Thursday, December 29, 2005

Are they old enough to vote?

I was listening to a radio interview the other day and the person being interviewed - an American - kept on saying things like “I have the right to do what I want to” and “No-one has the right to stop me.” At first I just let the words flow over me not really even noticing them but, then, I found the phrases more and more grating. They reminded me of the great number of times I’d heard those same sentiments being expressed by many other people, again Americans. By the end of the interview, I was under the distinct impression that the person interviewed was a teenager rebelling against their parents and was about to shout “Well, I don’wanna!” and go off to their room to sulk. They expressed the same feeling of being put upon by the whole world, just wanting to finally do what they wanted to and not understanding why they are not being allowed to. I wonder how they would have reacted if someone had actually said to them, “Actually, you do not have the right to do what you want to and other people do have the right to stop you, so grow up!” I fear for the furniture in the studio.

The thing that is much more troubling than the childish behaviour of one or more individuals is the reason why I had initially ignored the words. The problem is that this sentiment is not just common but is accepted by many people as their fundamental moral precept, a precept upon which they base their political views, views that play a real role in shaping some societies and states, such as the US. However, both as a political and a moral guide, the view is misleading. Though it sounds promising, it fails for the same reason as any view which tries to reduce the complexity of life to just one thing – life is just too complex for such simple, adolescent solutions.

Imagine that someone could save somebody else’s life without any effort whatsoever, yet did not do so? Would you think less of them because of this? I know I would and that’s because I think we all have a moral responsibility to each other. And becoming an adult requires that we accept our responsibilities. Of course, in real life we can not help everyone who needs assistance – we, for the most part, concentrate upon our family and friends. If we lived in a well ordered society we would be able to rest assured that society as a whole will look out for people and could be satisfied by just taking part in that society.

What if one doesn’t think that we have any moral responsibility for each other? What if one would be perfectly capable of eating a full dinner while watching another man starve? Well, first of all, to do so is to ignore the unrepayable debt one has to other human beings. Every one of us was born and grew up within a society that took some care of its members be it by providing hospitals or by keeping the streets relatively clean and safe to walk or by running an educational system or even by merely ensuring that the environment isn’t completely degraded by the decisions of a few. The myth of the self-made man is just that, a myth. And, having benefited in the past from the assistance provided by society, we are obliged to make the effort to assist in its running. Indeed, it will never be possible to stop benefiting from society’s assistance. Even on an uninhabited island our welfare will be dependent upon the UN’s efforts to stop global warming. Or, to put it another way, we humans are social beings and, as such, the ties that bind us to other people are key to our lives.

But what if a society decided to put the ultra individualist views into life? Soon after year zero in which it freed its members from all constraints, the survivors would be forced to reinvent many of the many structures that had previously existed. An armed force to protect them from threats external to that society – call it an army. An armed force to protect them from threats internal to that society – call it a police force. A set of rules to regulate the daily relations between them – call them the law. An insurance system to protect them and their descendants in case some ill befalls them – call it welfare.

Still, no society is likely to commit suicide by suddenly removing all of the structures that bind it together. Instead what is happening is that, as more and more people come to believe that they owe each other nothing, society slowly descends into the state of nature that Hobbes only imagined. But where a society built for the good of all comes apart it is not replaced by mere anarchy but petty fiefdoms run by robber barons – be they drug lords or media moguls. As such, those who would have the greatest freedom undermine the best means for achieving as much of it as it is possible.

So, should we just accept the many idiocies of modern society and be grateful our lives are not worse off. Of course not, recognising that we do not live in a perfect society we ought to try to make an effort to participate in it and to improve it as the course of our life allows us. Thus, we should “challenge authority” and “monitor the centres of power”. In particular we must be wary of corporate power which is “developing its own governing institutions”. This might mean “management of the common good in a manner that attempts to maximize the liberty of individuals and minimizes concentration of power or authority” but, in truth, the answer doesn’t have to be settled upon right now.

Politics, just like religion, is full of people who are convinced that they have a complete grasp of the Truth. Reality is much more complex. The one system that inherently recognises this fact is democracy. Within its pragmatist context it is possible for the various political views to be evaluated and tried out without the need to decide for once and for all. Democracy merely tries to find the right solution for today’s problems, whatever that solution is. Because of this, democracy is essential and ought to be protected above other considerations. Anything that undermines democracy – be it the lack of information flowing to citizens or the use of unfair voting systems or the lack of voter participation – undermines society’s ability to react flexibly to the challenges it meets.


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