The Human Condition:

Safety Net vs. Hammock – October 20, 2013

Trapeze act

In these times of heated political debate, which seems about to freeze into the magnetic polarity of all-out political war, it becomes harder and harder to determine actual political thinking. Progressives on the leftward pole seem to believe conservatives want a return to the brave new world of the 19th century, where children pick coal off slag heaps or thread spindles in textile mills seven days a week, and canned meat crawls with filth and botulism. Conservatives on the rightward pole seem to believe progressives want to create a cradle-to-grave social state resembling “the real world” of the red pill in The Matrix, where babies are put into crèches, hooked up to machines, and fed the decomposed bodies of their parents through a tube, all the while being entertained with a computer simulation of everyday life.

In other words, your political opponent is a fool, a green meanie, and a tool of Satan all rolled into one.

As a conservative,1 I realize that a certain amount of social programming is essential to a well-run society. I also know that allowing markets to satisfy human desires and letting capital to go where it’s needed most is the best way to run an economy. I know this because other methods have been tried over the centuries, from Randite social negligence during the medieval period to Stalinist and Maoist human engineering in the 20th century, and they all crashed and burned. For me, the key question is not socialism yes or no, market capitalism yes or no, but what’s the best mix of rules and incentives to give the greatest number of people the fullest, most meaningful human experience.

I believe in human beings. I know that some are shallow, fickle, and stupid; some are conniving and vicious; and some are saints whose feet hardly touch the ground. But most people have been pretty well brought up, tolerably educated, and made aware of their life choices. They tend to seek peace in their lives, an opportunity to find work that fits their talents, and the freedom to make a home for themselves and their children. They also want to drink beer and root for their favorite team on weekends—or drink wine and attend the symphony—and make a personal contribution to their company and their community the rest of the time.

All of that requires a certain amount of self-awareness, a willingness to work and struggle as well as dream and hope, and a not inconsiderable amount of luck. Some people, with the best intentions and training, still fall on hard times through bad luck, ill-considered choices, and sometimes personal folly. Some get sick and fall behind in the role they have carved out for themselves in society. And some are born with deficits of nature and nurture that stack the deck against them from the beginning.

For those who’ve lost the ability to cope, or never had the opportunity to try, lectures about hard work and self-reliance are not a solution. When you’ve fallen off the high wire, someone on the ground shouting “Keep your balance!” is hardly helpful. So, even as a fiscal and social conservative, I want to see a safety net in place. The market-based, capital-infused economies of the western world are rich enough—that is, they produce enough extra value—that they can take care of their citizens who stumble. This is proper.

But my preference, as a social and fiscal conservative, is for a taut, springy safety net from which those who fall can bounce back and find their feet, rather than a soft, comfortable hammock in which they can lie back and put up their feet. This is my preference, not because I’m a cruel person who wants to see poor people dumped onto the cold, hard ground, but because I believe the nature of human beings is to find what they’re good at, gain confidence by doing it, and make their own way in the world. A person who is challenged and succeeds is happier than one who never knows his full worth. This is built into our natures through a million years of hunter-gatherer wandering across a hard plain where ripe berries don’t always fall off the bushes and rabbits don’t come up and beg to be snared.2

One of my cultural icons, Robert A. Heinlein, once warned, “Don’t handicap your children by making their lives easy.” He understood that life is usually hard and unforgiving. Even the best of us has to watch where we put our feet, count our pennies, save for a rainy day, and keep our powder dry. Mother Nature is unforgiving of fools. By extension, any society that nurtures fools is going to get a lot more of them,3 and that way lies madness, poverty, and a hard time for everyone.

Of course, life sometimes gives a person insurmountable challenges. I’m not in favor of seeing people who are overmatched by circumstances—through bad luck, bad timing, medical necessity, or even willful choices—degraded. That’s the purpose of a safety net, to allow people who get a bad deal or make bad mistakes to recover their poise and move on. And in circumstances where that poise is lost forever—such as chronic illness or incapacity—a measure of support is the obligation of a well-run society.

But to assume that a large fraction or even a majority of citizens cannot survive without support is to exercise the discrimination of soft expectations. People—especially children and young adults—will perform to the level required of them. To require too little as a parent, teacher, first boss, or drill instructor is to doom the person to a lifetime of underperformance, near if not total failure, and eclipsed dreams.

Human beings are designed by evolution to respond to challenges. That is, the higher functions of our cerebral cortex have evolved not just to learn and remember, but also to project and evaluate, to probe and plan. We evolved to figure things out, to foresee the future and imagine our place in it—whether that future is what we’ll be doing next weekend or what kind of career path we’ll follow as an adult. We evolved to develop and accept personal goals, to strive toward a future we can imagine. Of course, some of that future will have been suggested by parents, teachers, and early heroes and role models. But in the end, we make it our own.

To deprive a person of this opportunity for growth and development, to put him in a cocoon of soft expectations and guaranteed results, is to make a chattel of him. He might think he has the world all figured out, that he’s stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum. To him, it looks like a fair trade: be good, be docile, be content, and the effortless rewards will keep on coming—cheap living space, cheap and plentiful food, free entertainment, and a modest stipend with which to exercise a limited imagination. But the person in such a cocoon is living a life designed for him by others. And there is usually a catch: obey our suggestions, support our goals and initiatives, vote our way, hate our enemies, and—when called upon—fight and die in our wars. Time to pay the piper.

For many people, this might be enough. But not for me, and not for the people I know and love and respect.

The issue of safety nets, social responsibility, and personal goals and opportunities will only become more acute as we move forward with the technical revolution that is now shaping life in the western democracies. As machines and automation provide more of the daily necessities, and assume tasks that once could be done by relatively unskilled human hands and uneducated human minds, the old jobs, work patterns, and means of survival will certainly change.4 In the future that’s now rushing toward us, we will all be struggling to find meaning in our lives and our niche in society.

The questions and defining options for our society are only going to come harder and faster. And so it would be helpful if we could see beyond the current political positions based on fear and fantasy and actually discuss what we—as a people, a society, a social organism—are going to do.

1. Actually, I come out near the center of the four-quadrant chart sketched at The Political Compass, which is based on a series of questions. Out of ten steps in any direction, I show as 0.62 toward “right” on the economic scale and 2.97 toward “libertarian” on the social scale. This is not because I cannot make up my mind between the poles of right and left economically, or libertarian and authoritarian socially. Instead, I strive for balance, equanimity, a blend of individual and social goods, a middle way.

2. Of course, a thousand generations of hunter-gatherer wandering has also ingrained a primitive sense of social concern into human nature. Families, tribes, and small companies of travelers know how to share and take care of each other. See When Socialism Works from October 10, 2010.

3. Peter H. Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, has formulated Peter’s Laws, No. 19 of which—although I’ve heard this in other contexts, too—says, “You get what you incentivize.”

4. See Automation, Work, and Personal Meaning from February 7, 2011.