The Limits of the Language of Limits


Holland, MI

Over at the Postmodern Conservative, Peter Lawler has been writing quite a bit about Robin Williams, and specifically the movie Dead Poets Society (which, Peter and I agree, isn’t that good a movie). In this context Lawler has turned his attention to Whitman, and particularly Whitman’s reading of Lincoln.

Rather than getting into Lincoln’s politics, and our mutual distaste for Whitman’s public theology, Lawler uses the invocation of Whitman to note his greatest contribution to American politics: the refusal to accept limits as determinative. 

“For we followers of Whitman, there are no limits to what Americans might achieve through a free economy and technological ingenuity. America ‘works’ only with confidence in economic growth and technological innovation dissolving or at least ameliorating seemingly intractable human problems.”

An overt concern with limits is dismissed by Lawler as “old-world” thinking, recalling Tocqueville’s claim that a new science of politics is needed for a world that is wholly new, a world, presumably, where the problems of scarcity, if not solved, are at least domesticated. And while Lawler is careful to note that “too little concern with limits may be fatal too,” thus having it both ways, he chastises his “Porcher friends” with perceiving limits “that aren’t really there,” such as considerations about peak oil. The devil is in the details, of course, but I want to defend us against charges of blindness.

I think it is useful in response to defend a “Porcher idea of limits,” since the word does, after all, appear in our three-word tagline. The idea of there being no limits to what can be achieved by a free economy and technological ingenuity is, to say the least, unnerving. I offer this defense along two lines: first, with reference to the idea of limits itself; and, second, by suggesting that not all limits are created equal.

The comedian John Oliver has an entertaining bit where he  discusses the “fact” that America is deeply indebted and has high unemployment, and that things look bad for us, “but these are just facts,” he says, “and America has never been about facts. It’s about belief.” But facts, as it has been said, are stubborn things. We can keep pushing the limits, but eventually they’ll have their say.

It’s important to distinguish between the limits themselves and what we know of them. There is, for example, a limit on fossil fuels. I’m not sure exactly what those limits are – they’re probably somewhere between the predictions of the direst peak-oil expert and the most optimistic techno-salvation prophet, but in any case, it is a finite resource. As the finite resource becomes more scarce, it will have significant consequences for our politics and standard of living. What consequences? I don’t know, exactly, but when a whole economy, including a food economy, is based upon the availability of cheap oil, it’s a safe bet than the consequences will be severe.

Likewise, there are likely limits upon the earth’s carrying capacity of human population. What are those limits? I don’t know. It depends, in part, on what standard of living you want all those persons to have. If some global political and economic equality is important to you, the number is probably lower. I’m suspicious of neo-Malthusian fixings of the number, as I am of their predictions that overpopulation will be pared by war and disease. Like Lawler, I think not reproducing seems to be the bigger human problem these days. But in any case, it seems unlikely that the globe can carry 7 billion people at the standard of living of the average middle-class American.

There are limits to how much government can spend without getting into a debt death-spiral. The government is borrowing right now at anomalously low interest rates. As debt increases, so will the rates, and each percentage point increase will dramatically increase interest payments, meaning government has less to spend on other things. Economists often posit the 90% debt-to-GDP ratio as a tipping point where debt produces overwhelming drag on growth. Whatever the exact number is, “confidence in economic growth” is likely to be scuttled by the facts that growth has limits, and by the fact that not all growth is good growth.

Lawler acknowledges that there “natural limits” and “finite natural resources,” but it is not clear how this acknowledgement shapes his actual prescriptions. He places a good deal deal of confidence in technological innovations as ameliorating the problems posed by such natural limits.

But these innovations are not neutral, and as someone who has read more than his share of Heidegger, Lawler knows this. For one thing, innovations often create need for more innovations, creating a cycle that will ultimately lead us back to natural limits, such as the availability of silicon, for example. An example familiar to us on the Porch is technological innovations as pertains to farming. To increase yield, farmers will use larger machines, which compact the soil requiring ever-larger machines, short-term land-management techniques, which lead to run-off, and increased use of pesticides. All of these lead to serious soil degradation, the long-term consequences of which are somewhere between deleterious and disastrous. None of this even calculates how innovations might contribute to potentially catastrophic climatic issues.

Furthermore, these innovations are not innocuous. They reshape our social environment and, in some ways, even ourselves. As the distance between us and our techno-machines becomes ever smaller, so does the realm of human freedom. Consider the emerging literature on how “big data” will transform “how we live, work, and think.” Or consider how employers are increasingly using survey technology to monitor employees not only during the workday, but off-site as well. Consider how increased use of computers and cell-phones alters personalities, rewires our brains, and disrupts normal social comity. Lawler has addressed many of these issues in his writing, and I have sympathy for the “stuck with virtue” argument, but also see that as putting the best face on a techno-dystopia. It is not communal, humane living as Porchers understand it, and neither do we see it as ineluctable.

We are surrounded by these natural limits, the nature of which are occluded to us by our own ignorance and our willful denial. But, reality doesn’t care whether we acknowledge these limits. They will have their say. Sometimes building a better mousetrap just means you are going to get bigger and smarter mice.

Not all limits, as I said, are created equal. Limits on population, wealth generation, fuel availability, climate change, and food and water supplies are of a different order than arguments concerning the limits of educational resources, health care, or home sizes. One can go further down the pecking order and find limits that are real, but inconsequential for the life of the nation. But the first list is not. Part of a conversation about limits involves determining what are the limits that really matter, what are their limits, and how we can live flourishing lives within them. But a key is mindfulness of the fact that technological innovations might be short-term solution while they create demonstrable long-term complications. Additionally, and more importantly, such innovations have unintended or unknown consequences that can make them net losses for the social good. Even if they seem to have immediate benefits, the unknown costs might be too high. This is one of the reasons Oakeshott suggests that conservatives are always skeptical of innovation.

Finally, there is the issue of metaphysical limits. Knowing yourself means, in part, knowing that you are human and not a god. It means accepting the limits imposed by things out of your control, finitude, and death itself. But I don’t think Lawler and I would disagree on that.

It is foolish to reject change: it’s part of life. But it’s equally foolish to accept innovations and material prosperity because of the promises made, or because we are dazzled by their apparent brilliance. Living within limits requires careful discernment of the finite parameters of our lives that create the richness and meaning of a life well-lived, and an appropriate skepticism of anything that threatens to alter those parameters. If someone is going to disrupt life on my porch, they better have damn compelling reasons for doing so. As Oakeshott said, I’m not inclined to trade off certain loss for uncertain gain. And I’m in any case pretty content with the simple pleasures of music, conversation, and mutual engagement, so long as it isn’t interrupted by idiot TV and cell phone texts.

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