Regressive Attraction to Abstractions

by Don Boudreaux on December 28, 2007

in Myths and Fallacies

Here’s my latest column in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.  The central theme is the following:

Modern "progressives," though, are enamored with statistical
abstractions and categories. They look at society as a physician looks
at a human body: as a whole. In the case of a human body, the physician
is correct; each of the countless individual cells that make up each
body has no mind or purpose of its own. Each cell exists for the body.
The health of the cell matters only insofar as its health serves the
purpose of keeping the body healthy.

In society, however, each individual does have a mind
and purpose of his or her own. Unlike a cell in a human body, an
individual person is a moral being with desires, goals, fears, likes,
dislikes and (as far as we can tell) free will. And although each
person contributes to the functioning of society, no person exists to
serve society.

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{ 30 comments }

Per Kurowski December 28, 2007 at 7:34 am

As a “radical of the middle” or an “extremist of the center” I hope this wont place me automatically in the category of “modern progressives”, but I need to heartedly disagree with what is said.

Although “each of the countless individual cells that make up each body has no mind or purpose of its own. Each cell exists for the body” the fact is that each of these cells couldn’t care less.

And while “an individual person is a moral being with desires, goals, fears, likes, dislikes and (as far as we can tell) free will… and no person exists to serve society.” the real truth is that this same individual would go nuts were he not able to define himself in relation to the society…have you heard of isolation cells?

Final result… we individual have a vested interest in the society while a cell has none in the body… and that is why we all, non-progressives included, need to look “at society… as a whole”

Per Kurowski December 28, 2007 at 7:42 am

Oh by the way and before it gets misinterpreted I think the rest of Donald Boudreaux’s article Society & the individual is great and I agree with almost all of it…I just took exception with the part he chose to quote on the blog.

Randy December 28, 2007 at 7:59 am

PK,

Re; "…we individual have a vested interest in the society while a cell has none in the body…"

The word "we" is not applicable to society, because "we" is a voluntary relationship while society is an involuntary relationship. Those who use the word "we" in relation to society are referring to an involuntary power relationship. Its use by them is propaganda aimed to further their own power within that involuntary relationship.

muirgeo December 28, 2007 at 8:29 am

"After all, we speak of society "doing" this and "achieving" that — as in, modern society has eliminated smallpox."

Smallpox was not eliminated solely by individuals acting in their own interest. It was eliminated through a coordinated national and international effort. The disease is now eradicated after a successful worldwide vaccination program.

If the disease finds its way back into the population our unvaccinated children will best be saved by surveillance and actions coordinated through the CDC, not by individuals acting on their own.

Currently none of us knows of someone recently infected, paralyzed or killed by the polio virus. The successful development of a vaccine for polio was not the simple effort of an individual. Dr. Jonas Salk worked at a public institution, the University of Pittsburgh, when he began his research on poliovirus. Likewise had there been no national or international campaign to eradicate polio our children would still remain at greater risk of contracting the disease.

Vaccinations and their incredible success are great examples of the successful utility of government and poor examples of the claim that everything would be better left to market forces and individual choices.

Ami Ganguli December 28, 2007 at 8:47 am

"The word 'we' is not applicable to society, because 'we' is a voluntary relationship while society is an involuntary relationship. Those who use the word 'we' in relation to society are referring to an involuntary power relationship. Its use by them is propaganda aimed to further their own power within that involuntary relationship.

What nonsense.

There's nothing in the word "we" that implies voluntary or involuntary relationships, nor power relationships. That sort gobbledygook is what generally turns me off of libertarian writing. A lot of the time they're being (deliberately?) obtuse.

Thinking purely in individual terms is as unrealistic as thinking purely in societal terms. Humans do care about the society they live in. It's part of our evolution as tribal animals. Obviously we care about ourselves as individuals too. Each society (including those who are unwilling members) has to reach a compromise of some sort.

Obviously libertarians will lean more towards the individualistic and progressives tend to think more communally.

Randy December 28, 2007 at 9:29 am

Ami,

Re; "Each society… has to reach a compromise of some sort."

Actually, no it doesn't. That's the problem – because society is a power relationship. Historically, the individual existed only at the mercy of the powers that be within any given society. The individuals, free thinkers, heretics, the witches and the unclean, were routinely banished or killed outright. That most of this came to an end is the greatest tribute to liberal thought. And the tendancy to return to it is a tribute to illiberal thought. Interesting, don't you think, that the greatest modern proponents of illiberal thinking refer to themselves as liberals.

muirgeo December 28, 2007 at 9:43 am

Correction; the University of Pittsburg is a private institution but via federal grants and testing the polio vaccine was made available to the general population.

Randy December 28, 2007 at 9:48 am

P.S. Ami, the reason that such thinking "turns you off" is that you were insufficiently indoctrinated. Your handlers provided you with certain basic assumptions such as that the individual owes a default debt to society (the original sin of the modern age), but they gave you no response to those who challenge the basic assumptions. So you turn to insults – a use of force based on your power in the society – because that's all you have left.

Ami Ganguli December 28, 2007 at 9:49 am

Randy,

Yes, societies contain power relationships. That doesn't mean society _is_ a power relationship. Society is just a word to describe people interact with each other, perhaps due to a common interest, or just geographical proximity. Yes, when people interact with each other there are power relationships involved. How is that relevant?

If you want to influence people who aren't raised on your peculiar redefinition of words then you have to stick to meanings that are commonly understood. (Or are you against sticking to the generally accepted meanings of words because you feel this is an attack on your liberty?)

You haven't demonstrated how there can be people interacting with each other (a 'society') without some agreement on what will be done communally and what will be done individually.

jp December 28, 2007 at 9:50 am

I enjoyed the column, as with all of Don's writing. But IMO the statistical-average-vs.-individual argument could just as easily be turned against libertarians. Progressives could argue that libertarians also want to sacrifice individuals for the average good, in that we recognize there will be losers from, e.g., free-trade policies, and we don't think the state should forcibly redistribute income to compensate the losers.

Ami Ganguli December 28, 2007 at 10:03 am

Randy,

I just noticed your second post.

Actually I don't think that individuals owe a debt to society. I'm not sure where you got that idea.

As for challenging my assumptions, in order to do that you'd have to actually say something coherent (rather than trying to redefine words like "we" and "society"). If you can make a comprehensible case then we can discuss whether or not any of my assumptions have been challenged.

vidyohs December 28, 2007 at 10:43 am

Per Kurowskiduck.
Your "out of the gate" comment is an appropriate demonstration of why I personally believe you are definitely left of center. It is your ability to take a pure onbjective rational discussion and turn it into "feelings" as motive….and that is the defining trait of a socialists speech pattern.
Look at the quotes below: Did Don say one word about what a cell thinks or feels? No.
Did he even imply that cell "cares"? No.

It is you that is incapable of cold objective intellectual discussion.

Just to make it clear, the separation of the words in your quote is mine and are designed to hilight your socialist twist to the debate.

"Each cell exists for the body. The health of the cell matters only insofar as its health serves the purpose of keeping the body healthy.
Don's post"

"Although “each of the countless individual cells that make up each body has no mind or purpose of its own. Each cell exists for the body” the fact is that each of these cells…"couldn’t care"… less.
Posted by: Per Kurowski | Dec 28, 2007 7:34:06 AM"

Randy December 28, 2007 at 10:44 am

Ami,

"Society is just a word to describe people interact with each other, perhaps due to a common interest, or just geographical proximity."

It is that, and that is all that it is to me, but it means more than that to a great many. To many, it is a term used to define a relationship and a purpose for individuals.

"Yes, when people interact with each other there are power relationships involved. How is that relevant?"

Yes, but the relationships can be voluntary or involuntary. That's what is relevant. When I enter into an employment transaction or a sales transaction all parties to the transaction have their respective powers (or there would be no point to the transaction), but what is relevant is whether or not I am forced to transact.

"…you have to stick to meanings that are commonly understood."

Why? If progressives can conflate the will of the masses and/or their party elite with liberalism, then I can certainly point out that society is a power structure.

"You haven't demonstrated how there can be people interacting with each other (a 'society') without some agreement on what will be done communally and what will be done individually."

Agreement is exactly the point. Agreement is voluntary, and again, those who promote the prioritization of society over the individual have no intention of allowing the relationship to be voluntary.

"Actually I don't think that individuals owe a debt to society. I'm not sure where you got that idea."

Previous discussions (yes, I have my assumptions too). But its interesting that you say you do not believe it. Would you agree with me then, that nearly all government programs can and should be made voluntary?

Ami Ganguli December 28, 2007 at 11:25 am

Randy,

'Yes, but the relationships can be voluntary or involuntary. That's what is relevant. When I enter into an employment transaction or a sales transaction all parties to the transaction have their respective powers (or there would be no point to the transaction), but what is relevant is whether or not I am forced to transact.'

You can opt out of some relationships, but not all. That's not a social construct, it's just physical reality. Even if you just live near me, your actions affect me in some way, and I'm not able to opt out of that.

'Why? If progressives can conflate the will of the masses and/or their party elite with liberalism, then I can certainly point out that society is a power structure.'

So that you can be understood. Of course you're within your rights to make up your own language, but don't be surprised if the rest of the world considers you delusional. That said, your last post actually made sense, so thanks.

'Agreement is exactly the point. Agreement is voluntary, and again, those who promote the prioritization of society over the individual have no intention of allowing the relationship to be voluntary.'

You're right, there are certain parts of the agreement that I don't want to be voluntary. In a democracy it's reasonable for you say that the majority has forced an agreement on the minority. I see no problem with that.

The problem is that those of us who want to do some things together aren't able to exclude the libertarians from enjoying the fruits of our cooperation. And if libertarians are able to free-load, then it makes many potentially useful forms of cooperation impractical.

In effect, you're asking me to give up my right to cooperate with my neighbours.

'Would you agree with me then, that nearly all government programs can and should be made voluntary?'

No, but not because I feel people owe a debt to society. It's because there are some things that most of us would like to do together that are impractical if some of the beneficiaries are able to opt out of payment.

I admit freely that I value the good of the society higher than the freedom of the individual in many cases. (Obviously it's a matter of degree – for the most part I believe in free-market economics.)

By the way, if you really want to live without government, there are examples of failed states that probably don't have many barriers to immigration. Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, Somalia… I'm surprized that libertarians aren't flocking to these places.

Lee Kelly December 28, 2007 at 11:46 am

"Obviously libertarians will lean more towards the individualistic and "progressives" tend to think more coecively." – Ami Ganguli

Fixed!

Randy December 28, 2007 at 11:51 am

Ami,

This is fun, but I'm going to skip several of your points and focus on just two that I find the most interesting, and to keep this from getting overly lengthy. Sorry.

"The problem is that those of us who want to do some things together aren't able to exclude the libertarians from enjoying the fruits of our cooperation."

The problem with the free rider argument is that the real world result is an entire society of free riders. I say this with Social Security and Medicare particularly in mind, programs that have an entire generation free riding on the productivity of the following generations, but the same is and will always be true of any program that tries to avoid a few free riders by making the system mandatory. Not to mention that the programs always require and sustain a bureaucracy of free riders and dependants in order to stay in operation.

"By the way, if you really want to live without government, there are examples of failed states that probably don't have many barriers to immigration."

I am not foolish enough to believe that anarchy is possible in the real world. There will always be government for the same reason that meerkat manor always has a dominant pair. The absence of government simply creates a vacuum which will be filled. But the fact that there will always be pirates does not lead me to believe that piracy is an inherent good. Savvy?

Randy December 28, 2007 at 11:52 am

Ami,

This is fun, but I'm going to skip several of your points and focus on just two that I find the most interesting, and to keep this from getting overly lengthy. Sorry.

"The problem is that those of us who want to do some things together aren't able to exclude the libertarians from enjoying the fruits of our cooperation."

The problem with the free rider argument is that the real world result is an entire society of free riders. I say this with Social Security and Medicare particularly in mind, programs that have an entire generation free riding on the productivity of the following generations, but the same is and will always be true of any program that tries to avoid a few free riders by making the system mandatory. Not to mention that the programs always require and sustain a bureaucracy of free riders and dependants in order to stay in operation.

"By the way, if you really want to live without government, there are examples of failed states that probably don't have many barriers to immigration."

I am not foolish enough to believe that anarchy is possible in the real world. There will always be government for the same reason that meerkat manor always has a dominant pair. The absence of government simply creates a vacuum which will be filled. But the fact that there will always be pirates does not lead me to believe that piracy is an inherent good. Savvy?

Randy December 28, 2007 at 11:54 am

My apologies for the double post. I got a fail notice, but I should have checked before reposting.

Ami Ganguli December 28, 2007 at 12:11 pm

'The problem with the free rider argument is that the real world result is an entire society of free riders. I say this with Social Security and Medicare particularly in mind, programs that have an entire generation free riding on the productivity of the following generations, but the same is and will always be true of any program that tries to avoid a few free riders by making the system mandatory. Not to mention that the programs always require and sustain a bureaucracy of free riders and dependants in order to stay in operation.'

For social security: it's only free-riding if you're getting something without paying for it. Pensioners paid into the system by supporting their parents, and the stability it gave them allowed them greater flexibility to take risks and invest for the following generation.

For medicare: I can demonstrate that the U.S. insurance system has more bureaucracy than single-payer systems like Canada. But that would be missing the point. If you can demonstrate that health care is better without government involvement, then I'm happy to scrap it. But in that case you're arguing on my terms – overall efficiency – rather than based on your ideal of 'freedom'.

'But the fact that there will always be pirates does not lead me to believe that piracy is an inherent good. Savvy?'

I Savvy. But I never argued that coercion is inherently good. I argued that some level of coercion is necessary.

Aside from that, it's not at all clear that a world without government would result in less coercion. Relationships between individuals exist, and, as you point out, in the power vacuum left by government individuals will simply have more opportunity to exercise personal power.

To make it more concrete, in a medical emergency where you either get treatment or die, you have very little negotiating power in the absence of outside institutions. Does this not put you in a position to be coerced as well?

Randy December 28, 2007 at 12:41 pm

Ami,

"Pensioners paid into the system by supporting their parents, and the stability it gave them allowed them greater flexibility to take risks and invest for the following generation."

That's the propaganda. But Social Security has been modified several times to cost more and pay less to future generations, and to pay more to the current generation. Its basic theory is that future generations will be wealthier than we are and that this somehow entitles us to part of that future wealth – that is, to allow the current generation to free ride. Perhaps they will use the free ride money to invest in the future, and perhaps they won't. Personally, I haven't seen any investment. Also, your argument says nothing about the political and bureaucratic free riders who benefit substantially from the patronage supplied by the programs.

"If you can demonstrate that health care is better without government involvement, then I'm happy to scrap it."

Its no more possible to get the pirates out of the health care system than it is to get rid of them entirely. There is money in health care – et voila – government has a piece of the action.

"…it's not at all clear that a world without government would result in less coercion."

Good point, but is it an argument for a more coercive government? For a limited government, a voluntary government, perhaps…

"…in a medical emergency where you either get treatment or die…"

Get treatment in most cases… but I should be willing to pay what it is worth to me. I should tell you that I have already made up my mind to leave my inheritance to my children and not to a hospital, the point being that even medical treatment is a value judgement, and one for the individual, not the state.

G December 28, 2007 at 1:32 pm

@muirgeo,
Smallpox was not eliminated solely by individuals acting in their own interest. It was eliminated through a coordinated national and international effort. The disease is now eradicated after a successful worldwide vaccination program.

Everything accomplished by any group of people is done solely by individuals acting in their own interests (although not necessarily selfishly in the general meaning of the word). Read the rest of the article; Don explains the fallacy of "society" having its own interests quite well.

Many thinkers (such as Mises) have exploded the idea of it even being possible for individuals to act in ways counter to their own interests (although these interests are not necessarily consciously understood).

@Ami,
Obviously libertarians will lean more towards the individualistic and progressives tend to think more communally.

I don't think thats true at all. I'm a libertarian, and I don't think individually. I think of the spontaneous orders which would arise if state coercion was reduced. I think of all the productive businesses which would be possible if certain regulations were repealed.

The problem is that those of us who want to do some things together aren't able to exclude the libertarians from enjoying the fruits of our cooperation. And if libertarians are able to free-load, then it makes many potentially useful forms of cooperation impractical.

I agree that free riding is a problem in many situations. However, I don't see why it follows that a problem in a market must necessarily be solved by the use of force. I see free riding as an entrepreneurial problem; i.e. markets fail… use markets.

Force is generally the most obvious solution to any problem of coordination. That doesn't make it the best one.

Randy December 28, 2007 at 2:42 pm

Just a thought, but does anyone know of a program in which the the free rider argument has actually been put to the test? – that is, of a government program that was voluntary and actually resulted in a free rider problem? Because it seems to me that the free rider argument is precisely that – an argument. It is used to justify doing what the program creators want and intend to do all along which is to make a program mandatory. Or, does anyone know of a mandatory program that did not result in a significant free rider problem? – because I can't think of any.

Wojtek December 28, 2007 at 3:26 pm

Ami,

Just one comment, since I've heard someone else say this before. You do acknowledge that the majority forces the minority into agreement; and you think this is ok. Would you say that is was ok in Germany around 1939? Or perhaps is it ok if the majority decides that we should enslave someone due to the colour of their skin?

Majority makes right, right?

G December 28, 2007 at 6:28 pm

Randy, as someone who has participated in open-source software projects, I can say that it most definitely does exist. Its a problem for the people trying to get the less motivated to pull their own weight. I certainly can't offer any statistical data, of course.

Google turns up a few results, but none I can download without subscription (we'd all rather free-ride using free downloads, wouldn't we?).

Wojtek, I think thats rather unfair. Ami never said anything about limits (or the lack thereof) on government.

Randy December 28, 2007 at 10:30 pm

G,

Open source software is an interesting analogy. One group wants it, and is willing to contribute, but would prefer that everyone else contribute too. Others are willing to use it, but only if its free and they don't have to contribute. The vision is inspiring – just imagine what it would be like if everyone would do their "fare share". But then, we all know going in that not everyone is interested. The first group is inspired – the second, not so much. So should the group who wants it and is willing to contribute; a) build it but keep it to themselves? – b) build it and charge a price to those who haven't contributed but want to use it? – c) suck up their resentment and feel good about doing something good? – d) force others to contribute at gunpoint, set up a permanent tax collection system to ensure the vision is properly funded, set up a permanent well funded buracracy to ensure compliance, and set up a permanent well funded propaganda machine to ensure that the vision is properly understood and accepted?

My point is that neither options a or b result in a free rider problem, and that while both c and d do result in a free rider problem, options a, b, and c are never the choice of government. Government always ignores options a and b, and uses the argument of option c to justify the use of option d.

Sam Grove December 29, 2007 at 1:20 am

Those who resort to political means to 'coordinate' society have vary little comprehension of the wonderful coordinating powers of the market through voluntary interaction facilitated by prices.

Having found a tool that they can comprehend (threatening people with arms), they exhibit little interest in seeking a better means.
Their attention is so fixed on the visible, they they are often completely unaware of the invisible effects of their chosen means.

Further, political means often produce perverse results, witness the U.S. government's decades long efforts to 'tame' the world through political means. Or the, so called, Department of Justice.

Ami Ganguli December 29, 2007 at 3:50 am

I'm in a different time-zone from most of you, so I wasn't able to keep up with this, but I'll respond to the Open-source analogy which is interesting.

A lot of market oriented solutions (often proposed by libertarians) fail because of transaction costs. Some free-riders could be eliminated in theory by carefully weeding out those who have paid from those who haven't. In many cases this is possible, but so expensive that either just giving up and tolerating the free-riders, or resorting to government "coercion" (known to most of us as taxes) ends up being more workable.

There are indeed free-riders in Open Source. One of the reasons (leaving aside Free software philosophy) it works out is that the alternative, charging for software, has huge overhead. Distributing the software for free has virtually no transaction costs. Trying to identify and charge the free-riders would introduced a marginal cost where there was none before. Thus Open Source has a huge advantage in terms of transaction costs, often so much that the cost of free-riding is less than the cost of trying to stop it using market mechanisms.

So Open Source is indeed a system where there are free-riders, and they are tolerated.

Lots of private charities also have free-riders. People who volunteer at hospitals are tolerating free-riders. People who clean up national parks for free are allowing free-riders. The list goes on and on.

Obviously governments don't tolerate free-riders because if free-riders were acceptable then that would be a service offered by private charities. Governments operate in sectors where the free-rider problem would make the service unworkable otherwise.

I also don't understand why people here think government bureaucrats are free-riders. Businesses also have managers. How is any organization, private or public, going to function without staff?

Randy December 29, 2007 at 2:04 pm

Ami,

"Governments operate in sectors where the free-rider problem would make the service unworkable otherwise."

I think that there are very few services that a free rider problem would make unworkable. There are, however, many services that not everyone would choose to pay for if a price were attached. In other words, its the objective that creates the problem, not the free riders. Indeed, the objective of many government services is to enable and encourage free riders – they are designed specifically for free riders. That's why private solutions won't work for much of what government does.

"I also don't understand why people here think government bureaucrats are free-riders."

From the Wik, "…free riders are actors who consume more than their fair share of a resource, or shoulder less than a fair share of the costs of its production."

For this discussion I'm going to reduce that to, "one who receives more than they contribute". I know, playing fast and loose with definitions again…

To determine whether or not a government service provider is a free rider or not, we first have to determine the value of the services they provide. We know they are paid by the public, the quesion is whether or not that compensation exceeds the value of the services they provide. My belief is that the only fair assessment of the value of nearly all government services is zero. Repeat, that's zero, nada, zilch, the big goose egg. Why? Because we know that the services are mandatory. If the services were desired they would not need to be mandatory. Nobody has to be forced to pay for something they want. Thus we can assume that the services are not desired, and that their value is therefore zero. So, government "service" providers are simply people who live off the public's expense and give nothing of value in return – i.e., free riders. At this point it should be clear how this is different from a business manager, but I'll state it anyway. A business offers a service that people are willing to pay for, thus we know that the service has value, and we cannot assume that the business employers are free riders, as we must assume for the employees of the so called "services" run by the government.

G December 29, 2007 at 2:45 pm

Once I started viewing the economy as a coordination problem, the reasons for the use of government in it became obvious. By far the simplest way to get someone to do something is to put a gun to their head. Any idiot can do that.

Ami,

I agree transaction costs are a problem, but the problems associated with government provision of public goods are huge as well. The economic calculation problem which Mises and Hayek wrote about applies equally to government-supplied clean air as it does bread. Government can provide a good, but it has no way of knowing if that good is really desired over other alternatives, or in what quantity it is desired.

In addition, there are huge transaction costs involved. Aside from simply collecting taxes, all governments must spend a significant amount of money legitimizing their coercion to their citizens. Democracy does this very well compared to older forms of government (where expensive brute force was often needed), but democracies cause all other sorts of wastefulness.

There is not nearly as massive of an infrastructure set up for the voluntary purchase of public goods as there is for democratic governments which consume 30-50% of a nation's income. I hope the Internet may provide this infrastructure at a very low cost, lowering transaction costs to the point where voluntary provision of public goods becomes widespread.

Randy December 29, 2007 at 4:16 pm

"…lowering transaction costs to the point where voluntary provision of public goods becomes widespread."

I'd like to see that too, G. I think that modern techonologies (rfid, data handling, the internet, etc.) are making many of the old arguments for mandatory programs obsolete. Unfortunately, I don't think that service is the primary objective of most government programs – patronage is. Which means the programs will stay, and only the arguments will change.

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