Society 2 (by )


In some cultures, people are expected to be fiercely proud of their nation (eg, the USA); in others, that's seen as a bit embarrassing (eg, the UK) and in some, it's downright taboo (eg, Germany).

Nationalism can bring people together and cause them to think about issues of collective concern and cooperate, which is surely a good thing. But it can easily grow into xenophobia. I suspect that there is a human tendency towards tribalism that can all too easily turn into xenophobia. Can we find ways to stop that from happening? Divert it all into good-natured sporting competition where hands are shaken afterwards? Unite the human race against a fictional alien foe?


I think many libertarians would agree with the need for the rule of law in some form - after all, a system of contracts is a key part of a free market. However, right-wing folk and I will definitely diverge on the issue of state welfare programs: that taxes are taken from people who can afford them by some body (eg, a government) which then uses the money obtained to look after people who don't have the resources to look after themselves (be it down to poverty, or acute or chronic health problems), and on preventative measures to try and stop people getting in that situation in the first place - such as education, preventative health care.

The arguments against them that I've seen include that they are open to abuse and remove the incentive to be productive (why should I work and pay taxes, when I can just sit at home and get free money?), that they are inefficient as the government holds a monopoly on it (why not have competing charities, that people can choose the most efficient of?), that they are coercive (the government forces people to pay taxes, using threats of seizure of property and/or imprisonment), and that they are unfair (Why should I, a productive person who has studied hard to gain qualifications, got a good job, and worked hard, have to pay for shirkers?).

I think the first argument is bunk. Humans rarely seem to want to sit at home and get free money when they could be doing something interesting and useful. Also, it seems to suggest that the only useful work is wage-earning work; it undervalues things like being a parent and home-maker, or looking after people in general, making things and giving them away for free, or just being a good friend to everyone. Such activities form the backbone of our society, but are becoming increasingly hard to perform, as people are having to work more and more hours on average in order to survive. Can't we collectively support such people without forcing them to find (and depend upon) voluntary sponsors of some kind? I am very suspicious of social systems that force people to depend upon others. For instance, some benefits and grants are only available to people if they can prove that they do not have the resources to do something themselves, and also that their parents or spouse cannot provide it for them either. The principle is that parents should provide for their children, and spouses should provide for each other if they can. However, "should" does not equal "will"; if the parents or spouse are not nice people, then the person seeking the means-tested benefit is at their mercy. They can refuse to prove that they are unable to provide; and if they are able to provide, they can choose not to. I don't want to give people that power over each other. I think a society should judge people alone in this regard.

People seem to have a lot of fear that welfare systems will be abused by shirkers, but I think that this is rare enough problem to largely be ignored at the welfare-system level; when it does happen, I suspect it is mainly an issue of mental illness (it is, perhaps, an oblique form of self-harm). Society should encourage people to attain their potential by proving to them that they can and providing the tools to do so, not through threats and judgement.

The argument for inefficiency due to the government holding a monopoly on charity is, of course, one of the situations where I think a free market fails; perhaps welfare charities could somehow be fairly judged for their efficiency so that people can actually make an informed choice as to which to support, but even then, the issue of "how much do people need to contribute to meet acceptable standards of welfare provision?" is left to people to donate what they see fit. "Great!", say the right-wingers; but if we want society to somehow provide a welfare system for the reasons I outline, how do we make sure it actually happens? Can we rely on the kindness of voluntary contributors? I think we can in small communities where people can see the effects of their donations, but I suspect that human nature will be to under-donate to large charities caring for distant needy people.

So although taxing people to pay for welfare is coercive, I see no other way to ensure that the welfare system is paid for. I think there are better ways to audit the performance of a taxation and welfare system, and to hold it to account for its efficient operation, than the free market.

Which leaves the issue of unfairness. The fact that people think that way is one of the reason I am skeptical of people voluntarily donating enough to run a welfare system! But what people who claim that such a system is unfair seem to fail to realise is that they DO benefit from a welfare system that gives money and other resources to people they aren't, because the people the system supports then aren't robbing them to feed themselves, costing the legal system to stop them robbing (and dealing with the consequences when they do, including running prisons); because those people aren't dying of starvation all over the place, making everywhere untidy and unhygienic and causing clean-up costs; and, most importantly of all, because people who are lifted out of poverty end up contributing to the economy and society in ways that diffuse out and improve life for us all.

And so I largely stand by my original suggestion of providing free lodging, food, clothes, healthcare, communications facilities, and education (and whatever other essentials of living develop in future as society and technology changes); but I have since been convinced to also give a basic income to everyone to spend as they please, because the choice of being able to buy things seems too important to people to deny to those who aren't earning a wage. It needn't be large, as the essentials of living are provided already (cheaply, using economies of scale), and the economy should be structured to make it easy to do ad-hoc part-time work or to be self employed to earn a little more without becoming a wage slave and needing to give up your non-waged contribution to society. I still think that means-testing benefits is wasteful and unnecessary; medical prescriptions need to be made by doctors to tend to people's individual needs above and beyond those shared by all humans, but everything else should just be distributed equally.

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  • By Faré, Fri 8th Jan 2016 @ 8:42 am

    The big mistake many engineers make is to believe they as philosophers are somehow outside and above society and government is a magical tool that can mold society whichever way they want, for free.

    The one thing libertarians understand is that, no, nobody is either outside or above society, that government is not the tool of philosophers above, and not the tool of people below, but is a natural phenomenon with laws of its own, derived from its principle of unaccountable violence; and before to dream of what it "could" or "should" do, realize that not only its action isn't free (as in, it has a dear price), its action isn't free either (as in, it's constrained in what it WILL do — if it doesn't propagate its own survival through domination, it doesn't survive and is replaced by a conqueror that will do what it takes).

    See e.g. "The Calculus of Consent" by Buchanan & Tulloch on how democracy does work in practice (though with very favorable hypotheses), or "The Myth of the Rational Voter" by Caplan on how these favorable hypotheses do not even hold.

    Once you understand what government is, a lot of things change as to how you approach social engineering (if at all).

  • By alaric, Fri 8th Jan 2016 @ 12:27 pm

    I'm approaching the design of a government as a collective body to handle collective issues; I do agree that governments which become entities in their own right, whose interests may not align with the interests of the populace, then You Have A Problem.

    I've yet to see a convincing blueprint for how humanity can manage collective issues (dealing with emergencies, managing shared resources, dealing with disputes about stuff, etc) without forming some kind of forum to discuss it and agreeing to go along with the outcome of those agreements even if you don't like them - and making those agreements useful even if some people refuse to go along with them. Perhaps I am being too broad in labeling that as a "government" of sorts, and damning the whole concept by association with stagnant Western democracies...

    No, I'm not convinced my "second society" wouldn't also fall foul to the attractor of a power-hungry government propagating its own existence at all costs; I have merely tried to discourage it from going down paths I can think of that lead to that. It is my best stab at a model for a government in the traditional-nation-state sense; I would really like a few of those to be competing for citizens with each other, along with an ocean full of seasteads evolving their own forms of little micro-nation and competing with each other for citizens, and we get to see what wins out... As long as there's enough overall consensus that people should be very free to move to a different society, it should be hard for any despots to do a North Korea and lock their populace up without anybody noticing and doing something about it...

  • By Faré, Sat 9th Jan 2016 @ 6:16 am

    But that's the thing: the notional "government" that you're talking about has nothing to do with the institution of territorial monopoly of violence usually known as "government". If you define it as whichever "kind of forum to discuss it and agreeing to go along with the outcome of those agreements even if you don't like them" — then the closest common notion is market, not government.

    And yes, competition between "governing" entities via free association is the one and only force capable of preventing the otherwise non-competed entity from turning into tyranny.

    In any case, a lot of criticism against libertarianism boils down to confusion between these opposite notions, whichever names you use to denote them (society, government, market, etc.)

  • By alaric, Mon 11th Jan 2016 @ 10:45 am

    I do worry about how to stop "governing entities" from (a) absorbing each other, not necessarily through traditional military expansionism but maybe even just through all signing treaties with each other that make them interchangeable in the name of "standardising for the benefit of free trade", or through simple cultural hegemony; and (b) going North Korea and inhibiting flight of disaffected citizens!

  • By Faré, Tue 12th Jan 2016 @ 5:04 am

    (a) Indeed the Habsburg gained power through alliances and weddings (and ended up highly inbred for it). As long as citizens and landowners have an "exit" option, it doesn't matter how much the entities merge. If they don't then it's indeed guaranteed eventual doom as empires merge together and/or collapse.

    (b) All governments have already reserved the right to inhibit the flight of disaffected citizens: that's what border controls and passports are for. It's the other bad aspects of North Korea that they happily haven't copied (yet). "Citizen" control is precisely what government monopoly consists in.

    The idea that "governing entities" should NOT have a monopoly on either territory or citizens is what libertarianism is about.

  • By alaric, Wed 11th Oct 2017 @ 7:43 am

    Here's some more interesting insights into the problem of government:

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