter and complete worthlessness as a human being. This is what it is like to be a member of the class of "disposable people" when it interacts with mainstream society. This is part of the "trap" that Mencius is saying non-Humane rulers create for their people. 

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