I Heart Steven Pinker
Recently, he took on George Lakoff, and he got off this one-liner:
One can just imagine the howls of ridicule if a politician took Lakoff’s Orwellian advice tried to rebrand “taxes” as “membership fees.” …If you choose not to pay a membership fee, the organization will stop providing you with its services. But if you choose not to pay taxes, men with guns will put you in jail.
He goes on to say,
The standard analysis sees the political right as having a tragic vision in which human nature is permanently afflicted by limitations of knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, and the political right (sic) having a utopian vision in which human nature is naturally innocent, but corrupted by defective social institutions and perfectible by reformed ones.
The right therefore has an affinity for market economies, both because people will always be more motivated to work for themselves and their families than for something called “society,” and because no planner has the wisdom, information, and disinterest to run an economy from the top down…And since we are always teetering on the brink of barbarism, social traditions in a functioning society should be respected as time-tested workarounds for the shortcomings of an unchanging human nature, as applicable today as when they developed, even if no one can explain their rationale.
Positive freedom (“freedom to”) is the right of people to the prerequisites that enable them to act as they please, such as food, health, and education. The concept [is] far more problematic than negative freedom, because human wants are infinite, and because many of them can only be satisfied through the efforts of other humans. The idea that people have a right to paid vacations, central heating, and a college education, for example, would have been unthinkable throughout most of human history…my freedom to have my teeth fixed impinges on my dentist’s freedom to sit at home and read the paper.
Oct 12 2006 at 1:39pm
‘…people will always be more motivated to work for themselves and their families than for something called “society,” ‘
This is not exactly true as any study of mammals prove. Our desire to herd is painful and does not exactly provide direct satisfaction, but we do it and have been doing homage to “society” for hundreds of millions of years of evolution. We cannot avoid it, it is biological, an element of our survival instinct, the result of having the limbic brain, the mammalian brain.
The “rights” fallacy has always been to pretend that allegiance to ollective action is somehow a product of later human civilization, that it can be dispensed with using some intellectual argument.
The right is better to acknowledge the antagonism between collectivism and individualism, and balance the two with more efficient solutions.
Oct 13 2006 at 6:39am
I agree with Matt. This disdain for society (or as Dr Pinker puts it: ‘something called “society”‘) is quite chilling. There is such a thing as society, and its loss or erosion means a lot to us simple folk who don’t work in high-powered universities. We are not just adjuncts to an economic system. Perhaps people think they have rights to housing and holidays because we regard these things as a quid pro quo for our society’s being systematically dismantled by government policies – of all parties – that favour their large, global buddies (via subsidies to big business, infrastructure; the externalising of social and environmental costs; and a biassed regulatory system) at the expense of the small and local.
Oct 13 2006 at 10:19am
I’m sorry guys, but I can’t take people like Lakoff seriously. I spent 15 years in public relations and I can tell you for a fact that any two-bit hack PR guy with no college degree knows more about how people think, and how to sell something, than Lakoff will ever know. PR and advertising have known for generations, at least, that people decide important issues for emotional reasons, then look around for a rationale for their choice so they can talk about their decision and not appear stupid. PR has always been about choosing the metaphor that will grab the audience in the gut and make your side look good. You do that by exaggerating your good points and minimizing your bad ones while doing the opposite to the enemy. The side that comes up with the most emotionally grabbing metaphor always wins.
By the way, research has shown that the only emotion that works well in PR campaigns is fear; you have to show people a strong boogey man. That’s why politicians and the news media frantically generate new crises every day. If they don’t frighten people, no one pays attention to them and they lose money.
Oct 13 2006 at 11:29am
What is this “society” you refer to? Can you define it? If people are naturally motivated to work for “society”, why have all experiments is replacing the profit motive with altruism end up in the gulag, or bankrupcy court?
People like Dr. Pinsker separate our “desire to herd” from the collectivist notion that everyone must be forced into herding and accepting some dope, dictator, or “Council of People Who Are Smarter Than The Rest of Us” as the herder.
In our country, we derive rights from nature. Those Enlightenmnet arguments might be flawed, but they are well reasoned and work in the real world. From where do you derive a right to housing? And why are the welfare recipients who live next door to me entitled to $3000 subsidies from the City of New York and I have to pay for my housing out of pocket? In other words, why do I have to work and they are paid not to? And while government policies will favor corporations, they do so in the form of tax breaks usually. It takes a big government to favor big corporations. Further, take a look at the corporations that made up the Dow Jones 20, 50, and 100 years ago. Most of them are either gone or no longer powerhouses.
And despite of all the advantages big corporations have, more and more people in America are working for themselves. It’s not 1984.
Oct 13 2006 at 12:53pm
Yes, it would be ridiculous to try to rename “taxes” as “membership fees,” but really only because most renaming of things that have perfectly good names is silly, and this one is particularly clumsy. The idea that taxes are, in fact much like membership fees makes sense.
What services are you paying for? Well, one of them is the service of being able to freely live in within the territory of the taxing authority. If you don’t pay for that, you have to leave (i.e., find another government with territory to let you live there) or get locked up. This isn’t much different that a country club, except it is much more of a hassle to change citizenship than to quit the country club. But either way, you can’t keep hanging around the grounds.
Oct 13 2006 at 1:27pm
“why have all experiments is replacing the profit motive with altruism”
Speaking in generalities, many of the socialism experiments come as a reaction to collectivism by the oligarchs, as a historical review will show. It is often the case of taking inefficient, oligarchy (crony capitalism) and attempting to reform it. Go back further and you have collective royal authority vs the new merchant class.
Welfarism is a case in point. Welfarism was not an attempt to gain power through the votes of the poor because in the 60s since the poor seldom voted in large numbers. Welfarism was a cheap way out for the private sector, especially when taxes were flattened by Kennedy. In other words, it was collective action by the more wealthy to pass the problem of the poor onto government. Look at social welfare spending after the Kennedy tax cut.
Oct 13 2006 at 6:02pm
Robert asks me:
I agree that welfarism is divisive and corrosive. My point is that many of the people on it are the losers from policies into which they had very little input. These include not only the tax breaks that favour the large corporates (which are significant), but the other forms of corporate welfare that have devasted their society and natural environment: ‘protection’ for agriculture that raises food prices; subsidies for energy extraction and consumption, for transport etc. As well, in most western countries people feel they have very little input into immigration policy, which does a lot to make them feel insecure and bid down their wages. Perhaps ordinary people feel they have as much ‘right’ to free housing as the government feels it has to dismantle or at least radically alter the social and physical environment in which they grew up. I’m not arguing for more welfare; certainly not. I’m arguing for government of the people for the people; not government by the rich for the rich – which is what we have now.
Oct 13 2006 at 6:02pm
Whatever the motives for socialism, whether idealism or the desire for the wealthy to pass the buck on poverty, the system still relies on the altruism of the recipients in order to work. In other words, your reply does not address my question.
Oct 14 2006 at 9:31am
Matt:”The “rights” fallacy has always been to pretend that allegiance to ollective action is somehow a product of later human civilization, that it can be dispensed with using some intellectual argument.”
You’re regurgitating evolutionary psychology, which is a bunch of nonsense. If we’re all a bunch of hybrid animals, as evolutionary psychology preaches, then you’re right. Rights, along with morals, don’t exist. Survival of the fittest is the highest impulse. Though your argument that collectivism is based on the herd mentality is not completely supported by nature. Some animals live in herds, some are loners, like tigers. What if I prefer to be a loner?
The whole idea that men have rights originates from an ancient view that men are not animals and should not be treated like animals. God created mankind and gave us rights based on our relationship to Him. The so-called Enlightenment stripped God from the equation without realizing that doing so also stripped any rationale for human rights. So if their is no God, then you’re right again. We’re nothing but animals and should treat each other as such.
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