Friday, May 01, 2009

Love, trade and fear: the organizing principles of society.

One of the most basic principles of libertarian ethics in particular, though I would think of ethics in general, is whether or not we treat others as ends to our own goals or ends in themselves. The core question in this matter is: Do we believe others can live their own lives and serve their own needs or should they be made subservient to our goals and our needs?

I consider this a no-brainer. I can’t see any justification for treating others as if they exist merely for our own pleasure, as tools to be used in the accomplishment of our personal goals. I entirely agree with Thomas Jefferson when he said: “The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”

Certainly, when I ask people if they would agree with this principle, I find virtually universal acceptance of it. But when we attempt to practice this principle I find almost universal opposition to it. Most people apparently believe that morality is impractical; at the very least it is not something that can be put into effect consistently.

Both the political Left and Right share a common moral principle, though they would no doubt deny it most vociferously. Both believe that is permissible to treat other humans as if they were mere tools for the achievement of goals that those people do not necessarily share.

They may apply this immoral principle consistently, as did the authoritarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin. Or they may apply them inconsistently or sporadically, as do most regimes today, no matter the political make-up of the government.

Part of the inconsistency on both the Left and the Right is that they disguise their personal goals with high-sounding labels. When the religionist speaks about censorship he doesn’t argue that he prefers to have certain material banned because he finds it offensive. Instead he cloaks his personal preferences with appeals to “the good of society.” Similarly, the Left will use “the common good” as an excuse for the imposition of their goals upon others.

The Right may appeal to God, country, patriotism, race, religion, morality, virtue, community, church, etc. The Left will use equally vague collectivities, such as the common good. The Left, being cleverer than the Right, has one other weapon. They will claim that the goal they wish to achieve is good for the person whose will they are denying. Clearly the other person would disagree, otherwise the goal would be their own and they would be working to achieve it without interference.

There are a few methods that you can use to get people to act in concert with the goals you have set. One method is persuasion. You may claim that God has chosen you to tell them how to live. If you convince them that you are not deluded, but speak for some deity, they may voluntarily rearrange their existence so that they act toward your goals instead of those they would otherwise choose. You might appeal to some moral principle that they value and thus convince them that your goals are more worthy than those they were pursuing. All of these are tactics of persuasion. You are appealing to the values they hold in high regard. I call this the “love” method. They do something you want because they see it as consistent with something they love.

The limitation of this method is that it requires all participants to share similar goals and values. If the values and goals differ it becomes more difficult to appeal to “love” to get others to act consistently with the goals you desire. An appeal to “God” might work in your local Baptist church but it has far more limitations once you go out into the world and start speaking to people of differing values. The “love” principle thus tends to work in monocultural societies more than in multicultural ones. It will work more often in small communities than in large ones.

A second method, by which you can change the goals of others so as to be consistent with your own, is through the use of inducements, or exchanges of mutual benefit. I have a lawn that I want cut. I want you to cut it. You don’t love me enough to cut it willingly. You don’t think God wants you to cut my lawn. You aren’t persuaded that some moral principle compels you to cut my lawn. I offer you $20 and find that you suddenly acquire an interest to cut my lawn.

Such exchanges need not be monetary. I may agree to cut your lawn next month, if you cut my lawn this month. I might agree to drive you across town for a meeting in exchange for having my lawn cut. I may simply say: “I’ll owe you one if you do this for me.” I call this the “trader” method.

Where the love method works best in small, monocultural communities that share similar values, the trader method can be used where values diverge. I don’t need you to share my values in order to find a way for us to cooperate. All I need is to exchange something you value. We don’t have to like each other in order to cooperate. We don’t need to share the same goals. All we need, in order to become partners in some venture, however limited, is to find something that we both want.

The marketplace is the trader principle at work. And, what a wonderful thing it is too. Consider how people who may literally hate one another end up cooperating simply because of the exchange process. Racists constantly purchase products which are built by, and which profit, the very people who they despise. Let me illustrate this with a scene from Dustin Lance Black’s script for the film Milk.

We see Harvey Milk and his partner, Scott Smith, opening a camera store. Across the street is a liquor store affiliated with the Eureka Valley Merchant’s Association. The store owner comes across to Harvey. Harvey attempts to be friendly. He says:
I want to join the, um… What is it? The Eureka Valley Merchant’s Association. I want to help in any way possible. I’m no interloper. A Jew perhaps, but I hope you’ll forgive that.
The businessman replies:
I don’t think your application will be approved, Mr. Milk. This is a family neighborhood. Your kind are far more welcome on Haight street.
What ‘kind’ do you mean sir?

The Merchant’s Association will have the police pull your license if you open your doors.

Scott Smith: Based on what law?
“There’s man’s law and there’s God’s law in this neighborhood and in this City. The San Francisco Police force is happy to enforce either.”

Milk and Smith are talking in their apartment when Harvey says he will start his own business association. He says: “I’m a businessman, Scott. I think businesses ought to treat their customers right. Even their gay customers. For God’s sake, this is San Francisco!”

In the next scene Harvey has organized the first Castro Street Fair and the streets are filled with celebrants. Black describes the scene in his script this way: “Harvey arrives at A LONG LINE OF GAY MEN winding out of the Irish liquor store (from earlier). He squeezes past them, into the store, leaving Scott outside.” Harvey greets the owner, who previously had threatened him. The script describes the scene: “McConnelly, at the register, is overwhelmed with all the new business.” The following exchange takes place:
Harvey: “I just wanted to stop in and see how business was doing.
“So you don’t mind all these homosexuals in here, do you?”

The store owner smiles slightly and the men in line start to wonder. Harvey departs saying: “No. No. Just a joke. Mr. McConnelly here loves our kind. Spend away!”

This scene explains how the “trader” method allows people of very different viewpoints to find some common ground sufficient for them to cooperate. The cooperation may be as limited as the exchange of some cash for a bottle of beer. But it works where the love method cannot work. It works where there is diversity and conflicting values: in other words, it works in a society that is developed, multicultural and large.

There is only one other method that is available for use in these large, diverse societies. That is the use, or threat of the use of force, against uncooperative individuals. Here cooperation is acquired through fear, hence I call this the fear method.

Under the trader method individuals cooperate because they both benefit. Under the love method they cooperate because they share common values. Under the fear method there is no mutual benefit and they do not share common values. This method relies on crude coercion against others. It is the ethics of the mugger shouting “Your money or your life.”

Oddly many of those people who today consider themselves the paragons of virtue rely almost exclusive on the fear method. They achieve their goals through the use of raw violence or the threat of it. Religionists who wish to use legislation to ban “immoral” acts, that do not violate the rights of others, are relying on violence to achieve their goal. The “caring” Left, which wants to force all people to fund charitable causes rely on the violence to achieve their goal—if you are skeptical of that, ask yourself what happens to people who refuse to fund those projects. The “tax man,” who has the power of legalize violence comes along and compels your “cooperation” one way or another.

Not only do I find the fear method to be inherently immoral, but I also find that it tends to be inefficient. If we look around the world, we find that the good things we seek tend to be found in higher proportion in those nations that least relies upon fear. As fear increases as a motivating factor, the society becomes less productive, and we find fewer of the “good things” which we wish to achieve. People tend to be more cooperative when fear is absent than when it is present.

Often fearful societies have the absence of open opposition but they also lack vibrant cooperation. Most people cooperate only to the extent necessary to remain unmolested by the ruling powers. But they lack incentives to actually cooperate at higher and higher levels.

The communist regimes had hoped that they could use the love method to organize a complex, diverse, large social order. They attempted to appeal to various principles consistent with the love method. When that failed they resorted to the methodology of fear. They had no choice since they explicitly rejected the trader principle.

Our social structures have long since moved beyond the small, homogeneous cultures of pastoral existence where the love principle might succeed. Our dynamics do not allow us to organize social cooperation on a grand scale merely upon the love of share values—something the Left and Right both still entertain as possibilities. That basically means we must either organize ourselves around the trader principle or around the fear principle. And between the two I know which I believe is the more moral and productive choice.