No Such Thing As Society?

Via Patri comes this useful counter-meme on privilege. Which is not to say that privilege across racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious boundaries doesn't exist or isn't important, but that it's worth keeping in mind these sorts of privileges within a country like the U.S. vastly pale in comparison to the privileges between countries. Which is why, if you are truly interested in reducing the negative aspects of privilege (by hopefully lifting up the bottom and not crippling the top), then you absolutely must support the free flow of goods, people, capital, and information within but especially across borders. Deviation away from this and towards any form of autarky belies either radical ignorance and naiveté, or worse, a profound lack of seriousness about privilege - which is more than sufficient reason for anyone to ignore anything you may have to say on the subject.

The comment thread in the second link contains some interesting discussion as well. One personality type observed in the thread is a certain sort of vulgar individualist--the kind who loudly and unironically proclaims, "There is no such thing as society!"--and refuses to acknowledge the profound and all-encompassing impact society can have on structuring the way we interact with and understand the world around us. I used to be this worst sort of vulgar individualist, and when faced with overwhelming evidence that contradicted my mistaken beliefs about the relationship between an individual and society, I became terribly worried that my entire ideological worldview was at risk of collapse. It wasn't, of course; I merely needed to reexamine and modify my beliefs about sociology, and once I did that, my normative beliefs were that much stronger for it.

Consider the following exchange from that comment thread:

pjammer: People on welfare who own jacuzzis, get $50 manicures and drive cars less than five years old.

layo: If they do, they didn't get that money from welfare. There's a massive shadow economy existing side-by-side with the worst poverty, I think we know that - people who have nothing to lose are willing to take exceedingly high risks to improve their lot. In other words, the welfare mom has friends and relatives who come into a bit of cash on the downlow and share - or she gets the occasional prostitution gig. Mine did. Of course, middle-class people really have no idea what's going on down there, do they. The fact that poverty forces you into criminality at one point or another (try it, you'll find out; it's very hard to avoid when you're being hunted) is one of the most degrading things about it.

foobiwan: This must be why all those damn Indian immigrants are known for being gang-bangers and prostitutes.

Oh wait.

foobiwan (in followup): They [Indian immigrants] come here with nothing, and yet succeed. That's proof that poverty in the United States is caused by stupidity, plain and simple.

My response: Um, no. Individual poor decision making plays a part, but things like social capital and healthy communities matter a whole lot more. Would you rather be slightly smarter than average but grow up in a community characterized by isolation, atomization, and anomie, or would you rather be slightly less smart than average but grow up in a community that encourages strong social networks, charity, education, rational risk-taking, long-term investment, etc.? I'd gladly trade a good portion of my personal intelligence and decision-making ability for strong social capital.

This then raises the more abstract question: What are the determinants of better or worse communities, societies, and cultures? The answer, of course, is not simply a single person's stupidity. But that is a topic for another post and another day.

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Misc comments

Privilege, privi-lege means private law. A privi-lege is an exception to the law granted to someone by the rulers, e.g. a monopoly. In pre-revolution France, the privileged referred to nobility as they enjoyed old feudal rights, mostly rights to tax, go to war, etc. On the 4 August 1789 the privileges were abolished.

Since then, the word's meaning has shifted to mean, the wealthy, as if wealth was obtained not naturally but as a result of a special law beniffiting them. This is of course the Marxist interpretation where property rights are viewed as privileges. 

I don't understand how the left manages to start so many meaning-changing memes, this is truly amazing. (among many, democracy -> voting, liberal -> socialist, monopoly -> dominant market positions) etc. I know Constant will disagree with me, but I insist on not using "privileged" to refer to rich people.

 

 

There's no such thing as society. It is true, but the empaphis is on "thing" not on "no". Society is real, but it is not a thing and therefore should not be reified, much less given a will an interest or a sovereignty, individual attributes.

 

 

What is the determinant of a good community? With Hoppe I'll say, low time preference.

Ugh, I hate to have to agree

Ugh, I hate to have to agree with Hoppe on anything, but boiling it down to a single determinant, I think he is correct.

Low time preference is an individual characteristic

"Low time preference" is a characteristic of an individual, not a community. If you want to find the causes of individual time preference in their environments, some candidates are: lack of secure property rights (why cultivate the virtues of wealth creation if your wealth will be stolen), government handouts (why cultivate the virtues necessary for self-reliance if you can rely on the state), and lack of a father (how are you doing to cultivate any virtues if you have no guidance).

When I said characteristic

When I said characteristic of a community I meant shared to a meaningfull extent by a large part of the community, and internally recognized by the individuals belonging to that community as a value shared by most and associated with the feeling of belonging to that community.

Gotcha

But that still leaves explained why a particular community has settled on a particular time preference.

If someone in a community

If someone in a community lowers his time preference, he will engage his excess capital in more productive use and thus increase his income and the ability to save. This additional income spills over the people he trades with, giving them the possibility to save and thus lower their time preference. It's a virtuous cycle. This is true for community based economies, it is largely irrelevant today, but as you mentionned some values foster low time preference and have been passed through education. 

- Respect for property rights
- Planning for the future
- Frugality
- Responsibility

etc

Still doesn't explain the differences

This still leaves the question of why this doesn't happen in every community equally. You're not done until you've explained all of society's ills. :-)

update - the above was in response to an earlier, shorter draft of your comment.

 

Highly ambiguous statement

The statement, "there's no such thing as society" is a highly ambiguous statement, which could be interpreted many different ways. Googling it, I found a speech by Margaret Thatcher. If you want to know what she means by it, take that same speech, and remove the statement. Look at the rest of the speech. She says that "too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it." She also says that "And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first." And makes some other statements, and when I look at those statements, I agree with them. She makes a parallel statement: "There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation."

Since it was a top Google result, I'm guessing that's a key defining paragraph. Judging the ambiguous statement by its context, which it is clearly intended to encapsulate - it is a container for the surrounding thoughts - then I find nothing there to disagree with. I agree that many people think things are government's job, which in fact are not government's job. This is a standard libertarian position. I also agree that government is, indeed, composed of people, and I have no particular problem with the sentiment that people have a greater responsibility to themselves than to others. I also agree that entitlements entail obligations.

Your response by the way only corrects foobiwan in a marginal way, as a kind of aside. Foobiwan is arguing that poverty (lack of money) is not the problem, because people come here with no money and do very well. He errs in diagnosing the problem ("stupidity"; your corrected version is "stupidity and/or defective community") but the particulars of his diagnosis are beside the point. To correct him on those particulars is to quibble, because his main point is unaffected so far (that it is not poverty per se that is breeding poverty).

The persistence of poverty

I do think that foobiwan's comment about Indian immigrants raises an important point. The persistence of poverty in the US isn't caused by material barriers to escaping poverty. It's caused by a lack of social and human capital among the underclass.

This is a real problem, and it's not their fault, but it's not obvious that it's a problem that can be solved by any amount of money. The left-wing narrative--that the problem is primarily one of material barriers to escaping poverty that can easily be eliminated through lots of taxation and spending--has nothing to offer here, and they need to be forced to acknowledge this.

You're sounding downright conservative!

Didn't expect to see this argument from you. On a side note, what's with the increasingly frequent use of "vulgar" in political discourse? I don't like it. It assumes the argument one is trying to make, and is often unnecessary. For example, in this case, it creates a normative judgement where a simple expression of inaccuracy is all that's needed. The individualist who believes institutions don't matter is wrong. But throwing in "vulgar" cheapens the message IMO.

Occasionally conservatives

Occasionally conservatives and I will happen to agree; even a broken clock is right twice a day. I don't think the gap between the right and the left is as big as it's often made out to be on the issue of underpriveleged minorities in America; while their proposed solutions may be vastly different, their analysis is slowly converging. They both seem to agree that the problems are cultural/sociological, with the left placing greater emphasis on institutionalized racism and the lingering effects of racial subjugation in the not so distant past, and the right placing greater emphasis on the unintended consequences of government intervention and perverse effects of unhealthy media images on culture. But notice how far both sides have moved towards the center over the past few decades, with the right largely (and rightfully) rejecting innate biological explanations, softening their clarion calls for a "law & order" approach to rectifying social ills (of course the drug war is the big elephant in the room for both sides), and adopting environmental, sociocultural explanations, which are typically associated with the left. And the left too has moved a bit closer to the right, acknowledging the harmful effects glorifying violence, misogyny, and get-rich-quick career advice ala drug dealers, sports stars, and music icons can have on the culture, as well as (rarely, but increasingly) acknowledging that throwing money at the problem is not alone sufficient.

I think "vulgar" is appropriate, because, as Constant points out above, it usually refers to a caricature of an otherwise defensible libertarian position; the caricature is first created by oppositional critics (Marxists, communitarians, etc.) and then adopted, because of repeated use (tell a lie often enough and people will come to believe it) by unsophisticated libertarians themselves (who falsely believe laissez faire means atomized, isolated individuals, or that all capitalists must be defended, regardless of their behavior, merely by virtue of being capitalists.)

Vulgar might be a turn off, but its the only name I've got for a class of similar arguments describing the phenomenon of libertarians (and economists) adopting the worst, least accurate positions ascribed to them by their opponents.

To the left, to the left...to the right, to the right...

"And the left too has moved a bit closer to the right, acknowledging the harmful effects glorifying violence, misogyny, and get-rich-quick career advice ala drug dealers, sports stars, and music icons can have on the culture, as well as (rarely, but increasingly) acknowledging that throwing money at the problem is not alone sufficient."

You're right that the "left" and the "right" have converged. But I think they've converged on a more or less "left" position, if "left" signifies emphasis on institutions, the media and other external forces. Even "right" libertarians sound rather leftish by blaming most ills on state policies. But this leaves me with the only "right" position being the stance of utterly uncorrupted free will in a sea of counter-vailing forces, which doesn't seem quite...right. Hm.

The left would describe your above quote as the product of capitalism itself. The market is this giant temptation machine, a culture industry, whose siren song is high time preference, and the reason the rich stay rich is because they know this and shield themselves from it, while helping it to continue at the expense of the poor. The poor are trapped in "the system". And of course "throwing money" at something is useless without a more or less costless philosophical expounding on the root of the problem, something the left understands.

"Get-rich-quick career advice", to the left, also means the day time and late night infomercial schemes that suck money away from the poor and vulnerable. It's more than simply drug dealers, whom they probably view as small time versions of tobacco company thugs.

Moving in the right direction

"What are the determinants of better or worse communities, societies, and cultures?"
Which leads to the additional question, "How can one maintain better communities, societies, and cultures?" Do public education, border control, etc. have any role in this?

Macker, both you and I

Macker, both you and I believe borders have a role in this; you and I just disagree completely over whether the openness/(closedness?) of the border, the degree of cosmopolitanism/autarky (and therefore cultural transmission in both directions) is a good thing or a bad thing.

Is a community/society/culture likely to remain liberal, treat its minorities well, avoid scapegoating those with inessential differences, and promote peace, mutual prosperity and trade over conflict, envy, and self-destructive isolationism if the community/society/culture chooses to remain autarkic and closed? I very much doubt it.

I'm confident and optimistic enough to believe that over the long run, good ideas will win out over bad ones, so that the mixing of cultures will tend to lead to the selection and mutual adoption of the best parts of all the cultures involved, and the rejection and eventual abandonment of the worst parts. Of course, just as government intervention and private violence distorts the general tendencies of the market for goods and services to result in positive, progressive outcomes, so too government intervention and private violence distorts the general tendencies of the market for culture to have the better ideas and cultural practices win out.

What we need is more cultural mixing, and less external, unnatural control over the process.