The problems of the culture

Social conservatives have a good point. They note that the laws and social conventions of a society have far-reaching effects across the society, and ultimately determine whether that society thrives, stagnates, or crumbles.

Unfortunately, they usually spend nearly all of their time talking about sexual rules and customs. While sex is endlessly fascinating, there are other rules of our culture that are at least as important and more urgently in need of repair.

One of the most unfortunate cultural rules we’re burdened with is this one: it is absolutely unconscionable in our compassionate society to allow someone to hurt himself. This rule has enormous costs – the continued existence of Social Security to the present day can be traced to it (you can’t let people neglect to save and then be unable to retire or pay their bills after they can’t work), as well as our problems with the cost and quality of medical care (since people mustn’t be allowed to hurt themselves with medical treatment or devices, a large and expensive infrastructure has been built for the express purpose of preventing people from being treated without permission and close supervision), as well as the continued use of the groundcar, the War on Drugs, grade inflation (if we can’t stop people from earning failing grades, we’ll just have to stop flunking them instead), the shakedown of the cigarette makers and the associated advertising ban, a large and growing body of product liability judgements, and much, much more.

If you rule out the possibility of letting people hurt themselves, your only alternatives are to use force to stop them (and use force against other people who help them or even fail to stop them) or to bail them out (with money provided at taxpayer expense, or unearned credentials at the expense of those who can actually earn them but can no longer prove it). The former causes restrictions to multiply out of control, while the latter guarantees the continuation of self-destructive behavior and causes costs to multiply out of control. While restrictions may prevent one form of avoidable suffering, they also restrict the ability of people to solve their own problems and avoid other forms of avoidable suffering; for instance, when doctors are given 25 year sentences for insufficiently restricting the use of pain medication, people with severe pain are deprived of the best available tool for solving it, and must either live with the pain or commit suicide or become criminals to get rid of it. But according to our rules, these people’s suffering is an acceptable price to pay to prevent other people from enduring entirely self-inflicted suffering.

As long as this rule is ingrained in our culture, effective solutions to our worst problems will be politically infeasible, and politically feasible solutions will be ineffective or destructive. The free market is a wonderful tool for solving problems, but it only works well when people are left to use their own judgement and their own resources to acquire the best available solutions to their own problems, and reap the benefits and bear the costs.

6 thoughts on “The problems of the culture”

  1. “they usually spend nearly all of their time talking about sexual rules and customs”

    How families will be formed and maintained and protected, and who will be responsible for children and how children will be raised is the most important group of issues for any society, if it is to last more than a few decades. “sexual rules and customs” are all about these issues.

    Plus, you won’t be surprised to know, the human sex drive being as powerful as it is, these are the laws and conventions which people find the most burdensome and which they want to change to suit their convenience. And they come up with ingenious rationalizations to get out of commitments and do what they feel urgently impelled to do. And religion, as the repository of traditional morality in our civilization, is always pushing back, and this has always been an irritant, never more so than now when we have made personal choice in all matters and at every moment, and making every commitment terminable and optional, into our highest good.

    It is like that old joke. Moses comes down from the mountain with four slabs and twenty commmandments. The people of Israel are not happy, too many, too hard — go back and renegotiate. He goes back up. He comes down again, this time with two slabs. He tells them — “I’ve got good news and bad news. I got Him down to ten. But adultery is still in.”

    Of course it was still in. It always will be. And this basic rule, and related rules pertaining to discipling this powerful and wayword force in our personal and collective lives, will always be a hard one for people to live with.

  2. Lex,

    How many battles has the social right won on moral issues? Are song lyrics any more clean, movies any less scintillating, sex any less available? The answer is plainly no.

    By focusing on sex the social right accomplishes three things 1. They make themselves perfectly ineffective on most issues and win only small, token victories 2. This focus on sex allows the mainstream media and liberal politician to scare people who would support conservative, limited government, family friendly policies into voting for liberals 3. While the social conservatives battle over social issues accomplishing nothing the liberals are in the background increasing the size of government and starting programs that help destroy the values the social conservatives want to preserve.

    Tax laws and poorly designed government programs have destroyed more family values then any of the sex based issues the social conservatives spend most of their time fighting.

  3. TJIT, I think each individual and each group in society has to decide what is most important in the political process and focus on those things. For example, lots of Christians think abortion is the worst problem in American life today. They spend their time and energy fighting it, and don’t focus on other things. Some people are into trying to civilize the television. I solve that by not having one. That’s their call.

    You suggest that family-friendly policies like “limited government” would be a better use of their time. Maybe so. But bear in mind that ideologically or religiously motivated people often don’t focus on political effectiveness at all. They often care more about making their point heard. This is frustrating to people who agree with them and annoying to those who don’t.

    I don’t necessarily agree that their efforts more generally have been as ineffectual as you suggest. So, if your efforts on something you think is important are not as successful as you want, you should give up? Do you think libertarians should stop pushing for smaller government because it keeps getting bigger? Do think maybe on the margin it would be worse if they weren’t pushing? Same thing. So I don’t think “the answer is plainly no” or, even if it was, that this means they should give up.

  4. As an Anthropologist, the first thing you do is study kinship – there’s your sex-stuff. But be wary of the first person who approaches you as a “cultural informant.” Normally you’d be shunned as an outsider, so if/when approached by a local, be aware that they’re often those people who are a little bit un-socialized along normative (local) lines. They’re a bit weird, and just fringe-enough to talk to (and identify with) weirdos and retards like you, the Anthropologist.
    Secondly there’s always pressures in Culture towards Modernity or “Currency” (as in trendy-ness) vs. Traditionalism – it’s practically Darwinian to compare the Mutation factor of the Modernization-Movement, relative to the Big Stable Gene Pool that represents Tradition, so “Left” and “Right” are like “Up and Down” or “Blue and Red” – they’re whatever movement a person attaches themself to in order to successfully compete in something or in someway in their Culture. Normally competition is against external forces: fire, drought, another Tribe – and success is determined by outlasting it, having a family and not getting killed or dying-off.
    The pressure towards “Modernity” is often a circular chase by the Lesser, going after and copying the accouterments of the More Powerful, and by aping their habits, gestures, and things attempting to become them. Sometimes it works when habits, gestures, and things are all that is required. We see this in Fashion, from London Paris New York and at Ilea, etc., but there’s always anomalies and throwbacks like Paris Hilton. It doesn’t work on a copy-cat level when there are intangibles beyond just Stuff, birth-rights and such, like Brahmins in the Hindu Caste system or maybe in Boston, so we have Higher Educational opportunities and have evolved a parallel system of Near-Elites, near being Nearby since they are powerful determinators in their own right, and not distant, but they are not the people who are Really Powerful.
    Anyhow, that’s all I know for now, hope I’m not blurting out too much irrelevant stupid-stuff. ;-)

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