Can you imagine a human being, fully formed without also imagining him or her embedded in a network of social relationships? Can you (or anyone) be a person without being among others?
Suffice to say that some people have tried.
This is part of the reason for interest in feral children, and of course we sometimes read of ancient experiments depriving children of exposure to language (or in some cases any human interaction). These experiments wouldn’t get past a human subjects review panel in a modern university, but the stories are certainly interesting. A large part of that interest comes from the prospect of finding a person who became a person without any significant human interaction whatsoever. What kind of person would they be? What kind of language would they have? How would they think? These stories are long on legend and short on data, but it’s not hard to understand why people would want to investigate such things.
…even if only in a story.
The thought experiments of certain social theories are not far off from such stories. So very many people have attempted to imagine the nature of a human isolated from social connections. Chapter XIII in Thomas Hobbes’ book, The Leviathan would be a good example. So, would be the calculations of many rational choice theorists, those attempting to find the self-interest in just about any human interaction. And of course, there are always the masturbatory fantasies of Ayn Rand and her cult of ‘objectivist’ fan-boys. (Honestly, I feel kind of bad mentioning her alongside serious thinkers, even those I disagree with, but with the likes of Paul Ryan and Ran Paul claiming inspiration from Rand, one must admit the woman remains relevant.) What these approaches have in common is a rather atomistic vision of social life. They take an individual human being as a given and problematize questions about how and why that individual human does what he does in relation to others. In effect, they reduce social life to individual psychology; tey reduce social interaction to individual self interest.
The problem in each instance, is that individual psychology is intrinsically social. You can’t be a person without being in relation to someone else, because you can’t become a person without relating to someone else. You wouldn’t survive childhood without someone feeding you, clothing you, keeping you clear of the neighbor’s dog, and giving you the occasional hug. You wouldn’t be who you are if your Mom hadn’t stared into your eyes and smiled at you until you smiled back. You wouldn’t be who you are if somewhere in those early days you didn’t notice that the great-big Mom-face smiled back when you smiled yourself. You figured that out long before you figured out the words for such things, or even the difference between you and the mom-face, or anyone else. And you wouldn’t be who you are if somewhere along the way you hadn’t learned to give a damn about such things.
Even the basic problem of solipsism seems to get this whole thing wrong. We don’t start as an individual and then figure out that others might (or might not) also occupy our world. We don’t figure out how to relate to them long after we’ve decided what we want in life. We don’t decide how to treat other people only after deciding what we want ourselves. We develop our own self-image in relation to those around us, and we base on desires and goals on a sense of the world that is already populated with other human beings, some of which (hopefully) we care about. (Thank you Martin Heidegger!)
All very academic, right? (Well academic, in a loose kinda bloggetty sorta fashion.)
Except, there are moments when theoretical atomism seems to mesh with the more pointed boundaries of compassion and empathy in real life. People don’t lack for reasons not to care about this group or that kinda person. Often as not, people seem to tell us who they do give a damn about in much the same breath as those they don’t. We care about us, but we don’t give a damn about them. What constitutes the difference? Race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, …you get the idea. Any number of categories will do. It’s a pretty familiar dynamic, one with sometimes startling consequences. Those we make our own, so to speak, we may treat with great care, but those we don’t, we may visit great cruelties upon them, often without a second thought.
It doesn’t help when people looking for reasons to reduce their fucks given for others to zero can make ready use of theories breaking all our social connections up into phantom gestures of self-interest. It doesn’t help when the dominant metaphors of government programs (or the lack thereof) come straight of the sociopathic imagination. Whatever the theoretical (de-)merits of atomistic theories, they become far more critical when they become the actual basis of public policy.
I am of course talking about the free market fundamentalists among us, those who consistently reject the case for public welfare wherever they may find it, or at least whenever it might require collective effort, and especially if it means anything resembling taxes. Time and again, libertarians (and often their more conventional conservative allies) will tell us we mustn’t have this or that program because it will violate the individual rights of tax-payers and produce inefficiencies in the market. If someone poor is to receive aid from the government, someone else must pay it, and that payment will be secured by force. Then we have to deal with all the moral hazards of people changing the rational choices on the basis of programs changing the natural inclinations of supply and demand. These are real problems, to be sure, but for some these problems are also damned convenient excuses for denial of social responsibility. If they have their way, progressive taxation is out. The social safety net is a bad idea (goodbye welfare, medicaid, and medicare, among other thigns). Every regulation is suspect, including those that keep poisons out of the air we breathe and the water we drink. And of course everything from schools to the post office would be better if privatized. Why drive on on a federal highway when you could take a toll road? For such folks, it goes without saying; whatever government can do, private business can do it better.
Because private business can be described as the actions of private individuals whereas government is of course a collectivist enterprise. To fall into this mindset, we have to ignore the collectivist nature of modern corporations, but hey, if the Supreme Court says they are people, then corporations are people. So, the actions of these incredibly powerful collective entities count as the actions of private individuals in the narratives of free market fundamentalists. We are supposed to believe that single-payer insurance polices are against the free market, but insurance corporations are not. There is a difference, I know, but that difference doesn’t really support the distinctions made in public policy. One is not individual while the other is collectivist One is not a function of free market policy while the other counts as a socialist scheme.
People vary in their source material, educational background, and rhetorical strategies, but somewhere in the din of all this free market noise, I can’t help but hear the echoes of Hobbes and the others. Hell, I can’t help but hear echoes of the Pharaoh Psamtik. He is the source of one of those legendary experiments I mentioned up above. According to Herodotus, Psamtik had two children raised without any communication in order to see what language they would speak. He was disappointed, according to the legend, to find the children grew up speaking Phrygian, but of course they would actually have come out of that experiment speaking nothing at all, and being hardly human. Such an experiment would be a disaster for the children.
Is it really all that different from the social experiments urged by those seeking to deny essential support to future generations? Time and again, the brave heroes of the free market tell us that individuals must rise above their circumstances, as if poor schools, poor healthcare, and poor infrastructure could be resolved by the platitudes of a motivational speaker or the narrative arc of a Horatio Alger novel.The denial of social responsibilities thus comes with a bundle of narrative solutions, all of which work much better for the narrator than they do for any real life protagonists.
These stories particularly don’t work for children. Often as not, children don’t even make it into the narratives of libertarian rhetoric. We get the stories that deny aid to adults (why should I pay for someone who won’t work and might even be taking drugs?), and then someone else has to point out that aid also goes to children.
In the end, I can’t help thinking the failure to account for childhood is the most critical feature of libertarian approaches to policy, but its not just a theoretical failure. It’s also a very critical failure of practice. Just as atomistic theories of individualism could never account for the way one becomes a fully functioning human being, the practitioners of atomistic policy cannot, and will not, account for the needs of children through public policy. They won’t even account for the needs of adult women who produce these children, not in any realistic manner. The wealthy can of course throw money at the problem, and damn the rest of us to Hell anyway, so it seems is the only real answer we will ever get from the free market fundamentalists. Of course, there are other boundaries beyond which social responsibilities can easily be denied.
If the atomistic mindset is inadequate, the consequences of its inadequacies do not fall upon all of us equally. Some need the help more than others, and the denial of it serves some better than others. Whatever the strengths and weakness of free market fundamentalism, it will always have a little extra appeal for those in power.
Some people are just a little more obvious about this than others.