The Vices of Laissez-Faire

By Audrey Pollnow ’13

There is more truth than most of us would like in David Brooks’ 2001 article “The Organization Kid.”  Many Princetonians are far too busy, unable to dedicate ourselves to really worthwhile projects, reduced, perhaps, to seeing our roommates only at scheduled meals. And while many of us bemoan the situation, we persist in it.  It seems necessary somehow, required by our particular goals and the opportunities we’ve been presented.

This situation presents a challenge to a prevalent laissez-faire attitude about culture, which treats culture as merely a free market in which each person’s preferences compete.  This attitude is remarkably common at Princeton, where many believe that preference satisfaction is the most important thing, and that the competition of various preferences is sure to yield the best results.  Hence we “raise awareness,” to alter preferences, instead of arguing that people should vote or act differently because it’s their duty, and we assume that any additional option–to have laptops in the classroom, to use our “proxes” on Nassau Street, to exercise greater freedom in course selection–can only improve things.  This attitude is manifested in the institutions and policies of the University, as well as in the beliefs and actions of its members. Unfortunately, our tendency to excessive busyness is both a product of this laissez-faire approach and a demonstration of how it errs in its understanding of culture. Without altering our treatment of culture and education, many of us will unhappily remain in the “Organization Kid” trap.

Princeton’s Cultural Market and the Birth of the “Organization Kid”

It’s reasonably simple to see how the institutions that rely on this ideology cultivate “organization kids.” The ideology holds that it is always better to have more choices, and that competition is the sure path to maximizing success. Hence we have grade deflation to encourage competition, with an effect that extends even to graded precepts.   Competition makes us more competitive: practicing it improves our ability to compete, and the fact that everyone else practices it and seems to value it encourages us to value it as well. We are increasingly able to see which action might serve a further end, even in our extracurricular activities and social lives. Though hardly unique to Princeton, the Internet encourages this by generating a sort of resume for many of our actions: Facebook lists how many friends we have and photos we’re in, chronicling the fun things we do and witty conversations we have. Articles we write, shows we’re in, and teams we’re on all appear online. These areas of life are then subject to a sort of grading as well, and, since everyone else is doing it, we’d do best to put in some time there as well.

Implicit in this ideology is a strong faith in the individual and the value of choice. Hence in the humanities there are limited academic requirements, and academic advisors presume that students will be sound judges of what courses will provide them a good education.  This encourages us to trust and value our choices and to view our preferences as an essential part of who we are. Cultural and moral arguments are then framed in the first-person: we “raise awareness” and rely on individualistic instead of communitarian terms. We do not say “you do a disservice to your classmates by working this hard,” but “you’d have a better time at college if you worked a bit less.” This individualism can in part be explained by our increased ability to put things to a further end, because this ability undermines the extent to which we can value our local community. We care increasingly about establishing a good record, and celebrate that our actions can increasingly be put to that end. When this is the case, however, we cannot be thought to act merely for a local end, nor can we suppose our peers to do so. And when the local motive of our actions is dubious, the fact that we’re together and interacting becomes nearly a coincidence: it would make almost as little sense for me to claim that a Princetonian owes something to our community as to argue that a pencil maker owes something to the pencil-making market.

Here, it’s unsurprising that we tend to a certain apathy, and to excessive busyness. We are less able to see the value of our community, and inhabit a much flimsier culture. Our peers affect us because they set the bar for competition, because living together encourages a sharing of habits. But we can’t have the serious sort of moral discourse that is necessitated when you rely on other people, or when your actions necessarily presume that they are of moral worth. When videos from Occupy Princeton are posted on YouTube, it is hard to tell whether its members really care about changing other people’s values, and when I publish this article you have no way of trusting that I do either. Because of this, our peers cannot motivate us to treat ourselves well, to quit that additional club or accept a B+ on a paper rather than pulling an all-nighter in hopes of earning an A. If we cared more about what they thought of us than the achievements available to us we’d be more likely to quit that extra club so that we could get better sleep, be more cheerful, and argue with them about whether to legalize marijuana. Excessive busyness would have a greater cost, because it would interfere with fulfilling our obligations to the community.

Problems with a Laissez-Faire Culture

The organization-kid phenomenon’s most obvious challenge to a laissez-faire culture is that it is a case where competition does not even manage to maximize preference satisfaction. Suppose most students would prefer to learn as much as they could in studying diligently 35 hours per week. Given that they are graded, they would also prefer to receive an A. Neither preference is entirely overriding, so students end up striking a balance where they are busier than they’d prefer and receive worse grades. If, however, grades corresponded to absolute rather than relative performance, students would be able to spend preferable amounts of time on their work, while receiving the same grades. Though this is not a free-market solution, it would better maximize students’ preference satisfaction. An absolute grading system could also better satisfy the University’s preferences, by ensuring that students learn as much as the professor deems necessary for a given grade, or it could establish the appropriate compromise. This would be particularly beneficial in courses where grade deflation makes students work too hard, and would not give professors any more power than they now have to demand a great deal of work in exchange for a given grade. (Professors are not discouraged from giving A’s to fewer than 35% of the students.)

What, though, of the students, professors and administrators whose preference is specifically for competition and distinction, and what of the argument that competition yields the fairest outcome? (I suspect that most of us would prefer reasonable grades and healthy amounts of busyness–it certainly seems so, given the way we complain–but perhaps I’m mistaken and Princeton really does maximize preference satisfaction.) First, it’s clear that people can have bad preferences, and when they do there is no particular value in satisfying them. An academic culture built on competition and distinction can only be justified only with reference to its ability to achieve valid educational and cultural goals. As to the question of fairness, the current system already gives professors the power to assign as much work as they’d like and to give as few A’s, so students can only affect the equilibrium by making it harder to get an A and requiring more work. This is not a case where private vices lead to public virtue, because maximizing productivity is not the proper end of an education.

Moreover, the expressions of preference in the “culture market” have significant externalities.  For instance, if many students have racist or misogynistic preferences that don’t lead to illegal forms of discrimination, women and racial minorities may still suffer socially. Externalities also extend beyond creating a suboptimal set of options, and actually shape the very preferences of people within it.  My time at Princeton may encourage a preference for J Crew, dissatisfaction with working fewer than 10 hours a day, an appreciation for indie music, and a desire to go to grad school or prove myself on Wall Street. It undermines the individualistic justification for preference satisfaction that my environment can alter my preferences: they are not, in fact, a raw expression my autonomy. (Here, economic terms like “externality” cease to address appropriately the cultural question. If my preferences have changed, I presumably would have viewed this as a negative externality previously, but now view it as a positive one.)

Conclusion

Treating our academic and social culture as a market is neither appropriate nor effective on its own terms. It undermines our moral community and encourages the development of unhealthy habits. Instead of cultivating our moral, personal, and intellectual excellence, it damages our ability to be members of a moral community, trains us to be raw maximizers of utility, and discourages a love of learning. To achieve the goals of the University, to send us out “in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations,” we must know more than how to produce and how to climb. Unless we’re to be merely technical instruments, employed by whomever we rather arbitrarily deem best, we ourselves must know what is good, and what it means to live life well, as a human and as a member of a community. These pursuits should be privileged, even if at a cost to our preferences and our productivity.

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