Rants and Raves

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Uncomfortable Thoughts: What if they're both right?

See intro: http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2007/12/new-blog-feature-uncomfortable-thoughts.html

If I had to summarize the broad outlines of the more thoughtful views of Left and Right concerning the modern bureaucratic welfare state, I'd say that...

The Leftist holds that the modern nation state and capitalist economy has dissolved extended family ties and social support networks to the point that the state must take on the responsibilities once held by family/clan for the care of the indigent, unemployed and unemployable, the insane, crippled and those temporarily disabled or disadvantages such as single parents etc, or else masses of the dispossessed will either destroy society in their chaotic rage or become mass movement fodder for a potential dictator. Or both.

The Rightist holds that when the state assumes the role of surrogate parent it reduces the citizen to a state of childlike dependence, lacking in ambition, responsibility and morality. Or one could put it even simpler; the welfare state makes people stupid, lazy, short-sighted and self-indulgent.

I tend to agree with the latter* - but it has occured to me that there is nothing mutually exclusive about the two positions.

What if they're both right?

A good deal of The Federalist is an extended argument against Montesquie's position that a republic can only function on a small scale. Now we have a still more-or-less republican form of government with a population that recently topped 300 million, so the argument would seem to have been settled.

But what if he was only wrong by an order of magnitude or so?

What if our nation has gotten so big that it can only be administered through a huge intrusive bureaucracy? What if it can't be administered as a free country at all for much longer?

Further speculation; what if it's not a matter of total population, but population density?

In 1910 there were exactly two automobiles in the state of Kansas. (They crashed.**)

When the number of vehicles on the road is so small, you don't really need a lot of traffic rules.

Likewise, if you live on a farm, you don't need as many rules about discharging firearms as you do if you live downtown.

Perhaps you've seen the maps of the Red and Blue states? And in even greater detail, the Red and Blue counties? The only factor that seems to stick out is - population density. Blue, high; Red, lower.

Scholars I've talked to about it want to find another explanation, because it just seems to pat. But maybe it really is just that. More people in a smaller area means more rules are needed.

But of course, there's a limit to how many rules, regulations and entitlements you can have and still have a productive economy with even minimally self-reliant citizens.

What if we're just running into the natural limits of the human race to organize itself in large numbers?

I told you this was going to be called Uncomfortable Thoughts.

Well, we'll figure out whether this is correct or not later. In the meantime I'm moving to a state the size of some of the bigger European countries, with a population of one of the only middling-sized cities, where the legislature convenes once every two years...

**********************************************************************************

*Based on my experience of Saudi Arabia, where virtually the entire native population is on some kind of welfare, and one of the skeletons in my closet which I'm about to reveal. For two brief months I was a welfare bureaucrat. It was the only job I've ever had that routinely disturbed my sleep.

**I only know that much about the incident and it makes a nice story - but what I really suspect was that the only two auto owners in Kansas at that time were probably doing something consensual but stupid with them.

9 Comments:

  • At 1:56 PM, Blogger Saint in Exile said…

    "Perhaps you've seen the maps of the Red and Blue states? And in even greater detail, the Red and Blue counties? The only factor that seems to stick out is - population density. Blue, high; Red, lower.

    Scholars I've talked to about it want to find another explanation, because it just seems to pat. But maybe it really is just that. More people in a smaller area means more rules are needed."


    This seems to infer a causal relationship in that people in more highly densely populated areas tend to favor more laws BECAUSE they live in the highly dense area. I think it is the other way around. Liberals are attracted to densely populated areas because of their metropolitan, artsy, enlightened image. When the libs sufficiently populate the area, their statist agenda can establish a foothold in the government and then fester.

     
  • At 7:09 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Maybe some of both, but the cities are essential to culture.

    Eric Hoffer once scornfully asked, "Whoever heard of anything new coming from a village?"

     
  • At 5:34 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    On second thought, I think you've got it backwards. Historically the folks who prefered a certain "looseness" and elbow room tended to move from high-density to low-density areas.

    "Some folks just can't stand the sight of their neighbors' chimney smoke" was how an old history teacher of mine put it.

     
  • At 8:38 AM, Blogger Ken said…

    You might be explaining two types of people with those comments. Type one doesn't like their neighbor's chimney smoke and moves to a place with more elbow room. Type two doesn't like their neighbor's chimney smoke and makes laws to regulate their neighbor's chimney smoke.

     
  • At 9:31 AM, Blogger Eduardo said…

    Doesn't the first outline assume that the nanny state came after the disolution of the family and extended social networks, instead of causing it?

    Doesn't it assume that by systematically dismantling it the family and extended social networks won't fill in the gap?

     
  • At 10:57 AM, Blogger stpeter said…

    In his book Liberty and Freedom, David Hackett Fischer quotes a saying from the early American frontier: "you're not free if you can hear your neighbor's dogs barking". Given how far the sound of a barking dog can carry on a still night, freedom must be quite hard to find these days.

    Steve, I think you're right that density constrains freedom. Back in early 2002 I blogged about the possibility of an urban libertarianism, but now I have my doubts that such a thing is possible.

    The relevant blog links are:

    https://stpeter.im/?p=138
    https://stpeter.im/?p=164

    And probably a few others. :)

     
  • At 1:01 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Good one Ken! LOL ;)

    Eduardo, definitely. I think there may be a feedback loop here too. Let's not forget that those extended family/clan ties can be awfully oppressive in their own right - and very contra-progress.

    In a lot of cultures capitalism seems to have a very hard time taking hold because, you can't morally get rich without raising your entire kind group with you. This makes capital accumulation difficult to say the least.

    Americans forget that we started as place where people could start afresh as individuals, without the burden of a large family.

    During my MA research, Filipino informant put it to me this way. I asked him what they'd like to preserve of their native culture and he said, "We'd like to preserve the strong family ties. On the other hand, I came to America to get away from my family."

    I think I'll deal with this in a post about "sane and stable collectivism." (As opposed to Marxist collectivism.)

     
  • At 2:32 PM, Blogger Jim Sullivan said…

    Population density is somehow a major factor. I just can't unravel the knot.

    I think, unfortunately, more rules might be needed where more elbows are rubbing together.

    A japanese friend of mine once told me this was the root of many japanese customs and manners. So many people, so close together and people get nervous. They need rules of decorum. No big hand motions, etc.

    I know that's anecdotal and subject some critical dissection. But I think there might be something to it too.

     
  • At 4:10 PM, Blogger Saint in Exile said…

    "Historically the folks who prefered a certain "looseness" and elbow room tended to move from high-density to low-density areas."

    That explains why conservatives may leave, but I don't think that contradicts my assertion about why liberals flock to cities. In fact, the liberal influx may exacerbate the conservative exodus. I look forward to leaving DC as soon as I tie up all of my loose ends because this city is a liberal haven.

     

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