state

The Social Animal and the “Social Contract”

Here we go again, into “all men are brothers” territory:

“Morality can do things it did not evolve (biologically) to do,” says [Joshua] Greene [author of Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them]. How can it do this? By switching from the intuitive “automatic mode” that underpins our gut reactions to the calculating, rational “manual mode”. This, for Greene, means embracing utilitarianism, “the native philosophy of the manual mode”. Utilitarianism takes the idea that “happiness is what matters, and everyone’s happiness counts the same”, generating the simple three-word maxim, “maximise happiness impartially”.

Greene is not the first to think that he has found “a universal moral philosophy that members of all human tribes can share” and that those who disagree are simply not being rational enough. Many a philosopher will raise an eyebrow at his claim that “the only truly compelling objection to utilitarianism is that it gets the intuitively wrong answers in certain cases”.

At least one strong objection is suggested by what Greene himself says. He knows full well that the kind of absolutely impartial perspective demanded by utilitarianism – in which the interests of your own child, partner or friends count for no more than any others – “is simply incompatible with the life for which our brains were designed”. Greene takes this as a flaw of human beings, not his preferred moral theory. But when someone, for example, dedicates a book to his wife, as Greene does, this does not reflect a failure to be appropriately objective. A world in which people showed no such preferences would be an inhuman, not an ideal, one. A morality that values human flourishing, as Greene thinks it should, should put our particular attachments at its core, not view them as “species-typical moral limitations” to be overcome.

That’s an excerpt of Julian Baggiani’s commendable review of Greene’s book and two others (“The Social Animal,” FT.com, January 3, 2014).

Greene makes two errors. First, he assumes that it’s wrong to prefer those who are closest to one, geographically and by kinship, to those who are farther away. Second, he assumes that happiness can be added, and that what should matter to a person is not his happiness but the sum of all the happiness in the world. The errors are so obvious that I won’t dwell on them here. If you want to read more about them, start with “Liberalism and Sovereignty,” “Inside-Outside,” “Modern Utilitarianism,” “The Social Welfare Function,” and “Utilitarianism vs. Liberty.” And by all means read “The Fallacy of Human Progress,” which addresses Steven Pinker’s rationalistic thesis about overcoming human nature (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined).

Yes, human beings are social animals, but human beings are not “brothers under the skin,” and there is no use in pretending that we are. Trying to make us so, by governmental fiat, isn’t only futile but also wasteful and harmful. The futility of forced socialization is as true of the United States — a vast and varied collection of races, ethnicities, religions, and cultures — as it is of the world.

Despite the blatant reality of America’s irreconcilable diversity, American increasingly are being forced to lead their lives according to the dictates of the central government. Some apologists for this state of affairs will refer to the “common good,” which is a fiction that I address in the third, fourth, and fifth of the above-linked posts. Other apologists like to invoke the “social contract,” another fiction that Michael Huemer disposes of quite nicely:

[I]t is often said that the government derives its powers from a “social contract,” whereby the people have granted these special powers to the government. The only problem with this theory is that it is factually false—I have not in fact agreed to have a government, to pay taxes, or to obey the government’s laws.

A number of suggestions have been made as to how, despite my protestations to the contrary, I really have agreed to all those things. Here I will just mention one, because it is the one most often heard in conversation. This is the suggestion that I have “implicitly” agreed to have a government merely by residing in the government’s territory. (“If you don’t want a government, simply move to Antarctica!”) Very briefly, the problem with this suggestion is that it presupposes that the state owns all the territory over which it claims jurisdiction, or that for some other reason it has the right to exclude people from that area. But there is no way to establish such a right on the part of the state, unless one has already shown that the state has legitimate authority. This therefore cannot be presupposed in an argument designed to establish the state’s authority. In this case, the statist’s claim seems analogous to the leader of a protection racket claiming that his victims have voluntarily agreed to pay him protection money, merely by living in their own houses. There are other ways in which social contract enthusiasts claim that we have accepted the social contract, but as I explain in the book, each of them falls to equally serious objections, which show that the social contract does not come close to satisfying the generally accepted principles of real, valid contracts.

Another popular suggestion is that, in democratic nations (about half the world today), the democratic process confers authority on the government. The motivation behind this view is initially puzzling. Recall that the problem is to explain why the state may undertake actions that would be considered rights violations if anyone else were to perform them. Typically, if some type of action violates someone’s rights—for instance, theft, kidnapping, or murder—the action will not be converted into an ethically permissible, non-rights-violating one if a larger number of people support the action than oppose it. If you’re in a group of friends, and five of them decide they want to rob you, while only three oppose robbing you, this does not make it ethically permissible to rob you. Similarly, even if every law were directly authorized by a popular referendum of everyone affected by the law, it is unclear why this would render legitimate a law that would otherwise have been a rights violation. Matters are only more problematic in a society in which a minority of people vote, and they vote merely to select representatives who may or may not keep their promises, and may or may not do what their supporters wanted.

But doesn’t the government have to coerce us in the ways that it does in order to maintain itself in existence, so that it can provide law and order? And without government, wouldn’t society degenerate into a constant war of everyone against everyone? The first thing to note about this argument is that it could at most justify a tiny minority of all the powers claimed by any modern state. Perhaps the government must make laws against violence and theft and provide a court system to adjudicate disputes, in order to prevent a Hobbesian war of all against all. But why must the government control what drugs you may put into your body, what wages you may pay your employees, how much wheat you may grow on your farm, and whether you buy health insurance? Why must they subsidize agribusiness, send rockets to Mars, fund the arts, provide college loans, and run their own school system? The question is not, “Why are those programs beneficial?” The question is, “How are those programs justified by the threat of the Hobbesian war that would supposedly result from anarchy?”

Granted, sometimes it is necessary to use coercion to prevent some disaster from occurring. But having done so, one is not then ethically permitted to continue using coercion beyond the minimal amount necessary to prevent that disaster. If we really stand in danger of some sort of all-out Hobbesian war, then the state would be justified in employing the minimum coercion necessary to prevent the state of war from occurring. This would not justify their continuing to employ coercion whenever it strikes their fancy, or whenever they think they can achieve some benefit by doing so. (“The Problem of Authority,” Cato Unbound, March 4, 2013)

A point that Huemer doesn’t make in his essay is to compare Americans with the “boiling frog“:

The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to significant changes that occur gradually.

The metaphor is apt. Americans — or a very large fraction of Americans — have been “boiled” stealthily:

Power has been passing to Washington for more than 100 years, in defiance of the Constitution, because of … the Nirvana fallacy, unrepresentative government, logjams and log-rolling, fiefdoms and egos, and the ratchet effect and interest-group paradox. Thus Washington is able to exert its power on the entire country, bringing big government to places that don’t want it….

[G]overnmental acts and decrees have stealthily expanded and centralized government’s power, and in the process have usurped social norms. The expansion and centralization of power occurred in spite of the specific limits placed on the central government by the original Constitution and the Tenth Amendment. These encroachments on liberty are morally illegitimate because their piecemeal adoption has robbed Americans of voice and mooted the exit option. And so, liberty-loving Americans have discovered — too late, like the proverbial frog in the pot of water — that they are impotent captives in their own land.

Voice is now so muted by “settled law” (e.g., “entitlements,” privileged treatment for some, almost-absolute control of commerce) that there a vanishingly small possibility of restoring constitutional government without violence. Exit is now mainly an option for the extremely wealthy among us. (More power to them.) For the rest of us, there is no realistic escape from illegitimate government-made law, given that the rest of the world (with a few distant exceptions) is similarly corrupt. (“‘We the People’ and Big Government,” Politics & Prosperity, November 16, 2013)

And, no, “we” — that is all of “us” — don’t want it to be that way:

If there is an “American psyche,” it has multiple-personality disorder.

What do you think when a snobbish European generalizes about Americans — a bunch of crude, gun-toting, money-grubbers? Do you think that such generalizations are correct? You probably don’t. And if you don’t, why would you think (or speak and write) as if Americans are like ants, that is, of one mind and collectively responsible for the actions of government? …

There’s no need to look abroad for inapplicable generalizations about America…. [C]onservatives and liberals have been separating themselves from each other. Only a cock-eyed optimist — the kind of person who believes that living in the same (very large) geographic requires unity — would call this a bad thing. As if proximity yields comity. It doesn’t work for a lot of families; it doesn’t work for most blacks and whites; it doesn’t work for upper-income and lower-income groups. Why should it work for most conservatives and liberals? …

But aren’t “we all in this together,” as proponents of big and bigger government are wont to proclaim? Not at all. The notion that “we are all in this together” is just a slogan, which really means “I want big and bigger government” to “solve” this or that problem — usually at the expense of persons who have done nothing to create the “problem.” “We are all in this together” is a call for action by government, not proof of a mythical “national will.” If “we” were “all in this together,” we wouldn’t need to be reminded of it. Like a good sports team or military unit, we would simply act that way. (Op. cit.)

It’s true that most human beings crave some kind of social connection. But the gap between that craving and the faux connectedness of one-size-fits-all big government can’t be bridged by ringing phrases (“We the People”), by appeals to patriotism, or by force.

Government can take my money, and it can make me do things the way “technocrats” want them done — and it can do the same to millions of other Americans. But government can’t make me (or those other millions) love the recipients of my money or feel happier because I’m doing things the “right” way. It can only make my (and those other millions) despise the recipients and detest forced conformity. Only divisiveness can prevent the complete destruction of liberty in the name of “society.”

Social unity is found not in government but in genetic kinship:

[G]enetic kinship is indispensable to society, where society is properly understood as “an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another.” (“Genetic Kinship and Society,” Politics & Prosperity, August 16, 2012)

It takes overeducated dunderheads like Joshua Greene to denigrate the bonds of genetic kinship, even while openly prizing them.

*     *     *

Other related posts:
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Tocqueville’s Prescience
What Is Conservatism?
Zones of Liberty
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Evolution and the Golden Rule
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Why Conservatism Works
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Rush to Judgment
Secession, Anyone?
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”

Society and the State

Michael Oakeshott writes:

A modern state, as it emerged from a medieval realm, a patrimonial estate, a military protectorate, or a collection of colonial settlements, had three distinct features that it has never lost: an office of authority, an apparatus of power, and a mode of association….

…[S]ince a modern state has never ceased to be recognized as an association in the making, attention has always been directed to the sort of association it might be made to become no less than to what it may be perceived to be. But the exploration of this theme has been sadly hindered by confusion.

First, it is usually conducted in terms of the vocabularies of authority or of power, but in this connection these words are meaningless. To say, for example, that the conditions of association are or should be “democratic” is absurd…. [T]here are no “democratic ” rules of relationships…. Secondly, this inquiry has been almost obliterated by drivel about something called “society,” a fanciful total of unspecified relationships which only a simpleton would think of identifying with a state. (“Talking Politics,” Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, pp. 441, 450)

There can be such a thing as “society,” but only in rare circumstances. And Oakeshott is correct when he says that only a simpleton would identify society with a state. But, as I will discuss, it is not only simpletons who identify society with a state but also cynical politicians and leftist opportunists.

With respect to society, I begin with Margaret Thatcher, who often is quoted as saying that “there is no such thing as society.” When Mrs. Thatcher said that, she was arguing against the entitlement mindset, as in ” ‘society’ owes me a roof over my head and three meals a day.” As she put it, “people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbor.”

There is, in fact, such a thing as society. But what is it? “Society” has many meanings. This one rings truest:

an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another

In other words, the state is not society. The state — in the guise of a nation, a city, a village, etc. — may compel certain behaviors, including the transfer of one’s income to strangers. Compulsion by the state is the antithesis of societal cooperation.

There is, nevertheless, a tendency — especially on the part of leftists — to claim that the state represents and serves society. The claim is wrong:

  • For the reasons given above, the identification of the state with society is nothing more than a rhetorical sleight-of-hand by which utilitarians, paternalists, do-gooders, politicians, and pundits justify the imposition of their preferences on the masses.
  • The specific acts of the state often are malign rather than benign. See, for example, any of the 140 issues of Regulation that have been published to date. Moreover, acts of the state generally involve regulatory and tax burdens that, at once, stifle prosperity and liberty.

The fact of the matter is that the state destroys society in two ways. First, it usurps the functions served by society, most notably the functions of charity and marriage. Second, it compels certain kinds of behavior instead of allowing behavior to evolve cooperatively.

Two of the stated aims of compulsion are the advancement of “social justice” and “diversity.” The former is redistributionism, pure and simple. The latter forces social and economic interactions between persons of dissimilar cultures, religions, and races — to no good end.

Social justice” is usually

code for redistributing income, either directly (through the taxing and spending power of government) or indirectly (through the power of government to require favoritism toward certain groups of persons). Make no mistake, there is no justicein “social justice,” which is nothing more than a euphemism for coercion by the state.

Social justice is possible only where there is a true society, not the bogus “society”  or “community” to which bleeding hearts and statists refer when they mean the United States or most of its political subdivisions — which have become nothing more than geopolitical prisons.

A true society or community is one in which persons are bound by more than merely residing in the same nation, state, city, or other geographic entity. A true society is one whose members voluntarily commit acts of kindness and charity toward one another, as part of the social “bargain” that is known as the Golden Rule.

That “bargain” amounts to a delicate balance of self-interested and voluntarily beneficial behavior. The self-interested aspect of behavior is mutual forbearance — leaving others alone so that they will leave you alone. The voluntarily beneficial aspect is the commission of acts of kindness and charity. It is the latter that enables the former, because acts of kindness and charity help to build a true feeling of community by creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust.

Purveyors of “social justice” say that the voluntary arrangements of true communities are inadequate for the purpose of meeting this or that desideratum. Whence the desiderata? From the preconceptions of the purveyors of “social justice,” of course. They would substitute their “wisdom” for the wisdom that it embedded in voluntary social and economic arrangements. And they usually succeed because their arrogance incorporates a good measure of power-lust.

In sum, true social justice  is possible only in a voluntary community that is founded on mutual forbearance, respect, and trust. It cannot be found in the kind of forcible leveling that is favored by advocates of “social justice.” There is nothing just about coercion.

“Diversity” — which encompasses and extends the state’s effort to force “equality” — is a case study in the state’s socially destructive power. In “The downside of diversity,” at The Boston Globe, Michael Jonas reports on a study by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century.” Putnam, according to Jonas,

has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogeneous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

John Leo, writing at City Journal (“Bowling with Our Own“), first discusses Putnam’s findings; e.g.:

Putnam’s study reveals that immigration and diversity not only reduce social capital between ethnic groups, but also within the groups themselves. Trust, even for members of one’s own race, is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friendships fewer. The problem isn’t ethnic conflict or troubled racial relations, but withdrawal and isolation. Putnam writes: “In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’—that is, to pull in like a turtle.”…

Neither age nor disparities of wealth explain this result. “Americans raised in the 1970s,” he writes, “seem fully as unnerved by diversity as those raised in the 1920s.” And the “hunkering down” occurred no matter whether the communities were relatively egalitarian or showed great differences in personal income. Even when communities are equally poor or rich, equally safe or crime-ridden, diversity correlates with less trust of neighbors, lower confidence in local politicians and news media, less charitable giving and volunteering, fewer close friends, and less happiness….

Leo then discusses the fact that Putnam had delayed announcing his findings:

Putnam has long been aware that his findings could have a big effect on the immigration debate. Last October, he told the Financial Times that “he had delayed publishing his research until he could develop proposals to compensate for the negative effects of diversity.” He said it “would have been irresponsible to publish without that,” a quote that should raise eyebrows. Academics aren’t supposed to withhold negative data until they can suggest antidotes to their findings…

Though Putnam is wary of what right-wing politicians might do with his findings, the data might give pause to those on the left, and in the center as well. If he’s right, heavy immigration will inflict social deterioration for decades to come, harming immigrants as well as the native-born. Putnam is hopeful that eventually America will forge a new solidarity based on a “new, broader sense of we.” The problem is how to do that in an era of multiculturalism and disdain for assimilation.

Myron Magnet, also writing at City Journal (“In the Heart of Freedom, in Chains“), addresses “elite hypocrisy, gangsta culture, and failure in black America.” Magnet asks

how can there still exist a large black urban underclass imprisoned in poverty, welfare dependency, school failure, nonwork, and crime? How even today can more black young men be entangled in the criminal-justice system than graduate from college? How can close to 70 percent of black children be born into single-mother families, which (almost all experts agree) prepare kids for success less well than two-parent families?

And answers:

The legacy of slavery and racism isn’t the reason….

Beginning around 1964, the rates of black high school graduation, workforce participation, crime, illegitimacy, and drug use all turned sharply in the wrong direction. While many blacks continued to move forward, a sizable minority solidified into an underclass, defined by self-destructive behavior that all but guaranteed failure.What was going on in the mid-sixties that could explain such a startling development? Political scientist Charles Murray gave the first answer to that question: welfare benefits sharply rose just at that moment. Offering more purchasing power than a minimum-wage job, the dole, he argued, provided an economic incentive for women to have out-of-wedlock babies and for their boyfriends to live off their welfare payments, too.

A decade after Murray, I suggested that, though welfare was part of the answer, the real explanation was larger. It was cultural, not economic. Begun by the elites, vast changes reshaped mainstream attitudes in the 1960s. Sex became fine outside marriage, and illegitimacy lost its stigma. Drugs were cool; social authority and tradition weren’t. America was deemed a racist, unjust society that victimized and impoverished blacks, who could rarely better their condition and who therefore deserved generous welfare benefits as reparations for past and present oppression. If blacks committed crime, the system that drove them to it, out of poverty or as an act of protest, was at fault: we shouldn’t blame the victim, as the saying went—meaning the poor criminal, not his prey. Since people shape their actions according to the ideas and beliefs they hold, when these new attitudes reached the inner cities, what could result but an epidemic of social dysfunction?

“Diversity” — which was born of misplaced white guilt about slavery and racism — exemplifies the state’s long habit of adopting and magnifying the destructive, anti-social consequences of elite opinion.

“Social justice” and “diversity” — and the other leftist slogans that are meant to stifle resistance to statist oppression — have nothing to do with “society” and everything to do with the use of the state to coerce the many for the satisfaction of the few. And it does not stop there.

Read on:
Intellectuals and Capitalism
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Democracy and Liberty
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Down with “We”
The Divine Right of the Majority
I Want My Country Back
An Encounter with a Marxist
Our Enemy, the State
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Social Justice
The Left’s Agenda
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
The Left and Its Delusions
Externalities and Statism
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
More about Merit Goods

The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”

Society cannot exist where the state interferes with and usurps societal functions.

What is society? In an earlier post, I quoted Roger Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture:

…Ferdinand Tönnies … formulated a distinction between two kinds of society — Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft — the first based in affection, kinship and historic attachment, the second in division of labour, self-interest and free association by contract and exchange. Traditional societies, he argued, are of the first kind, and construe obligations and loyalties in terms of a non-negotiable destiny. Modern societies are of the second kind, and therefore regard all institutions and practices as provisional, to be revised in the light of our changing requirements. The transition from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft is part of what happened at the Enlightenment, and one explanation for the vast cultural changes, as people learned to view their obligations in contractual terms, and so envisage a way to escape them.

Max Weber wrote, in the same connection, of a transition from traditional to “legal-rational” forms of authority, the first sanctioned by immemorial usage, the second by impartial law. To these two distinctions can be added yet another, du to Ser Henry Maine, who described the transition from traditional to modern societies as a shift from status to contract — i.e., a shift from inherited social position, to a position conferred by, and earned through, consent. (p. 24)

Note the important qualifiers that attach to modern, contractarian societies:  free association by contract and exchange; impartial law. What we have in the United States — and in most Western nations — is not society, not even Gesellschaft. That is because

Religion, community, and common culture have been displaced by the regulatory-welfare state, anthropogenic global warming, feminism, “choice,” and myriad other totems, beliefs, “movements,” and “leaders,” both religious and secular.

Freedom of association and impartial law, to the extent that they once existed in the United States, have been in decline for more than a century. Yes, yes, I know about the better lot of blacks and women, but those have been achieved to a large extent by forced association and partial law, which — in the long run — do more harm than good because they break the bonds of mutual trust and respect upon which civil society depends for self-enforcing, mutually beneficial behavior. Even a contractarian society cannot function effectively without bonds of trust and respect, lacking as it does the bonds of religion, community, and common culture.

Despite the almost complete destruction of society by the state, there are those who believe that society survives because it is embodied in the state. For such believers, society is not a network of personal associations built upon religion, community, and common culture. Rather, it is an abstraction of their imagining, and it consists of classes of individuals toward whom something is “owed”: the aged, the infirm, persons of color, Latinos, women, homosexuals, and — above all — the “poor,” who are always with us because poverty (in the mind of the “socially conscious”) is a relative thing.

It is this very urge to burden everyone with responsibility for everyone else that led to the growth of the state and the virtual destruction of society. The urge manifests itself, time and again, when the political classes (in and out of government) — claiming to act on behalf of “society’s victims” — invoke “social justice” as they make the case for the expansion of the state. The ultimate irony is that the expansion of the state commits injustice, undermines society, and creates more victims for whom the political classes can shed more crocodile tears.

Related posts:
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Society and the State
Undermining the Free Society
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
The Golden Rule and the State
Social Justice
More Social Justice
Evolution and the Golden Rule
We, the Children of the Enlightenment