What is it about the modern world that causes us to forget that every choice comes with a cost? The answer cannot be that modern men obsess on wish-fulfillment; ancient men had wishes too and obsessed with creating gold out of base metal, discovering the fountain of youth, or getting rich for nothing. Nor can it be the case that modern men are so much vainer than their forebears, who could slaughter or capture the fairest part of the earth because they believed themselves gods.
No, the explanation for the belief that modern choice comes without cost is an ill-placed faith in personal and infinite extensibility—a faith in the absence of limits. The ramifications of this modern vision on citizenship are worth pondering.
The most dreadful proposition in history is God exists—followed closely by the second-most dreadful proposition in history, God does not exist. Either proposition imposes an order on the world in the manner of an if-then statement, for if the first proposition is true, then we become finite and small and our pride is dealt a blow, whereas if the second proposition is true then we can and must assume the terrible responsibility of becoming a god—able to comprehend the whole world with nothing more than our own minds.
There is usually a great difference between what is true and what we wish were true, and so our biases always weigh upon which proposition is preferred. The question of finitude, of whether or not man is subject to limits, hinges upon choosing between these dreadful propositions. For better or worse, it is the world that will be formed by that choice.
A DIAGRAM OF CHOICE AND SCARCITY
By its very nature, choice pre-supposes the existence of limits. When the buffet and the stomach are infinite, choice is neither necessary nor possible, but when either is finite an order must immediately be established to account for the shortness of the table or the smallness of the stomach.
The economist, believing as he does in scarcity, has explained the nature of choice and its relationship to scarcity, and of the fact that scarcity is the frame in which choices are made. That framework creates the necessity of order so that the good life might be lived within the possibilities presented to finite persons in a finite world.
The economist has illustrated the relationship between choice and scarcity with a curve he calls the Production Possibility Frontier—which sounds daunting but is so simple that even a two-year-old is aware of its effects.
The economist explains his idea by simplifying the world to two productive possibilities: guns and butter.
His curve neatly explains the allocation choices in this simple two-product society, where everyone and their capital are employed so that any increase in the production of guns necessarily draws resources away from butter and vice-versa. Peak efficiency is on the curve itself, whereas inefficiency lies inside the curve and indicates that more butter or guns could be produced without sacrificing the production of either. From the curve inward is what is possible. Beyond the curve is production that is unattainable—there simply isn’t enough ore, cream, capital, labor, or technology to produce at those levels. Moving the production frontier outward requires either more resources or, barring that, technological progress in changing inputs into outputs.
But some production is permanently unattainable. Only the fantasist would waste his time trying to accumulate ten times the gold that actually exists in the world, and yet time and again investors are fooled by men making promises for unattainable returns based on an imaginary universe.
It is far easier for the production frontier to contract, as when the labor force shrinks, raw materials become depleted, or a disaster—natural or manmade—destroys resources.
At any given moment, our two-product society may make any allocation choice it wishes from the curve going inward. The curve, then, is the frontier for society’s choices and a map of the relationship between choice and scarcity.
The economist over-simplifies his explanation so that the complexity of the real world will not overwhelm our understanding of opportunity cost. It turns out, however, that a simple two-variable world is the reality for man and his citizenship—and that a refusal to see the relationship between our choices and their costs is one of the defining features of our modern age.
SPACE, TIME AND FRIENDSHIP
Despite our fervent wishes otherwise, man is finite. The scale of our planet, its mass (and by extension the gravitational force of that mass), its spin, its relationships between continent and sea—all of these and more create parameters of force within which life is necessarily framed. These forces exert themselves upon animals, vegetables and minerals—including the figure of man. D’Arcy Thompson spoke of the form of an object as a “diagram of forces” because “matter as such produces nothing, changes nothing, does nothing.”
These forces, understood as a law of nature dictating the appropriate size and scale of all things became what Galileo called the Principle of Similitude. It explains why a mouse may fall off of the Empire State Building and land without a scratch because its body acts as a parachute relative to its small mass, while the elephant cannot survive a fall of ten feet because the increase in his surface area—10,000 times that of the mouse—is only a fraction of the million-fold increase in his mass.
And it all happens because the surface of a thing and the volume of a thing increase at different rates—the surface increasing as the square while the three-dimensional volume (and its corresponding mass) increases as the cube.
The Principle of Similitude explains how planets impose a most convenient size on their inhabitants, as an elephant could scamper about the moon on giraffe legs but would need legs the width of a redwood tree to walk on Jupiter; why an insect doesn’t need lungs—the surface area of its body being sufficient to absorb all of the oxygen it needs—but increasing creaturely dimensions by 100 times in all directions (1003) increases the volume of the creature by a million, which volume necessitates that man needs 100 square yards of lung tissue that is internal to him, there not being enough skin to do the job otherwise.
The most convenient size for man gives him a particular place in the world, one in which the length of his stride, the reach of his arm, the acuity of his senses, the length of his life and, most significantly, his cognitive capacity are finite—hemmed in by the very nature of the world and his relationship to it.
All of which means that choices are necessary and that order is therefore an obligation.
Consider, for a moment, the relationship between time and friendship. Even a child is intuitively aware that tradeoffs are embedded in the time spent with loved ones, acquaintances and strangers.
Like sunlight which comes to us a little bit each day, the dimension of time can only be received on its own terms. Wealth can be hoarded, but none of us can add even one tick of the clock to our holdings in time.
This difference between how we may use the three dimensions of space versus the fourth dimension of time impinges on us in several unique ways, because the three dimensions of any particular space are evitable dimensions—capable of being avoided—whereas time is the inevitable dimension. We may, for example, lend out the three dimensions of our beach home to a friend, but no man may lend even one second of “spare” fourth-dimensional time to another—there is none to lend.
This places humans into an interesting dilemma wherein we must match our finite time with the (practically) infinite number of persons with whom we might share it—as meeting the planet’s current population face-to-face would consume more than 200 years if we spent even a single second with each one.
Our solution to this dilemma is friendship. And because our time is finite and limited, so too are the number of friendships which we judge to be “best.”
Best friends are therefore those in whom one has invested significant time to the exclusion of all others. And unlike the economist’s production curve which can be expanded by more resources or better technology, the frontier of time and its allocation between friends and strangers cannot be expanded beyond a certain point. There are, in other words, many points that are permanently unattainable—such as the fantasy of having a thousand best friends.
But where the frontier of time cannot be extended by much, it can most certainly contract—and the ramifications of that fact could not be more critical to citizenship.
A man could conceivably own everything “as far as the eye can see,” but no man can own more than his allotted time. He is presented instead with an impassable Frontier of Time Possibilities which demand his attention, his prudence—and his choices.
Because of the nature of human development, the length of gestation and the time required to reach adulthood, every person necessarily emerges out of a shared setting, beginning with the shared body of the mother, a bit later, the family, and finally the community at large. The nature and the fragility of infants and children requires a community, one that invests exclusive time in its members—and necessarily does so by not investing time in outsiders.
A tradeoff imposes itself upon time invested in the familiar and time invested in the exotic. The tradeoff dictates that there is a frontier governing such things so that one may become intimate with a few close friends or one may have a shallow relationship with many. Deep relationships with everyone are permanently unattainable because of human limits and the nature of time.
Diagramming the possibilities reveals a symmetry for four characters—between citizens and traitors, and between misanthropes and cosmopolitans. The character of the classical citizen has a high regard for the small circle of persons with whom he is easily familiar, but giving trust to his familiars necessarily shifts time and therefore trust away from the stranger, whose motivations must of necessity remain mysterious and unknowable.
At the opposite end of the scale from the citizen is the traitor, who gives his time to many persons but can therefore claim no deep friendship or loyalty to anyone in particular.
Juxtaposed against these possibilities are the misanthrope, who invests his time and his cares in no one but himself, and the cosmopolitan who would love the whole world if he could.
It will easily be seen that these four characters are related to the allocation of time one invests in relationships with the deeply familiar few or the unknowable many.
As with our frontier of time possibilities, there now emerges a frontier of trust possibilities. The curve itself represents the best we can do within our limited time resources. The egoist is the alter-ego to the misanthrope, for in over-esteeming himself he necessarily has nothing left for the esteem of others. In this we can see that the misanthrope represents a point of inefficiency—he would even be better off with the shallow friendships of a traitor!
We can also see that the level of trust for the cosmopolitan disposition is permanently unattainable because human limits and the nature of time preclude our having deep relationships with every member of the human race—and yet deep trust for others is essential to human thriving. A compromise must be made between our deep-seated inclination to trust others and the fact that deep trust cannot be extended to all. That compromise is citizenship.
The citizen begins with two intuitions: that the good life requires friendship and trust; and that his limits prevent his trusting everyone. For the citizen, then, the bond between the good life and friendship means that friendship is an end in and of itself.
His counterpart, the traitor, has imagined a world in which friendship is a means for increasing one’s advantage. He is a consummate networker, whose cunning can exploit the citizenship in others to further his infinite ends. He therefore seeks a relationship with as many strangers as possible. Paradoxically, his advantage is maximized when he has many relationships with self-limiting citizens rather than self-maximizing traitors. It is because the traitor needs to be seen by others as a fellow citizen that he has an incentive to deceive the citizen regarding the depth of his affection.
The citizen and the traitor are mirror images of one another. Because the citizen begins with the presumption of his mortal limits, he finds himself drawn to the logic of mutual and limited advantage; whereas because the traitor rejects limits, he finds himself drawn to the fantasy logic of mutual and infinite advantage.
It should be apparent that five of modern man’s institutions—the international corporation, the national labor union, the federal agency, the non-governmental agency and the national media—are at heart egoistic creatures whose highest aim is to further the concentration and control of their own peculiar interests. In this they bear a resemblance to the character of the traitor in that their loyalties are always matters of convenience and profit rather than of friendship and trust. The functions of trust and friendship upon which the citizen depends are constraints upon the thriving of institutions and so must be replaced by dispassionate laws and self-possessed regulations.
As with traitors, these modern institutions cannot confine themselves to choices and tradeoffs that are obvious to the rational citizen because—unlike the mere citizen—they can conceive no theoretical limit upon their appetite. Their aim therefore goes beyond the citizen’s impassable frontier of choices and seeks to capture permanently unattainable aspirations.
Their language reflects this fact, for they are fluent in the language of the cosmopolitan delusion. And because self-perpetuation and unconstrained power are their loves, their language closely tracks the sentiments expressed in general polls and popular opinions while being wholly uninterested in the particular persons behind them. They are therefore motivated to “love” the whole world because it profits them to do so.
Curiously, it is the limit itself which saves the citizen from delusion. Short of lengthening our stride, extending our reach or enlarging the neocortical volume of our brain, we can do no better than citizenship. We can, however, do far worse.
Consider, for a moment, the juxtaposition of attitudes and dispositions to the familiar and the strange. On the vertical axis is mapped the disposition one holds for one’s home or settlement—oikos in Greek—which ranges between oikophobia (the absence of trust in one’s home) to oikophilia, the love or affection for one’s home. (I am indebted to Roger Scruton for coining these terms.)
On the horizontal axis is mapped the disposition toward the stranger—xenos in Greek—which ranges between xenophobia, the absence of trust in the stranger, to xenophilia, a preference for strangers.
One’s disposition to trust may be maximized anywhere along the curve mapping the frontier of trust—and that trust can potentially exist in three of the four character quadrants. Note, however, that one may not move into the cosmopolitan quadrant without decreasing the trust one has for either the familiar or the strange.
Modern man no longer believes in his personal mortal limits. His disbelief places him in the uncomfortable position of denying the existence of scarcity or of his need to rank and order choices because of it.
He prefers a world in which his bottomless wants can be infinitely satisfied, and so he is angered when confronted with a limit—or a person who believes in limits, or a culture that defines itself, all of which are the same thing, really, because the act of “defining” something requires an ability to say both what a thing is as well as what it is not.
Of the two dreadful propositions, modern man prefers the latter—God does not exist. He prefers it because it releases his ego from the finitudes that would otherwise enclose and humble it. When unrestrained, his self-regard leads him to the logical conclusion that he has become a cosmopolitan, able to comprehend all. When perfected, his cosmopolitan disposition qualifies him to rule all.
But modern man’s slow and steady movement away from membership in a community of persons and towards membership in a “community” of egoists has not remade him into a cosmopolitan man-of-the-world. He has, rather fatefully, become a traitor. He is fascinated by strangers from far away while hating the neighbor across his street.
And he will not tolerate a citizen from an actual community.
As mentioned before, the economist’s production frontier can contract due to a shrinkage in the labor force, depletion of raw materials or a resource-destroying disaster. But there is another possibility—the risk of a technological setback, such as a society’s collective loss of its past achievements. Though infrequent, there is a history for such events—as with the contraction of society during the Dark Ages following the collapse of the Roman Empire.
In his friendships modern man has suffered just such a setback, for he has forgotten what citizenship is. In his rush to replace his local loyalty with a shallow commitment to the world, he has lost goods that are peculiar to local places, while the world—far from replacing those goods with something better—devastates and lays waste to the remnants of his soul.
Instead of enlarging his frontier of trust, his movement into egoism has actually contracted it.
Rather than move himself nearer to the cosmopolitan delusion, modern man has lost the advantages of both the citizen and the traitor.
In failing to believe in limits, in declining to acknowledge that choices come with costs, modern man has arrived at a curious place, because it is his very confidence in infinite self-enlargement and the achievement of permanently unattainable points of control that destines him to become a misanthrope who cannot even rise to the level of a traitor—a creature who, for all of his pathetic qualities, can at least gloat about his trivial relationships with innumerable persons.
And because modern man’s devolution into misanthropy and egoism is invisible to him, because he believes that he has gained ground when in fact he has lost ground, citizenship and its puny limitations have neither an appeal nor a place in his stratagems.
While citizens always possess a prejudicial and bigoted disposition towards the stranger—which is to say they naturally mistrust those whom they do not know—it does not necessarily follow that the stranger will suffer from the mistrust.
One of the deeper mysteries of the Christian faith is the disposition of a God who hates sin but loves sinners. It is a mystery so unfathomable as to confound and confuse the doctors of theology. Naturally the traitor, the misanthrope and the non-existent cosmopolitan can make neither heads nor tails of it, and so they disbelieve the existence of the disposition outright.
And yet that disposition—love, we call it—is the default trademark and distinction of every citizen who ever lived, primitive or advanced. It is the disposition that even pagan fathers feel towards sons who have cursed them, or that aboriginal mothers have for daughters who abandoned them.
All orders carry within themselves a judgment, and it is only when love stands transcendently atop the citizen’s order that judgment has a rational basis. It is only after he loves particular people that the citizen can logically judge them—and it is only after he has learned to judge his familiars that he becomes qualified to judge the stranger whom he does not know.
When extended to the stranger, the paradoxical disposition becomes that form of love known as hospitality, which has been observed in many cultures, times and places around the world. With it, the citizen’s terrible judgment of the stranger remains intact—even while he welcomes that same stranger into his home.
In this regard it is the stranger who becomes a crucial litmus test for evaluating the order of a particular citizen and his community. Only when a true citizen comes into contact with the formless and unknowable stranger is love’s potential fully revealed in the gifts that are either given or withheld. When the stranger is our equal, gifts are unnecessary. What gift could we give to the man who is our equal? His very equality eliminates the need for a gift as surely as it eliminates the need for a gift-giver.
The man possessing one loaf of bread makes neither sacrifice nor gift in giving half of it to the stranger who also possesses a loaf of bread. Inequality, then, is the essential qualification for gifts and gift-givers. As an idea, inequality follows from an observation of scarcity in the material world, the observation necessitates an action, gift-giving, to achieve an end, citizenship. None of these can be rightly conceived as separate things, which means that the problem of inequality cannot be mitigated without citizenship.
Because it rejects limits, modernity regards inequality as a problem to be solved rather than mitigated. It therefore sees citizenship as an impediment to that solution—one to be eliminated if at all possible.
The citizen begins with the fact of his finitude and proceeds from there to consider how his choices may be ordered between better or worse. Judgment logically arises out of the existence of limits, therefore, citizens judge.
A very different virtue is required for the infinite self-regard of traitors, misanthropes and cosmopolitan fantasists: Tolerance. As a virtue, it comically ignores the reality of scarcity, and based upon this implausible logic levels all persons to stultifying sameness so that egoism and self-regard may be vindicated. It requires the prohibition of judgment, and by extension, of citizenship as well. The byproduct of such a prohibition must naturally also include the negation of gifts and gift-givers.
Because the voluntary nature of a gift carries within it a potential blemish on the perfect society, and because social perfection is the goal of a people who no longer believe themselves limited to achieve it, the voluntary—and therefore unpredictable—nature of choice is a thing to be removed from any true utopia. For the society in which everyone is a stranger, the gift formerly located in every social exchange must be replaced with a price. The tolerant society of strangers necessarily develops an obsession with rules for transferring wealth and therefore embroils itself in endless debate regarding wages, taxes and externalized costs.
Price, it turns out, is the price that must be paid to live in a society of strangers.
The willingness of a citizen to extend his hospitality to the stranger whom he does not entirely trust is fairly common in history, place and people. It isn’t universal by any means, but even a primitive and pagan hospitality can confer a love upon strangers that is inconceivable under a regime of tolerance in a society of strangers.
Only in a world of limits is the citizen a gift-bearing creature—and only hospitality and its gifts carry within them the potential of turning the stranger into our friend.
It was only last month that an ordinary Christian man made the mistake of saying his principles out loud. Being principles, they naturally circumscribed his choices and ordered them. Being particular principles attached to a small and particular group of citizens, they naturally came across as offensive gibberish to the traitors and misanthropes who style themselves as cosmopolitans.
On several occasions that Christian man found himself criticized by fellow Christians who self-identify as citizens, but who mistakenly speak in the fantasy language of the cosmopolitan delusion without being conscious of it, or of the fact that doing so requires a retreat away from citizenship. This, it turns out, is yet another dilemma for modern Christianity, whose missionary confidence has led some to believe that mere mortal man is an adequate vessel for restoring Eden on earth. Indeed, it is likely the case that peculiar strains of modern Christianity are the source of the cosmopolitan delusion—a mistaken confidence that the machinery of legislation and bureaucracy can restore a pre-lapsarian condition to this world. But the limits preventing the achievement of permanently unattainable conditions apply to the Children of God as surely as they apply to pagans, heretics and apostates.
Tellingly, when asked “who is my neighbor?” Christ responded with a parable in which the neighbor (“one who is nigh” in Old Saxon) was not simply the white-trash Samaritan who “showed mercy” to a wounded stranger—it was the man who was “nigh”—literally the one who was near enough to give the gift of mercy.
Citizenship inevitably begins with those who are nigh—the modern consequence of being nigh to no one is the inevitable end of citizenship.
Tautological as it may be, only those who order things can judge, because ordering presupposes that things can be better or worse, and that good may be distinguished from evil. This places the cosmopolitan fantasist into a trick box where his fantasy-cosmos must also include fantasy-epicycles, because he wishes to judge those who order things by asserting that no one can pass a judgment! His language is therefore a spectacular set of nested oxymorons.
Traitors and misanthropes have no good higher than themselves and so the stranger’s potential is never more than a means for justifying that small good. With love at the top of its order of goods, citizenship reverses this flow by presuming personhood in others—including the incomprehensible stranger.
Whenever a citizen makes a judgment, then, the crucial question is not whether his assertion was right or wrong, but rather what transcendent concept makes the judgment possible, and what transcendent action is required in light of that judgment.
When a citizen extends hospitality to the stranger, the person within the stranger becomes more important than the principles within the stranger. Tolerance inverts this notion so that the principles within the stranger are more important than the person. Only the citizen and his potential for hospitality is up to the difficult task of putting people first, because the citizen is capable of giving hospitality to the traitor whom he will not tolerate while the traitor can give no better than tolerance to the citizen whom he will not love. The sources of these competing virtues could not be more stark, because hospitality comes from a transcendent concept larger than and outside of any mere citizen, whereas the source of tolerance is confined to the traitor’s own small heart.
This is why two citizens who utterly oppose one another’s value systems may find common ground in one another’s personhood, while traitors and misanthropes must strain to avoid one another’s convictions, and in succeeding create the oxymoronic society of strangers.
For the citizen, love is the transcendent concept and hospitality the transcendent act ordering judgments both against and in favor of strangers.
Real cultures and their citizens say offensive things about strangers. They do so because they must, because they are—every last one of them—debarred from knowing or understanding the motivations of everyone, and because citizenship is finally located in a world of limits from which there is no escape. The language of the citizen is necessarily rough on outsiders, whereas the language of political correctness, seeking an embargo against judgment of any kind, finally entombs man within, as Walker Percy put it, “a cocoon of dead silence, in which no one can speak to him nor can he reply.”
It is because of their limits that citizens are paradoxically free to meet strangers in conversation, free to judge them, and ultimately, free to love them. Citizens have judgments to make, and love for those they do not trust is the verification of these judgments. Loving the stranger is a choice that is—tragically—too seldom made.
But within the freedom to make such a choice lies a very great hope.