Monday, October 20, 2014

Awakenings

Is everyone properly terrified yet? We all know the reasons to fear everything but our own shadows, don't we? So no excuse remains for trusting that all will be well.

But there's still a lot of mindless, heedless trust out there, Sarah Hoyt's essay on the subject notwithstanding. More, it's the worst kind of trust: confidence in the benevolence and competence of institutions, including governments.

Why anyone would ever trust an institution, be it a private corporation or a government, I cannot imagine. Yet the phenomenon is appallingly widespread, even in these days when governments appear determined to prove that they cannot and should not be trusted.

What's that you say? You think an exception should be made for eleemosynary organizations such as the Red Cross and the United Way? Bubba, are you ever in for a shock. The annual balance sheets of such institutions are matters of public record. Take a close look at a few of them. Tell me afterward if you still feel the same.

Trusting an individual can be hard, given what each man knows about his own fallibility and corruptibility. Trusting an institution -- a faceless, bodiless construct which, in the usual case, was created specifically to shield its members against personal responsibility for what "the institution" does -- is insane.

Yet trust is the sine qua non of a decent, functional society. We literally can't conduct the least of our affairs without it. But to extend it foolishly turns it into a blade we hold to our own throats.


Regular Gentle Readers of Liberty's Torch have seen this quote before:

There is no need in human life so great as that men should trust one another and should trust their government, should believe in promises, and should keep promises in order that future promises may be believed in and in order that confident cooperation may be possible. Good faith -- personal, national, and international -- is the first prerequisite of decent living, of the steady going on of industry, of governmental financial strength, and of international peace. -- Benjamin M. Anderson, Economics and the Public Welfare: A Financial and Economic History of the United States, 1914 -- 1946

I have no doubt that Dr. Anderson was a thoroughly decent man, at least as ethical as any other individual of his time. More, the above statement from his landmark economic history of the Nightmare Years contains much truth. Where it falls short is in its absolutism.

Isabel Paterson noted in The God of the Machine that "A corporation has neither a soul to be damned nor a body to be kicked." It is immune to the consequences of its misdeeds, with the sole exception of financial consequences. As true as this is of any private organization, it has much more force when applied to a government: a body invested with coercive powers and pre-indemnified for their use. The consequences of governmental wrongdoing fall solely on those it wrongs. Even when one of its agents commits an outright murder, he nearly always escapes all penalties for it. When one of its agencies runs totally amok, the inevitable sequel is a cover-up, sometimes effective, sometimes not.

But a hefty fraction of Americans still trust "their" government, most of the time. The reasons are various.

In part, that trust arises from the acquaintance so many of us have with individuals who work for a government. Governments employ about twenty percent of the American workforce, which makes such acquaintanceships commonplace. As the overwhelming majority of Americans, including government employees, are decent, ethical persons, at least when not tempted beyond their strength, there's a tendency to transfer the trust we extend to them to the government agencies that pay their salaries.

Another component of it stems from the general admiration for our superb military, the one and only arm of the federal government that actually seems to work as designed, and efficiently at that. There's a certain irony in this, as the purpose of an armed force is to impose the decisions of one government upon another. Yet the American tradition of the "citizen soldier," who brings the ethics he learned at his mother's knee to the barracks, thence to the training ground, and thence to the battlefield, has resulted in the most ethical warmaking power in human history: a force that kills and destroys only as absolutely necessary to accomplish its objectives. If there were a possibility of holding all of government to that standard, perhaps trusting it wouldn't be quite so irrational.

Finally for this tirade, as Sarah notes in her essay, in certain matters many feel they have no choice but to trust government:

Things for which we used to trust the government, if not exactly to at least be in the right ballpark: Unemployment, inflation, the state of the economy, the state of the population, disease statistics, warnings about what was safe and unsafe (yes, sometimes we got the alar scare, but the truth is, it usually erred on the side of too much caution), the state of the world, the state of our enemies’ forces, the state of our forces.

There are more things I’m not calling to mind now, a myriad points that informed us that civilization was in fact still working, that statistics were still being gathered, and that we could – through them – know the state of the world that we couldn’t verify on our own.

This is not – ah – to say that we, we particularly who tend to hang out in this blog, believe in these things in whole or even implicitly. No, but we did believe in them more or less, and kind of. We would say things like “Of course, the census overestimates the uncounted in the big cities, but—” or “They’re having a panic fit over the disinfectant in smokeless cigarettes, ignore that.”

However, for the big things, important things, we trusted government. You know, weather alerts, forewarning the economy was about to take a dive, election results, that sort of “big thing.”

Yet the extension of trust over those matters is waning as well...as it should.


I have a large collection of lapel buttons with clever sayings on them. Time was, I would hardly leave the house without choosing one that seemed appropriate for the day. One of my favorites in the batch says:

You Trust Your Mother,
But You Cut The Cards

Indeed. Always cut the cards. It's an essential element in "the game," regardless of the specifics of the playing field or the rules. It doesn't matter that the dealer is your mother, you cut the cards anyway. It's not just for your peace of mind, but for hers as well.

When "the dealer" is government, "cutting the cards" can be a matter of life and death.

On a handful of subjects, mainly pertaining to war and international relations, there's no way to "cut the cards." But on nearly everything else, alternatives are rapidly multiplying:

  • Private security companies will protect life and property, rather than arriving after they've been violated.
  • Water and electric power are things most of us can get from a variety of vendors, or can provide to ourselves.
  • Local trade is ever more frequently conducted via barter, or with precious metals as the medium of exchange.
  • There are alternative sources of information about everything demographic or economic.
  • There's always an alternative to "public transportation."

Even should you choose to use the government alternative in any of those venues, you should keep the existence of the others in mind -- and you should keep in touch with those who use the others, so the government can't bamboozle you about its "superiority." That approach to "cutting the cards" is far more important than regularly reading several news sources, which, happily, is now the habit of the typical American news consumer.

The general awakening to the untrustworthiness of governments, politicians, and bureaucrats must be followed by a widespread shift toward nongovernmental alternatives in as many walks of life as possible. Now that voting can no longer effect a significant change in the direction of our deterioration, there is no better way to keep necessary trust -- trust in deserving individuals and in the soundness of our communities -- healthy and growing.

It's already begun.
Make yourself part of it.
Create alternatives of your own.
Help to publicize ones not yet widely known.
It might be the most pro-social thing an American can do.

We can all pitch in. Those of us who have awakened, that is.

2 comments:

  1. 5 days a practical suggestion has gone without a comment? The comment thread has moved on, so I'm just talking to the electrons, here, but--does anyone attending this website, or anyone in the Conservative blogosphere, for that matter, actually WANT to do something about the collapse of the US? Or is it more fun just to complain?

    ReplyDelete
  2. JB,

    Come up with a coherent example of something that can actually, realistically make a difference and I'll be glad to listen.

    If, however, you believe things such as writing to your "Congressperson", waving a protest sign, or - LOL - _voting_ can make a difference, you haven't been paying attention.

    And Fran isn't complaining, he's merely stating the obvious, hoping that folks such as yourself might get it in spite of all signs to the contrary.

    ReplyDelete

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