Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Society in Conflict Part 2

There are essentially two types of organized society with the key issue for each type being the question of how force is used by government. These types are coercive government (based on collectivism) and a free republic (based on individual rights). You can look at societies throughout history and see that most of them were based on the coercive principle. Even today, the modern examples of coercive governments are considered to be the fount of all good societies. Yet, coercive governments are based upon the view that man is a subject of the decisions of the state and that he is beholden to sacrifice for the group under threat of force. This false view must be changed if mankind is to have a future worth living.

The fundamental question to ask when seeking to understand any society is “How does it view the individual, his nature and his value?” The coercive view of society sees the individual as morally incapable of doing the right thing. It is made up of leaders who presume to know what the right thing is and who see themselves as moral authorities responsible for ensuring that it is done. This view assumes the position that men belong to the state, that they are not sovereign individuals capable of thinking for themselves and that they must be forced to do what is right. You might call it the “men are cattle” view of man’s nature.

A positive view of man's nature (a proper theory of man's value) is based upon two basic principles that Ayn Rand taught in her writings: 1) that man survives by means of reason and, 2) that there are no conflicts of interest among rational men. These principles mean that men are capable of deciding moral action and that their thinking determines how they will survive. It also assumes that men are not cattle but sovereign thinking beings who have a right to pursue property and happiness and keep the results of their work.

This view creates the idea that men should recognize each other’s individual rights. A right refers to the recognition of certain facts about man and how he survives in nature. In other words, in nature, man would survive by making tools to improve his efficiency and production. He would use reason. And, because man would not be able to survive without the exercise of reason, in nature or in society, this process must be respected by other men through a government that protects man’s free exercise of his mind. This society would respect his “natural” rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of property and happiness.

When a society operates on the principle of individual rights, you learn that there are no conflicts of interest among rational men. A proper society recognizes that in any conflict, there must be a wrong and a right and that reality, facts, truth and reason can be applied so that men can live peacefully. Rational men do not need the interference of government. They can cooperate among themselves and agree upon mutually beneficial transactions. Only when misunderstandings arise does the specter of irrationality come forward; in which case a competent third party, a judge, should be delegated to resolve the conflict.

I first became aware of this principle at the age of 18 when I read a book called Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Here’s the quote from the novel:

"Just as I support my life, neither by robbery nor alms, but by my own effort, so I do not seek to derive my happiness from the injury or the favor of others, but earn it by my own achievement. Just as I do not consider the pleasure of others as the goal of my life, so I do not consider my pleasure as the goal of the lives of others. Just as there are no contradictions in my values and no conflicts among my desires—so there are no victims and no conflicts of interest among rational men, men who do not desire the unearned and do not view one another with a cannibal's lust, men who neither make sacrifices nor accept them.”

Everything I had been taught before my 18th year told me that this idea could not possibly be correct. As a Catholic, I had been taught that selfishness is evil and that men can’t help themselves in doing wrong because of Original Sin – and yet he had free will. The contradiction was not supposed to bother me – yet it did.

In my reading about economics, Marx had averred that capitalism was evil because capitalists were driven by self-interest and that the most unscrupulous of businessmen would always work to take advantage of workers and consumers. Then after reading Ayn Rand’s statement in Atlas Shrugged, my view of morality was shaken. I wondered, how could rational men avoid conflict and what was a rational man?

As my life went forward, I began to ask more questions and I learned that Rand’s rational man was not someone who did what religious leaders and parents told him to do - unless they could make a valid case - he thought it through himself and decided what was right for him. He also did not act whimsically or without deliberate thought. She was offering a view of man entirely different from what I had known. A rational man knew that the good related to the method he used for selecting values. Rand held that values should be based upon the standard of man’s life and that the sacrifice of his values did not meet that standard. I began to see that reason was something real and achievable – but I realized that living up to this view was difficult, especially for a person influenced by prevailing ideas. Later, I learned that in some important respects using reason made life easier because it helped me shed a lot of incorrect ideas that I had accepted up to that point.

Eventually, as I integrated more knowledge, I began to understand what Ayn Rand meant. I realized that, in my youth, I had understood the principle “conflicts of interest” only as it related to one-on-one relationships and had accepted the false Marxist view that all human interchange involved theft and exploitation.

Eventually, I saw that individual business transactions, multiplied thousands of times each day were impacted by the need of businesspeople to “be right”, that in each transaction both parties had obtained something that served their interests. There are no conflicts of interest among rational men. Human interaction is not a “zero-sum” proposition.

The dynamic nature of this principle, operating in a vast economic context, resulted in an always improving economy, not only for individual businesspeople but for consumers who benefitted from constantly improving products, constantly lowering prices and new conveniences made possible by more advanced new product solutions. All of these were outgrowths of free human interactions and, more importantly, of the principle that there are no conflicts of interests among rational men.

You’ll notice that a key application of this principle for Ayn Rand, when it comes to a proper society, is that men should “neither make sacrifices nor accept them.” If one wants to understand what this means in practice one would have to see that man survives by means of his mind, that the quality (or logical accuracy) of his thinking determines how well he survives and that no one can properly make any decision for a man except himself. The individual is the source of his own values and of his own methods for achieving those values – and it is his responsibility to be right if he wants to achieve happiness. No one can properly presume that he has the authority to decide for another individual what is moral – neither religious leaders, politicians nor Presidents of the United States.

According to Ayn Rand, the moral imperative to sacrifice is the wedge into human relations that destroys cooperation and goodwill. Ask any businessperson to sell his or her products at a loss because he “owes” it to society and you’ll learn that a business cannot survive for long on those terms.

Conflict occurs when one person in a transaction or relationship expects the other to do something that the other party would not otherwise do. For instance, in a marriage, if one party expects the other to do something that violates the integrity of the marriage, then this demand puts the two partners at odds. To resolve this conflict, they might go to marriage counselling or simply review the marriage agreement. If the parties cannot resolve the conflict, the rational thing would be for them to part. The same would go in a business contract where one party agreed to provide a given number of product units in return for an agreed-upon price. If one party to the agreement violates the agreement, then the other party will lose money. A judge in a court of law would be needed to review the contract and then decide which party needs to “make the other party whole” and fulfill the original agreement.

However, what happens most often in these cases is that both parties consistently fulfill their end of the bargain and continue doing business. This is because a free society operates without the need for intervention by any third party. The vast majority of business agreements are conducted through purchase agreements, warranties, sales receipts and even verbal agreements because most people understand the terms of the transaction and fulfill their agreements. The only time it becomes necessary for one party to sue another is when one of them has wrongly assessed what is in his or her self-interest. There is a price to pay in any broken agreement; usually the price comes in terms of broken trust and the refusal to do business again.

Rand’s principle that there are no conflicts of interests among rational men does not mean that men will never disagree. Rather, it means that all men are capable of understanding reality. So if two men look at reality and correctly ascertain the facts, there will be no conflict of interest between them. The principle, then, is based upon a view of the nature of reality. It holds that there is only one reality and both men acknowledge that reality when they engage in a voluntary transaction. Each has decided what is in his best interest and agree to pursue it or not. This is the only proper form of cooperation among men. Anything else would involve a sacrifice of one man for the sake of the other.

What does it mean to say that coercive governments create conflicts? When the government dictates that a person should do something other than what he thinks is proper, it must initiate force against the individual or use the threat of force. And, it uses a “collective good” as the justification for its "need" to force the individual. So the sign of corruption in society, the act that causes conflict, is for the government to demand that a person give up his production for the sake of others.

A coercive society is based upon conflict created by the “stronger” to control the weaker or disarmed. In such a society, there is nothing that restricts the stronger from doing anything it wants to others. A leader with the power to create conflict by means of initiating overt force against others is adept at using force but cannot survive by productive means. He needs others because of his own inner isolation. In a twisted sense, he begins to feel that in order for society to “function” properly, force must be the means of control. He believes that sacrifice is the only "practical" way to get things done.

Power lust is the motivation of every “leader” who uses the threat of force to motivate people. This leader sees himself as deserving of any value he coerces people into giving him and he enjoys watching people as they cower in fear before him. He enjoys toying with them, manipulating them and watching their utter fear as he sits above them on his seat of power.

As the powerluster develops his skills of manipulation, he learns that the best way to rule the group is by obtaining the tribe’s willing agreement without using the threat of overt force. Toward this goal he seeks to create a more docile and obedient tribesman who will obey. He learns to drive home relentlessly the ideas that “duty toward the collective” and “sacrifice” are moral ideals”.

He notices that others in society have developed the ability to control men by means of religion and he realizes that religion has a moral component which prescribes what people should do. He enlists the “witch doctor” as his aid in “running society”. He adds altruism and sacrifice to his arguments for collectivism and pretends to be a devout believer even to the point of making sure that everyone sees him practicing religious rites.

Another form of corruption that is often missed in the argument for altruism is that, by doing altruistic deeds, the individual has given up his key faculty for deciding correct action. Not only is his individual judgment compromised through altruistic deeds but so is the quality and accuracy of any decision he might otherwise make. His energy, his integrity, his property and his motivation are all compromised to avoid a conflict with the demands of others. He must also lie to himself that he is doing the right thing while he directly suffers from his loss. The most devastating loss is that he has turned his life into a mere pebble upon a path which the leader walks. He is a willing slave.

A rational person would know that he needs his rational faculty in order to survive, and even to enjoy life. Any suggestion that he should sacrifice it would mean his destruction either slowly or immediately. Further, he knows that only rational people, when they cooperate and trade, are able to improve their own lives. This is one reason, I think, why Ayn Rand saw altruism as evil. No “self-respecting” person who is aware of this issue and the harm it does would consent to having his independence and self-sufficiency compromised in such a way. He would rebel most vociferously at the suggestion that sacrifice is somehow practical.

Coercive society creates a vast number of conflicts. The leader is in conflict with anyone who would challenge him. He deals with it by means of killing and imprisonment. The leader is also in conflict with each citizen who would do other than what he demands. He deals with it by means of killing and imprisonment. The citizens are not only in conflict with the leader but with other citizens who receive their labor and property. They are also in conflict with other groups within and without society who must be scapegoated in order create sacrificial wars and expand the leader's territory. The citizen is required to work according to government decrees without the right to make his own decisions and this puts him in conflict with reality. This is why you see more random violence in a socialist society, more crime and more poverty. Conflicts of interest are created when force is an element in the lives of all citizens. Not only does it create stress and uncertainty about survival, but it creates fear of other people; and this often creates a desire to lash out.

The real scandal of coercive societies is revealed when we see the killing fields of hundreds, thousands and even millions of dead whose lives were ended by the command of coercive leaders such as Mao, Hitler, Stalin and Castro to name a few. Apologists tell us that these murders had nothing to do with socialism (coercive government) but were in spite of it. This is not true. It was no coincidence that millions have died at the hands of socialists and fascists. The murders are endemic to the coercive system of government. Any government that assumes people to be property is a slave society. Such societies consider individuals expendable and any citizen who wants to live freely becomes a victim of that society. Murder is the end result of these societies because coercion never gets nicer; it always gets more coercive and murder is the harshest form of coercion. This principle applies, especially to our society today which endures countless demands for sacrifice by our President, politicians and religious leaders. The President, especially, does everything he can to infuse into every new law, every regulation, every policy and every Executive Order, the demand that someone must sacrifice in order for his policies to work. The opposite is true. Altruism is impractical. It does not work and the killing fields come closer to us the longer altruism and sacrifice are the guiding principles of our society.

To the extent that individual rights are violated in a society, that is the extent to which conflicts arise between individuals and government. A society in which government picks the winners and losers by means of arbitrary force is a society in decline morally and economically. It is a corrupt society.

To be continued in Part 3

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