Friday, June 10, 2011

The Welfare State: When It's Broke

The fight over the welfare state will, at the tactical level, occur around the questions of national bankruptcy and a sovereign debt crisis.

But the moral-cultural question is the fulcrum around which political and economic leverage will work. For the great question about our modern age is this: How much are we slaves to our system of instrumental reason, the great edifice of science and technique? To what extent is our prosperity founded upon the mankind's domination of the natural world, and to what extent is it founded upon the domination of one man or woman by another? We use natural resources as though we owned them. We domesticate and use plants and animals as though we owned them. We use other people as employees, as service personnel, as means to our ends. But at what point to we acknowledge that this use is a kind of slavery. We each act as if we owned the whole world and that everything is subject to our commands, down to the last penny in our bank account.

The question of domination is pretty clear when a human is bent to the yoke after an army is defeated in battle or a nation is defeated in a war. The wrong is pretty clear when an oil company pollutes a vast ocean in an oil-well blowout. But what about an employee under industrial discipline? What about a citizen forced to pay for and to join a government program? What about children sent to school for ten to twelve years according to compulsory attendance laws? What about the conversion of wild plants and animals to human breeding and domestication? What about the use of "non-renewable" natural resources? What about the release of "greenhouse gases" into the atmosphere?

In human society these questions to be resolved according to the prejudice of the current ruling class. A century ago the ruling class was the commercial middle class, and so questions got decided according to their prejudice about employment, credit, and personal interest. Now the ruling class is educated liberals that rule with the support of the working class and government program dependents, so a different set of prejudices dominate.

The question is: isn't there a better way to decide social and economic questions than the domination by elite prejudice and political power? Can't responsibility and power be distributed more widely?

This all reduces to the problem of mistakes and the ways in which mistakes can be recognized and corrected. For it seems that it is very difficult for humans to recognize a mistake unless it has already caused a disaster. This is certainly true at the individual and family level. It is often true in business, where CEOs can sometimes run a corporation into the ground rather than quit a money-losing strategy, limited only by the equity and the credit of the corporation. This is especially true in politics, where special interests can usually block reform of their wasteful and dangerous subsidies and privileges up to the point where the very survival of the state is threatened by a sovereign debt crisis.

The problem in communications, an expert once explained to me, is not how to transmit the data. The problem is what to do when something goes wrong and a message is garbled. How do you resend the message, and how do sender and receiver finally agree that a correct message has been sent and received? The same is true in human society at large. When things are going wrong, when do we take corrective action? How long can we afford to put off corrective action, if we can agree what that action should be? When there is a mess in the business sector, the mess is cleared up in the bankruptcy process. It's a painful process, as judges and lawyers wrangle over the details of who gets to take the shortest haircut. When you decide such matters in the political sector it means that the correction will be decided by force, or at least a show of force. Humans can do better than that.

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