Posts Tagged 'Tragedy of the Commons'

Crossroads: Reality For Beginners

 

I vividly recall watching a CBS Walter Cronkite evening news broadcast soon after I left active duty. A reporter was interviewing an Army captain during an attack on a Vietnamese village. The scene was shot from a low angle; both the captain and the reporter were lying below the rim of a ditch, and in the distance, through smoke and explosions, the village could be seen. Various types of aircraft were dropping ordnance, firing rockets, and machine-gunning this group of huts— hell had broken loose. With every explosion the cameraman jerked a bit in response.

The reporter asked the Captain what was going on—yes, he did ask that. The Captain explained that the village had some Vietcong in it and added (I swear this is true!), “We’re having to destroy this village in order to save it.” That was very many years ago, and here we are still at it—destroying people, places, ideas, beliefs, trust in government, society, and justice—destroying in order to “save” them. That scene from Vietnam comes to mind often these days as we see one news story after another about politicians, right-wing organizations like ALEC, and powerful oligarchs engaging in serious destruction of our now-fragile social contract. So many politicians are today more notable for deceitful and rent-seeking behavior than for their intelligence and devotion to public service—or even their country.

What do you suppose the consequences will be if the Oligarchy-sponsored right-wing assault on the social contract is successful? Their stated targets to cut or eliminate include these vital elements of the social contract:

  • unemployment benefits
  • dismantling social security
  • health care
  • food stamps
  • elder care
  • veterans’ programs and benefits

Will we live in a better world or a worse one if they succeed?

All societies, polities, and civilizations are complex systems; no part acts independently of the others—push something here and something pops up over there, ad infinitum. This accords with Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, wherein individuals acting out of self-interest ultimately deplete the finite resources of the commons, resulting in loss for all, especially those least able to fight back. As, for example, the US being 26th out of 29 countries in child welfare, or that one American in two is low-income poor. The resources of the commons include trust in government, belief in equality, equal opportunity and social justice. These are the “glue” of a humane and just society and have been a hallmark of this country since the Great Depression. Failing the cohesive “glue” of belief, societal collapse inevitably follows; it presages the death of hope. What are those people thinking? Do they really believe there will be no consequences, or do they trust that the relentless militarization of police forces will contain any outbursts or rebellion? Will we have to see the society destroyed before it can be saved?

Hypocrisy is become high fashion, thoroughly rationalized and the Constitution be damned, all for our own good, 1984 has arrived. Over the years the United States has, with high moral dudgeon, condemned the Soviet bloc countries, Nazi Germany, and several other countries for domestic spying and is now itself engaged in the same behavior. Who cares, so long as we have assurances that we are made safe? Of course it never occurs that we might be better made safe if we would change our behavior in the world, mind our own business, let other countries settle their internal problems on their own, but would the world then be safe for the oil, mineral, and financial oligarchies? To the extent that the relentless pursuit of profit directs American foreign policy so too will the resentment, distrust, and anger we suffer continue to grow, even amongst our allies, and not only because we spy on them as well as our designated enemies.

What demagogues of all stripes fail to remember is that there has always been a price to be paid when a critical mass of disbelief is breached. Lies have lasting effect and are inevitably found out, either by disclosure or by turn of events, and there are always consequences. “The most irreducibly bad thing about lies is that they contrive to interfere with, and impair, our natural effort to apprehend the real state of affairs,” is how Harry G. Frankfurt puts it in his charming and insightful book, On Truth. What would a world without truth be like? How could citizens trust their government? Why would they trust? How just can society be when, for example, even lawyers lie in court with the tacit approval of regulating bodies, which are supposed to regulate their behavior?

If it is true, as social philosopher, Philippa Foot, cast it, “… it makes sense to speak of those who are lovers of justice—as of those who are lovers of truth.” So now consider that many if not most legislators, national and state, are lawyers. Consider further that at the national level it is commonplace that campaign coffers in the form of PACs are filled with money “donated” by lobbyists for every sort of interest group. We must, on evidence, then conclude that the lawyering industry has a questionable relationship to both truth and justice if their standards for truth are a moveable feast of fabrication to suit the circumstances. If the motto is “winning is everything,” the corollary is inescapably, “Society be damned.”

If that doesn’t sound like double jeopardy, I can’t imagine what would. And just what is it that is in jeopardy? Well, for openers, how about trust followed by justice, followed by the public’s interests. There are many more to list, but these are enough to paint the sorry picture. Then there is the matter of the recent financial crisis buy-outs and the enormous loss of savings the public suffered while the financial industry was, by contrast, largely spared with infusions of public money.  Who wins and who loses in this game? The social contract doesn’t have a chance—will it have to be destroyed in order to “save” it?

Crossroads – The Consequences of Inequality

May 6, 2013

Ecologist Garrett Hardin’s 1968 essay, “Tragedy of the Commons,” inspired a stream of writing by all manner of scholars, particularly economists. The essence of Hardin’s thesis is actually a common-sense observation that limited resources can tragically be depleted or destroyed when thoughtless, unlimited use is made of them. When people disregard the consequences of their use and abuse of limited resources, those actions invariably affect others who need or use those same goods. In other words, when people behave selfishly it is essentially anti-social.

Selfish behavior is a moral issue, contrary to what two well-known University of Chicago economists, S.D. Levitt and S.J. Dunbar, claim. Their blunt appraisal is, “… economics simply doesn’t traffic in morality.” In their opinion, it seems, any resulting inequality from over-use of the commons has no moral dimension, an attitude which, in one form or another, seems to have become pervasive in our society and around the world. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman of the Board of Directors of Nestle, the largest food producing and water bottling company in the world, recently stated: “Human beings have no right to water.” If people want water they must buy it – preferably from him, of course. I suppose it is only fair to ask if air is next? We are living, it seems, in a time of unprecedented venality, an era of social behavior separated from moral consideration and consequence.

I believe the commons and the social contract are interchangeable. In a just society there is a relationship between the equitable distribution of wealth, justice and economic opportunity as essential goods of the commons. Truthfulness and belief are also vital parts of that equation. A healthy, functioning social contract cannot be a Potemkin Village of lies, injustice and public relations flack. The two most corrosive recent Supreme Court decisions, the 2000 coronation of George W. Bush and granting corporations human status in 2010, were poisonous to the commons, to the social contract. As a result of the latter we have a Congress controlled by business lobbyists and not by any measure a Congress of the people. A society in which the wealth of six people in one family is equal to the entire bottom 30% of Americans is not a healthy society. A “let-them-eat-cake” mindset didn’t work for Marie Antoinette; ultimately, it isn’t going to work for today’s 1% either. Something is going to have to give, either as a result of increased political consciousness or other less civil means. If the history of civilization is any guide, a tipping point will be reached sooner or later.

What demagogues of all stripes fail to remember is that there has always been a price to be paid when a critical mass of disbelief and inequality is reached. Lies have lasting effect and are inevitably found out, either by disclosure or by turn of events.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently stated that voting rights are “entitlements.” Either he is ignorant of the Constitution, he doesn’t grasp the Constitution, or he is a baldfaced liar. There are no further possibilities, and lying seems the most likely, based on his presumption of stupidity on the part of the rest of us, or, in other words, his obvious arrogance.

“The most irreducibly bad thing about lies is that they contrive to interfere with, and impair, our natural effort to apprehend the real state of affairs.” is how Harry G. Frankfurt puts it in his charming and insightful book, On Truth. Lies from the Supreme Court bench indisputably distort the “real state of affairs.”

What is the “real” state of affairs in this case? Here is the definitive statement of voting rights, which Scalia and John Roberts want us to believe they don’t get:

15TH AMENDMENT TO THE U.S. CONSTITUTION

[Ratified February 3, 1870]

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. 

The Massachusetts Secretary of State, William Galvin, in response to Roberts’ assertion during the trial that Massachusetts had the worst white-to-black voter ratio turnout in the U.S., gets to the heart of this discussion:  “I’m disturbed, first of all, that he is distorting information. You would expect better conduct from the Chief Justice of the United States. I’m a lawyer, he’s a lawyer, lawyers are not supposed to provide disinformation in the course of a case. It’s supposed to be based on truth.”

Of course, you would have to be new to the planet if you thought lawyers have a universal commitment to the truth. You might notice in a court proceeding that everyone must take an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Everyone, that is, except the lawyers. I once questioned an officer of the Lawyers Disciplinary Board, a group that is charged with overseeing the conduct of lawyers, about this anomaly. I was told that lawyers may “interpret” in their speech to a jury. This assertion flies in the face of what is called the “Duty of Candor Before the Tribunal,” to which all lawyers are required to adhere. Nowhere in the literature of the American Bar Association will you find an exception to this duty. In practice, however, lying is sanctioned in a Kafka-worthy “interpretation” by regulators. If truth is not the absolute coin of the realm in court, where could it ever be? How could there be justice?

I agree with the social philosopher, Philippa Foot, who said, “… it makes sense to speak of those who are lovers of justice – as of those who are lovers of truth.” We must then conclude that the lawyering business has a questionable relationship with both truth and justice if their standard for truth is a moveable feast, fabrication in the guise of “interpretation” to suit their needs. As Mr. Galvin cast it, “… lawyers are not supposed to provide disinformation in the course of a case. It’s supposed to be based on truth.” I once conducted a simple survey of lawyers, asking the question: “Is your duty before the court to seek justice or to win?” I never did get a straight answer. If the motto is, “Winning is everything,” the corollary must inevitably be, “Society and Justice be damned.” It follows from this that not all people are equal before the law, but rather it depends upon who has the lawyer most willing to “interpret” the “facts” in a manner favorable to the client.

A society cannot long exist without truth, which is the bedrock of justice; it cannot long live a lie. In the final analysis, the Social Contract is both a perception and a belief. When the substance of life in a society as it is lived is perceived to fail, our natural expectations of truth and justice, our belief in the social contract is betrayed and cynicism follows. With that, the commitment to the commons is destroyed. When there is no social contract, it becomes everyone for themselves, with all which that entails.


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