This week, I listened to a little debate between a Court Liberal – he’d been freeze dried on the Washington Post op ed page in the Clinton years, and is regularly perked up to make concessions and hew to a “centrist’ position on NPR – and a conservative. The NPR commentator sometimes came in with incisive questions, such as: do you want cream with your coffee?
Hey, I’m exaggerating!
Anyway, the debate was about Social Security. The Court liberal didn’t say anything like, the President is lying through his ass. Such remarks get you kicked out of the Court. He did point out that the idea of Social Security going bankrupt in 2040 was at some, ahem, variance, ahem, from the real state of affairs. Then, having the eagerness to compromise that D.C. induces in establishment types, he muttered that the real reform should be done on Medicare. Real reform doesn’t mean – finding ways, in the wealthiest nation in history, to make sure that there is a minimum level of health care for every citizen, guaranteed by the state. No, it means cutting into those nasty entitlements, and making health care that much more harder to afford among the populace.
The conservative then remarked that Bush had a chance to really appeal to young people, who can see just what the prez means. They are eager to daytrade their cool little privatized accounts, unlike the braindead Old.
The NPR guy asked, do you want sugar with your coffee?
And that was the end of that. I did have to laugh. This idea of ‘young people” going out, gung-ho, for eviscerating Social Security so obviously fails the ‘unit of analysis’ test that it could only pass muster in the U.S. press.
While it is true that FICA is paid individually, the benefits do not accrue individually, as even the most casual survey of American households would show. Some scientists have postulated the radical theory that young people come from other human beings. Many of them, it is thought, were born. Moreover, they not only have mothers, sometimes they have fathers too. Furthermore, and sadly, these young people are so ill versed in economic rationality that if Mom and Dad are rotting out there on the sidewalk, due to unavoidable cuts in those retirement entitlements, some of the young people might even cut them a check, or even (horrors!) allow them board in the house! Yes, it is called the family structure.
Now, of course, family in the Bush vocabulary and on NPR exists only in terms of something called “family values,” which can be defined as an allergic reaction to the sight of Janet Jackson’s tits that causes bleeding of the gums, a disbelief in evolution, and voting against same sex marriage. But (due to the perversity of humankind), families also exist as economic units. This, of course, goes against the hardy Bush Economic theory, which sees human beings sort of as individual mountain climbers, all without connections to each other, scrambling up the slopes. The highest, of course, must be the best climbers. By coincidence, some of the highest were born to best climbers. Must be genetic.
In reality, however, individuals don’t act in the economic system like disconnected mountain climbers,. but like connected ones, bound by a complicated series of ropes with all kinds of other climbers. Somehow, I don’t see young people as rejoicing at the thought of being in close proximity to their parents during their parents’ golden retirement years. In spite of the fact that they will be daytrading their FICA money like mad, watching it climb climb climb on the next tech bubble, which is what we know will surely happen.
I was reminded of William Hazlitt’s excellent essay on Bentham. Bentham very much saw human beings as individual climbers. As Hazlitt points out, Bentham’s lack of compromise did give him rather an air of grandeur, rather like Milton. Here’s Hazlitt’s charming passage:
“When any one calls upon him, he invites them to take a turn round his garden with him (Mr. Bentham is an economist of his time, and sets apart this portion of it to air and exercise)—and there you may see the lively old man, his mind still buoyant with thought and with the prospect of futurity, in eager conversation with some Opposition Member, some expatriated Patriot, or Transatlantic Adventurer, urging the extinction of Close Boroughs, or planning a code of laws for some “lone island in the watery waste,” his walk almost amounting to a run, his tongue keeping pace with it in shrill, cluttering accents, negligent of his person, his dress, and his manner, intent only on his grand theme of UTILITY—or pausing, perhaps, for want of breath and with lack-lustre eye to point out to the stranger a stone in the wall at the end of his garden (overarched by two beautiful cotton-trees) Inscribed to the Prince of Poets, which marks the house where Milton formerly lived. To shew how little the refinements of taste or fancy enter into our author's system, he proposed at one time to cut down these beautiful trees, to convert the garden where he had breathed the air of Truth and Heaven for near half a century into a paltry Chreistomathic School, and to make Milton's house (the cradle of Paradise Lost) a thoroughfare, like a three-stalled stable, for the idle rabble of Westminster to pass backwards and forwards to it with their cloven hoofs. Let us not, however, be getting on too fast—Milton himself taught school! There is something not altogether dissimilar between Mr. Bentham's appearance, and the portraits of Milton, the same silvery tone, a few dishevelled hairs, a peevish, yet puritanical expression, an irritable temperament corrected by habit and discipline.”
Hazlitt had an unformed and unsystematic objection to Bentham’s system:
“Every pleasure, says Mr. Bentham , is equally a good, and is to be taken into the account as such in a moral estimate, whether it be the pleasure of sense or of conscience, whether it arise from the exercise of virtue or the perpetration of crime. We are afraid the human mind does not readily come into this doctrine, this ultima ratio philosophorum, interpreted according to the letter. Our moral sentiments are made up of sympathies and antipathies, of sense and imagination, of understanding and prejudice. The soul, by reason of its weakness, is an aggregating and an exclusive principle; it clings obstinately to some things, and violently rejects others. And it must do so, in a great measure, or it would act contrary to its own nature. It needs helps and stages in its progress, and “all appliances and means to boot,” which can raise it to a partial conformity to truth and good (the utmost it is capable of) and bring it into a tolerable harmony with the universe. By aiming at too much, by dismissing collateral aids, by extending itself to the farthest verge of the conceivable and possible, it loses its elasticity and vigour, its impulse and its direction. The moralist can no more do without the intermediate use of rules and principles, without the 'vantage ground of habit, without the levers of the understanding, than the mechanist can discard the use of wheels and pulleys, and perform every thing by simple motion.”
Hazlitt was on the losing end of the quantifying argument, whose pale descendents are just those atomically loosed young people frolicking about the new National Lottery/Social Security office, buying tickets. We think, however, that Hazlitt’s premonition that the stoniness at the heart of Bentham’s pleasure would bring something bad into the world turned out to be true.
But give Bentham credit for honesty: he would be shocked and appalled at the conjunction of the rhetoric of an unctuous Christian familialism and the parallel attempt to openly shed the economic ties of family.