More on revolution, social justice, and bare necessities

Brett Knowlton brettk at
Wed Sep 9 20:52:57 PDT 1998


>If you want to spend a long time explaining to people like this exactly
>why there is no social justice, and how there can be social justice if
>we just band together, you will almost inevitably run into a barrier. I
>would like to think better of humanity, but I just don't. Whether due to
>nature (I doubt more than a small amount) or nurture (probably a lot),
>people are selfish, look to the short-term, won't make very big
>sacrifices for non-relatives, etc.

I don't think you need to be so pessimistic. The bottom line is, what kind of social and economic institutions do we have to live under? What kind of incentives do they give us? I think your pessimism is based on behavior which is largely encouraged by our social institutions as opposed to being innate and/or insurmountable. Institutions can change.

Being selfish is OK, if the only way for me to get ahead is to do something that further's everyone else's goals and needs. That is, if our institutions reward cooperative behavior, then people will cooperate more. If our institutions reward narrow self-interest, then people will screw each other over to get to the top.

Obviously this is a bit simple minded, but basically true nonetheless. People will still cooperate in situations which reward extreme selfishness, and people will still act selfishly in environments which reward cooperation because we are complex animals, but these acts will be the exception rather than the norm. Institutional pressures and incentives generally work. To get a society we like, we have to decide upon what behavior we want to encourage and then design institutions which give the proper incentives. This is why I like the Parecon so much. Although you can quibble with the details, the main thrust is that we need social, economic, and political institutions which foster and reinforce behavior we value.

>American society is based on the protection of individual rights, which
>usually works out to be the protection of a person's right not to be
>intruded on by other people. A radical change in our society such that
>there is more social justice must entail some infringing on this, thus
>it will be hard to get going.

I agree with this idea. One of the bedrocks of american society is the protection of private property rights, and this has pernicious social implications. In order to attain a society more in line with social justice, a society which values things like solidarity and self-management, we need to do more than infringe on institutional doctrines like property rights, we need to eliminate them. Maybe it won't happen right away. Maybe we'll only take one (baby) step at a time. Or maybe we will see a revolution. Who knows? But that's the direction we need to move in if we are serious about social justice.


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