While most of our public policy debates break down along numbingly familiar ideological lines, occasionally an issue will arise where pretty much everyone is in agreement. When bailed-out bankers award themselves bonuses, or the price of a basic-necessity item suddenly spikes for no good reason, we're virtually unanimous in responding: That's not OK.
As Peter Corning argues in his new book, The Fair Society, such actions violate a fundamental sense of fairness that appears to be hard-wired in the human psyche. He points out that "Do unto others," or some other variation on the golden rule, is a tenet of every major religion, as well as a preoccupation of Plato (whom Corning quotes frequently and effectively).
This innate desire for fair play could serve as the basis of a new consensus regarding how we organize society and meet the challenges of the future. That's what Corning — a former Stanford-based academic who is now a journalist, blogger and all-around big thinker — argues in his thoughtful, provocative book. His work is strongly grounded in evolutionary theory but scornful of the "selfish gene" hypothesis that says we are solely driven by individual self-interest.
Rather, he argues, humans long ago realized the best way to ensure survival was to form "closely cooperating and intensely interdependent groups with a high degree of sharing, reciprocity and mutual aid." This strategy, he adds, "favored the evolution of such pro-social attributes as empathy, the willingness to aid the others in your group, and a concern for the harmony and well-being of the group as a whole. Call it patriotism."
His brisk, impressively lucid discussion of this notion serves as a highly effective counterweight to both leftist dogma and the Ayn Rand doctrine that has recently infested conservative thought. Both free-market capitalism and socialism, he argues, are outmoded theories, inconsistent with what we now understand about human needs and desires.
"Human societies are not simply a marketplace or an aggregation of isolated individuals seeking to exploit one another or to be free from one another," he writes, summarizing a common thread in recent psychological research. "Humans are fundamentally social animals who are shaped by, and benefit from, participation in the life of the community."
With this in mind, Corning proposes a "biosocial contract" based on three equally important concepts:
• Goods and services must be distributed to each of us according to our basic needs. (In this, there must be equality.)
• Surpluses beyond the provisioning of our basic needs must be distributed according to merit. (There must also be equity.)
• In return, each of us is obligated to contribute proportionately to the collective survival enterprise in accordance with our ability. (There must be reciprocity.)
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
In theory, this framework provides something for both the right and left. It cements the notion that every citizen has the right to have his or her basic survival needs met. But beyond that point, additional benefits should be distributed on the basis of one's skills, drive and productivity (much as the free market does today, however imperfectly). Finally, everyone must understand they have an obligation to help maintain or improve society as a whole, which could be fulfilled through some combination of taxes and community service work.
If his proposal doesn't sound all that radical, it isn't: Corning acknowledges that a similar set of rules and norms can be found in some Northern European nations. And of course, it would hardly bring harmony; left-right arguments would simply be recast in slightly different terms. (Is a high-speed Internet connection a basic survival need that should be guaranteed for all, or a perk that one would have to earn?) But he convincingly argues that framing our political debates in this way would provide helpful clarity. An overt set of agreed-upon principles could serve as a unifying force, even if our interpretations of those principles vary widely.
But he fails to adequately address one huge problem. Corning notes in passing that, as a result of the same evolutionary adaptations that favored in-group cohesion, we developed a propensity to feel fear and hostility toward outsiders — people not of our tribe, clan, ethnicity, political party or sports-team affiliation. Corning seems to assume an entire large nation such as the U.S. could become an in-group.
But recent history suggests the opposite is happening, with people labeling neighbors they don't like as "not one of us." This impulse is behind birtherism and anti-immigrant sentiment, to name two hot-button issues. So even if Americans could somehow agree on a set of values that would govern our society, a debate would continue to rage over who deserves to be included.
That point aside, Corning is refreshingly honest about how difficult it would be to make the sort of shift he proposes. He concedes that free-market capitalism "favors the one-third [of the population] who are the most acquisitive and egocentric and the least concerned about fairness and justice." For them, the current system — however unsustainable it is in the long run — works just fine, and they have the power to block any major changes.
On the other hand, many major corporations (Microsoft and Google among them) are using a more collaborative style of management than their industrial-era predecessors, and their founders seem to realize they have responsibilities that go beyond making profits. Perhaps that's a sign that things are in flux. Keep watch, Corning advises. Speak your mind. And always play fair.