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,”, 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.

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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”

“We the People” and Big Government

This post incorporates three earlier installments and completes the series.

When the Framers of the Constitution began the preamble with “We the People” and spoke as if the Constitution had been submitted to “the People” for ratification, they were indulging in rhetorical flourishes (at best) and misleading collectivization (at worst). The Founders may have been brave and honorable men, and their work — as long as it lasted — served liberty-loving Americans well. But do not forget that the Framers were politicians eager to sell a new framework of government. They were not gods or even demi-gods. They served liberty ill when they invoked the idea of a national will — expressed through government. Their coinage lends undeserved credence and emotional support to the rhetoric of statist demagogues, a breed of which Barack Obama is exemplary.

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I make two basic points in this very long post:

1. It is a logical and factual error to apply the collective “we” to Americans, except when referring generally to the citizens of the United States. Other instances of “we” (e.g., “we” won World War II, “we” elected Barack Obama) are fatuous and presumptuous. In the first instance, only a small fraction of Americans still living had a hand in the winning of World War II. In the second instance, Barack Obama was elected by amassing the votes of fewer than 25 percent of the number of Americans living in 2008 and 2012. “We the People” — that stirring phrase from the Constitution’s preamble — was never more hollow than it is today.

2. Further, the logical and factual error supports the unwarranted view that the growth of government somehow reflects a “national will” or consensus of Americans. Thus, appearances to the contrary (e.g., the adoption and expansion of national “social insurance” schemes, the proliferation of cabinet departments, the growth of the administrative state) a sizable fraction of Americans (perhaps a majority) did not want government to grow to its present size and degree of intrusiveness. And a sizable fraction (perhaps a majority) would still prefer that it shrink in both dimensions. In fact, The growth of government is an artifact of formal and informal arrangements that, in effect, flout the wishes of many (most?) Americans. The growth of government was not and is not the will of “we Americans,” “Americans on the whole,” “Americans in the aggregate,” or any other mythical consensus.

Continued below the fold. Continue reading