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Civilization and the Democratic Impulse, Yes, Part 2

with 3 comments

Yesterday, in the comments, Robert brought up the building of the intercontinental railroad system in the US as a counterexample to things like the Sui building of the Grand Canal–but that’s not a very good example, because it, too, depended heavily on coercion.

The owners of railroads may have hired voluntary workers to do their building instead of pressing unwilling conscripts into service whether those conscripts wanted to work or not, but the system could not have been successfully built if the US government hadn’t been willing to confiscate large tracts of land from very unwilling farmers.

And something similar happened when we built the interstate highway system. 

All such large scale projects seem to require a certain amount of coercion, if only because it only takes a single hold out somewhere to bring the entire thing down. 

I am not saying that this is a good thing, only that, as a matter of historical record, it is a fact.

Democracy–or at least, the 18th century English-Englightenment version of democracy–did not end this practice entirely, although it definitely slowed it up some.

But only some.

The English Enlightenment began with the premise that in a just society, all citizens are assumed to be able to handle their own affairs by themselves and without the “protection” of an aristocracy, and to run their own governments without such protection.

“All men are created equal” may have been defined restrictively in 1776, but it still created the expectation that the lives of ordinary people were supposed to count and to be under their own control, rather than being fodder for whatever the elites wanted to do next.

And the elites always had something they wanted to do next, even though those elites kept changing and their projects kept changing with them.

An awful lot of what elites want is self-serving, even if it is necessarily (in a democratic society) presented as “for your own good.” 

Elites are always interested in expanding their own power, and they’re always helped along by people who desperately want to be “safe.”   It never ceases to shock me how many people are afraid of living–of risk at any level, of the possibility that their fellow citizens will run amok and do damage, at the possibility (and it is always a possibility) that bad luck may happen and sweep away everything they have.

But to say this is not to say that elites are always wrong in what they want to do.

The public health drives that resulted in cleaning up city streets and making sewer systems both available and effective did more to reduce mortality than antibiotics.  Mass vaccinations made polio so rare my sons had only heard of it because it appeared in a Superman comic from the 1930s.  The Interstate highway system is one of the wonders of the world.

Unfortunately, there is nothing to say that elite projects are always the right ones, or that they always do more good than harm. 

And I think, if you took a survey, you’d probably find that most of them do more harm than good, in the long run as well as the short.

What’s more, they tend to erode the principle of self government.  They do this by giving the impression–not only to elites, but to their fellow travelers–that the ordinary citizen is too stupid to know his own good, and therefore should not be allowed to define it for himself.

And once you get started in that direction, there’s a veritable stampede to the position of changing the status of people from citizens to children.  Or, as often in the present day US, patients.

The problem with elite projects and the will to impose them coercively takes two forms.

The first is the obvious one:  most elite projects that demand the ability to coerce are bad ones, wrong in fact and assumptions.  We tend to get amnesia about the wave after wave of “expert opinion” that has flowed over us and then turned out to be absolutely and often harmfully wrong.

The second is that they almost always create an institutionalized presence that is virtually impossible to dislodge even once the projects are proven wrong, or once they become out of date.

None of this, of course, gets out from under the possibility that something may come along that legitimately requires such a project.

The people who concern themselves with climate change would definitely say that climate change is one of these things.   I don’t support them for reasons I outlined a few posts ago.

But the fact is, it is entirely possible that under a government that strictly observed the individual natural rights of its citizens, NO such projects could be carried out, no matter what good they did and no matter how the good would outweigh the bad.

It is also entirely possible that a government that did so observe the individual natural rights of its citizens is only viable once a certain level of progress has already been made–that, in conditions of less technical and infrastructure development, say, such a government would get in its own way and leave its citizens technically free but practially miserable.

The usual way around this is to declare that some practice–not vaccinating your children, or homeschooling them, or whatever–causes “harm,” with “harm” being defined as broadly and flexibly as possible.

And sometimes it entails simply lying.  A lot of people who claim to base their opinions and priorities on “science” buy into math so creative it lets them claim that “second hand smoke” and (now) even “third hand smoke” is “just as damaging” as smoking itself.

I just love the kind of contortions they get themselves into with e cigarettes.

And, of course, mostly we just get a resurgent of the same old argument that people do not know what is good for them, but somebody else does.

In case you’re wondering where I’m going with this, I don’t really know.  It just occurred to me how consistent this has been–that progress, real progress, almost never seems to be entirely voluntary.

But I am still me, and I’d rather see the end of large scale progress than allow government to coerce its citizens and treat them like children, so there’s that.

I’m going to go do some more work and play Paganini while I do it.

Written by janeh

April 7th, 2014 at 7:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Civilization and the Democratic Impulse, Yes, Part 2'

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  1. “…’d rather see the end of large scale progress than allow government to coerce its citizens and treat them like children,…”

    Hmm. Of course, if that were the general principle followed from the beginning of humans, there would be no Paganini

    We’ all still be living as tribal nomads, more or less peacefully co-existing with other bands during times of plenty, and killing each other in times of scarcity amd plagued with exto- and endo- parasites and assorted diseases varying according to local.

    But if absolutely inviolable private property rights are really that important … but what private property really exists at that level of social organization? The concept almost doesn’t exist in such societies.

    So that’s an interesting Catch-22 you’ve got there.

  2. Risk. Heh. A favorite quote:

    “We live on the interface between radioactive magma and hard vacuum, and there are warning labels on hair dryers.”

    – Angstrom

    I also do not understand the massive concern with being safe from everything. Especially since it’s a false safety. Remember after 9/11 when there was all that fuss about our vulnerability? We thought for sure that the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach would be shut down to casual intruders, so we stopped driving around there as we used to do, poking into the seamy underbelly of American transportation and economy. (yes we are very weird people, but where else are you going to see banana boats unloading into banana warehouses, a federal prison with a million dollar view, and huge piles of pure sulfur?)

    Then we tried going down there again, and guess what? Still completely open, still totally vulnerable to attack. But all the talk would lead one to believe that Homeland Security is on the job, making the world safe from shampoo and nuclear weapons. Not so much on the actual ground.

    I blame sensational news media and the credulity of the ignorant. If you’re gonna let the ignorant vote, you have to live with the results. Which are obvious, at this point…politicians who pander to the most ignorant.

    And now that money = speech, those with the most money get the most speech. Oh boy.


    7 Apr 14 at 12:02 pm

  3. I wish sometimes I were actually read. I thought the TRANScontinental railroads were a pretty good example, since they went through areas of almost no privately owned land–except for what was given to the railroads as an incentive.

    Yes, when you build a road–or a railroad or a canal or a dam in settled land, you’re going to have problems, which is why the government was given the ability to do this, and why that power was pretty tightly restricted–for a public purpose, with process of law and with compensation. If we had held to that, we might have avoided a number of mistakes.

    But let’s not forget what the founders knew:
    1) government is about force. When you come right down to it, a government is something that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. And if you continue to defy a government, it will kill you.
    2) government is also necessary and inevitable. You can be ruled by an elected senate, or you can be ruled by the man with the biggest club–until he sleeps. Only hermits can avoid all decision-making authority, and man is, as Aristotle knew, a political animal.
    3) free government is a balancing act. We give up the absolute freedom of the hermit or the wild man of the woods so that we can live in houses, read books and not be casually murdered in our sleep. But we also try to so restrict that government that we need not fear the midnight knock on the door and the trip to the camps. Too weak a government places us at the mercy of criminal gangs tribal factions and foreign powers. Too strong a government may be as bad or worse. So politics really is the art of compromise, though not in the way it’s sometimes meant.
    4) As for WORKING government, I would remember Heinlein’s observation that power and responsibility must be commensurate, and John W Campbell’s modification of Lord Acton–that IMMUNITY tends to corrupt, and absolute immunity corrupts absolutely. Too many of our present rulers will never have to live in the world they create.

    And I’ve talked too much. But it’s no use saying “we need a government which doesn’t coerce.” That’s what government does. And to the extent one has elites, they’ll certainly take advantage of it. But with care and the grace of God, we can hem them in and make them live with the consequences. That’s all anyone can do.


    7 Apr 14 at 3:44 pm

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