.: society is slavery | 2005-08-14 06:37PM :.
[NOTE: I consider this article flawed, but I'll leave it for posterity.]
I've been thinking about the nature of society. And I've come to the conclusion that modern society, at its most fundamental level, is slavery.
First I'll get something out of the way. This has nothing to do with government per se. Government is just a construction, a facet of society, so these conclusions apply to societies having any kind of government, and even anarchies. Government is simply the way that society organizes its use of force against people. Even anarchistic societies use force against people -- it's simply not organized in any official way. The question is whether that usage of force is legitimate or illegitimate.
A human born into a typical society is forced to submit to the authority of that society, under the threat of violence. The person will be forced to obey the arbitrary rules of society. But who has placed the society over that person, and what justification can be made for the domination of that person? In America, which has a republican form of government, the rules are largely enforced by the police officers and the courts. The police department has placed the officer there, and the politician has created the police department and "the people" have elected the politician. "The people" have also elected the judge and they sit on the jury. But what has placed the people above anyone? No higher power has. They have simply asserted their domination. The same pattern is seen in all types of societies with all kinds of government -- the monarchy at one extreme, and the pure democracy at the other. But at the root, the power of society (and of government by extension) is simply dominance asserted.
Now, people speak of the "social contract" as justification for the powers of society. I define the social contract as that which grants moral justification to the society for its use of force to coerce me into obedience of its arbitrary rules. I use the word "arbitrary" because there is a second moral justification for the use of force -- the defense of one's natural rights -- and use of force in all other situations is to enforce something arbitrary. The theory of the social contract goes that I agree to give up my freedom to the society and be bound by its rules, and in return, I gain the benefits of belonging to that society and working within the system it has constructed.
If such a social contract actually existed, it would be a legitimate framework for the use of force within society. But in truth, the social contract does not exist. Essentially, the social contract is this: "You will surrender your freedom to the society. If you do not surrender, you will be forced, through escalating levels of violence, into submission. In return, you will be given access to the resources of the society in proportion to your compliance with its rules." This is not an agreement between two parties in good faith. There is no negotiation and no agreement either. It is simply forced upon each human born within the geometry that the society considers its dominion.
There is no way to get out of the social contract, either, save through death. People may say "Well if you don't like it, leave!", but that statement is just stupid. Society cannot allow people to leave the social contract. And merely leaving the geometry of the society is not sufficient to absolve oneself of the social contract. The reason for this should be clear. Even as regards leaving, the society demands that you obey its rules. Most societies have laws regulating your ability to leave its geometry, and after you've left the geometry, you're still bound by that society's laws. Perhaps you have to pay some percentage of your income back to that society's government, or perhaps you are simply barred from reentering the geometry that the society considers its own. Even forcing you to leave if you don't accept the social contract is forcing the social contract upon you, because the social contract is the only thing that grants the society the justification to dominate you in such a way. If you accept it, you will be dominated, and if you don't accept it, you will still be dominated. So there is absolutely no choice about the domination. Because there is no choice, I don't think the "social contract" exists as such. So I will call it the "social coercion".
It's interesting to think about freedom, then, in light of that. Patriots often expound about how America is the "land of the free" because we have so much freedom and so many rights. And when you ask where the source of those freedoms and rights are, they will no doubt point to our national constitution. But those people do not understand what freedom is. What Americans call "freedom" is nothing but a set of privileges granted as part of the social coercion. We only feel "free" because the range of privileges granted to us by our society is relatively more broad than that of other societies. But how can law grant freedom or a right? Law can only restrict them. Freedom is what you have when you are not coerced, and law can do nothing but carve away at it, because law is coercion. When you talk of rights and freedoms granted by the law, they are nothing but the pieces left over after the society has culled from you all the freedom it does not want you to have. Freedom and society, then, are seen to be mutually exclusive.
So given its essense, modern society seems to be a necessary (and useful) evil at best, and a terrible tyranny at worst. Only a society without social coercion would truly preserve its members' freedom, but I can't imagine such a society existing. Without maturity, humans with more power would limit the freedom of others and assert themselves as masters. So a system that tries to limit the freedom of everyone equally is merely the best idea we've come up with so far.
The reason societies seem to exist is efficiency. I'm not referring to the efficiency granted by increases in technology, but rather the efficiency that comes from a greater focusing of "human resources" towards narrower goals. The focusing occurs by making people more machine-like and preventing them from expending energy in undesirable directions, both of which imply a necessary curtailing of freedom. And the goals are the fulfillments of the desires of the society, and in case of forced government, of vested interests. The vested interests are those who, if humans could be made perfectly machine-like, would be running the machines. Of course in reality there are layers of vested interests, some mutually dependent, but I digress...
Efficiency is why, even in more democratic countries, the military and businesses are still run as monarchies, or oligarchies at best, because under those systems the people are more subjugated, and thus more efficient. The argument is compelling, however, because it promises to raise the standard of living of everyone in exchange for the heightened efficiency that comes from a greater focusing of the efforts of society. With a more efficient economy, there could be more money to go around (although a disproportionate amount would go to the vested interests). And with a more efficient military, people may be safer from physical attack by other societies, and be more capable of oppressing other societies and appropriating their resources.
I can't argue against efficiency, because efficiency is a good thing. But I can argue against slavery -- against the enslavement of humans by society. A close analogy with the enslavement of black men in America can be made. From the moment they were born, they were considered the property of their owners. Their freedom was taken from them by force, but in exchange they were provided certain privileges and certain benefits. They were given food, clothing, and the "freedom" to move about the confines of the owner's compound, provided that they followed his rules and did the work he wanted them to do. If they worked hard to make their owner wealthier, they could even hope to see some improvement in their accomodations. But they would always remain slaves. In the owner's hand was always the whip. Society works similarly, enslaving humans from birth, and providing to them limited privileges and certain benefits in exchange for being forced to spend their lives working for the society's betterment.
Society should exist for the benefit of humans, but it seems that in fact many humans are existing for the benefit of society. (And generally, the poorer one is, the greater the exploitation.) How can we call our way of life civilized when it requires the enslavement of every human being? It is important for people to realize that society enslaves its members, because only then will we think to search for a better way. The very idea that we are already highly civilized prevents us from being motivated to mature and find a system by which humanity can be free. Freedom is the birthright of every human, I say, and in an ideal world, the degree of participation in society would be up to each person, that's all.
.: interesting | 2012-06-24 10:58PM :.
I really enjoyed reading this!!!
an anonymous kevin
.: freedom | 2012-06-29 03:13PM :.
What are your thoughts on positive and negative rights?
an anonymous Miette
.: re: freedom | 2012-07-08 01:06AM :.
I haven't thought about this kind of topic in a long time, but I don't see much of a distinction between positive and negative rights. But then, I don't see that rights as a whole have much distinction either as a concept.
I used to believe in the idea of natural rights, which are fundamental, inalienable rights that we have as human beings and which don't depend on any particular laws or human constructions. But now I don't believe natural rights exist. After all, from what can they be derived? Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But there is almost certainly no such Creator, and even if there was, how would you derive those specific rights from it? The Bible, for instance, doesn't say that men have the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In fact, you get quite the opposite impression. The fact is that humans are animals in an indifferent universe, not qualitatively different from other species, and there is no universal mandate establishing any such rights for us. I thought that perhaps natural rights could be grounded in game theory, but just because one might argue in a game theoretic sense that a certain set of rules would help produce a stable society or enhance common well-being, that doesn't serve to establish that any such rules actually exist or that individuals must be bound by them. Similarly, you might try to ground them in aspects of our evolved morality, but we also have evolved tendencies to subvert such rules and engage in freeloading when it is to our benefit, so it would be cherry picking to base rights on our nature, and anyway that both ignores differences between individuals and is a commission of the naturalistic fallacy.
So I come to the conclusion that there are no rights as people often speak of them. Rights, I believe, are nothing more than privileges which are relatively more strongly established in a culture than other privileges. That is to say, I don't see "rights" as having any qualitative difference from other types of restrictions or grants of permission that may be created by law or custom. And so I don't see a particularly important difference between positive and negative rights. A positive right is a grant of permission to engage in a certain activity. A negative right is a restriction on engaging in a certain activity (to protect people from its consequences).
Like other permissions or restrictions, all such rights may be taken away; see all the rights that have been eroded in the United States over the past decade. They're simply more resistant to erosion. A couple new rights have been gained in the same period (e.g. gay marriage in a few places), but there's no unassailable foundation for them. It just boils down to what people in power want to allow and restrict at a particular time and place in history.
.: social contracts and rights | 2012-07-11 07:16PM :.
I really enjoyed your original rant "society is slavery.". There were so many good opportunities for wonderful tangential digressions. I read it at a time when I was beginning to think no-one thought for themselves anymore, at least not about anything other than tv shows, sports, and the day to day mundanities (if you will forgive my penchant for off-the-cuff word coining). Maybe it is just who I've been talking to ... Anyway, I came across it by accident when I needed my faith in people restored, like a beacon of light.
However, my comment was too brief I fear .. I meant, whether creating a Lockian or Millian social contract, or starting from an original position with a Rawlsian veil of ignorance, the question of positive and negative rights and their importance or precedence is of prime importance. So if one were able to enter a social contract of their complete free will, which positive and negative rights do you think would be necessary? How far should such things go? Because as true as everything you said before is, I am guessing you are not advocating a state of nature / anarchy ...
an anonymous Miette
.: re: social contracts and rights | 2012-08-06 03:26PM :.
You're right that I don't advocate a state of nature or anarchy as a state in which I'd want to live. I think there's plenty of evidence that humans can be nasty creatures, especially to those who are vulnerable or weak or considered outsiders or strangers. If I recall correctly, most existing governments can trace their ancestry back to bands of people who organized to enslave their fellows in order to profit from and live easily on their labor. Eeking out a meager existence from the earth involved great toil, populations were small, communication was poor, and technology was primitive, so it was easy for strong armed men to organize to militarily conquer average folk. (The main risk was in fighting off competition from other armed groups.) But over time the arrangement has become progressively better for the subjects, and even in the bad old days, as now, having one master whose rules you know was better than the uncertainty of being vulnerable to marauders who might come along at any time. (Successful masters at least protected their "investment" from competition.)
Additional evidence comes from the few still-existing primitive tribes, many of which have astonishingly high rates of murder, rape, and general violence. In them, a man's chance of dying violently at the hands of another man ranges, I think, from 15 to 60 percent. In developed nations, it's less than a tenth of a percent. So the myth of peaceful primitive tribes living in perfect harmony with nature (or peaceful anarchy where everyone plays fair) seems to be wishful thinking.
You ask what rights I think would be necessary if I was creating society anew. Well, it's really hard to say. I have an idea of what I would like them to be, but I also know that they're unenforceable without "sufficiently advanced technology" (i.e. something like magic :-). Coming up with a system that would be right for real humans given real limitations and human nature is a problem that centuries of thought have been devoted to, rather unsuccessfully, so I'm not motivated to try for something actually realistic. (That might be sleepiness talking.) I can describe my fantasy scenario, though.
If I had invented a "sufficiently advanced" multi-tentacled artificial intelligence capable of perfectly enforcing my dictates upon everyone, I would set it up to enforce only two laws, which could be briefly summarized as 1) don't harm your fellow man (without his permission), and 2) don't harm the environment, and I only think #1 is truly necessary. Of course, the devil's in the details, and I'll go into those a bit later, but the general structure would be one of very wide-ranging freedom combined with guaranteed protection from exploitation. I wouldn't want to create a government. Rather, I would want to create a framework in which people could create their own governments or join existing ones (or neither), and be bound by those governments only to the degree that they freely consent to, and where people and governments would be unable to force their will upon others.
But everyone would be required to follow the two global laws, including me. Yes, I'd establish the ultimate dictatorship, but at least I'd follow my own rules. :-) And anyway, I wouldn't be running the show -- the AI would. (Don't worry, we'd keep Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton around in case anything went wrong.) The first law -- don't harm your fellow man (without his permission) -- would of course cover obvious harms like battery. It would cover coercion. It would not cover insults or other actions that aren't "physically" harmful and don't result in lasting psychological harm. But why should minor, temporary physical pain, as from a slap, be considered worse than temporary suffering from an insult, especially when the brain is physical and both are probably the same general kind of phenomenon in the brain? I can come up with many rationalizations, but those could occupy an article of their own and ultimately represent an arbitrary decision on my part because I personally consider free speech more important than protecting everyone's feelings.
It would also cover theft. This is not so obvious. After all, the idea of private property is not a human universal but a construct of our society. In some societies, no objects are owned and everything is free to take and use as long as somebody else isn't using it. (Personally, I think it's incredibly wasteful to have a car in every driveway and a vacuum cleaner in every apartment when they spend the great majority of their time not being used...) I would not want to codify the Western idea of private property as the universal for everyone, nor any other system, but I resolve the dilemma in this way: a system of all-public property can easily be built on top of a system of private property, but the reverse is not true. So protecting private property provides people more freedom to choose the system of property that they prefer. The definition of property is not obvious either, though. All objects ultimately come from preexisting stuff. If you pick up a stone, does it suddenly become yours? What if you carve the stone? What about a fish? Or a chimpanzee? We'd say that humans can't own humans, so why could they own a chimpanzee? Can people only own members of "simple" or unintelligent species, or will we be speciesist and say that anything besides homo sapiens is fair game? My answers, which are of course arbitrary, just codify my personal preferences: anything object you find that isn't already owned is yours if you want it, subject to global law #2, except for organisms that normally or actually possess self-awareness. (I have to specify "normally" because otherwise people could own retarded or disabled humans who don't possess it. But why self-awareness as the yardstick? Does owning an animal mean you can do whatever you like with it? Too many questions... :-)
The ownership of land is a whole lot more difficult of a problem than the ownership of objects. Some societies don't consider land to be something you can own, and I can sympathize with them. At least for human-made objects, we created them, so ownership feels "natural" (to me), but the land was here before any of us, and what gives one person a right to claim it and exclude everyone else from using it? (But then, you could ask the same question about a rock.) Is it first-come, first-serve? If somebody can claim 20 or 40 acres, why can't they claim the whole world? Pretty much all land owned today was stolen, but usually it was stolen from people who in turn stole it from other people all the way back into prehistory. Sure, the governments that stole it most recently then turned around and parceled it out to their citizens who now own it "legally", but that's just reselling stolen property...) The people who had the power to take and keep it got it, and that's exactly the kind of thing I'm trying to avoid here. People need space. But how to apportion it? We could apportion it evenly, but does that mean everyone's space gets smaller as more people are born? That would wreak havoc on construction and planning. Most objects can be moved around, but you can't move the land. Dividing it up initially and then letting people buy and sell their plots as private property has worked moderately well, but it's certainly not fair.
A good case can be made that possession of land -- actually living and/or working on it -- should be the root of its ownership. In such a system, no land would be owned initially, but as people started using land, they would gain greater rights to it, and if they stopped using it, their ownership would decay and eventually other people could come take it over. (Say, each day they use it their ownership increases by x percent, and each day they don't use it, it decreases by y percent. And a person with ownership of z percent can only exclude others with less than f(z) percent for some function f.) This has the benefit of being naturally fair. With ownership tied to use, nobody, however rich, could lock up all the land, and nobody, however poor, would be locked out of land ownership. Of course, people could give or buy or sell land ownership, but the new owners could only keep it long-term through using it. Would I choose this system? Probably. It is my own idea after all, so I'd be interested in trying it out, and I don't see any big problems with it, but I'm sure some exist. It might require a nightmare bureaucracy in real life, but thankfully I've got that magic AI to oversee everything.
The first global law would cover other harms too, mostly obvious stuff, plus forms of exploitation, although there are some caveats described in the next few paragraphs.
The second global law -- don't harm the environment (i.e. live sustainably) -- isn't something I have strong principles about, but if I could enforce it I would, if only to sit back and enjoy the fireworks. ;-) The basic idea is simple. Each year, month, etc. there is a certain amount of stuff produced by the environment: trees grow, fish are born, rain falls, soil is enriched, etc. Some things are not renewable. But all these things have a certain value to the ecology and to humans. Those values may be high or low or even zero. Anyway, a portion of the production of the planet's natural systems would be divided up evenly among all people each time unit. I say "a portion" because humans are not the only species on the planet; depending on the value of a resource to the ecosystem, most of it may be reserved for use by the millions of non-human species. Also, this doesn't mean that the resources would be obtained and provided to each person, only that the person will be allowed to harvest those resources if they wished. But they would be prevented from using more than their share, at least on average.
These allotments would be a kind of income, too, even if a person never harvested any such resources. Everything we have ultimately comes from the environment, and some people will want more than others, especially of certain resources. A paper company would want a lot of wood, farmers need tremendous amounts of water, and governments and other groups would want to pool people's resources to accomplish large infrastructure projects. Since the resources would be divided up evenly, people could trade or sell their shares. It's likely that governments would expect a portion of all citizens' shares as a tax, but because governance couldn't be forced, governments would have to provide fair payment in return.
The environment absorbs different kinds of pollution at different rates. This is where some exceptions to law #1 lie. It's pretty hard to live without really harming anyone. We all breathe the same air, so if you make a fire, the smoke particles are going to very slightly poison everyone for miles. Runoff from farms into rivers can be directly and indirectly toxic for people who drink the water or eat the fish. But there are reasonable limits within which industry is possible and the ecosystem (including humans) is protected. The pollution limits would also be allotted evenly among people, most of whom would surely trade or sell them to the primary polluters, industry and agriculture.
Again there are tricky problems. The near impossibility of humanly administering and enforcing the system is handled by the fancy AI, but there are a few fundamental issues. How would we divide up non-renewable resources? It doesn't seem fair to give them all to one generation of people. Should we try to spread them out over the next million years? 10,000? 100? The environment isn't equally fertile everywhere. Do we want to divide up the entire planet's free resources evenly among everyone on the planet, or should people living in water-rich areas get more water, etc? If the latter, how do we deal with people who move around? Similarly, should we act to spread the pollution around, or is it okay if the whole planet's pollution gets dumped in a few concentrated areas? Maybe that's even preferred?
With these two laws in place and universally enforced, we could really have a system where the degree and type of participation in society would be up to each person. One person may prefer laissez-faire capitalism and minimalist government. Another may prefer greater social security and cooperative rather than competitive structures. A third may be a rugged individualist who just wants to do his own thing. The first two people would likely seek to join an existing government that provided what they were looking for. This would likely involve signing a literal social contract, whereby they agree to be bound by certain rules, submit to prescribed punishments for breaking them, and receive certain benefits. (This, by the way, is why the first global law allows harm to be done to a person with their permission. Otherwise, governments could not punish lawbreaking. Also, BDSM. ;-) Unlike real life, if they didn't like the terms, they could choose a different government, and nobody would be forced into a system they dislike by accident of birth. Because there could be no force, governments would have to compete for citizens by providing good treatment.
Governments wouldn't have exclusive ownership of any particular geography (except insofar as its members do). Borders would simply divide people who have and haven't signed on to a particular government. People will ask "But what if a government makes a law and then somebody who's not a member comes and breaks it?" The answer should be clear: the law simply could not be enforced against that person. In the absence of any other agreement, people would only be bound by the two global laws, preventing them from doing each other harm. Now, it may be the case that governments of people in close physical proximity would sign some kind of treaty specifying a degree of mutual respect for each other's laws, but you could never create a law that would be binding on people who belonged to no government at all. Still, everyone would be protected from harm and exploitation -- which is the most important thing.
This brings up the question of what it means to really agree. When does a child become competent to join a government? What about mentally deficient people? Children are terribly impressionable (see the heritability of religion, political views, etc.) and vulnerable to peer pressure, so won't young people just be bundled up into the same system as their parents and friends? Even as an adult, I'm the only person I know who reads every contract before deciding whether to sign it. I think it's fair to say that young children and other incompetent people cannot join a government. If they can't understand the agreement, then they can't agree. Good governments would provide services to children, if only because people would gravitate towards governments that helped their children (e.g. with education), and because children would grow up to appreciate and join a system that was good to them. They would probably join the same system as their parents did, but at least they wouldn't be forced into it. Mentally deficient people could probably never join a government and, as now, would probably need the support of family or friends, but at least they would be protected from outright abuse (and, as in the case of children, some governments may extend help to them for "free", but there's no guarantee for that it would be the case for everyone).
I suppose there are many more things to wonder about, but it's way past my bedtime. :-)
PS. How would the global law "don't harm your fellow man" impact practices of abortion? It wouldn't because fetuses aren't self-aware, conscious people yet, even if they're alive, human, and capable of feeling pain. Actually, humans don't begin to become people until somewhere between 6 and 24 months old, so I would support infanticide up until then. The same logic that provides the only really compelling argument for abortion also extends to infanticide, so I must follow the logic and accept that as well.
Yeah, this was a lot of rambling... :-P