Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Debunking: Civilized Society

"Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society." -- Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1904

The above is merely one of a multitude of quotes I could cite that defines some requirement of a "civilized society," or alludes to one or more such. Though such statements are many, and address equally many posited requirements of "civilized society," no one ever gets around to defining this supposedly precious condition for which we pay so much and which demands so much from us...to say nothing of assessing it according to its costs and benefits.

Jonah Goldberg, in his recent blockbuster Liberal Fascism, faced a similar problem. Fascism is a word in torment, twisted this way and that according to the political objectives of those who employ it. To make any sort of defensible case about it that withstands objective scrutiny, Goldberg had to retreat to primitives and bedrock commonalities, and work forward from there. That he succeeded is a testament to the importance of the willingness to "go back to basics," especially on a shibboleth word such as "fascism"...or "civilized."

That obligation now lies upon me.


When commentators have spoken of "civilized societies" or, somewhat more vaguely, "civilizations," they've usually employed a metric of predominant public order:

  • Low levels of violence and predation;
  • General agreement on a set of moral and ethical standards;
  • Overwhelming allegiance to a public authority entrusted with the enforcement of the law.

By those criteria, "civilized" is a relative condition. After all, we can't define "low," "general," or "overwhelming" in any but a relative fashion. Thus, at a given time and in a given region, there will be "more civilized" and "less civilized" societies, when gauged against one another...but unless we're speaking of heaven itself, there will be no absolutely civilized society to assess and admire.

By my lights, that's the only way it can be. Men are fallible, variably educable, and variably susceptible to temptation. There will always be some, in any sufficiently large population, who will shrug off moral, ethical, and legal constraints, whether because they believe they can do so without penalty or because their flaws render them incapable of self-restraint.

Therefore, in discussing how "civilized" our society is, the most important and least objectionable metric is how it compares to earlier times in levels of violence, adherence to acknowledged moral and ethical standards, and the rule of objective law.

By those yardsticks, how does the "civilization" level of the United States of America in the year of Our Lord 2013 compare to that of 1904?


The metric I advocate here will be disputed by persons on the political Left, who would greatly prefer that "compassion" be included as an important, perhaps dominant component. Such persons, whether sincere or otherwise, have not attained the insight of Frederic Bastiat:

The law is justice — simple and clear, precise and bounded. Every eye can see it, and every mind can grasp it; for justice is measurable, immutable, and unchangeable. Justice is neither more than this nor less than this. If you exceed this proper limit — if you attempt to make the law religious, fraternal, equalizing, philanthropic, industrial, literary, or artistic — you will then be lost in an uncharted territory, in vagueness and uncertainty, in a forced utopia or, even worse, in a multitude of utopias, each striving to seize the law and impose it upon you. This is true because fraternity and philanthropy, unlike justice, do not have precise limits. Once started, where will you stop? And where will the law stop itself? [The Law, 1850]

...but then, persons on the Left are seldom satisfied with Bastiat's definition of justice: the condition in which the natural rights of each man to his life, his liberty, and his honestly acquired property are respected and protected:

What, then, is law? It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.

Each of us has a natural right — from God — to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two. For what are our faculties but the extension of our individuality? And what is property but an extension of our faculties? If every person has the right to defend even by force — his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly. Thus the principle of collective right — its reason for existing, its lawfulness — is based on individual right. And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force — for the same reason — cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups. [Ibid.]

There is no blending Bastiat's simple, clear conception of justice -- the very essence of civilization as it's been observed, discussed, and assessed by century upon century of analysts and commentators -- with the vague, subjective, wholly illusory notion of the Leftist that "justice" must embrace an obligatory component of "compassion."


By my (and Bastiat's) preferred metric, American society has become ever less civilized over the century past:

  • Levels of violence and predation -- including governmentally approved and administered violence and predation -- have increased steadily;
  • Agreement on moral and ethical standards has waned steadily;
  • The acknowledged legitimacy of (and allegiance to) the "public authorities" entrusted with the enforcement of the law has declined sharply, even as the laws have multiplied without limit.

If America was a very (or acceptably) "civilized society" in 1904, when Holmes made his famous statement, what is it today?

I take no pleasure in observing that few societies anywhere on Earth are "more civilized" than ours at this time. But were I offered a choice between the peace, public order, prevailing courtesy, and general morality and ethics of America in 1904 and that of America in 2013, I would opt for the former without hesitation as by far the "more civilized." That it was far less expensive -- Justice Holmes, call your office! -- should not escape our notice.

What about you, Gentle Reader?

5 comments:

glennwampus said...

Exactly right. Also 'without property rights no other rights can be practiced'. Rand again. I notice that my liberal friends become completely unglued when I tell them they have no rights to a job or education. They, and the rest of us have no rights to things only actions. Rights identify freedoms of actions, not things. The right to property is the freedom to use and dispose of things. My tennis ball may be perfectly identical to yours, but I can use or dispose of my tennis ball, not yours.

best, glennwampus

Pascal Fervor said...

I agree with you about the decay of our civilization. But 1904 was before the Frankfurt School and its deployment of Critical Theory on a scale deliberately more sophisticated than a majority are willing to confront and even were they to know what I'm talking about.

But in that sentence is a seductive word I am pretty sure I must have discussed with you many years ago. It would seem to fit quite well into your debunking series.

I just googled Sophisticated and you will note that the search engine places up front only definitions that supplied the pleasantest of meanings to the word as number 1 and 2 usages.

However, even my 1971 Collegiate dictionary places the negative ones up first: "not in a natural, pure, or original state: adulterated." (Like our civilized society.)

Indeed, seeing as the word derives from sophism, there has to be a whole lot of deliberate reconstructing to make sophisticated have primarily pleasant meanings.

The irony here is that a Leftist might say that your debunking series is sophisticating your readers -- and mean it Socrates originally meant it. And even in its contemporary usage (were it not for it's disreputable origins) I'd use it to apply positively to what you appear to be looking to achieve for Americans: "altered by education, experience, etc., so as to be worldly-wise; not naive."

Well, it's a word worth considering given the thrust of this -- in my opinion -- excellent series.

Mark Butterworth said...

In 1903, the murder rate was 1.1/100,000. Today, it's about 6.8/100K.

But, keep in mind that if medical care had been as good in 1903 as now, the murder rate would be at least half of that 1.1/100K; and that if the 2013 murder rate had to rely on 1903's medical care, the present murder rate would probably be double what it is now.

"In 1900, the United States had a lower murder rate than Japan." Frontpage Mag.

Also, one has to wonder what the murder rate among blacks was then. I have to assume, given historical criminal behavior among blacks (free blacks committed most of the murders in Philadelphia prior to 1776), that their crime rate would be disproportional then as it is today, but not to as great an extent.

So, if you eliminate black and immigrant murders around 1900, you'll probably come out with a number of murders among native whites that is very low.

Hard to believe how 'civilized' those people were back then. But as I pointed out at another time, in 1900, 57% of Americans had blue eyes. Today, that number is 16% or 1 in 6.

glennwampus said...

Mark;
Going back a ways; note how exquisitely well mannered civilization was when gentlemen walked around with swords. I suspect the murder rate was much higher among the disarmed peasantry

best, glennwampus

Mark Butterworth said...

Additional info:

An official report from the Milwaukee police department reveals more: In the city, the homicide rate for black residents is 27.9 per 100,000 compared to 9.7 for Latinos and 1.7 per 100,000 white residents. WND