Friday, June 19, 2009

Does society exist?

No, I'm not going all solipsistic on you, but there was a recent post by cassandra at Delawareliberal quoting David Leonhardt of the NYT that got me thinking....

Which is always dangerous.

[The post, by the way, concerned the issue of rationing health care, and while I disagree with both cassandra's and Leonhardt's take, that can wait for another day. This is about a line in his column that I'm sure he didn't even think twice before using.]

Here's the clip:

Today, I want to try to explain why the case against rationing isn’t really a substantive argument. It’s a clever set of buzzwords that tries to hide the fact that societies must make choices.

Notice the bolded section.

The problem is that, quite literally, societies don't make choices. This is a piece of rhetorical shorthand we use in hindsight to characterize the aggregate choices made by large numbers [or a leadership cadre] of members of a society. Picking this bone is not just nit-picking grammar, because there is an important philosophical point here.

During the 1990s through about 2008 the sales of gas-guzzling SUVs all the way up to Hummers seriously outpaced those of high-mileage sub-compacts.

Did that represent a societal choice to ignore the long-term consequences of short-term cheap oil, or global warming, or living beyond our means? No: those sales represented the individual, aggregate choices of millions of Americans for millions of different reasons, although polling and other research can--in hindsight--pick up some apparent trends.

Another example: since 1948 a disproportionate amount of our Federal budget has been parsed out to a small number of defense contractors, regardless of who the President was, or what party he represented, or even who controlled Congress. Did our society somehow choose to spend more on guns and less on butter? Or were key voting leaders heavily subsidized by the defense industry, the production of weapon systems distributed to key congressional districts, a steady stream of propaganda developed to insure continued funding, and pretty much any information to the contrary declared off-limits for public consumption? What exactly did society choose?

You should always watch out for that buzzword society or one of its synonyms ["the voters" or "the American people"], which are 99.9% of the time used to intimate that a small leadership clique [elected or not] has made binding decisions on behalf of society, which will be used to control the lives of all of us--the ones who dissent, and even the ones who were not aware that such choices were going to be made.

When somebody tells you that societies make choices instead of admitting that leaders make choices and enforce them on the rest of the body politic, they are at best unconsciously attempting to intimate that anybody who disagrees with those choices or that intellectual model of society is selfish and not concerned with the greater good.

At worst, they are consciously attempting to de-legitimize their opposition.


Miko said...

I agree that "society" is usually a code word for "small cadre of politically-connected elites," but society most definitely does make choices. These choices are made through countless individual decisions, but they nonetheless amount to a societal choice. If 100,000 people choose to buy a certain type of car, the maker will step up production, prices will come down, their presence on the road will act as free advertising, and so on, so that future consumers will be more likely to make the same choice. Likewise, cities form along rivers when massive numbers of people all decide to make the same choice. And if the government ceased to exist tomorrow, people would no doubt still reach a consensus on which side of the road to drive on.

Call it stigmergic decision making. Society does exist, but those who claim to speak for society are in fact doing the opposite, by directly acting against its capacity for self-organization and self-regulation.

Brad said...

Most of the statements using "society" tend to be collectivist arguments, which limit individual freedom. One of Leonhardt's lines in the NYT article "The choice isn’t between rationing and not rationing. It’s between rationing well and rationing badly." is really disturbing. It promotes more government control over health care, which will ultimately be less freedom of choices for the individual.

Delaware Watch said...

I'm still not clear if for you, Steve:

1. Societies exist in any meaningful sense of the term.

2. The notion of societal choice is meaningless (which is not answered by simply saying be careful when people use this language.

3. If the notion of the common good is meaningless.

4. If the notion of a collective will is meaningless.

We can ask these questions about the meaningfulness of these terms even though we dispense w/ the spectral silliness that there is some abstract entity to which they refer. So the question is are these terms meaningful in any sense according to you?

Steve Newton said...

To answer your questions

1. Societies exist in any meaningful sense of the term?

Societies exist; my point is that the metaphorical sense in which a society is "making decisions" for the NYT author is a chimera.

2. The notion of societal choice is meaningless (which is not answered by simply saying be careful when people use this language?

Societal choice exists in the same sense that evolutionary choice exists, not in the sense that decisions made by elected or un-elected leaders are.

3. If the notion of the common good is meaningless.

The notion of a common good is not meaningless; the devil is always in the details: who decides what is the common good, and who decides which members of society will sacrifice for it?

4. If the notion of a collective will is meaningless.

Collective will is exactly that: a notion. What we mistake for collective will is far too often what each of us personally wants to impose, the results of a poll, or the results of an election.

Collective will as a concept scares me because it is inherently less honest than the idea of majority rule.

I just got back from a 12-hour hegira for my daughter's soccer tournament, so if these sentences do not make sense I will check them again tomorrow. :)

But my intent is to answer you without equivocation

Tyler Nixon said...

You frickin' rock, Steve.

Collective will is longhand for totalitarianism.