lunadelcorvo: (Some people are like slinkies)
Let's talk about society for a moment. We hear this panicked cry of "Oh noes! It's Socialism!" all too often lately, and I think there is a very deep misunderstanding working in this. There is a quote (that I find sensible, admirable and entirely on point) from Elizabeth Warren that is getting both praise and outrage (including some of the typically neanderthal violence we have come to expect from the Tea Party types). Here it is:
"There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you!

But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that maurauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea — God bless. Keep a big hunk of it.

But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."
-Eizabeth Warren, Sep 2011
One of the big sticking points here is the term "social contract." Now, first of all, let's just take a moment and recall that "social" is not an evil word. It simply refers to things that pertain to a society. I think, generally speaking, we would all agree that society is a good thing. It is far more advantageous for humans to live in social groups than it is for each of us to live entirely unaffiliated with our fellow humans.

When we choose to live together instead of singly, we find that we receive all sorts of benefits, but that we must also surrender certain freedoms we might have retained had we remained solo operators. For example, we surrender the freedom to kill anyone who crosses our path, to go any place and take anything that strikes our fancy. It is the existence of society that makes these 'murder' or 'stealing.' Were we not in a social group, we would call this 'defending' or 'foraging' or something. But this is a primitive example. So let's consider the social group as we live in it.

The benefits we enjoy from society are legion, once we consider them. And the more advanced our technology, the greater the benefits we get from society. After all, I doubt many of us could develop and manufacture a computer, a refrigerator, a car, even a flashlight entirely on our own. There is a reason humans did not begin to develop technology until we developed social structures.

Today, we have roads, schools, parks, cities, libraries; all kind of things that are considered 'public.' These things cost resources, and require that we surrender the freedom to say they are ours alone, to destroy them, and so on. But we also have the ability to interact, to share skills, to trade. We don't have to grow our own food, make our own clothes, housing, furniture, etc. We don't have to defend ourselves from every single other human that wants similar things. However, these trades also depend on limitations, and on things which we consider public. Take the very idea of money, for example. It takes a society for money to have any meaning. We don't lug a cow to the mall in order to trade for a pair of jeans. But without a socially shared understanding of money, scraps of paper are just scraps of paper. Further, without society, how would money be produced, to say nothing of valued?

Laws are social; we give up the freedom to drive on whichever side of the road we like in order that all of us may drive safely. Language is social; we must agree that certain words have certain meanings - I must give up the freedom to insist that this thing with four wheels is called a 'glub' and call it a car in order that I can communicate effectively. Everyone depends on these socially agreed-upon conventions. That I was not personally consulted as to which side of the road *I* want to drive on, or what word *I* want to use does not free me from the necessity of abiding by what has been decided upon, and frankly, to whine about it smacks of a petty sort of entitlement.

This exchange of some freedoms for the benefits of living in a society IS an agreement, it is a contract, and it requires all participants to honor the rules, to do their part. It is not explicit, but it is understood. We obey laws because we understand that if no one obeys laws, there is chaos; social order fails. This is the 'social contract.' It is the implicit agreement by which we all understand that the roads are for everyone, that money has value, that things we want must be paid for not simply taken. All of these things limit our freedom, it is true, but who really wants to live a sole entity, defend your own home, make your own food, pave your own roads, make your own clothes, and so on?

Furthermore, I submit that one of the benefits we enjoy from living in a social group, is support of our fellow humans. If we lived in a 'dog-eat-dog, everyone for himself' setting, we would have no reason to care about the fate of others. In fact, we would possibly seek to remove others, as every other presents a threat. However, in a society, we are all better served when the group is stronger. There is no advantage, and in fact, considerable disadvantage in eliminating members. And there is, of course, the ethical question of human suffering; free from the ever-present need for pure self-preservation by our membership in a society, we no longer need measure the good of the other against our own survival. The group is served by looking after all its members.

So Warren's point goes to the very foundational idea of a society. All those things which are 'public,' but which we nevertheless utilize, cost money. While it is true that what money we earn is earned by our labor, it is also the case that no one labors alone. We are employed by others, we employ others. We are able to spend our day working to earn money because we do not have to spend our day growing our food. This is because we live in a social group. The ability to pursue what work we choose is itself one of the benefits of the social contract. The value of the money we earn is a benefit of the social contract.

It is absolutely the case then, that those who benefit more, by using more of the resources of society, have an obligation to put a proportionally greater amount back into the society. Is it solely up to them? Of course not! But surely the manufacturer whose distribution logs millions of miles on the nation's roads in furtherance of his business ought to make a larger contribution to the upkeep of those roads than the person who logs perhaps a thousand miles in the same time period. It's not about anyone doing more than their share, it is about making everyone DO their share. Benefit some, put some back. Benefit a lot, put a lot back. It's not complicated, it's not sinister, it's not some radical notion. It's just the way societies, or at least successful ones, work.

So what are we to make of those who react to Warren's statement by urging violence? (As did the conservative blogger who wrote "When I hear the word 'contract' I reach for my revolver think of two unique definitions — formally, a legally binding mutual agreement made between two or more parties, or idiomatically, an attempt to hire an assassin to kill one or more of your enemies.")

We must conclude that either they simply don't understand the way societies work, or else they are simply anti-social. I am certain this blogger uses the roads in his community, I am certain he uses money, buys food grown by someone else, calls the police if he is threatened in his home. Certainly he is happy to make use of perhaps the greatest manifestation of the social contract ever - the internet. So he (like the rest of us) clearly partakes of the benefits of living in society. I think, however, that he does so in ignorance. Or perhaps he thinks all the benefits he enjoys from his social milieu are owed him for some reason, and that he, or certain others are not obligated to contribute according to how they benefit.

In any case, my suggestion to him then, if he is really so repulsed by the idea of social living as a reciprocal arrangement, is that he take his revolver, and he go away. He is welcome to leave society, to defend his own land, grow his own food, make his own clothes, and so on. If he really wants to defy the social contract he can devise his own linguistic system, his own laws, his own money (though he will have no one with whom to use it, having rejected the notion of the social contract). He will have a hard time getting on the internet, but I don't think society will suffer for his absence.


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Things I need to remember:
• Asking for help is not, as it turns out, fatal.
• Laughing is easier than pulling your hair out, and doesn't have the unfortunate side effect of making you look like a plague victim.
• Even the biggest tasks can be defeated if taken a bit at a time.
• I can write a paper the night before it's due, but the results are not all they could be.
• Be thorough, but focused.
• Trust yourself.
• Honesty, always.

Historians are the Cassandras of the Humanities



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