Dear Malcolm Gladwell,
It is too bad that the malcolmgladwellbookgenerator.com website doesn’t work anymore. I hope you enjoyed the gentle ribbing back in the day. Your well-crafted books— The Tipping Point, Blink—offered big ideas with catchy titles, and became so culturally ascendent as to earn the backhanded praise of parody. Me? I’m still working up to 10,000 hours on the mandolin. I need to sound like Bill Monroe or David Grisman someday, y’know.
But seriously, what we really need is to save the planet. If we ever needed an elegant, memorable way to name the mistake that seems to cut from right to left and back again, or the recognition that would help us correct it, it is now. So since the website is down, I’m at a tipping point, to coin a phrase. To coin another phrase, I am going back to the source. You.
How about a book called Infrastructure? I know, I know. Yawn. That title won’t sell a lot of books. But work with me. And I’ll leave it to you to find the pithy word or phrase to replace the yawn and arrest us with what might just be the biggest of “big ideas.” The natural environment is the gift, quite literally, that undergirds us with the infrastructure of life. But instead, we treat it as an irrevocable given. We live in the world of wonder we couldn’t invent for ourselves, only inherit, yet we yawn. The ecosystem’s infrastructure is what philosophers call the “condition for the possibility” of all our inventions and cultural inheritance, to say nothing of every breath or bite we take to live. Yet on many a day, busy and self-important, we scarcely notice.
The natural environment is the gift, but not the only one, that undergirds us with the infrastructure of life.
But we do the same thing with the built environment, to say nothing of the web of social life. The obliviousness we show to the gift of the living infrastructure of life, we also extend to our own handmade infrastructure of roads and skyscrapers and wires, as well as to the social infrastructure that links us together in relationships and communities. These infrastructures, we assume, are just there. We use them, and use them up, taking them for granted, assuming that someone else will maintain them and keep them all going. This is a mistake.
We do have names for this mistake, and maybe one could be snappy enough to make it onto the cover of your book. Economists call the mistake “the free rider problem.” Everyone needs that bridge into town (built infrastructure), and the clean water running under the bridge (natural infrastructure), and the at least implicit agreement not to poison the drinking water with pollution (social infrastructure). No one person or company could pay for all these necessary public goods even if they were willing to do so. But worse, many people don’t want to pay even their fair share for the goods that benefit them. So they don’t. They don’t pay their taxes that build and maintain the bridges or keep the water clean, yet they still benefit all the same, making others pay. They can earn a private profit without ever paying the value of the public goods that let them extract revenues. So they are “free riders.” Worse still, some might have an incentive to dispose of by-products in the river for free, at least if they can do so downstream where the next town, not theirs, will drink the polluted water. Except that in an interconnected world, every downstream is upstream from all of us.
Many people don’t want to pay even their fair share for the goods that benefit them. So they don’t.
Other fields have offered other terms for the mistake I’m talking about. Political scientists talk about “the collective action problem”—how to get individuals to work together for a solution that would benefit them all, when each has an incentive to hang back and let the others do the work. Philosophers speak of “the tragedy of the commons” by which we actually make things worse and despoil the shared resources we need to live productive lives precisely as we pursue our self-interests in an area dedicated to the common good. Ethicists make their students think through “the prisoner’s dilemma” in order to help them recognize how important, though hard, it is to identify what actually might be in our enlightened self-interest if only we cooperate. Ignoring enlightened self-interest, a person might not want to pay the additional taxes that would allow others to receive health care, figuring that it’s not to their benefit to ante up more money in taxes. But if that person goes to a grocery store where a financially struggling front-line grocery bagger, lacking access to health care, gives them Covid-19, their fates will prove no less entwined.
Admittedly, progressives like me who think about environmental issues and social causes may be a bit less individualistic and a bit quicker to notice when others are not seeing our human interconnections and “common good.” But progressives, too, may be free riders on what we disdainfully call “the establishment”—benefiting from tradition but not contributing to it, or even dismissing it. Consider progressives who are ready to condemn “Western civilization” wholesale and condemn it to the dustbin of history as nothing but a tragic story of colonization. I don’t know quite how to quantify the debt that human rights advocates owe to “Western civilization” for spreading ideas of human equality across the globe, much less how to measure it against the toll that Westerners have wracked up as they betrayed their own ideals. But I do think we owe some kind of debt and should replenish or even celebrate the best of Western traditions, however circumspectly.
Progressives, too, may be free riders on what we disdainfully call “the establishment”—benefiting from tradition but not contributing to it.
Likewise, just as capitalists should notice ways in which the marketplace relies on unspoken rules and commitments of trust, social-justice advocates (and I count myself as one) should notice how we depend on post offices and internet wires and corporate investments in technology and unheralded volunteer poll workers and on and on. Social justice advocates tacitly admit this dependency whenever we decry the ways that Donald Trump has ravaged “norms”’ of all kinds. But in other cases we tend to rail against “the system” and its norms. Yes, we often have good reason, especially when the system benefits some—the wealthy—while working against others—the poor. But we ought also to see all the ways in which legal, civil, and social norms are very much part of “the system” and have helped us do our work, too.
The slogan “defund the police” illustrates this all too well. In the wake of the recent US election, Democrats quickly began debating whether confusion surrounding the slogan had contributed to their down-ballot losses. Some activists have made it equivalent to “abolish the police.” Others have tried to make clear that their goal was to redirect funding to create fundamentally different public safety systems. Black and other leaders in minority communities have sometimes been at odds. After all, poor neighborhoods can have reason to complain when police are actually too slow to answer their calls. One way or another, the debate suggests that even when institutions require changes more radical than “reforms,” something will have to replace the old. “Law and order” may also be a discredited slogan, so often has it functioned as a code for violent crackdowns. But our lives do still need structure; social change needs institutionalization to last. Infrastructure, again—we can’t take it for granted.
“Parasitism” is my own word for the mistake that others call “free riding” or “the tragedy of the commons.” Years ago, working as a peacemaker and social justice advocate amid revolutionary and counter-revolutionary wars in Central America, I was on the edge of burnout. Guiding our work were Catholic liberation theology and Anabaptist instincts of stubborn dissent. But as I faced my own mental exhaustion and discouragement, it wasn’t in these that I found spiritual sustenance so much as in an older tradition— centuries-old practices of prayer and contemplation and communal disciplines initially mediated to me through the writings of Thomas Merton.
Meanwhile, I noticed that the activists who seemed not only to be making it through the long haul, but evincing a perspective that kept them from being tossed to and fro and blown about by every fluctuating wind of headlines and policies (Eph 4:14), were those with long memories well-rooted in their traditions. They might be critical of their churches in key ways, but they were not parasitical — they were not drawing down the source of their sustenance without also helping to replenish it. When Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez followed up on his breakthrough book, A Theology of Liberation, with a more pastoral and less scholarly one, he made precisely this point. His book We Drink From Our Own Wells vindicated the spiritual well-springs of the people, yes, but the book also drew upon quite orthodox Christianity, though many in the movement reject orthodoxy outright, and took its very title from a medieval Christian saint and mystic. And in writing a contemporary book that lifted up tradition, Gutiérrez contributed to tradition, accessing the wellsprings on which we depend for the sustenance to do our peacemaking work.
All this is why progressives must also be conservatives. Lots of people want to be “prophetic” these days—so many that prophecy has gotten cheap. Speaking out “prophetically” is sexier and more exhilarating than keeping church institutions running or sitting with the dying or the afflicted. But an old trope about Jesus fulfilling all three roles of “prophet, priest, and king” still bears wisdom. We do not want monarchs, much less tyrants, any more, and yet we do want the stability of good rule. When prophets are successful in changing hearts and policies, they too will need steady administrators with the skill and authority to institutionalize the changes they have called for. When prophets are struggling with the loss of hope, they will need priests who become icons for the comforting face of God. And if I may add a word for the even slower work of theologians that I eventually took up myself, there is also a place for historians and systematicians who trace the roots, clarify the wellsprings, and thus strengthen the ecology of faith.
An old trope about Jesus fulfilling all three roles of “prophet, priest, and king” still bears wisdom.
Debates among economists about the work of Nobel laureate Ronald Coase suggest that there may be no way to solve the free rider problem. But if we can learn to recognize it in all its permutations, could we at least mitigate the problem? For that, maybe a pithy name that grabs our attention would help. The ones I’ve listed—free rider, tragedy of the commons, collective action problem, parasitism— haven’t proven snappy enough to cross the tipping point into social consciousness, though. So we need your help, Malcolm. What to call it? Can you spell it out to us in all its complexity and make it plain? Can you help us see our world and our roles in it differently? And might there be a solution to this problem after all?
To adapt Paul Simon’s lament to Joe DiMaggio: “Where have you gone, Malcolm Gladwell? A planet turns its lonely eyes to you.”
Gerald W. Schlabach