Why not us?

Following up from the last post:

Notwithstanding the protests against public service budget cuts in various American states, notably Wisconsin, I think that a movement for democracy like the one in the Arab world is very unlikely in the Western world. There are several reasons why I think this.

One is that we believe we already have democracy. We have a vote; we have a multi-party system; we have a free media and free markets; and for many people, that’s all the democracy we need.

Another is that too many people are apathetic about politics: they think that nothing anyone could do will change anything. (I know lots of people who, for reasons like that, don’t vote). Or, they care more about the price of gas, and the price of imported consumer goods like clothes and cellphones, than they do about the way indentured labour in foreign countries keep those consumer goods cheap. Or, in their apathy they simply don’t care enough about social justice or the suffering of other people to do anything about it.

A third is that lots of people here believe in values that separate rather than unite people, such as competition. Too many people believe that the poor and oppressed are lazy, wasteful, incompetent, or stupid, and therefore deserve their poverty. The libertarian point of view, expressed for instance in John Hospers’ Libertarian Manifesto, is that if someone else’s misfortune is not your fault, then you don’t have to do anything about it if you don’t want to. You don’t have to share your food with the starving, if you don’t want to: and this, according to libertarians, is freedom.

Overall, not enough of us treat the values of humanity, like friendship and love and care, as universal values. Not enough of us treat the values of integrity, like dignity and trust and courage, as universal values. Not enough of us have a sense of wonder, by which we can see the good in things, or imagine life as different than it is.

So, in addition to a fear barrier, we may also have an apathy barrier. Readers, I invite your comments on this thought.

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5 Responses to Why not us?

  1. “A third is that lots of people here believe in values that separate rather than unite people, such as competition. Too many people believe that the poor and oppressed are lazy, wasteful, incompetent, or stupid, and therefore deserve their poverty. The libertarian point of view, expressed for instance in John Hospers’ Libertarian Manifesto, is that if someone else’s misfortune is not your fault, then you don’t have to do anything about it if you don’t want to. You don’t have to share your food with the starving, if you don’t want to: and this, according to libertarians, is freedom.”

    Yes. This may be the best summation I’ve seen recently about this particular problem. I don’t follow Canadian politics all that closely, but I know that here in the U.S. political discourse is rarely above the level of “us versus them” and most conversations are bullied and herded and diminished until they fit into the predetermined partisan rhetoric of Blue Versus Red. Political discourse itself is seen as just one vast competition between two teams, and if you’re not on one of those teams, you’re on the sidelines yelling your lungs out but feeling mostly helpless. Promoting values like integrity, trust, friendship, courage are all very well as long as they fit into the overall party line – but if you do so while holding unpopular or simply “outside the box” ideas, it seems hard to be heard above the shouting.

    Or maybe this is just me bitching about feeling ignored.

  2. jenny gee says:

    Just from your discussion of libertarianism, I think we’re currently in a generation of libertarians. So perhaps that’s where the lack of humanity, lack of integrity and apathy come from?

    But why are we in that state to begin with? Is it that we (to share the “blame”) were brought up believing that we can do whatever we want, the world is open to us and “owes” us something? That no one can stand in our way? All these supposedly encouraging phrases that were meant to instill us with a sense of self-confidence, self-worth and drive to go out there and be ambitious and all we can be seem to disregard the “team player” or the “good of the tribe”, cooperation and building a better society for all. It all seems very selfish and self-centred. Is this a hangover from the Me culture of the 1980s?

    To go from a very broad example to a very narrow one, you can see the embodiment of this me-apathetic culture in a simple bus ride. The number of able bodied people who will sit in the cooperative seats reserved for those who are not able-bodied, who are elderly, who have small children or large packages, is astounding. To me, to sit in those seats is shameful as an able-bodied person unless you have a real need to use them (e.g. an able-bodied person temporarily not able-bodied by injury etc.) I stood at the front of a busy bus one morning, watching as several university students busily studied their textbooks/notes/iPhones instead of giving a legally-blind man with a cane their Cooperative Seat. It was only after three stops that a young woman got up from her seat in the front-facing first row and offered it to the man. The students (and one middle-aged woman going to work!) in the side-saddle seats ignored the whole thing.

    I agree, this erosion in caring for others in one’s community leads to comments like “My taxes shouldn’t be going towards health care for a welfare smoker with lung cancer.” I had an argument with a conservative friend of mine about public funding of some sort. He had issue with giving “free money” away to someone who had a perceived lower level of success. I suggested that it was better for society to help those in need. I don’t believe I convinced him.

    I think my comment is rivalling your post for length now. All that to say that a true indication of this me-apathetic culture can be seen in the lack of true, bodies-in-the-street protesting of the prorogation of Parliament last year. A lot of people joined the Facebook group (myself included) but the number who went out to actually put their bodies where their mouse was didn’t add up.

    I guess the real question is – how can we improve this?

  3. Michael Eric Berube says:

    Do not have a LEGAL obligation and do not have a MORAL obligation are two different things. Libertarians oppose the REQUIREMENT, because most of use believe that we have the moral obligation to help others who are in need of our help as we can without injury to ourselves. Objectivists are the ones who don’t believe in even the moral imperative. Some Objectivists are also libertarians, even though Ayn Rand, founder of Objectivist thought, had no use for libertarianism. Non-libertarians read the words of libertarians who are railing against the legal mandate that neighbor help neighbor and assume (wrongly) that we are selfish. I look at it this way…
    I fully defend the right of the Westboro Baptist ‘Church’ to protest the funerals of our fallen Military. This in no way means that I support their evil message, only that I believe that they have every right to express that message. Charity is the same. I donate my time and what money I can spare to helping those who I believe are in need, but I completely disagree with the Government taking my money to give it to whom THEY think it will better serve (after squandering a good deal of it in support of the Bureaucracy itself of course.)
    Libertarians know that private non-Profit Corporations are much more efficient at helping those truly in need than State sponsored Social Services bloated with Bureaucracy and redundant departments in competition with one another for limited (and shrinking) public funding.

    • Brendan says:

      Hi Michael,

      Thank you for this comment. I appreciate the distinction you made here between libertarian and objectivism. It may interest you to know that Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” was required reading at my high school.

      Let me look at the distinction you made here about libertarian thinking on the personal versus the political level. Hospers’ essay, which I mentioned in this blog post, does not make this distinction. Neither do most libertarians that I’ve spoken to. But Hospers’ essay was written in 1971, so it is possible that many libertarians have refined their thoughts since then.

      Like you (apparently), Hospers also distrusted government, and felt that governments can’t do anything right. Indeed a major section of the essay is a litany of fear and hatred of governments. Notwithstanding that governments are elected, subject to public scrutiny and recall, and are bound by constitutional laws to govern in the best interest of the people as a whole; and notwithstanding that government inefficiencies and unwieldy bureaucracies can be deliberately created by conservative-minded politicians who want to pave the way for privatization. But I digress.

      If I understand this distinction you’ve made correctly, a libertarian could feel charitable and generous personally, but could also feel parsimonious and miserly politically. He could feel sympathy and compassion for the poor and oppressed on a personal level, but he could feel resentful of their needs on a political level.

      This division in the person seems troubling to me. It is as if the libertarian divides himself in half, and then says “Look I’m not all bad. We Libertarians can give with at lest one of our hands. We can speak with charity and compassion with one side of our mouths.”

      In more than ten years of studying social and political thought at a very advanced level, I’ve never seen anything about libertarianism that I liked. It is founded on the idea that the needs of others are mere options. It removes one of government’s most important functions, namely, the protection of a society’s most vulnerable people. Indeed it portrays government, even elected and accountable government, in a cartoonish light, making elected politician seem like thieves and criminals. It gives people in privilege and power no reason to help those who need help beyond mere personal ‘whim’. It allows someone to think that no one forces him to raise his finger if he doesn’t want to, even if raising his finger is all he has to do to feed a thousand starving people. It allows the super-wealthy of this world to look upon a refugee camp, full of its disease, malnutrition, and sadness, and think to himself, “It’s not my problem, for I didn’t cause this, so I don’t have to do anything to help these people if I don’t want to, and no government can force me to”. It is greed, miserliness, selfishness, and resentment of the needs of others, expressed as a political platform, and dressed up in the cloths of freedom and justice.

      But Libertarianism is the core of almost all political thought in America today, and in most of the Western world too. Libertarians should not cry ‘Oppression!’ because they have won. Most politicians and industrialists guide their decisions in accord with its logic, even if their official party loyalties are otherwise. For more than a century, we’ve been reducing taxes for the rich and reducing services for the poor. We’re already living in the world that the Libertarians want, with consequences that are still unfolding themselves in the swiftly-collapsing economy.

    • Adrienne says:

      “Libertarians know that private non-Profit Corporations are much more efficient at helping those truly in need than State sponsored Social Services bloated with Bureaucracy and redundant departments in competition with one another for limited (and shrinking) public funding.”

      Were that true, the realities outlined here would not be the case. Nor would this study have come to its conclusions.

      Hi Brendan! Just happened to stop by!

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