A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Welfare State, part 4

The preceding three essays make the case for the welfare state (for the welfare of the member/participants of the state being the prime responsibility of a community collective) more in the manner of a blind man playing darts than the laser-like incisiveness of a syllogistic argument.  Yet, the pattern of the argument is more honest in the sense that it models the complexity of this often contentious region of social concern.  What has been left out is the full measure of the attitudes, arguments and strengths of those people, and their supporting institutions, who believe (and those who purport to believe) that the function of the community collective, the state, should have little or no interest in the personal welfare of its citizens.

The basic argument is that the state should be a substrate, like agar-agar, for the society to grow on.  It should not interfere with what grows on it, but only supply the most essential conditions for that growth: a simple set of rules, protection from invasion, a means of adjudicating property related conflicts and an unbending enforcement of the simple rules and adjudicated consequences.  Much as a bacteriologist might put several different bacterium in a Petri dish, letting them grow to see what will happen.

Such a system is supposed to offer True Freedom to the individual to fully express potential without the inhibiting influence of an overweening and coercive state welfare apparatus.  Such a system recognizes the reality that the world is not fair, that personal talent and accident combine to make success or failure and that the attempt to interfere with this deep reality is a fool’s game, ultimately harmful to all the members of the society even as such a view may appear uncompassionate on its face.

If each person attempted to maximize the options presented to them in life, without regard to others and following the simple rules of a personally indifferent state, then the society would progress even as ‘the world’ sloughs off those who, through either accident or personal insufficiency, can’t keep up.  These would be the rules; everyone would know them and failure within them would be an individual and not a social issue.  In this way the resources of the agar-agar, the state, would flow to those who can best use them and not be wasted on those who…  At this point the argument begins to breakdown for me since I’m not sure what the goal of life – growing successfully on the agar-agar – is supposed to be in this model, but I’ll get back to it.

I think it pretty clear that those who are, by particular forms of talent and fortuitous accident, benefited by their position on the agar-agar and are able to collect to their own uses large amounts of nutrient, these people will find the above argument more compelling than those who are for those same reasons – nature of talent and accident – marginalized or even in danger of being sloughed off.  This alone should alert us to the potential difficulties with such a view, that the majority of the world’s people find it questionable at best. 

But, of course, the majority can be wrong, evidence the history of scientific discovery.  We need to clarify and, as well as possible, come to some common understanding of the purpose of being on the agar-agar in the first place.  But, of course again, this is a very sticky wicket.  Just as it is abundantly clear that there is only one reason for the earth in its orbit around the sun containing the property of life; one reason that among those things living at least one species is aware of its life; one reason that humans have attained their supremacy and immense powers of creation and destruction; it is exactly what that one reason is that is in the greatest contention.

The distinction is, however, not so much among the differing practices of the world’s religions – these are pretty uniform, regardless of underlying belief systems, in supporting the welfare of the members of their communities – but it is between differing visions of how to allocate abundance: if wealth is “naturally going to pile up”, then where should the piles be; in the commons or in the control of individuals?  I have made my case for the answer in the previous 3 essays and will not repeat those arguments here.  I will only answer that, I believe, we are on our agar-agar for reasons unlike why and how bacteria are on theirs: we are not on the earth to just grow as far and wide as we can before we use up the available resources and die; we have the Consciousness Order capacity to auto-adapt, unlike any other creature of which we are aware.  We can manifest relationships with each other and the natural world more complex and directed than a bacterium.  I contend that the welfare state is an essential part of such an adaptation.

Broadly there are two sets of initial concerns: 1) finding designs that might work with the practical realities of our numbers, technology, human nature and present relationship to the earth’s ecosystems, and 2) the present beliefs, habits, expectations and in-place human infrastructure that either can’t support or would actively work against changes that would allow the creation of an effective ecologically integrated welfare state (must be ecologically integrated and functionally adaptive in the environment as well as adaptive to economic realities or there is no point).

The first concern, finding designs that might work, has two conditions that must be met:

• The distribution of the human product must be done in a way that connects behavior with the meeting of needs.

• The human product must have guidance based on an ecologically sound ethics as to its form and consequences and not be completely open-ended, limited only by the technical capacity of the moment.

Our present conservative (reactionary) corporatists are right that people should not be given a “free ride,” but they then use the argument to further say that the people shouldn’t have a fair share of the human product at all; the reason is uncomplicated greed for having more of that product for themselves.  But the attitude complicates the deeper issue of how to distribute the gains of human action in the environment.

Which goes straight to the second condition: what should be the levels and types of gains that we make from the environment? It has become completely clear to all but those same reactionary corporatists (and may actually be clear to many, thus the speed of their greed) that we must slow and even reverse many of the impacts that our efforts at gain have had and continue to have.

In this formulation it becomes completely clear that these two issues are intimately related: what we do with the one will have powerful influences on the other.  They can work in synergy as we try to solve the real challenges to our survival and the continuity of the present biological assemblage of the earth; or the challenges from the forces opposing their understanding and influence on our behaviors can be allowed to disarticulate them and discredit the misrepresented pieces in order to maintain power and wealth.

Here are just some of the challenges to the second initial concern: the beliefs, habits and in-place systems that would function in opposition to making a state sized human collective in which all the members work together to support the community:

• No political system or economic system in use and currently available can support the welfare state that is required.  All current systems are based on private property in ways that drive individual accumulation of the human material product.  Belief systems and expectations are woven around accumulation in such a way that doing with minimum needs and focusing on the human non-material product is literally unthinkable.

• The organizational strength of the economic elite weakens the state’s willingness and capacity to protect all of its citizens, allowing the elite to increase both the amount and rate of their material acquisition.

There is a great disconnect between what is needed to be known and understood and what is known and understood by the masses.  This was not always the case.  The masses have been the source for guidance of action through most of our history.  It is only recently (last few thousand years) that fate and future have been left to ‘leaders.’  Leaders in the past helped summarize and organize the informed opinions of the masses as opposed to today when they more often lie to the masses and act to empower an elite.  The conditions that move us to need leaders and to give to them authority of life and death have got to be reexamined.

• The critical mass of injustice in the world inures the people to all but that which falls on them and those close to them.

• The consequences of a fully functioning welfare state operating in an ecologically responsible manner would involve changes that almost everyone would initially be uncomfortable with, and that the wealthy would fight with all the considerable force at their disposal; with a significant number of the masses joining them. There would have to be an acceptance of the need to live within the boundaries of both ecological and community standards; and there would have to be knowledge-based ways of establishing those limits.

• The material and energy requirements for 7 billion people to live in minimum comfort and safety with adequate nutrition and logistical support for some level of equitable distribution of the human creative product, while leaving alone a sufficient amount of the earth’s productive capacity to maintain biodiversity and the integrated functional ecological relationships, is beyond the available energies, materials and processes, and the human willingness, currently available on the earth.  This would make huge demands on a welfare state to not only distribute the human product with some equity, but to also reduce that product with equitable distribution of those consequences.  Neither action has an available intellectual or behavioral model for us to go by in the present moment.

These challenges should make it clear that there is no “mechanical”, engineering or legalistic fix based on our present situation (laws, rules, expectations, habits and beliefs).  We cannot begin with our current position and design a path to an effective and reasonable future; if we could, we would have several such plans laid out before us.  We are “all in the same boat” with a mad captain and crew, frightened and cowering passengers who can’t run the machinery and whose only ‘hope’ is that the boat runs aground, offering the opportunity to start over with what remains, rather than sinking at sea.  There is no point in preparing for the worst, preparing for the best is the only sane option; that means to create the ideas that allow for a future regardless of how impractical they may seem in the moment. 

These ideas must be spoken again and again.  They must be first tantalizing and then understood; They must spread, at first as curiosity, then as imaginable; they must be embellished and then grown until they seem possible, for then they are possible.  And when they are possible the “same boat” that we are in is made anew.

Here are just a tantalizing few of the changes that could meet the needed conditions:

• Localization of economic action so that economic distance is reduced, so that the consequences of economic action can be seen and included in community understanding and adaptation.

• The development of the expectation that everyone will meet some significant proportion of their own personal needs (food, water, shelter, safety) by their own direct efforts; that these expected actions cannot be bought off, money would have no efficacy against this expectation.

• Property redefined into environmental commons (that which is not to be touched except as the human animal), public property (our community and social territory and the site for our technological and commercial activity), users property ( most present titled property, though limited to what a family like entity can actually use) and private property (that which we ‘put our hand to’).

• The reinvigoration of the expectation that no one would live in luxury while another starved, the forming of this value as a central economic tenet to replace the notion of unlimited desire as an acceptable human motive.

These will seem foolish to some, but only because they don’t believe them.

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