Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Happiness and the Discontent with the Present

My dentist is very talkative, and during a recent visit our recent conversation concerned the new equipment in his office. Immediately after your teeth are x-rayed, the result is posted to the computer in enlarged format. No more waiting for development, no more holding up tiny negativess to the light and trying to see what the tiny dark spots in the lighter areas indicate.

"Isn't modern technology marvelous?" I say.

"Well, yes, " he responds, "but ..."

Even before he started to speak, I knew there would be a "but." Doctor R is  an interesting mixture, an extreme environmentalist who is, at the same time, anti-government. (I suspect he is a "Paulista" and probably packs a gun.) Thus, my question was a bit of a bait.

"Well, yes," he says, "but if you consider the atomic bomb ..." He leaves it at that.

I was referring to the marvels of medical technology, say, the laporoscopic surgery by which my gall bladder was removed seven years ago. Instead of undergoing a big abdominal gash to remove the offending organ, followed by a week in the hospital (risking infections) and who knows what kind of recovery, I was operated on in the morning and went home before dinner.

How easy life is today compared to 200, even 100, years ago! Dental braces, dialysis machines, not to forget the iPod, the computer, and the cell phone: few in 2008 would wish to return to the condition of 1908, when a man's life span was fifty years (and a woman's much shorter), compared to almost eighty today. It is no understatement to speak of "progress" in connection with the past two centuries: for people living in 1908, enjoying the benefits of efficient indoor plumbing (Thomas Crapper, c. 1880), antiseptics, aspirin, and elevators, the way of life of 1807 would have seemed positively backward.

I haven't asked Doctor R what he thinks about energy exploration, but I suspect he thinks that man has messed up the earth. There is much nostalgia among environmentalists in their desire to maintain the earth in an unchanging state, if not to return it to a pristine condition. Yet who would go back in time to 1908 when gall bladder surgery would have probably been fatal? (Could gall bladder problems have even been diagnosed back then?) Would we want to live when, if we lost a front tooth, we could not get a new one that looks even better than the original? Would we agree to live in an age without anesthetics or aspirin?

Goethe lived to the ripe old age of 82, but his friend and fellow poet Friedrich Schiller died at forty-six in 1806 already of something that could have been cured by a week of antibiotics.

Now, there are also people who have what might be called a nostalgia for the future. They are "utopians," who like to project a future unburdened with the problems of the present. In the utopian future, the earth will be protected from the ravages of mankind, including the worst ravage of all, war. There will be no war because the lion will lie down with the lamb.

As with returning to the past, however, there will be trade offs. We will still have antibiotics, but, since they will be free, everyone will want them; but since demand will exceed supply, not everyone will get them. This restriction will apply to all the products invented by human ingenuity and hard work in the last 200 years. New criteria for receiving these products (besides ability to pay) will be applied.

What will those criteria be?

One system is that of John Rawls, a favorite philosopher of liberals. In a book entitled A Theory of Justice, he designs a social contract that reconciles liberty and equality. Starting from a hypothetical "original position," members of society will choose those principles for living together that will allow the most liberty and equality to members, with the proviso that you will not know what position in society you will occupy in the resulting society. In other words, you might be a princess or a pauper, a hedge fund manger or a newspaper vendor. Rawls was of the opinion that people would choose to abolish the kinds of social inequalities that exist because, well, because of the fact that some people are smarter (more beautiful, talented, etc.) than others. In other words, his system will penalize people who, traditionally, work hard for their success. It leaves out of account that people might not want to continue working to produce the things that have made them wealthy -- and the lives of the rest of us easier -- if they are not going to be rewarded. The social justice set (which includes many Americans) sees society as a zero sum game: if I am rich, I am taking away your share.

Every age has its trade offs, but we only live when we live. Just as most of us would not like to return to the past, before we design a new future we should keep in mind that we might not like the future we get. Think back on the bright futures promised by so many well-intentioned programs, including (in my own lifetime) the "Great Society." Have they done what they set out to do? Or have they produced more problems that people are now wishing to escape into new future visions?

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