Dilemmas of the 21st Century: Us or Me
A Fringe Ponderation
I have two friends (twice what most people would credit me with) who are alike in many ways; both are old goats, but both use the internet and other resources to keep abreast of current issues. Neither are fools. But they differ on the issue of the individual and the collective.
One friend clearly feels that humankind has reached the evolutionary stage of development where we must indeed become each other’s keeper and watch for the best interest of all. The future lies that way; the world has grown too small for us all to act like pirates and cowboys.
The other makes the excellent point that humankind is on a roller coaster to hell, people screw up everything they touch, the average person is incapable of managing their own lives let alone everyone else’s, and it takes a huge ego to profess towards “saving” others. Pretending you can predict and account for the future in that way is nothing short of self-aggrandizement.
Clearly, both have excellent points.
As I stand firmly in the middle on the issue, their positions each seem somewhat extreme to me. As a result, I hope to ridicule each equally as a way of considering the issue.
To be clear, a really expansive, decisive discussion of the matter would bore me too much to write and readers far too much to read. In order to have a good time, I’ll set each up as a straw man and kick the stuffing out of them.
The Hive: we all do better when we work together
First, the Brave New World of putting the government in charge of everything in the hopes that they can do a better job of taking care of us than we can ourselves. My friend eats the whole gob of nanny government. He thinks you should get a ticket for not wearing a seatbelt: it not only saves lives, but it reduces costs to health care. He doesn’t believe in spanking and thinks it’s a good thing when the government is the primary parent of the nation. People don’t need guns, certainly not handguns. He believes we should do anything to preserve the dwindling environment. He has faith in elected officials to do what is best for everyone, and faith that experts know what that is, and advise our leaders. The world could be an orderly place, a place of peace and plenty, if we each give something to the collective. Together we are stronger than any of us alone.
Clearly, this guy bumped his head a lot as a kid. To be sure, he objects to the excesses of the American government, notes the frequent corruption and is keenly aware of the negative consequences of unchecked capitalism. Still, he persists in his urge to the collective, the government is “us”. The government isn’t really taking children from their families and criminalizing parents, we, the community are doing it to protect the children and show the parents a better way to be. What could be wrong with that? Surely it costs us nothing to wear a seatbelt; any reasonable person would do that and if a person isn’t reasonable, then a helpful police officer can school him. It’s in everyone’s interest; it’s best for everyone. No one but a misanthrope, he might say, could resist such simple, clearly beneficial moves as criminalizing corporal punishment of a child, or fining people for not wearing a seat belt, or preserving everyone’s interest in clean air, water and soil.
I’ve written long, mostly ignored articles on the problem of bureaucrats and the bureaucratic form, and the diminution of personal liberties as a natural consequence of each new law. The bureaucratic form, as I’ve written, is inherently flawed, it engenders behaviors from persons, even good persons, which they are powerless to avoid. The manifest purpose of the bureaucracy is always secondary to the shadowy latent purpose, which means that the people the bureaucracy intended to serve fall to a distant second place behind the bureaucracy itself on the horizon of the public “servant” whether cop or social worker or environmental technician. There is no way, I’ve demonstrated, for government to increase personal freedom. We were each born with all possible freedoms, “endowed” by our Creator, and government can only steal liberty from us.
This friend completely misses the whole point of personal liberty: the government has to prove its case for you individually before it screws you out of your liberty. The idea that a law has to apply to everyone equally is bullshit, not only because that isn’t the kind of back handed equality we are seeking, but because in truth laws always land hardest on the poorest and easiest on the privileged. “Equality” is a ruse meant to make the witless satisfied with their lot. We already live in a police state, where every human act has to be considered against libraries full of laws, and where every government lackey is a cop.
The Individual: I’m fine on my own
My other friend is the otherway around all together. The government has no business f***ing with him, he keeps his shit together. Want to screw with someone, go find some witless bastard and screw with him, it’s no more than he deserves. This friend very clearly sees that the way to totally ruin something is to hire experts and create a boondoggle. The over-educated minions that run these bungled attempts at governance “help” have demonstrated time after time that they should never be left in charge of things precious as the environment or children; they are bottom feeders living off the effort of others. It might be the cops’ business if he’s driving so drunk he’s a clear danger, but how is it the cop’s business if he’s wearing his seat belt or checking himself for lumps? If it stays in the passenger compartment, it’s his business. For him handgun control means getting a firm grip on the butt and a smooth pull on the trigger. The only way the government can think of to help is screw with you.
It’s nature’s way that dumbasses die in large numbers; it’s good for the gene pool. As for the environment, sooner or later it’s going to tank, there is simply no way around it. Since it’s going to anyway why should he give up the things he loves and eat rice and boiled cabbage so someone else, someone he’ll never meet, can have more? It’s another name for socialism. One thing is clear: the pencil necks hired to police everyone are going to make a nice living jacking everyone else around; if someone is going to be self-serving, why not him?
This approach is much harder to condemn, since it is based in actual reality. It is a Jeffersonian view, which assumes that citizens will be responsible and informed. Still, while my other friend has his brain too much in the hive, this friend relies too much on the individual. He could care less about law, but he knows what is right and he does it and as a result he frequently manages what the law only hopes to achieve. Most people are not him. He has a better than average ability to understand the likely consequences of his actions, and an innate sense of fairness and desire to do right by other people. This is not present in everyone.
His fatalism, while completely founded in the physical universe, overlooks the collective too completely. We do have a responsibility to people who are like us in most ways, but suffer from the system. There needs to be some mechanism to protect those who history and geography have shorted. For example, our lifestyle is founded on oil that was stolen from people not unlike ourselves, some of who have died in attempts at parity. We bear some responsibility for those deaths. Government is a crappy way to get anything done, and probably the only thing worse is capitalism. We can’t trust the environment to corporations, and that is essentially the option to what we have. Yes, bureaucrats suck, and yes, left unchecked they will fill the universe with regulations and fees and every other pox modern man suffers, but they are quite good at parsing and counting things. They simply need to be constrained in their power to interpret and create law.
There are those who make a good argument that the “rugged individual” is a stereotyped played to get men to do stupid and dangerous things usually for governments or corporations. While many people, myself included, gravitate to stupid and dangerous things by nature, society might be better off without the hazardous machismo of the “real man” and “rugged individual”. Personally, I’m going to be an individual or die of the consequence, but in truth the idea of the individual, as we conceptualize it in our society, is a somewhat infrequent interpretation of the self among all societies. Some societies, particularly those in which catastrophe is fairly common, have a very diverse view of the self. A person finds their identity in family and tradition. Most people have heard of old people who willingly feed themselves to a polar bear or simply sit down, stop eating and die. In those societies the line between people is more blurred, and someone with my friend’s approach would be seen as pathologically egoistic.
I propose a middle way. It works very simply: we each protect our rights by protecting the rights of others. I have no right to your land, but I have a right to a healthy environment. I have no right to refuse your ownership of a handgun but I do have the right to be safe from your firearm.
Enforcement is always hard; it represents the force that government can bring to bear. So, bureaucracies need to be small, local, and everyone who works in one should be elected every few years, even the janitor, especially cops. An inefficient bureaucracy is a healthy bureaucracy.
Finally, I think we should provide everyone with health care, healthy food, clean water, a chance to make a living, and shelter. A society that doesn’t do that is asking for a subclass of people who live like rats, spreading disease and committing grievous acts because no better life is available to them. We should as a nation, and in our private lives, conduct ourselves as my friends would, morally and pragmatically.
I value both my friends, and would be thrilled to have either at my back. We can’t all be right, and I appreciate their ability to represent the extremes. It’s true that my geezer friends and I are somewhat teetering on the maw, and probably won’t use up too much of the 21st Century, but it is clear to me that the way forward is a weaving of their two points of view; we should provide materially for people but leave them alone in their private lives; we should protect people from unreasonable danger but understand that freedom itself is dangerous, and that life is unavoidable hazard. We should doubt whatever the government tells us and mistrust corporations of every stripe. We should have each other’s backs against the aggregate, and be at each other’s shoulder against greed and excess.