16 May 2023

subcontracted ‘caring’

• How does one improve society? Simple: find an individual who needs something but is unable to get it, and give up some of your own resources to help him or her get the thing they need.*
   Since you've chosen your altruistic action, rather than having it forced on you, you will hopefully feel better — at least on some level — as a result of carrying it out. Hence you're better off overall, as well as the other person. It's win-win.
   As with other voluntary transactions between two individuals, both parties benefit, and so 'society' (meaning: everyone in a society, considered in aggregate) can be said to be better off than before.
   Important caveat: make sure no one else is worse off as a result of your help. Example: helping someone build an outhouse in her garden which will accommodate her grandfather is good for her, and good for him — and good for you, if it makes you feel pleasantly virtuous — but not good for the neighbours if it spoils their view. Once you have to weigh pluses for some people against minuses for others, the goal of 'improving society' ceases to be a simple one, and becomes difficult or impossible.

• One benefit of capitalism is that it can make it easier to provide such help by simply giving an individual money. If markets are sufficiently developed, a better way for the individual to get what they need may be by purchasing it, using money provided by the donor, rather than the donor trying to provide the help directly.

• Is there any way of doing such uncontroversial improving-of-society on a larger scale? You can try to encourage others to follow your example, of providing help on an individual-to-individual basis. Or you could get together with others to provide help to particular individuals. (If your group tries to make assistance available to everyone, it may find itself swamped with excess demand — unless the service is one only required in emergencies, such as sea rescue.)
   There are overseas charities that try to operate on this principle, getting volunteers to give hands-on help in villages, with basic things such as building wells.
   You can try to get other individuals to fund your group's society-improving activities — not the state, however, since that would involve involuntary funding by individuals, via taxation.

• This simple at-least-one-person-is-better-off-and-no-one-is-worse-off formula provides a basic model for interpreting — objectively — the idea of 'social improvement'. Beyond that, we are in the territory of subjectivity. There is no way of objectively adding gains for some to losses for others, in order to determine whether a change produces a net positive increment for 'society'.

• The above types of action are not, however, what most people mean when they think or talk about 'improving society'. What is meant tends to be one of two things.
1. Demanding that the state engage in some activity ostensibly intended to improve the position of the less fortunate, or demanding an increase in the level of an existing activity of this kind. Implicit in such calls for state action — though rarely expressed — is a demand that taxation be increased to finance the activity. In other words, this version of 'social improvement' involves the coercive removal of resources from individual citizens, for the supposed benefit of a subgroup of citizens. The target subgroup may constitute anything from a tiny minority to the majority of the population.
2. The second kind of 'improvement' that gets discussed is one which more blatantly involves removal of resources from one group in society, in order to reduce economic inequality. Such reduction of inequality is supposedly a good thing in its own right. Action of this kind on the part of the state is often described as redistribution, the implication being that it involves taking from some and giving to others, à la Robin Hood. This is misleading since most of the time, nothing is given to individuals in the way of spendable resources as a result of such 'redistribution'.
   What additionally confiscated funds are typically spent on (if it's anything beyond financing the deficits from programmes already committed to) are state-supplied services. Such services are ones for which (a) an individual normally has to demonstrate entitlement, often laboriously, (b) the content is determined by the preferences of service providers, rather than by users.

• There are of course many different ways of arguing in favour of any given policy, including policies of type (1) and (2) above. One can vaguely talk about "making things better", or "making things fairer". Or one could simply say "a lot of people want this", and have the issue put to a vote via an election. It's clear, however, why such concepts as "social improvement", or "increasing social welfare" are relatively attractive. They sound scientific. If a politician wants to look like he has the backing of expert opinion, he is more likely to want to talk about "society" or "social welfare" — because it generates an (erroneous) impression of objectivity — than about something that seems more nebulous or populist like "the good of the nation".

• In the nineteenth century, when social theorising first became all the rage, the issue for many intellectuals was merely one of which candidate system would generate the solution of universal human happiness. Should we have communism or anarchism? Voluntaryism or syndicalism? Given the horrors of the twentieth century, we should by now have grown up, and moved beyond the idea of a single answer that can magically make things marvellous for all. No social formula, when applied, is going to make everyone in a society feel better than before. Any given policy is going to be good for some and bad for others. To press ahead with a policy means, in effect, to write off the concerns of those who disagree. It's inevitable in government. No amount of analysis, science, or emphasis on spurious 'rationality' is going to get round this basic problem of politics. Pretending there is an objective solution to the conundrum, and a way of prioritising some policies as more 'rational' than others, or of regarding some voters' interests as more valid than others', is merely an invitation to authoritarianism.

• Notwithstanding these considerations, an ideology has developed in the West according to which 'improving society' is not only an admired but, increasingly, a required objective. There is now moral pressure to conform to the social improvement goal. Leaving things be and not doing anything (where doing typically means some new state action) is not regarded as an acceptable option, at least not among most bien pensants. If you're not seeking to improve society you should be, the ideology says. It's called caring (and failing to do so not caring), except that you typically express your 'caring' by contracting it out to the state, both in terms of providing the supposed help, and in terms of funding it via enforced subscription from taxpayers.
   Given that these versions of 'social improvement' and 'caring' involve people being coerced, it's not clear whether those who seek social improvement should be regarded with admiration or suspicion.
   An individual may of course feel strongly that something should be done in some area, e.g. climate change, the position of women, freedom of speech. Other individuals — and that includes me — may agree with some of the changes that are urgently proposed. To demand change, whether on behalf of oneself, or on behalf of a group one doesn't belong to, is legitimate. What is questionable is the claim that the change will "make society better".

Take-home message. The concept of a policy improving society is, strictly, illegitimate. (Unless the policy is one to which, implausibly, every individual in the society assents.) As a scientist or an academic, one should avoid making use of the concept, either explicitly or implicitly.
   For a non-professional campaigner, it may be acceptable to talk about improving society — for the reason that he or she may be asked to justify their advocacy in such terms by others. I.e. "will your proposed change improve society?", to which it seems fair enough to respond "yes" rather than "possibly", "no", or "don't know". Provided the response doesn't come labelled as 'expert' or otherwise authorised, the questioner is free to take it or leave it — in contrast to a professional context, where there is an implication that one should accept the response as authoritative.
   I leave it as an exercise for readers to consider which of these two categories should apply to a politician. Is it ethical for politicians to talk about improving society, given the dodginess of the concept? If we think of them as merely campaigners for a particular position which reflects either voter demand or their own opinion, then it may be acceptable. If, on the other hand, as is increasingly common, a politician talks as if his proposals are somehow linked to scientific or other expertise coming out of academia, there is a case that he should make every effort to avoid invoking concepts such as 'social improvement' or 'social welfare'.

* Okay, so perhaps it's not as simple as I've made it sound. But the ways in which it's complicated don't disappear when you start thinking in terms of groups or classes rather than individuals — though they apparently become easier to ignore.