2012-02-15

Where Does Society End and Individuality Begin?

I Am The Boss Of You
In the New York Times, David Brooks expresses a smug and self-centered pessimism about life in the United States of America.
The American social fabric is now so depleted that even if manufacturing jobs miraculously came back we still would not be producing enough stable, skilled workers to fill them. It’s not enough just to have economic growth policies. The country also needs to rebuild orderly communities. 
This requires bourgeois paternalism: Building organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly rather than irresponsibly and, yes, sometimes using government to do so.
There is much to say here, but let's start with this: Anyone who uses the word bourgeois is making an appeal to socialism; anyone who speaks of "inducing people to behave responsibly" is a would-be dictator.

You're Not The Boss Of Me
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ideological world, Bryan Caplan is providing arguments for why it is morally important to leave strangers alone.
What fraction of your "fellow citizens" have you actually met?  Virtually zero.  The vast majority of your countrymen are, in fact, utter strangers to you. When you tell your kid "Don't take rides from strangers," you don't make an exception for anyone who happens to share your citizenship.  Modern government - and most of political philosophy - is just a massive effort to pretend otherwise. 
The point of the pretense is twofold.  First, to make unjustified demands on some strangers' behalf: You're going to help the American elderly, the American poor, and the American sick whether you like it or not. Second, to help us forget our basic obligation to leave all strangers alone: We've never met you before, but you still owe us.
Whether you agree or disagree with Caplan, I think he is objectively correct on this one. On an individual level, we respect each other's privacy and right to be left alone. Once we get talking about government, though, all of that flies out the window. Suddenly, things that we would never dream of doing to individual strangers becomes some sort of moral obligation to do to society at large.

There Are Two Ways Of Expressing This Dichotomy
As faithful Stationary Waves reader PR puts it, "Where does personal freedom stop and societal responsibility begin? I am nagged by this question as it is one that seems unanswered by uber liberty."

Well, at least the two poles are clear. On the one side, we have "uber liberty," which is the force that prevents us from mandating our will upon the lives of perfect strangers. On the opposite side, we have something else, which enables us to force other people to adhere to our own private beliefs about social responsibility. What is unclear, or at least unclear to PR, is when to prefer uber liberty over something else.

There are really two ways of asking this question: The "I'm the boss of you way," and the "You're not the boss of me" way:
  1. I'm The Boss Of You says, "Society has needs and obligations; under what set of circumstances are personal liberties allowed to trump society's needs and obligations?"
  2. You're Not The Boss Of Me says, "Every human being possesses rights inherent to being a human being, which they will only agree to compromise if they submit to living within a governed society."
Looking closely at these two perspectives, we see that in the first case, society's needs and obligations always trump the rights of individuals unless it can be shown otherwise; whereas, in the second case, individuals are supreme and only submit to being ruled by consent.

Which Is It?
One of the points I try to stress on this blog is the fact that absolutely every human act involves some sort of trade-off. The reason I say this now is because the question in the back of your mind right now is probably, "Why does it have to be one or the other? Why can't some individual rights trump some social obligations, and vice-versa?"

Well, the answer to why not is trade-offs. As I pointed out in my Primatene Mist example, one person's social obligation comes at the cost of another person's individual rights. In that case, social obligations literally came at the cost of individual human lives. In other cases, it is merely the private property of particular individuals that is sacrificed for "the greater good."

But in all cases, there is a trade-off. If you don't see it, you simply haven't looked closely enough. Even Chairman Mao saw it when he said that in order to make omelets, you have to break a few eggs. 

The punchline is that when it comes to social responsibility, the end always justifies the means. Individual sacrifices are always deemed "worth it" by whomever is determining what "social responsibility" is.

Two Final Points
The first is, who determines what social responsibility is? Really, who is it? Because it has to be someone. Within every society there is disagreement on everything. In democracies, majority rules. In monarchies, kings rule. But there is always dissent. So who controls the universally enforced "social responsibility?"

Obviously, the answer is "the government." Gub. So, in order to accept "social responsibility" as a concept, you must first accept that what the government says is always the right thing, i.e. that the governmentally determined "social responsibility" is always a valid one. 

Of course, if that is true, then how can we ever justify changing any social policy at all? The government is the one who determines social repsonsibility, right? Aha... so social responsibility is logically prior to government

My last point is a bit technical, and comes from my reading of Human Action

When you pay $5 for a gallon of milk (or whatever), keep in mind that you are saying that for you, milk is worth more than the $5 you pay for it. If it were worth exactly $5, then you would be ambivalent between having milk and having $5. You only submit to trading money for milk because you want milk more than money (at least at that point in time).

The implication here is that for every trade-off, the one you ultimately choose is the one you prefer (obviously). The choice you make implies that you value it more than you value the alternative choice.

That means, if someone dies as a result of your ban on Primatene Mist, you have obtained your stated objective. You prefer the death of a few individuals to an ozone hole. You are willing to sacrifice human life for social responsibility. 

If some high school kid loses his job as a result of a minimum wage increase, then that means you value higher wages for fewer people than you value higher levels of employment.

If you dutifully recycle plastic despite the fact that it costs more energy to recycle plastic than to create new plastic, then that means you value wasting resources for the sake of an imaginary sense of social ethics more than you value using all resources efficiently for real.

Conclusion
What I'm getting at is that in every case in which "social responsibility" trumps "individual libery," what we are really saying is that the moral sensibilities of a few "key opinion leaders" are worth more than the rights of anyone who dissents. Is this something you are morally comfortable with?