Tuesday, December 6, 2005

The measure of a society

What is the measure of a society ?

I ask this question because there is a maxim that says "a nation is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens". This is from Hubert H. Humphrey and the full quote is :

"The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped."


However, I find this highly problematic. Not because I think we should treat our "most vulnerable citizens" badly, but because we're supposed to take this as the measure, the moral test, of a government or nation.

But charity, since this seems to be what we're talking about here, cannot be a moral test. While there are plenty of reasons to give to charity, there is no challenge in giving money per se. The challenge is creating resources and making them available to all. That is what runs progress, not charity. We are only able to help the least fortunate amongst us because we have the resources to do so. Despite the rantings of some left-wing extremists (I'm looking at you, Peter Singer), we don't need to kill our crippled and aged any more.

Furthermore, isolating one segment of society as a standard has perverse consequences. In this case, victimocracy is the rule. If only the unfortunate and victims are to be reified, then everyone will want to be classified as an unfortunate and a victim. Sexism, racism, classism are resurrected and marshalled as arguments for victimhood. There is a synergy between this and democracy as well - democracy balkanizes society, making the rhetoric of victimhood possible, and even desirable. Victimhood, therefore, becomes the cement that unites a segment against others in social warfare.

And once again, individuality is subverted to this culture of collective victimhood. It is not specific individuals who are victims, but a race, a gender, a class, a nationality, a language. Therefore neither actual evidence of victimhood, nor the individuals or individual values, are relevant. Rather, the interest of the culture of victimhood are paramount. We observe this, for example, in "blacks" telling other "blacks" to be more "black" and to adopt arbitrary cultural patterns against their individual values. This "ideal profile" of the victim exists in all victimocracies, although it can be more or less specific.

The lesson here is that concentrating on one specific area as a standard inevitably has perverse consequences, and is anti-dialectical.

On the other hand, saying that the measure of a society is how it treats itself is tautological and unmeasurable, simply because there are so many contexts in which people deal and trade with each other. Does the measure of a society depend on how I treat my neighbour ? This may seem trivial unless one remembers that society is nothing more than the organization of individual action. So the way I treat others is definitely part of "how we treat each other".

Because of the extent of the problem, it becomes tempting to use a single statistic, or a combination, as a standard. But which do we use ? Homicide rates ? GDP per capita ? Ratio of population in jail ? Contributions to charity ? Level of corruption ? All of these statistics have obvious merits, but not any single one gives us a good grip on the problem.

I would submit that a good standard must start from the premise that there are basically three ways for people to deal with each other :

* On a voluntary basis (trade);
* Coercively, through government power (statism);
* Coercively, on an individual basis (crime).

The standard of a society should perhaps then show how much the people in a given society use crime to arrive to their ends, as well as government power, and add up the two.

However, there are no easy measures of either. For example, the United States has the highest ratio of citizens in jail, but much of this is due to the War on Drugs, which attacks voluntary action as well. Also, the variety of political systems makes a single measure of political participation dubious, and there's likewise no easy way to measure government intervention in social affairs (even though we already have many such measures on the economic side). Perhaps if we had such ratings, the calculation would be easier.

Ultimately I would submit that right now the measure of a society is not something that is wholly important at the moment, and that maxims such as the one I quoted before serve the role of political grandstanding and doubletalk more than it serves clear-headedness.

11 comments:

Aaron Kinney said...

I would think that a good measure would be based on how much the government protects the rights of individuals, as well as how much it leaves people free to their own devices. Charity should be left to private entities and individuals. It should not be the responsibility of the government to organize or fund charity.

MDC said...

It is difficult to measure a society on charity, because the purpose of charity for individuals ultimately comes down to personal gain for the charitable. Individuals are charitable to (a) avoid socially constructed guilt, (b) obtain self-satisfaction, or (c) enjoy the status of being considered "generous", and even if you look at these three items with a broad lense they are almost all the same thing anyway. Even under Humphrey's idea the purpose of caring for "vulnerable citizens" is to maintain a positive profile for one's society.

Delta said...

I think it's hard to measure a society because of the difficulty in defining what a "good" society is and what a "bad" one is. If we wanted to say that the goal of society was to provide for the future success of the group (an extremely arbitrary choice), then I think we could talk about what a good society would entail, and I think helping out the portions of society that lag behind as a good thing. Of course, you don't want to make being a victim a goal, but I don't know of any case in history when being poor was more rewarding than having even a low-paying job.

And while I may agree with the sentiment of AK's comment about protecting the rights of the individuals, I think it is a problematic definition because how do you decide what rights a human has, if any? The definition of someone's rights is going to simply fit into that person's worldview. Christians will see this as a government that gives them the right for the majority to openly worship their deities with public funds and someone on the left could say that everyone has a right to a full college education and full healthcare.

Niels said...

> I think it is a problematic definition because how do you decide what rights a human has, if any? <

http://www.whatisobjectivism.com/
http://www.objectivistcenter.com/objectivism/objectivism-lso.asp

Eric Grumbles said...

I'd say that you can actively measure statism by two metrics:

1. The ratio of government employees to private sector employees (jobs outsourced to private companies should be included in that number).

2. The percentage of GDP spent by the government. Not taxed, spent. You have to include the money borrowed every year to get a real picture.

The more money concentrated in the hands of a large number of government employees, the more statism you have. I am totally guessing, since I haven't done the research, but I would venture to guess that the USA is likely to be approaching the USSR in these two metrics.

muse said...

This is a very interesting post.

Debbie said...

"Giving" is what we want to do, of our own free will. What we don't want is to be 'robbed' by the government and 'forced' to give.

A child asks "What is a liberal?"

A mother answers: "Do you remember all those people just sitting on their butts in New Orleans? Waiting for someone to come along and provide for them? Instead of getting up and getting out of harms way on their own? THOSE are liberals?

Child? "Oh, I get it."

Debbie
Right Truth
http://www.righttruth.typepad.com

unenlightened said...

Being small in a world of big people makes one vulnerable; but only if the big people are careless or cruel does one become a victim. No one can survive their own birth by more than a few hours without help, and no one is born clutching a credit card to pay for it. The world belongs to those who are strong enough to take it and those lucky enough to inherit it from them. But they did not create it, they merely exploit it. Assuredly, no sane person wishes to be the victim of the charity of the possessors of the world - they charge far too much!
One does not recieve the right to vote by charity; children do not suckle by charity; grandparents are not supported in their old age by charity.
Creating resources may be what runs progress but it doesn't run morality. Who are the fortunate 'we' who have all these resources? Did you really create them? I think it is you who are isolating one segment of society as a standard, and the consequences are, indeed perverse. The culture that we live in is assuredly the responsiblity of the fortunate owners of the world but it is not their overwhelming generosity that is the problem, it is their overwhelming meanness, greed, and self satisfaction.

Anonymous said...

The quote by Hubert Humphrey does not mention "charity" or imply giving people money. Rather, the quote raises our awareness of how we TREAT people who are children, infirm, poor, or sick; People who are unable to care for themselves.
This, to me at least, means what opportunities are we providing? What protections are we giving? Do all people have equal access to the most basic needs for survival?
THAT is what I think Humphrey meant. Money is not always the answer.

Aaron Kinney said...

Anonymous,

The quote by Hubert Humphrey does not mention "charity" or imply giving people money. Rather, the quote raises our awareness of how we TREAT people who are children, infirm, poor, or sick; People who are unable to care for themselves.
This, to me at least, means what opportunities are we providing? What protections are we giving? Do all people have equal access to the most basic needs for survival?
THAT is what I think Humphrey meant. Money is not always the answer.


Agreed, but it does not diminish the point of the essay. Money is just an exchange medium for the exchange of productive work. Money is not the only kind of charity that can be provided to a person in need. I believe that you are making the mistake of limiting the definition of charity to the giving of money.

However, in the context of this essay, Franc refers to the monetary kind of charity for simplicities sake, and because of the fact that most charity from an average joe is in the form of money given to a professional charity organization that can more efficiently convert that money into real work and resources than he can.

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