Individualism, Society, and Liberty

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In “How Our Individualism Has Trapped Us in a Welfare State,” Heather Judd has taken a stab at an issue that I’ve pondered for a long time: the tension between individualism and society. Now, by “society” I mean true society:

Society — true society — consists of people who, among other things, agree as to the limits on what one may do. That shared view isn’t imposed by regulation, statute, or judicial decree — though such things will arise from the shared view in a true society. Rather, the shared view arises from the experience of living together and finding the set of customs and prohibitions that yields peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior. Liberty, in other words.

“The experience of living together and finding” a common “set of customs and prohibitions” seems consistent with Judd’s view of society, which she calls “an organized group of people sharing a common culture.” Judd doesn’t directly address the libertarian aspect of true society, but the thrust of her essay points in that direction. She laments the fact that

[c]ultural individualization has…cornered us into a welfare state mentality from which we cannot escape unless we replace our concept of a society of individuals with something more ordered and interconnected.

Toward the end of her essay she puts it this way:

Living together in isolation is not a sustainable social model. So long as we continue to think of the individual as the basic unit of society, our progression toward the disenchanted welfare state will continue, even while no amount of socialized government intervention will provide the human cohesion we need.

Judd’s view is that family is the backbone of society. And the drift away from families to individuals is destroying that backbone, which must be reconstructed. In her words,

government is incapable of buttressing our crumbling human connections. That task must start with rebuilding individuals into families and families into society. Like every great undertaking, the process will be slow and require sacrifice, but the recompense will be not only a healthy and sustainable society, but also, paradoxically, a stronger sense of our individual identity as we reconnect with other human beings.

I think she’s right about the breakdown of family, but her vague exhortation at the end leaves me wondering what can actually be done about it And even if there were some restoration of the family on a relatively large scale, I don’t think it would do much to alleviate the fragmentation of the United States, which has never been a society in the true meaning of the word.

Why have family ties loosened and broken? The answer, in two words: prosperity and mobility. Even without the welfare state (and despite it), a large fraction of the populace can afford to buy things like housing and elder-care that until World War II were often provided by families.

Greater mobility goes hand in hand with greater prosperity; the expansion of economic activity has been both intensive and extensive. Modern people are no different than their hunter-gatherer forbears; they go where their labors earn greater rewards. And in doing so they leave behind grandparents, parents, and siblings — most of whom are prosperous enough to fend for themselves. American families have been drifting apart for many generations. The drift was masked to some extent by the influx of European immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s, whose strong bonds were forged by economic necessity and mutual self-defense against xenophobic natives. But those bonds, too, have dissolved to the point that the exceptions (e.g., Amish and Hasidic communities) are notable for their rarity. And so it will be with the Hispanic immigration of recent decades, though economic necessity and ethnic differences probably will bind Hispanic immigrants far longer than they bound European ones.

So I don’t see the restoration of the family as likely — barring another World War II or Great Depression. Nor do I see the restoration of the family as necessary to the demotion of the welfare state. The welfare state does feed on individualism, but it also feeds on widespread economic ignorance and the cupidity of politicians and bureaucrats.

Economic ignorance abets cupidity, in that politicians and bureaucrats are able to feed their power-lust and line their pockets because most Americans have no grasp of the huge economic cost of the welfare state — or more accurately, the regulatory-welfare state. If the regulatory-welfare state is to be contained and diminished by electoral means, a huge number of Americans must be convinced of its exorbitant cost in dollars and liberty.

One might as well try to melt an iceberg with a hair dryer. Only a minority of economists understands or is willing to admit the dire economic consequences of the regulatory-welfare state, and only a minority of constitutional scholars understands or is willing to admit the anti-libertarian consequences of the regulatory-welfare state. More importantly — because only a small fraction of Americans is aware of what those “fringe” economists and constitutional scholars say — relatively few politicians and pundits on the national stage understand, agree with, and accurately relay those views to Americans. For every Ted Cruz there are probably two or three Bernie Sanderses.

To repeat the themes of recent posts, leftists are ruthless and they have the rhetorical advantage over principled politicians because they are very good at promising things without knowing or caring about the economic and social costs of what they promise. Their appeal to Mr. and Ms. Average and Below-Average — which is most Americans — rests on envy. Leftists are always on the lookout for privilege, which they promise to uproot:

Privilege…implies that the possessors of certain positive attributes (high intelligence, good looks, high income, access to political power) have come by those things undeservedly, and even at the expense of those who lack them: the underprivileged. [Leftists] believe implicitly in a state of nature wherein everyone would have equal endowments of intelligence, looks, etc., if only it weren’t for “bad luck.” [Leftists] believe it necessary to use the power of government to alleviate (if not eliminate) unequal endowments and to elevate the “victims” of inequality.

If you were Mr. or Ms. Average or Below-Average, would you willingly sacrifice the (illusory) prosperity of the regulatory-welfare state and reject its promise of making everyone a winner? What’s more disheartening — but unsurprising given the state of political discourse — is that  Mr. and Ms. Above-Average are not only reluctant to abandon the regulatory-welfare state, but are its staunchest proponents.

In sum, individualism is here to stay, regardless of what happens to the regulatory-welfare state, unless there is a return to the dire days of 1930-1945. And even then, the regulatory-welfare state is here to stay, unless there is a negotiated partition of the country, a (successful) secession movement, or a coup by liberty-loving patriots.

I’m sorry, but that’s the way it looks from here.

Society, Polarization, and Dissent

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One definition of liberty is the “right or power to act as one chooses.” This seems to be the usual view of the matter. But it should be obvious that liberty depends on restraint. Acting as one chooses covers a lot of ground, including acts that prevent others from doing as they choose (e.g., murder and fraud). Liberty is therefore a matter of mutual restraint, where there are agreed limits on what one may do.

Society — true society — consists of people who, among other things, agree as to the limits on what one may do. That shared view isn’t imposed by regulation, statute, or judicial decree — though such things will arise from the shared view in a true society. Rather, the shared view arises from the experience of living together and finding the set of customs and prohibitions that yields peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior. Liberty, in other words.

Some of the customs and prohibitions of a society will seem arbitrary and foolish to an outsider. But it is the observance of those customs and prohibitions that binds a people in mutual trust and respect. Peaceful, willing coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior depend on mutual trust and respect.

Customs are positive acts — the ways in which people are expected to comport themselves and behave toward each other. A good example is the degree to which emotion is openly expressed or suppressed, which varies from the reserve of Japanese to the exuberance of Italians. Consistent failure to observe a society’s customs brands one as an outsider, someone who isn’t to be trusted. Such a person will find it hard to make more than a menial living, and is unlikely to have friends other than renegades like himself.

Strict prohibitions are like those found in the last six of the Ten Commandments: do not dishonor your parents; don’t commit murder, adultery, or theft; don’t lie maliciously; and don’t covet what others have. (The last of these is dishonored regularly by “social justice warriors” who liken redistribution by force to Christian charity.) The violation of prohibitions calls for prosecution by those who have been entrusted by society to enforce its norms. Punishments — which will range from execution to public shaming — are meant not only to punish wrong-doing but also deter it. Rehabilitation is the responsibility of the wrong-doer, not society.

The United States has long since ceased to be anything that resembles a society. And therein lies the source of political polarization. Governance is no longer based on shared customs and a common morality that arise from eons of coexistence. Governance and the rules on which it is based are imposed from outside of society. Those who use “society” when they mean government are ignorant and evasive.

Those of us who remember something that resembled a society bitterly resent the outsiders within (to coin a phrase) who seek to impose on everyone their version of customs and morals. It is a corrupt version that has no roots in society; it is meant, instead, to destroy what is left of it.

The path to total destruction began in the late 1800s, with the rise of the Progressive movement. Progressivism then and now is corrupt at its core because it seeks to replace the evolved social, economic, and political order with “science.” Scratch a Progressive and you find a fascist with an agenda to be imposed by the force of government.

What is the legacy of Progressivism? This:

  • the income tax and Social Security, which together with a vast regulatory regime (also a product of Progressivism) enable the central government to control the economy
  • direct election of Senators, which robbed the States of a check on the actions of the central government
  • the Federal Reserve System, which helped to bring about the Great Depression, the Great Recession, and several other economic downturns
  • public education indoctrination by psychobbable-spouting leftists
  • identity politics
  • persecution and prosecution of business success (a.k.a. antitrust action)
  • control of the production of food and drugs, with consequences ranging from wasteful labeling regulations to murderous delays in the approval of medications
  • abortion
  • Prohibition (the only Progressive “reform” to have been rescinded)
  • left-wing economic theories (income redistribution, pump-priming)
  • the theft of private property and deprivation of freedom of contract through the empowerment of labor unions, which inevitably became thuggish.

There’s more, but that’s enough to bring down any civilization. And it has.

Perhaps — because of population growth and economic and political ambition — it was inevitable that America would be transformed from a collection of interlocking societies into a vast geopolitical entity ruled by Progressives and their intellectual heirs. But whatever the causes, the transformation is almost complete…

Except for those Americans who do remember something like a true society, those Americans who know instinctively what a true society would be like, and those Americans who want to preserve the bits of true society that haven’t yet been destroyed by the fascists in Washington, their enablers in the media and academia, and their dependents throughout the land.

That’s the real polarization in America. (As opposed to the false one between leftists at one pole and faux conservatives, who simply want to move left at a slower pace.) And the polarization will not end as long as dissent remains alive.

Which is why the left is killing dissent. First they came for the students; then they came for the Christians; then…

Society

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If anything irritates me more than political correctness, left-wing cant, and thoughtless drivers it’s reification. By that I mean the practice of treating broad classes of things (e.g., Americans, voters) as if all members of the class harbored the same views and acted in concert.

Reification is manifested in such expressions as “the national will,” “the American character,” “the wishes of the electorate,” and (perhaps most egregiously) “society.” All such constructions submerge individual differences and suggest degrees of agreement and connectedness that simply do not apply to large masses of people.

Take “society” (please!). How many times have I read “We as a society have decided…” such-and-such about a government policy? Too many times. “Society” decides nothing about government policy. Politicians, bureaucrats, influential elites, and voting blocs set government policy.

Why arbitrarily constrict “society” to the geographic boundaries of the United States? If “society” consists of the myriad cultures, religions, social classes, economic classes, occupational classes, neighborhoods, churches, clubs, etc., etc., etc., that are comprised in the United States, it wouldn’t be a stretch to add Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean nations — and perhaps the whole Western Hemisphere — to the mix. In fact, given the vastly varied origins of Americans, it wouldn’t be a stretch to add the whole world to the mix.

There you have it: “Society” is synonymous with the population of Earth.

Doesn’t that give you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside? Well, it might if you’re a muddle-headed lefty or a wishy-washy centrist who likes to think nice thoughts.

Here’s a way to squelch that warm, fuzzy feeling. Think about the people you don’t and wouldn’t associate with, and ask yourself (honestly) if you consider them to be members of the society to which you belong — the people with whom you associate because have much in common, including mutual trust and respect.

If you’re a lefty or a left-sympathizer (e.g., a well-off person with more money than sense), can you honestly say that your society includes, for example, ghetto gang-bangers or rural rednecks? I’ll bet that your honest answer is no. And while you’re on an honesty kick, you can probably list a lot of other types that you wouldn’t include in your society.

So, let’s quit talking about “society” and start talking about what really happens to our money and liberty when politicians, bureaucrats, influential elites, and voting blocs gang up on the oppressed majority.