Patrick Deneen has posted an intriguing analysis of the walk-away culture emerging in the wreckage of the collapse of the mortgage debt pyramid. Referencing this article on the new business of 'walking away', which discusses the rising trend and summarizes the animating ethos thusly:
If banks can make "business decisions" to ignore risks, to lend money with no down payment, and fire people at at the first sign of trouble without any remorse, why shouldn't consumers be able to do the same?
Deneen explicates the broader sociological context of the phenomenon, namely, the negation of the preconditions of a societal sense of shame:
As the Greeks well knew, the vital ingredient for shame - and, correspondingly, honor - to function in society was immediacy and care for the people in one's polis, their views and opinions, the esteem they bestowed or withheld. Elites were honored in our society to the extent that they were themselves exemplars of the virtues that they both preached and expected of others in turn. The current widespread hostility to all these elites - Wall Street, lawyers, doctors, politicians - reflects the breakdown of a covenant of respect and honor. As our economy has become more abstract and distant, as our "communities" are compared to bedrooms (or perhaps, more aptly, hotel rooms), as our sense of continuity between past and future has been undermined by rampant mobility, impermanence and instability, there can be little wonder that "shamelessness" has spread like a contagion through our society. Such lack of shame and disregard of honor began at the top and now ripples downward through the feeding chain of class and status. (Snip) We live not in homes, a vital part of a neighborhood, a town, a community - but in cheap structures without inherent worth. Just as our economy has shown us no sense of obligation and concern, so too in return are ordinary people shucking off the social norms or covenants that bound us in communion and fidelity.
In other words, if the Gods of the Global Market can shuck off their obligations to actual persons and communities, offshoring production, insourcing labour, and maintaining a postmodern feudal economy of credit feifs, all in service to the utilitarian metrics of untrammeled neoliberalism, why cannot the proles shuck off their obligations to their fiduciary masters? After all, in a substantive sense - I might even say, and ontological sense - the natural obligations of an elite towards the people are prior to contingent contractual obligations; the latter presuppose the former, which are themselves necessary conditions of there existing a habitable, equitable society at all. If the GotGM can disregard their substantive obligations, even to the point of granting themselves remissions from certain contractual obligations - for example, in bankruptcy proceedings which enable pension obligations to be obviated - why cannot their subjects simply shrug their shoulders, saying, in effect, "If it's all yours anyway, come and take it at a loss"?
Deneen's analysis gets to the heart of what is tragically mistaken in this repugnant expression of callousness, according to which the elites possess no obligations whatsoever towards the "losers" of globalization:
Even if you’ve just lost your job, there’s something fundamentally churlish about blaming the very phenomenon that’s elevated you above the subsistence level since the day you were born.
Landsburg may affect the posture of an individualist, likening any consideration of the negative effects of trade to bullying, thus betraying an unargued presupposition of economic man, the utility-maximizer; but his above-quoted remarks do contain a theory of obligation, since obligation is inescapable. Obligation, implicit in his remarks on subsistence, is never particularized, made concrete in webs of relationships with real people in real places, but abstract, universal, and systemic: one is subject to an obligation, the obverse of the dogma of economic man, to maximize the aggregate efficiency of the system as a whole, and the remarks about elevating from subsistence those who would otherwise suffer privation betray the original religious tincture of political economy - that the Hand of Providence would coordinate millions of particular-obligation-negating actions to create a systemic whole in which a self-regulating-and-sustaining, autonomous market would result in peace and prosperity. But obligation is, on this conception, not merely abstract, but also voluntaristic: the subject may choose for himself those to whom he is obligated, and in the case of the GotGM, these would be groupings such as shareholders and investors. Those who actually perform the actions that generate the profits for these latter? Not so much.
There is another dimension to this exercise in applied selfishness, however, one pinpointed by Deneen; namely, the responsibility of an elite class within any society. And of this, it should suffice to remark that, on a Christian conception of leadership - which is a generic and much-abused term, but one that will have to do for the present - the role of an elite is not to "lord it over" the masses, exploiting every opportunity for private or group advantage, but precisely to renounce this power, to the end that the particular goods of particular persons, and the common good of particular places, may be realized - or at least approximated. Something of this truth is, I believe, preserved in the old pagan myths of the founders of nations: they were apotheosized, in part, because by their valorous deeds, the community achieved a self-conscious and distinct existence; and thus to create is to limit. Regardless, an elite worthy of admiration, respect, and deference will be an elite that renounces the pursuit of purely sectional advantages, advantages that accrue disproportionately to its membership, while the costs are borne by the lesser orders. We no longer possess such an elite, and their ethos now permeates the entire society; and while the shamelessness of the elite is scarcely an all-encompassing explanation for our present malaise, our elites, who shrug their shoulders at community, and pen apologetics for their indifference (and outright hostility), only reap what they have sown when the masses look back at them and reflect that indifference and disdain.