“Last week I helped my friend stay put. It’s a lot easier than helping someone move. I just went over to his house and made sure he did not start to load his [stuff] into a truck” – Mitch Hedberg
At various times during the course of this blog I have had to come to the defense of President Obama. Well, I’ve had to sort of come to his defense – perhaps a backhanded defense at that. For instance, early on Obama was labeled a “socialist” by right-wing sorts who oppose massive run-ups in government spending and giveaway programs. I bristled at this. While Obama may talk a decent socialist game, his behavior was much more that of a fascist. (Using government funds to pay off political support structures and buy others, who have to in turn give back to your party in fear of reprisal if they don’t … that’s much more fascist than socialist.)
Similarly, I found again that I had to defend my president from accusations that he was a closet Muslim. The man is NOT a Muslim – he’s a secular humanist.
I find myself now in a similar predicament, only this time with the French, as protests rage in France over proposals to raise the retirement age (with 75% of your salary – for LIFE!) from 60 to 62. This, coupled with short work weeks and rather hefty mandatory vacations has led many Americans to label the French as “lazy.” I disagree. The French are not lazy, they’re …
Walk with me down the path for a moment, if you will.
Progressive ideologues have told us for well over a century that the problems with humanity can be resolved by humanity itself. Sometimes this took the form of eugenics, with progressives advocating racial purification (see Margaret Sanger). Sometimes this took the form of government programs, with progressives arguing that bad behavior was a simple result of circumstances – change those and you eliminate bad behavior. It was progressives who advocated for prohibition and plenty of other “government can make better decisions than you” policies. Ultimately, the progressives believe that we can make people better.
On the one hand I disagree, as a matter of fundamental principle. That said, they may have a point if you look at the right angle – but a point that is troubling even for them.
I was in France earlier this week, Paris to be exact. Several times during my short stay I rode in a taxi. Each time, I found that I reflexively reached for my seat belt to realize that nobody else was wearing one. Not once did I see a taxi driver with a seat belt on. I don’t really recall seeing anybody wearing a seat belt. So, I stopped wearing mine. (We were in the city, and never really going that fast to begin with.)
My point? In America, we used to never wear seat belts. But, we have been indoctrinated that seat belt usage was something you must do, and now it is the norm. It’s second nature. In fact, we probably will even make moral defenses in our mind that it is a good thing to do. (Look, seat belts possibly save lives on average, but there are unquestionably cases where peopled died because they were wearing a seat belt and would have lived otherwise. Either way, you should follow the laws.) Our behaviors as a society were molded and shaped by this indoctrination campaign, quite possibly to the betterment of society. Maybe the progressives were on to something.
The progressives believe in the human experiment. They believe that humanity is a giant simulation that they can tune and test, hopefully finding the right settings to make everything work. On seat belt usage, maybe they were right. But that does not get to the core of the French issue.
At the heart of the French matter is the heart of humanity. We are self-centered.
I don’t say that to be mean or denigrating. We are much better able to understand how this or that will affect us than how it will affect others. Thus, how it impacts us is much more prevalent in our decision making processes. We are self-centered.
(Is not this one thing the very driver of the Golden Rule? The message is simple – let the impact on others be your reference point for decisions and then you will not harm them callously.)
So, why not just use progressive methodologies to remove our self-centeredness, just as America has removed our non-seat-belt-wearing ways? Because the two issues are not on the same level of our humanity. Wearing seat belts is a behavior which can be modified. Self-centeredness goes to the essence of what we are.
Various cultures have tried to remove the image of self from their societies, and some have even succeeded. Alas, self-centering is so tied to the core of humanity that these attempts, when successful, have resulted in the destruction of everything else that is human about us too.
The Spartans broke the individuality and brought all to subservience of the state. Even still, they left pride in self and military prowess – leaving a glimmer of humanity. Far more effective were the Nazi prison camp masters who stripped away all sense of self from their captives. In the process, they left nothing human behind but a shell of a body.
The French are certainly not so. They have socialist policies, but certainly not communist ones that reduce individual to nothing. Quite the contrary.
So, humanity remains, and so does the self-centered nature of us all.
What then of the progressive experiment? I suggest that experimental results must be accepted, even if they disprove the theory. After all, a theory must be validated by experimentation, and must be useful in predicting experimental outcomes.
So, what of the French and socialism in general? I argue that people are quite predictable, if you’re predicting with the right theory. Perhaps individuals are unpredictable, wildly so. But, the distribution of human behaviors, the convergence of the mean to some condition, is rather predictable.
The French system is one in which inputs at outcomes are decoupled. There is not a large incentive to work harder. Pay, benefits, retirement age – all decoupled from productivity (more or less). When this happens, people always work less hard, and economies always produce less. It is utterly predictable. Why? Because people, broken, fallen, incomplete, people are predictable. When there is no reason for them to work harder, they will not. They will do what is in their best interest. People are self-centered.
Whether a Frenchman works to 62 or 60 does not change (in his mind) his level of benefits one iota. He simply has to work two more years for the same end result. More work for no benefit? That’s cause for a protest … viola.
And hey, why not protest? Does my job go away if I protest? Do I get fired? No, I get a day off. Why not protest?
Of course, the protesters do have some other predictable behaviors. It seems that the unions are having to call in for some more student help – the steam is failing. Why? The students are on vacation. It’s laughable. “Sure, we’ll protest when it means getting to set stuff on fire and demand greater benefits – and take a day off from school. But if it gets in the way of our vacation plans you can forget it.” People are self-centered, and utterly predictable.
So then, let us stop with the name calling. The French are not lazy. They are reacting in quite the same way that Americans would react (from the standpoint of a distribution of behavior) if we were forced to live in a socialist system for generations. The French are not lazy, they’re self-centered just like everybody else. Their economic and political systems just exploit that aspect of our personalities to produce these crazy behaviors.
Let that be the warning to us all. Let us not follow these policies. Let us not decouple risk and reward (as with the recent banking kerfuffle). Let us not decouple inputs from outputs. If we do, we will get bad results, just as the French have.