The crisis of confidence in Western institutions can be described as a crisis of morality. The public has discovered that many public figures are shams. The #MeToo sex scandals, the accusations of collaborating with foreign powers, and most recently the Epstein case have undermined the reputation of our social betters. They are perceived are no better than the common clay and probably a good deal worse. This has undermined the trust that formerly allowed them to exercise authority over the public. McKay Coppins in The Atlantic writes:
Mark Fenster, a professor at the University of Florida who has studied the history of conspiracy theories, told me the current prevalence of paranoid thinking across the political spectrum makes this period unusual. Typically, he said, the party that’s out of power is more prone to conspiracy theories. But in the Trump era, everyone—right, left, and center—seems to suspect corrupt machinations at the highest levels of society. And, really, can they be blamed?
As Matthew Walther recently wrote at The Week, the Epstein story doesn’t fit neatly into any of the dominant partisan-media narratives. The bad guys belong to both parties. Trump is linked to Epstein, but so is former President Bill Clinton. The case has less to do with any political tribe and more to do with class and status. The story, as it’s been alleged, is one of rich, powerful men careening through the world with complete impunity, treating the young and the vulnerable as props, and protecting one another from accountability.
The obsession with morality comes just when it was supposed to be passe. As the British Marxist Chris Harman explained, what mattered was where you stood politically not what you did personally. “Marx saw that what is of cardinal importance is not the personal behavior of the individual but the struggle between social forces, not personal morality but the fight to establish the good society.”
Perhaps no one exemplified this more than Mao Tse Tung, a sex maniac and pedophile who was worshiped by millions of people. As an article in the Los Angeles Times noted, Mao had a line of beauties dance before his “custom-built, sloping, wooden bed” to select his consort for the night. But that was alright because of his politics. His wife Jiang Qing “appeared to have accepted that her husband’s high calling gave him the right to a personal life exactly as he pleased.” That license was expressed in the Vietnam-era poster Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say No. In view of that background, one of the most significant developments in recent years is how “high calling” or class morality is no longer exculpatory.
Christine Pelosi warned Democrats that some of their favorite people could be caught up in the sex trafficking case against Jeffrey Epstein in a tweet Saturday just hours after the politically connected financier was arrested.
Ms. Pelsoi, a Democratic National Committee official and daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said members of both parties should follow the facts regardless of who was implicated.
“This Epstein case is horrific and the young women deserve justice. It is quite likely that some of our faves are implicated but we must follow the facts and let the chips fall where they may – whether on Republicans or Democrats,” she tweeted.
What changed was the realization that without morality there is no trust and without trust, nothing works. Unchecked, this will result in a low-trust society where nobody can rely on the formal rules and reliance is placed on nepotism, tribalism, personal loyalty, and threats to transact business at all.
Traditionally the solution to the problem of immorality has been the diffusion of power. Thus the current crisis of morality signifies a crisis in the containment of power. Many of the old checks and balances that once curbed power have been weakened by “changing cultural mores” which expanded the role of Big Government into areas once proscribed by religious taboo. The compartmentalization of formal structures was compromised by international travel, financial mobility, and ubiquitous telecommunications.
Jeffrey Epstein’s little black book is a map of a social network whose power can outflank most walls. It had a list of Hollywood, royalty, political consultants, billionaires, publishers, financiers, entertainers, foreign world leaders, American presidents, state governors, politicians, corporate executives, influential scientists, rock stars, lawyers, Nobel Prize winners, comic book moguls, socialites by the dozen, comedians and of course fixers and assorted low characters. There are dozens of similar social networks in the world. Some are even more powerful.
Bringing power under control again will require expanding the scope of trustless systems and reestablishing a stable moral currency. Readers will recall that such systems don’t actually do away with trust. They simply move it away from one actor to a system where provenance, transaction, and state can be verified independently by anyone through the mathematical security of cryptography. The idea is that you don’t have to trust if you can verify.
But while systems can capture what is through the blockchain and other devices, no amount of technology can say how things ought to be without postulating a set of values. “Christian writer and medievalist C. S. Lewis made the argument in his popular book Mere Christianity that if a supernatural, objective standard of right and wrong does not exist outside of the natural world, then right and wrong becomes mired in the is-ought problem. Thus, he wrote, preferences for one moral standard over another become as inherently indefensible and arbitrary as preferring a certain flavor of food over another or choosing to drive on a certain side of a road.”
Attempts to supplant the moral currency based on religious tradition has invariably taken the form of substitute creeds. “The Cult of Reason was France’s first established state-sponsored atheistic religion, intended as a replacement for Catholicism during the French Revolution. After holding sway for barely a year, in 1794 it was officially replaced by the rival Cult of the Supreme Being, promoted by Robespierre.” But it would not be the last. Ideologies like communism and political correctness became religions in all but name in their attempts to mint moral coin for the realm.
The great advantage of morality based on the Judaeo-Christian tradition is stability. By claiming roots outside the human systems, traditional values like the gold standard change but little over years. It is very difficult for elites to “print” new morals to enhance their power and privilege. But replacement religions are not similarly constrained. They have the inherent defect of incentivizing constant changes to obtain political advantage. Their biggest problem is preventing those in charge of the new morality supply from creating ever more values leading to runaway inflation.
In a moral vacuum, the power of elite social networks consists in concealing the “is” while defining the “ought.” This is enormously powerful. Already it has proved impossible to cap the number of genders. The epithets “racist” and “Nazi” are applied to an ever-growing number of people who find themselves guilty of offenses that didn’t even exist until recently. It is so powerful it even knocks over the woke. Progressive actress Sarah Silverman “was recently fired from a movie over an old photo of her in blackface … snapped on the set of ‘The Sarah Silverman Show’ in 2007 … the comedian, 48 … said it has left her feeling scared because no one is given a second chance.”
She should be scared. In a society without external reference, the question is not what is right or wrong but who has the most powerful social network.
The instability of moral currency combined with the immutable record-keeping of blockchain systems creates the worst of all possible environments: one in which people are irrefutably responsible for acts that may become retroactively reprehensible. Today’s hero can easily be tomorrow’s racist. You live in fear. Just as money is the measuring stick of economic values a stable morality is the necessary metric of political and social action. Without it, you can have terror but not trust.
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The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
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The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
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Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific.