The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Surplus and the State: a Parable


Let us imagine a lifeboat, decamped from a sinking ship, with a skilled navigator, charts, and some quantity of fresh water and food. Let us further imagine that the navigator is able to assure us that, if we keep rowing, we will reach the safety of land in a month. Upon examining the supplies, we discover that, with careful rationing, there is food and water for all for this month, although we are all going to be very hungry and very thirsty for the entire trip. Still, we can make it to land, and that is what is important.

We, then, might pick one of our number, based on who is good at numbers, or at bookkeeping, or by drawing straws, or by some other method, to arrange the rationing of supplies so that all arrive safely, and to arrange the schedule of rowing so that all are doing a fair share of work, limited, perhaps, by those who may be ill or infirm are thus unable to work as much as others.  This doesn’t excuse him from rowing, of course—we need every hand.

They key in this scenario is “careful rationing.” If any of us are to get there, we must work together, and share what we have. “Everybody rows, everybody eats!” This is not a principle that requires discussion, it is obvious in the situation and no one questions it. It is not impossible that someone in the boat will point to a small child or someone sufficiently disabled as to not be able to row and suggest this person be thrown overboard, but I beg to submit most of us wouldn’t agree to any such thing, at least until the circumstances became desperate, and perhaps not even then.

Now, let us change our scenario. We come across a large crate floating in the ocean, and, lo and behold, it contains a supply of food and several gallons of water! Now our situation has changed: now some subset of the passengers can not only survive, but can survive comfortably, eating and drinking their fill. This is outstanding! There is no need to even consider throwing anyone overboard. Now we can—what?

Who gets the extra? Who decides? We might all have a conversation in which we determine who the best rowers are and give it to them, or we might decide to alternate, or divide the extra up as evenly as possible, or we might decide to draw straws, or any of a number of other options, but one thing is clear: The person who is in charge of handing out the rations is suddenly in a much different position—he’s no longer just “one of the passengers,” now he has something that he not only never had, but didn’t even exist before: power! And, however self-sacrificing he may be inintially, as his hunger grows, the thought will inevitably come to him, “I’m giving out these rations, why am I going hungry?” He might surreptitiously start stealing, he might announce his decision openly and invent a reason why it is ordained by god that he get more, or any of a number of other things depending on his character and the exact circumstance, but it is unlikely that he will go hungry for long. He explains that for all that time he was doing extra work with no extra reward.  The extra is now his due.  Besides, he has possession, which, ipso facto, makes them his.  The rations are his private property, and property rights, as we all know, are sacred.

However, those of us who are still hungry and thirsty start looking at him. Why him, we ask ourselves? Why not me? I’m a good person, I’ve been doing my share of work, why should I be denied extra food and water? If property rights are sacred, well, why can’t it be MY property? Now our rationer has a problem—everyone is looking at him, and he is looking at the cold water outside the boat and thinking that if doesn’t do something, he not only won’t have his entitled position, but he might not even have his life! But, hey, here’s the good news: He still has charge of the rations. “Hey, you–big guy! How’d you like some extra food and water? All you have to do is help keep the rest of them in line, and I’ll give you a little extra. Better than being hungry, right? Oh, and call me “My lord.”

The rest of us are not pleased with this new development. We don’t like the rationer, and we don’t like the big guy any more either, though he was fine yesterday when he wasn’t threatening us, but now he is threatening us, and even slapping us around when we complain about the situation. Boy, it would be nice to take both of them and…but, you know, he is pretty big. And not only that, well, the fact is, if we got rid of those two, someone else would just take their place, and we’d be right back in the same situation.

But then, suddenly….another crate! More food, more water!  Let’s look at what we have, count the days, the number of rowers…YES! Victory! We can all eat and drink our fill and know that we will safely arrive, and—

Wait. What is happening here? Why isn’t the rationer simply giving up his position and going back to distributing everything fairly and evenly like he did before? Maybe he’s come to enjoy his privileges. Maybe he’s afraid of us, knowing how he treated us. But for whatever reason, he is hanging onto his position even though there is no longer a need for it.

I’d intended to go on with this parable, but I think I’ll stop here. It is, like any parable, far from perfect; just to begin with, we have neither navigator nor charts but rather have to create them as we go. And the notion of exactly the right number of rowers and exactly the right amount of rations is obviously contrived;the real world doesn’t work that way. And in the real world, the “rowers” are actually producing the food and water.

Nevertheless, for the point I want to make, which is the relationship between surplus, private property, and the development of the State, I think it holds up pretty well. Thoughts?


Author: skzb

I play the drum.


  1. I would suggest a refinement: the person responsible for splitting up the resources does so in a dark and secluded corner of the boat so no one can see what he’s doing, how he’s doing it, or can even verify the original quantity of resources so they can compare it against the amount of resources that are dispensed.

    This guy also has friends, and by the end of the journey, they are all remarkably healthy looking compared to the other passengers, but they all say that none of them has any idea as to why.

  2. We not only need an “enforcer” when the rowers begin to grumble, we need what I will cal a “splitter,” who seizes the opportunity to curry favor with the person splitting up the resources by sharing, exaggerating, or even inventing stories that set one group of rowers against the others. Some may have a longer reach, some a shorter; some survive the sunlight and heat better than others, some fall ill or are injured — it matters not. As long as “those people” can be identified and vilified, the others can claim a larger share or divert the anger of the enforcers away from themselves and onto the rest.

  3. skzb

    Jon: Yep.

    Cynthia: That was, in fact, exactly one of the things I had originally put in the parable before realizing it had gotten too long.

  4. Not even sure where to begin fixing this — but one prominent spot would be that the rations are not the quartermaster’s property. Never were; possession does not make them so any more than depositing your money at the bank makes it theirs.

    The rations can only become her property either through voluntary action of the shareholders (i.e. trading or gifting), or through the use of force (i.e. theft).

  5. Good parable. I expect I’ll make use of it. Jon & Cynthia’s comments show it is even easily extendable. Cool.

  6. I feel strange. Steve posted something that I didn’t argue with…and furthermore, the reverse is true as well! 😛

  7. skzb

    A.C.: Sure. But historically, it always starts as theft or robbery, which is then justified and made official by law. For example, property in human beings (ie, slavery) was was hardly a voluntary action on the part of the slaves. Later, when land-ownership became the dominant form of property, the relationship between the feudal landlord and the peasant wasn’t voluntary on the part of the peasant–the landlords took the land by force and created laws and customs and divine right afterwards. The earliest capitalists, in appropriating the land from the aristocracy (England provides the clearest model), merely followed the same custom, and cries of “theft” by the aristocracy against the capitalists didn’t raise a lot of sympathy in anyone.

    Jon: Yeah, I’m having a sort of problem with that too. I’ll hurry up and make another post so we don’t have keep feeling weird.

  8. I guess my comment would be that it doesn’t generally just magically happen this way, and the way it has historically happened doesn’t really look like this at all. The state has most typically been formed from an external group wanting to more efficiently steal from agriculturalists. Frequently this has been nomadic herders.

    In the presented analogy, it starts with a *pirate* coming along and stealing from a boat where people are reliably producing and storing up goods (by fishing, stopping at islands for water and plants, etc., etc.), and having to kill passengers to get compliance, and finding that as a result, they get less than they want, because dead rowers find no water, and dead fishers catch no fish.

    So, instead, the pirate sets themselves up as a “lord”, settles down, and now has (land) property that he claims.

    Without a surplus to store up and thus be stolen, the cycle wouldn’t start (because the target would be living hand-to-mouth and there would be little to steal). The surplus is necessary but not sufficient for this to actually happen.

  9. skzb

    hacksoncode: I think that’s a legitimate criticism. Or, at least, my knowledge falls short of where it would need to be if I wanted to argue.

  10. Tangential, but may I commend to your attention _Debt, The First 5,000 Years_, by David Graeber? He isn’t exactly socialist, but he points out some interesting patterns in the history of capitalism. Given your frequent statements that it is possible to learn from history, this seemed right up your alley.

  11. skzb

    Alexx: I’ve read it. He does a lot of really blatant cherry-picking of data, and a number of his conclusions are dubious, but in spite of that it was a fascinating read with a lot of very useful information.

  12. Interesting discussion. All right on, in my estimation.

    But it raises the question of how, now that the bandits have turned themselves into Lords, do we get back to a more equitable situation? I know skzb votes for a socialist revolution. But that is largely wishful thinking in the example.

    Today in the US, people and children are going homeless and hungry, while the country has 100 times the wealth it needs to improve the social conditions. It is pathological. Take the candy from the baby, not because you like or want the candy, but because you want the baby to cry.

  13. If you called it an allegory, you could go on FOREVER.


  14. skzb

    Pamela: *Shudder*

  15. I would suggest that the solution is to eliminate the “Lord”. But the problem is that we exist in a world where the Lord is an unfortunate necessity. A realm without a lord is just a fiefdom waiting to be snapped up by the entities the Lord protected them against. You can kill as many lords as you want, but there will always be another to take his/her place.

    So we have two options:

    1) kill only one lord: in this scenario, removing the lord is removing half of an unpleasant but unfortunately necessary symbiosis between the individual and his/her society; any society that lives without a means to focus their collective agency (force, knowledge base & innovations, buying power etc) is therefore easy prey to other societies that have such a focus*; or

    2) kill the first lord, and then kill all the others that come to take his place. In this scenario, the society will expend so much of their agency remaining “independent” that they will have little agency left for anything else (and as soon as they let their guard down…). Because while they might make lordlings fear their forest, eventually there will come a lord who doesn’t fear it, and who can make his claim stick.

    In terms of how these situations forms, I suspect that BOTH models are correct; the “wandering bully” as well as the “little shit in the family” model. I imagine that, throughout history, both models have played out, sometimes both at once. The instability of borders throughout history is, to my mind, simply a manifestation of the “there’s ALWAYS a bigger fish” truism.

    * is there a means by which the collective can rule without a focal point governing the collective? I don’t know if there is, but if it exists, we almost certainly can’t make it work in our current circumstance…but sign me up for beta testing when it appears…

  16. Jon Carey:The necessity of Lords as keepers of private surplus seems highly debatable. Most corporations have a pseudo-military hierarchy of control (that has largely lost control mechanisms via stockholders), but I don’t see that this is needed at all. A more democratic model could work out better.
    And, if the bulk of private property is removed from the equation, a much more representative democracy can be envisioned with rotating responsibilities between citizens.

  17. skzb

    The point is, of course, that once there is sufficient for everyone to share equally and have plenty, there is no reason the rationer can’t return to a purely administrative function without coercion. The trick is getting there; the coercive instruments are in place.

    One of the weaknesses of the parable is that it carries the implication that the anarchists are right–that once the state is destroyed, private property will whither away. But a parable, like a Minnesotan, can only be pushed so far.

  18. Even though everyone can eat their fill, some food may be more desirable allowing the distributer to maintain his power by controlling who gets the choicer bits. How to deal with that?

  19. Steve: the standard communist vision. And I repeat: it cannot work in a vacuum. And by vacuum, I mean, it cannot work in a world where it cannot hold its own against aggressors. This requires the communist state to act as an individual in a society based on the collective; and that means there needs to be some individual controlling the individual behaviour of the state. The government ceases to be communist and becomes more oppressive than it was before, because now there’s this *veneer* of “stop being so selfish and individualized. your problems aren’t any worse than everyone else’s” which ignores the fact that, hey EVERYONE’S problems are just as bad, why are we doing it this way again? Oh yeah, because we as individuals ceded control to a totalitarian state because it pinky-swore it wouldn’t become totalitarian, despite our need that it be able to act like one in order to, among other things, fend off other totalitarian regimes.

  20. skzb

    karlsoap: I cry foul. 🙂 You are now introducing extra variables into the parable. Clearly, if all the food isn’t equally desirable, then we’re back to a situation of surplus-but-not-plenty, and we need to wait for another crate to come and fix that situation.

    Jon Carey: There are two possibilities here. The first, and most likely, is that I’m not understanding you. I’ll address the second, because if I assume the first I have to just sit here and wait.

    It sounds like you are imagining a situation in which there is a communist country surrounded by hostile imperialist countries, analogous to the position of the Soviet Union. I need to say (although it isn’t the point) that this is impossible; communism, by definition, cannot exist in a single isolated country. But let’s set that aside and assume you mean a workers state, ie, a single country after the working class has come to power but before the countries around it have, thus putting it into a perilous situation.

    If that’s the issue, then there are a number of factors: the level of technology, infrastructure, technique, and the political consciousness of the working class all have a huge role in how effectively a single, isolated country can protect itself without resorting to dictatorial measures. Remember, no country ever resorts to dictatorship if the ruling class doesn’t feel it needs to–they’re horribly expensive ways to run things. But it is worth pointing out that, even in the Soviet Union, which had every one of those factors as much against it as it is possible to be (except the last, and by the end of the Wars of Intervention, that, too, had dropped) soviet democracy continued from 1917-1923. An advanced country like the US, I think, I could survive even isolated for a long time before resorting to authoritarian or police state measures. And, in 2016, I simply cannot believe that a country like the USA becoming socialist would not trigger revolutions in the rest of the world. I will concede that if the first socialist revolution were to occur in a relatively backward country, which is far from impossible, the danger you speak of is real.

    And now I’m going to find I was right, I misunderstood your comment, and I’ve just typed all of that for nothing.

  21. >surplus-but-not-plenty,

    I’d also like to suggest that the concept of “plenty” is probably unreachable on an actual lifeboat, where there is severely curtailed *room* to hold that plenty.

    But I sincerely doubt that the concept of “plenty for all” actually is actually a goal that can be achieved.

    I’ve seen no evidence in decades of looking that humans are ever satisfied with anything that could be called “plenty”, whether in capitalist smoke-filled-rooms, mythological paradisal Nordic Social Democracies, nor indeed any of the communist states that have been attempted.

    In addition to creating a state, surplus creates the possibility for realizable greed. The two aren’t unrelated.

  22. Jon:I disagree that there needs to be an single individual in control–a Lord. In fact, that was my assertion. Lords are overrated.
    It is true that every society must be vigilant against the return of those who would subjugate them–various forms of dictators and oligarchs. We don’t, however need them.

    As Steve mentioned an end goal state society won’t have external aggressors and will have the necessary internal immune system in place to guard against “Lords”.

    hacksoncode–plenty is an ambiguous and relative term. I’ll just note that there haven’t been any communist states to this point. There have been states that have claimed to be heading there, but have failed for a number of reasons.

  23. I’m worried that Socialism in general can break the same way. That is, even though food, clothing and entertainment become so easy to produce and replicate that they become like ice to Eskimos, there could still be enough incidence of scarcity to maintain a system of widespread inequity.
    Land is a hard nut to crack, services that require expertise, etc.You never know when something new could be invented that could cause a scarcity either in itself or a required resource.
    Maybe I’m overthinking it though.

  24. Steve B – your confusion was probably the result of my failing to say “Steve H: the standard communist vision…” 😛

    That being said, I think your reply was brilliant nevertheless. I think if the US went socialist that would be a sight to see.

    Steve H & Steve B: I would, in playing devil’s advocate, direct your attention to the idea that you don’t need to be outside the system to be outside the system. If you don’t buy into it, then you’re an “external aggressor’ even though you’re a resident/citizen of that society.

    And it is those elements, maybe even more than external societies, that present such a risk to the survival of a socialist government.

    My problem with socialism is that it doesn’t deal with *gasp* human nature. I know I know, sorry, I couldn’t help it. But before you start frothing at the mouth, let me ask you this: In any system, there are rules that govern how that system operates. In any system with rules, there are loopholes, exploits and outright cheats that are possible that can bring an unfair advantage to the unscrupulous cheater who doesn’t mind that his behaviour contributes to the downfall of his system.

    You don’t have to look far at all to find such cheaters in the capitalist societies of today: the bankers, the stock market investors, insurance companies, pharma, government lobby groups, etc etc. They all exist because they either cheated already, or are actively looking to discover ways in which to do so.

    I would suggest that that is not going to change in a socialist system. And that, more than any other criticism that I’ve brought up to date, needs to be addressed, and in a new and novel way, or else the system will fail. Incarceration isn’t going to work; eventually there will be a person who considers the punishment (or the risk thereof) worth it, and just after him, the person who gets away with it. Draconic punishment systems too readily fall into tyrannical modes of government.

    That being said, I rather like how Iceland handled their economic meltdown. They had enough balls to actually put the perpetrators of that crisis into jail, regardless of whatever friends or favours those dickheads had managed to accumulate simply by being lucky enough to be frequenting the circles of power…

  25. skzb

    ” In any system, there are rules that govern how that system operates. In any system with rules, there are loopholes, exploits and outright cheats that are possible that can bring an unfair advantage to the unscrupulous cheater who doesn’t mind that his behaviour contributes to the downfall of his system.”

    “Rules” is an ambiguous term. It can mean a set of enforced agreements, or it can refer to something closer to natural law, ie, the way things inherently function under a given set of circumstances. If the “rules” in the latter sense make breaking the “rules” in the former sense absurd and impossible, then we don’t need to worry about it. This is one reason there have been so few laws passed requiring water to flow downhill. I am arguing that this reasonably describes a socialist economy regarding the issues you (I think) are talking about.

  26. In a community that is a true community, crime is virtually non-existent. People care for one another and hold each other accountable. This has happened throughout history and it is happening in isolated pockets of the world now.

    In a community where everyone is taught to hate one another and encouraged to buy as many guns as possible, well…look around.

  27. “In a community that is a true community, crime is virtually non-existent. People care for one another and hold each other accountable.”

    This is almost certainly only possible in a community small enough that everyone knows everyone else.

  28. I rarely venture into any of these types of philosophical conversations simply because very few of them allow for civil discourse. As Steve stated in a previous post, being offended by and rejecting a truth because it makes you feel bad is not a valid argument or intellectually honest position to hold.

    There appears to be little to no personnel attacks here, just honest discussion about the retaliative merits of any given argument.

    Jon Carey alluded to it, but I am going to take it a step further, and I am well aware of where you come down on this Steve, I just happen to disagree,

    Let me be clear as well, the founding ideals and principles of any socialistic society are wonderful, but 100% impossible because they go against human nature.

    Human nature is one of those 2+2=4 issues, it is what it is, and hating it doesn’t make it 5, no matter what you do.

    We are creatures governed by self-interest, we are all 100% of us governed by self-interest, 2+2=4. This is objective truth and I am not a bad guy if that makes you feel bad for pointing it out.

    Any governmental or economic system that ignores this is doomed to fail.

    There are 2 ways to handle this, and they have predictable, historically provable outcomes.

    A) You devise a system that harnesses this for the good of society
    B) You devise a system that represses this and end up with a dystopian society.

    One of the things opponents to Western World Capitalistic systems have been very effective at doing is redefining the playing field (i.e. terms of the game) so that it becomes very easy to demonize something.

    For example: Capitalism, if you ask most people today to describe what it is and why its bad, you will get a very good description of Crony Capitalism, which is demonstrable corrupt and bad. So to attack the core values of what generated the greatest anti-poverty system ever in the written history of mankind all you have to do now is blame all the troubles of today on Capitalism and wallah, evil evil evil must change the system. But all that’s really been done is create a straw man that’s easy to attack because you successfully redefined the playing fieled instead of addressing what has caused Crony Capitalism in the first place, which is the real problem.

    The founders of the USA were well aware of this problem, and if you take the time read their letters back and forth to each other, it becomes clear they were deathly afraid of the Government they had to create in order to have that Societal Focal point that could ward off would be invaders, which brings us to another fundamental 2+2=4 part of the human condition, and this has been hinted at in the previous responses.

    The World is Governed by the aggressive use of force, period. If you wont use it, someone else will, to deny this is to deny all of recorded history up to date, any society that fails to maintain and defend its borders is no longer able to govern and choose for itself how it will function and operate.

    This, I think brings me to the core of the problem that I don’t have a solution for because its a dynamic that will always exist between polar opposite ideologies,

    On one end of the spectrum you have Complete Freedom (Anarchy, laissez faire) in tension with Complete Control (Totalitarianism).

    The founders of the USA were fully cognizant of the inherent tension that exists between these ideologically opposed concepts, and designed their system to separate this power so that the the fundamental nature of mankind (people will always look out for their own self-interest) would safeguard itself and let people maintain the maximum amount of freedom with the minimum amount of control.

    Look at how the constitution limited the Federal Government by reserving ALL powers not expressly given to it to the States. The Checks and Balances system was designed to cause gridlock, they wanted the 3 branches of Government protecting their own turf (using Self-Interest).

    So what has allowed this erosion of the system as designed, that created so much freedom and prosperity, into this system that is so obviously flawed and corrupt? And I am not trying to claim it is not, there is no political party in power currently in the USA, or for that matter in the world, that is not thoroughly corrupt. Once you reach the inner circle of the Political Elite, you are immune from the very laws and rules that govern the rest of us.

    So what were the turning points in US history that allowed this slide into tyranny and corruption? There are many, but rwo of the biggest were:

    1) First was the 17th Amendment in 1913, direct election of US Senators. The Senate was designed to be apolitical, it was the direct representation of the States at the federal level. It was immune from outside interests (lobbying, foreign manipulation, etc) because it was beholden only to the State that appointed them. It was also the body that was responsible for treaties, appointments to positions of authority, and oversight of the Federal Government because it was the extension of the Authority of the State into the Federal Government.

    2) The second was the erosion of the property ownership requirement for voting rights established in the Constitution. I know many will take exception here, and even I am of mixed opinion about how this should have been addressed. What I have come to conclude is that changes were necessary to voting rights, but the core concept behind the founders originally implementing this provision should have been maintained, i.e “Skin in the Game” as I like to call it. The reason that it was in the Constitution to begin with was because the founders realized that in a Democracy (which we are not), once 51% of the population realizes you can start voting yourself “benefits”, the system is lost. I think that Voting rights could have been extended in a way that kept this principle front and center (i.e. people allowed to vote are never isolated from the consequences of that vote).

    One lasts note: I completely agree with how Iceland handled that situation, that is the deterrent in a system that uses Human nature (Self Interest) to positively maintain order in a civil society, you don’t fine them, you put them in jail, in fact, you don’t separate “White Collar” crime, and make it a favored category of crime, it is actually the worst sort of offensive in a system devised to use human nature to control the system and should be dealt with the most harshly.

  29. skzb

    LiquidDrano: Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I note, however, that you merely accept “human nature” as if it were a scientific concept, and so, naturally, your conclusions are equally unscientific. “Human nature” is, at its best, intellectual laziness. Just what IS “human nature?” Are you referring to a particular facet of personality or behavior that is universal, or at least common, in all of humanity? If so, what facet? Be precise. Do you mean instinct? From what I know, biologists agree that human beings have an instinct to suckle, and an instinctive fear of falling. There may be a few others, but again, if you’re claiming something is instinctive, be precise about what it is. “Human nature” is imprecise, and hand-waving has no place in a scientific investigation.

    For example, people often talk about “inherent self-interest” or “selfishness”as if a) it were well-defined, and b) it could be divorced from social conditions that require it. Both of these concepts are dubious and require proof.

    BUT, even if this were proven, to claim that inherent selfishness somehow means socialism–ie, common ownership of productive forces–is impractical, merely reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of economics in general and socialism in particular. If you were to somehow convince me that human greed is a built-in phenomenon, rather than a behavior learned by existence in a given society at a given stage, that would only underscore the practicality of socialism, which, at its most basic level, is formed to meet human needs to free human creativity from drudgery.

  30. Because of , socialism can’t work. Therefore, LiquidDrano wins the internets!

  31. Again, some very good discussion going on here.

    LiquidDraino: I followed along, nodding agreement, until your statements 1) and 2). I am guessing that the key to 1) making sense is that running for office is an automatically corrupting process these days. That doesn’t mean that being appointed, rather than elected, is somehow free of the pressures for corruption.

    For 2), I would say that everybody has “skin in the game”, even if they do not realize it. Those with power (not the guy on food stamps) do, in fact, vote themselves money. They vote with personal connections and campaign contributions and insider trading info.

    skzb: You waste too much time attacking “human nature.” To be sure, human nature, like all things human, is a fuzzy concept. I think your objection is primarily because Marx said that there was no such thing as human nature. My guess is that Marx intended that human behavior was plastic, it could be changed by circumstances and education.

    But more to the point, humans have a wide range of behavior. Quite a bit of it pathological – destructive to themselves and others. Trump could be our poster boy for pathology. The problem which has not really been discussed, is HOW do we address pathological behavior? We put people in jail for armed robbery or killing, but not for cheating or legal maneuvers that take peoples money. Somebody who steals a loaf of bread for his family is thrown in prison. Someone who steals the retirement funds of thousands of people is considered a great businessman.

    Some people will try to beat any legal system, regardless of the basis. The idea that these people will not exist in an ideal socialist system, is wishful thinking. Even if that pathology is a result of errors in upbringing, it will still happen. But there is evidence that these people’s brains are different than the rest of us. These people can be very skillful at protecting themselves from punishment and are good at corrupting others. So any successful political system must have a robust way of keeping these kind of people out of positions of power. If not, you end up with something like we have now, where nearly everybody in politics is corrupt and where being corrupt is a perk of the office.

  32. skzb

    “You waste too much time attacking “human nature.” To be sure, human nature, like all things human, is a fuzzy concept. I think your objection is primarily because Marx said that there was no such thing as human nature.”

    Oh, interesting! Where? I would love to read that. I wonder if his reasons are the same as mine? The thing is, it isn’t merely a “fuzzy” concept, it is a totally undefined concept, that people use to mean whatever they want to mean at a given moment.

    If you are going to attempt to change the world, or, in this case NOT change the world because of a particular belief, don’t you think it might be worthwhile to say what that belief actually IS? Can you think of any difference between, “Socialism won’t work because of human nature” and “socialism won’t work because idunno something”?

  33. “The thing is, [human nature] isn’t merely a “fuzzy” concept, it is a totally undefined concept, that people use to mean whatever they want to mean at a given moment.

    If you are going to attempt to change the world, or, in this case NOT change the world because of a particular belief, don’t you think it might be worthwhile to say what that belief actually IS?”

    I think there’s a lot of evidence for this claim about “human nature”:

    Like most things in nature, “human nature” falls into more or less a normal curve along a large number of aspects. E.g. greed, altruism, drive, intelligence, morality (both type and strength), values, etc.

    Any system that views human nature as *not* having a wide distribution in these and more facets will fail. For example, if the system can’t account for greed among some members of the human race to greater and lesser degrees, it will fail to have checks and balances on greed, and will fail to take *advantage* of it, as well. Same for intelligence, drive, morality, etc.

    Any system that tries to characterize human nature as requiring the possibility of being monolithic in any particular way will be wrong… unless it kills everyone who is not.

    This isn’t in any way specific to “human nature”. Anything that comprises a sum of multiple factors with any kind of distribution will mathematically tend towards a normal curve… and there’s really nothing that can change that.

  34. skzb: Most people agree in general about what “human nature” might be, namely the way people tend to behave in the majority of cases in a given situation. It is understood that human behavior is a range of behavior. Just because you like to over-use snark, doesn’t mean something does or does not exist. Here’s a definition for you.

    You have a double standard, namely something you don’t like (human nature) is required to have a bullet proof definition and proof. At the same time you make vague generalizations about things like socialism. You even throw out the few examples of socialism/communism that exist as not representative if they don’t support what you want socialism to be.

    I mentioned Marx because I thought you had said (in the past) something to the effect that “Marx proved that human nature does not exist”. I suppose it could have been some socialist other than Marx. But then if Marx didn’t say that, then human nature must exist.

  35. I know you are sensitized to the term “human nature” because it is sometimes used as a blanket reason why socialism can’t work. I agree that is sloppy.

    One needs to define what aspect of human nature (greed, sloth, indifference, etc.) would be a problem and for what part of socialism. And if you feel socialism can deal with it, you need to say specifically how it can deal with it, not just wave a magic wand.

  36. I work with folks from one of the poorest, most crime-ridden, poorly educated and poorly supported communities in my state on a daily basis.

    If we can get the case resolved, get the person a job, get them into treatment, give them a reason to hope that they can keep making their lives better, I have seen examples of remarkable transformations. That’s just one tiny segment.

    All behavior takes place within a society and within a context. The current society values the rich and wars and holds the rest in contempt bordering on hate. How much better would things be in a society that valued community, put people over profits, and prioritized the economy for making sure everyone was taken care of instead of hoarding billions for the .01%?

    “Human nature,” if it exists, can be focused to achieve anything if the surroundings are healthy.

  37. Kragar, right on. Right now, here in the US, we have a sick society. So it is hardly surprising that some people become pathological.

  38. A specific assertion that LiquidDrano makes is that:
    “We are creatures governed by self-interest, we are all 100% of us governed by self-interest, 2+2=4. This is objective truth and I am not a bad guy if that makes you feel bad for pointing it out.”
    This assertion is easily shown to be false. For specific examples, one can read many accounts of Congressional Medal of Honor winners sacrificing their own lives to aid their comrades. Clearly this is not in their self-interest as a physical organism.
    In the slightly more abstract, I find it interesting that many words that are associated with helping/caring for others such as altruism, sharing, love, etc. are are strongly associated with positive aspects of humanity.
    Words often associated with pure self-interest such as greed, narcissism, sociopath are not positively associated.

  39. Don’t confuse “Self-Interest” with “Selfishness”.

    Self-interest is not selfishness. I think this is another term that has been meaning-jacked by popular culture and made to be a bad thing.

    A healthy persons Self-Interest encompasses the entirety of what they care about, Spouse, Children, That person in the fox hole with you, etc. It includes things like being self sacrificial. But the point is that that person chose to do those things of his/her own free will, and thus it was in their own Self-interest to do so.

    Selfishness is a corruption of a healthy Self-interest.

    “For 2), I would say that everybody has “skin in the game”, even if they do not realize it. Those with power (not the guy on food stamps) do, in fact, vote themselves money. They vote with personal connections and campaign contributions and insider trading info.”

    Lets look at this. In a pure Democracy, as soon as a majority of the people in the society realize that they do not have to do anything but elect politicians that will give them whatever they want, they no longer have “Skin in the Game” or they actually have negative”Skin in the Game”. Their Self-interest is now tied into getting government benefits, they will keep electing the person that will give them more and more benefits until there are no more benefits to be had and the system immolates.

    In an economy as large and as productive as the US’. this can take a long time. I don’t know how long you can keep spending other peoples money, I make no predictions along those lines. But there will come a limit to that, and then what happens?

    There is no economic growth, this is the first time in the history of the US that we have had 8+ consecutive years and never hit 3% growth in GDP, even during the years of the Great Depression.

    On a little different note, if Self-interest is not common to all men, why do you expect to get paid for writing stories? I am not saying you shouldn’t get paid for them, I think a person should be compensated commiserate with the value of the work they do, that’s what motivates greatness and greatness is what elevates a society to heights that makes even the poorest among us able to live like the kings or old.

  40. skzb

    It is possible to define “self-interest” in such a way that every human activity is self-interest. This is not, to say the least, a useful definition. Moreover, then we would need a term to describe what everyone else means by “self-interest,” which, while certainly not the same as “selfishness,” does have a useful meaning. That is, certain “leftists” believe that white workers should fight police violence out of a sense of obligation, or perhaps generosity, or maybe guilt, or even kindness; whereas I believe this fight is a simple matter of self-interest. Agree or not, as you please, but it is an important distinction, and we need to be able to make it.

  41. LiquidDrano:”. In a pure Democracy, as soon as a majority of the people in the society realize that they do not have to do anything but elect politicians that will give them whatever they want”
    While I have seen this argument from various anti-democratic groups, it isn’t actually born out by any real world history–either in the far past or recent times.

    Measures of US GDP only really go back to 1929, so the “first time in the history of the US” claim isn’t correct. It is correct that the GDP has been stalled below the 3% rate for eight years, but the causes for this are certainly not correlated to people voting themselves benefits.

  42. It’s not the laborer who gets to vote themselves something for nothing (though the rich seem to think SS is that). It is the very wealthy and powerful that get to do that. It has been shown that earmarked contributions to politicians return about 100 times that in terms of financial benefits to the contributor.

    Nobody in their right mind gives 100 grand or more to a politician without making sure that the politician knows where it came from (though there have been scams) so that the next time the contributor wants support for some bill, the politician will support that bill.

  43. “Nobody in their right mind gives 100 grand or more to a politician without making sure that the politician knows where it came from (though there have been scams) so that the next time the contributor wants support for some bill, the politician will support that bill.”

    Honestly, there’s really very little evidence for direct quid pro quo like this in major Western democracies. Because their doesn’t *need* to be.

    It’s perfectly adequate for the rich to support politicians that they know have the same beliefs as they do when it comes to corporation regulation, subsidies, etc.

    Also, I think your comment about “100 grand” is projecting a bit. The rich people we’re talking about wouldn’t pick up a $100 bill on the ground, and this is pocket change for the likes of Buffett, Gates, the Kochs, or the Waltons. We’re talking about a thousandth of a percent of their net worth.

  44. hacksoncode: I don’t know where you get your information. It seems like there are many stories in the news, pretty much as I described, sometimes with the politician going to jail for it. Usually they are careful to go through a third entity, so it isn’t the contributor writing the check directly to the politician.

    Maybe a hundred grand isn’t much to you, but a lot of state and even federal politicians would do a lot for that kind of money. I remember back when Reagan was in the white house, he published a menu of what kind of perk you could get for what size contribution. His numbers were in the thousands.

    To be sure, a presidential candidate today would want at least 6 zeros on the check.

  45. I think much of our disagreement comes from differences in World View and that I am a results oriented person.

    My World View believes that here is a Nobility in hard work and providing a living for those you love and care for. The self-satisfaction of a job well done is a powerful positive influence for everything good in a persons life, and it is reflected in the culture around you.

    My problem with the way welfare and division politics is being used today is that it is a negative motivator. What is really being insinuated with this message is that “You really are inferior, and unless you elect me, you can’t make it”. This message degrades people and leads to dependency, depression, deviancy and lawlessness.

    Its not that I don’t believe in social safety nets. I think any affluent society should feel an obligation as a matter of course to help their fellow “Man” when disaster strikes. But it needs to be in the form of a positive “hand up” not a “hand out”. Welfare as it exists today is nothing more than “Vote Slavery”.

    There has been a “War on Poverty” for 50 years, yet no one seems to ask for results. Trillions have been spent and if anything we are worse off than when we started. All we have done is enslaved our children to crushing levels of debt and a racial divide that seems to have no way out.

    I grew up in a world completely free from racial tension. I had no real understanding of just how real the racial divide was until my mid 30’s. I saw first hand people of every nation come into the US, and succeed or fail purely on the basis of their own merits, not a one of them complained about discrimination. Yes, I did have a unique upbringing, but it also gave me insights that have firmly shaped my view of events transpiring in the US. Minorities are being intentionally oppressed to ensure they vote for their “betters”.

    It is nothing more than the Elites wanting more and more power. More government is always the answer to every problem, yet more government never brings anything but the need for more government. This is the road to tyranny, and we are racing toward it at a break neck pace.

    True freedom has a cost, and as a culture we have either lost the understanding of that cost, or are we are no longer willing to pay it. We have come into a never ending cycle where to be seen “caring” for a problem is now more important that solving it.

  46. LiquidDrano:What economic/governmental/societal end-state would you like to see? What intermediate states would you take to get from here to there?
    The Government and economic model are tools by which a societal group is organized and maintained at a given point in time. More/less government is neither a problem nor an answer without a statement of what state it is that the governmental/economic tooling is meant to solve or create.

    The current state we are in is some form of Capitalism with a rapid increase in Oligarchic behavior. Historically, the consolidation of wealth/power in the hands of a few is a trigger point for many forms of repression. This generally leads to a snapping point.

    Divide and Conquer, politics of division, etc. are indeed classical methods of attacking/crushing one’s enemies (real or perceived).

  47. LD- there are quite a few assumptions in your latest post that don’t map well to the real world. I don’t want to nitpick, but here are just a couple of questions:

    What evidence do you have that the the existence of a social safety net causes poverty? Yes, the War on Poverty started some time ago, and like many of the “wars” our society pursues, it shows no sign of being won, but do you have proof that giving a mother barely enough food to feed her children will discourage her from trying to find work? Could it be that the system we have uses a large body of unemployed job-seekers to suppress the wages of all the rest?

    If welfare is just a scheme to buy the votes of the poor so the elites can grab more power, why are those same elite constantly trying to unfund it and to disenfranchise the poor? Seems counterproductive.

    Why do you think that government benefits programs are a tool of racial politics? The majority of food stamp recipients, as an example, are white.

    Finally, if you were able to grow up “in a world completely free from racial tension”, I congratulate you! It sounds wonderful. What country did you live in? Unless you are more than 400 years old, that couldn’t have been anywhere in North America.

  48. hacksoncode: Here’s a recent article about Trump bribing the Florida state attorney general to drop an investigation into Trump University. All it took was $25,000. What I can’t figure is why some people aren’t going to jail over this.

  49. My point is one made by the very article you quote, in very similar terms:

    “We generally misunderstand the role of money in politics, which is rarely about direct bribery.”

  50. I can’t find your quote in the article. The article states a clear cut case of bribery, quid pro quo. Of course any politician or businessman will muddy the tracks to make it hard to tie the bribe to them.

    My point was that it does not take millions of dollars to bribe officials and politicians. I gave a concrete example. You are talking philosophy, one I don’t believe is true. Or are you saying the bribery is indirect? In which case, I agree.

    Just from a practical point of view, look at how often politicians become multimillionaires while in office. Things like loans that do not have to be paid back. Repairs on their house for free. Insider trading. Free vacations for a “meeting”. And so on. The corruption runs deep.

  51. I grew up in a college town that had a constant influx of foreign nationals from all nations, my parents were involved in helping them. My formative years were spent around people from around the world. I knew they may have looked different than I did, but because of the nature of the constant interaction, they were individuals first. Many of these individuals would be around for years, so I had direct experience of how their lives progressed.

    I still feel that way, people are people, how you look is irrelevant, its how you act that is important.

    My indoctrination into true racism came when I relocated to the South. In the normal course of trying to be friendly to those around me, it quickly became apparent that persons of a certain ethnicity were predisposed to not being friendly with me.

    I had truly never given a thought to how a person could treat me differently simply because I looked different than them. Call me naive, but I had truly never experience actual racism before.

    It is a learned behavior, and no one nationality in the country is the sole possessor of racism, it works both ways.

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