Ovid (publius_ovidius) wrote,

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Civilization 101

There seem to still be a few folks who are a little unclear about what "civilization" entails, so I'm going to break it down into small, bite-sized pieces to hopefully shed a little light on the subject.

Ogg, Trogg, and Badnarik are three cavemen, living in their little cave. Part of the reason this situation has worked out is because, after due consideration, they've agreed not to kill and eat one another. They won't steal one another's clubs or loincloths and, perhaps most importantly, they've realized that the free rider problem of public goods is pretty tough to hide when there are only three of them.

Now this situation has worked out fairly well when one day, Trogg is screwing around and falls off a cliff and gets hurt. Ogg immediately goes down to help him and Badnarik, after a bit of consideration, does the same. They help Trogg back to the cave and after a good night's sleep, are relieved to discover that Trogg is sore, but relatively unhurt. No harm has come of this unfortunate incident, but Ogg and Trogg were pretty miffed that Badnarik was hesitant. It seems that Badnarik was relaxing in the shade and didn't think it was fair he had to get up and help Trogg back to the cave.

A few months later, a deep freeze sets in and wipes out Trogg's garden. Ogg has a bit of extra food saved, but not enough to feed Trogg. Badnarik is in the same position. However, if both Ogg and Badnarik chip in, Trogg can be fed. At this point, Badnarik has had enough! "That's socialism!", he grunts!

Despite their limited language, Badnarik, through a series of grunts and elaborate hand gestures manages to explain that he's in favor of lowering taxes, slashing bureaucratic regulation of business, and charitable -- rather than government -- welfare. In short, Badnarik views their three-man cave as a de facto government and because government welfare is compulsory (unlike charitable welfare), it is the equivalent of theft. Badnarik has always viewed Trogg as being a shifty, lazy sort of individual and he doesn't care if Trogg starves to death.

Ogg grunts "This is our cave. Love it or leave it."

The problem that Badnarik faces is one of democracy. If two out of three cavemen vote in a laissez-faire system, that's OK. That's how democracy works. If two out of the three cavemen vote to help one another out in times of need, that's OK too. That's how democracy works. (Hint: socialism is an economic system. Democracy is an electoral system. Don't get this wrong or you'll look like an idiot).

It's fine for people to voluntarily vote to help one another. Yes, there are those who will be upset that the majority didn't vote their way and it's OK to try and convince others to change their mind, but helping someone when they're down is not theft! When the majority of people vote for something, that's democracy, not theft.

Naturally, in a world of more than six billion people, the situation is a little more complicated than this. Communism's fatal flaw is that it kills incentive to produce, so productivity plummets (socialism has the same flaw, but not as severely). There's also the previously mentioned free rider problem. If someone is willing to abuse a system, they can siphon of resources that should rightfully go to those who really need help. Identifying abusers of a system is considerably more difficult when populations explode.

Ogg's "love it or leave it" comment is also worth considering. People (rednecks and conservative types, typically) sometimes say that about America. Of course, sometimes loving a country means that you want to stay and make it better. That's OK. The US is a democracy, remember? We're supposed to be allowed to dissent. (Don't pitch the "this US is actually a republic" argument unless you can clearly explain how splitting this hair effects things).

"Love it or leave it" also fails on another ground: what if there is no other cave? While many Americans want to limit or even eliminate immigration (both legal and illegal), many other countries are doing the same thing. Very few people are in a position to leave, so telling them that leaving is their only recourse is foolish, despite what Billy Joe and friends seem to think. You disagree? Find me a country where the majority of people here would actually want to live in and can legally emigrate to. Seriously, find me one. Many folks would love to hear it.

So what's the clear solution to these problems? There is none. Society has grown too large and too complex for a "one size fits all" solution. Solutions necessarily entail compromise, though some fail to recognize this. We need to live together, play together, work together, and not steal one another's clubs. The failure in thought that many have today is that they are insisting upon passive measures to help society. Refrain from killing. Refrain from stealing. Refrain from active measures that will cause harm.

Passive measures are not enough in a society as large as what we have. We need some active measures, too. When Trogg falls down a cliff, go down and help him. If Trogg is starving, feed him. You know what three of the most successful active measures the US has undertaken to help folks are? Social Security (it did and still does exactly what it was originally intended to do), the Interstate Highway System and the Rural Electrification Act. All three of these programs have had huge benefits for the US economy and not one of them could be successfully handled by private firms because in the short run, there's no profit in many of them. In the long run there are huge profits but it's tough to divert those profits to individual firms.

Naturally, there are plenty of other government programs (education, anyone?) which have reaped huge benefits and others which have been dismal failures. That's the nature of these things, but we muddle along somehow. Though the US clearly has many areas in which it needs to improve, from an economic standpoint, we have succeeded magnificently (on the large scale. Individually, it's often a dismal failure).

So that's your intro to civilization. Badnarik isn't happy with our success model, somehow confusing choosing to help one another with theft, but it's worked. There are those who would cheerfully abandon active government measures to help one another, thinking that the bigots and Christian Taliban in this country are going to open up their pockets to help those they don't like, but that's not what we've voted for and if you disagree with how we voted, that's OK. But saying that how we voted is tantamount to theft is saying that democracy is theft.

By the way, no other cave wanted Badnarik, so he stayed. When he finally fell down a cliff, Ogg and Trogg grudgingly carried him back to the cave and applied a splint to his broken leg. They still think he's an asshole, but an agreement is an agreement. Badnarik, oddly enough, didn't protest the help.
Tags: economics, philosophy, politics, writing
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