Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- June 20, 2004

Good for Each, Bad for All

Ernest Partridge, Co-Editor
"The Crisis Papers."


In the cultures of India and China, male children are much preferred to female children. First of all, a girl born to a family incurs the eventual financial burden of a dowry. But even more significantly, perhaps, sons are cherished because they will carry on the family name.

For all time, the outcome of a pregnancy, a boy or a girl, has been a lottery -- until now. With the advance of medical science, it is now possible to know whether a fetus is male or female. Accordingly, it is reported that to avoid the birth of a girl, many pregnancies are being "terminated."  In addition, of course, there is the more ruthless option of female infanticide.  If these practices of sex selection were to become widespread, it is obvious that there would be many more males than females in the coming generations. 

Thus an intriguing paradox emerges. The attempt by each couple to produce an heir that will "carry on the family name," results in fewer potential wives in the population, and thus a decreased opportunity for the sons to fulfill their filial duty.

The upshot: enhancing the ability of each couple to achieve the benefit of a male child, diminishes the opportunity of all couples to have grandchildren, and thus "carry on the family name." In sum: what is good for each family is bad for all families.

An obvious solution would be to outlaw female feticide and infanticide, so that the sex ratio on the population would return to an approximately normal 50-50.  Bad for each, good for all.

The paradox of "good for each, bad for all," and its reciprocal "bad for each, good for all," far from being accidental consequences of this bizarre case are arguably the very foundation of social life and the fundamental justification of government. Furthermore, the failure of the radical right -- libertarians, free-market absolutists, self-described "conservatives" -- to acknowledge this paradox, renders their doctrines politically untenable and morally indefensible.

That will be the contention of this essay.

But first, consider some additional examples:

  • The voting paradox. Much easier to stay at home and let others take the trouble of studying the issues and going to the polls (good for each). But such apathy erodes the foundation of democracy and leads to autocracy (bad for all -- except the autocrats, of course). Conversely, it is the civic duty of each citizen to take the trouble to study and vote (bad for each), if a democratic government is to flourish (good for all).

  • The Wal-Mart Menace. Face it, Wal-Mart offers the lowest prices in town, so it is to the advantage of each individual to shop at Wal-Mart. But the terrible wages and working conditions at Wal-Mart drive down the wages and working conditions at competing stores, and, furthermore, the central business districts of small towns throughout the country are being devastated. That which is good for each shopper is bad for the community and for workers in general. If, like me, you choose not to shop at Wal-Mart, you will lose in cost and convenience -- bad for each. But if the boycott is widespread, "the Wal-Mart plague" will be contained, wages will rise, and "Mom and Pop" in the downtown stores will thrive again -- good for all.  One solution, of course, is for the workers to organize and to act collectively , (union dues are bad for each worker and good for all, as they help to improve wages and working conditions.). Wal-Mart knows this full well, which is why it ruthlessly suppresses union activity.

  • Antibiotics. The over-use of antibiotics "selects" resistant "super-bugs," decreasing the effectiveness of antibiotics for all. But just one more anti-biotic prescription for a trivial, "self-limiting" bronchial infection won't make a significant difference "in general," while it will clearly benefit the individual patient. But multiply that individual doctor's prescription by the millions, and we have a serious problem. "Good for each patient, bad for the general population."

  • Kidnapping and Hostage-Taking.  A strict policy of "no ransom" makes hostage-taking less likely (good for all) at the expense of the well being of individual hostages (bad for each).  Conversely, each time the ransom is paid to release the hostage (good for each), future kidnappings are encouraged (bad for all).

These examples can be added to endlessly, and are in fact formalized in "game theory" and elaborated through such moral paradoxes as "the prisoners' dilemma."

The principle of "good for each, bad for all" was forcefully brought to public attention in 1968 by Garrett Hardin, in his essay "The Tragedy of the Commons"  -- which was for a while, the most widely reprinted scientific essay of the time.

Hardin, a biologist, cites as an example, a pasture owned "in common" by residents of a village. The pasture is at "carrying capacity" -- the number of sheep is such that the villagers can, with that number, use the pasture indefinitely without reducing the productivity of the land. However, any additional sheep will degrade the pasture and thus its capacity to support livestock.

It thus becomes immediately apparent, that any individual who adds a sheep to his personal flock will gain in personal wealth, while, at the same time, by degrading the common resource and the value of the other sheep, he slightly decreases the wealth of every other villager. Each villager is similarly situated. Absent common agreement and enforcement thereof, it is "rational" for each individual to increase his personal flock, even though, in Hardin's words, "ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons."

In other words: "good for each, bad for all."

The solution? Hardin prescribes "Mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon." In other words, the rule of law enforced by government. Each individual agrees to a curtailment of liberty in behalf of the common good -- bad for each, good for all.

These principles, "good for each, bad for all" and "bad for each, good for all," resound throughout the history of political thought -- from Aristotle, through Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Jefferson, on to the present day. Indeed, the practical applications of these principles are implicit in successful communities, from the present extending far back into pre-history. They are the key to the survival of communities of social insects such as bees and termites, and of social animals such as wolf packs, wherein evolution, not argument, provides their validation.

And yet, amazingly, those who presume to call themselves "conservatives," reject these principles, in favor of another: "good for each, good for all."  This principle of the political right, exemplified by "trickle-down economics" and the assurance that "the rising [economic] tide raises all boats," is immediately appealing.  Who would not desire that collective "goods" should result from the achievement of personal well-being?  And in fact, the progressives will readily admit that many human endeavors which achieve individual benefits, also benefit society at large.

The error of the Right resides in its embrace of the principle "good for each, good for all" as dogma, applied a priori to society and the economy, virtually without exception.  By rejecting, implicitly, the principle of "good for each, bad for all" and vice versa, the Right refuses to recognize any personal price that must be paid for the maintenance of a just social order, and pays no heed to the social costs of one's personal "pursuit of happiness."

For theirs is a radically reductive view of society. According to the "free-market absolutist" faction of the falsely-labeled "conservatives" (henceforth, "regressives"), an optimal society emerges "naturally" and automatically out of an aggregate of individuals in exclusive pursuit of their personal self-interest. To the regressive, "the common good" and "public benefit" are myths. Indeed, so too is society itself -- in the words of Ronald Reagan's favorite Brit, Margaret Thatcher, "there is no such thing as society -- there are individual men and women and there are families." So-called "society" is merely an aggregate of private individuals, like a pile of sand grains, occupying contiguous space. Ideally, all associations are strictly voluntary. And because "there is no such thing as society," there are no systemic social harms. It follows that those who are poor are not helpless "victims" of society or the economy, they are poor because of their personal moral failings.  Accordingly, they "deserve" their self-inflicted misery.

For the libertarian right, the only legitimate functions of government are the protection of the three fundamental rights of life, liberty and property. Hence, the only legitimate disbursement of tax revenues is for the military (protection from foreign enemies), the "night watchman" police (protection from domestic enemies and of property), and the courts (adjudication of property disputes). Because there are no "public goods," compulsory tax payment for public education, research and development of science and technology, medical care, museums, promotion of the arts, public and national parks, etc., is the moral equivalent of theft.  (See the first three sections of my "With Liberty for Some").

According to this account of human nature and society, with the exception of the just noted protections of life, liberty and property, there is nothing that government can accomplish that private initiative and the free market cannot achieve with better results. As Ronald Reagan famously said in his first inaugural address: "government is not the solution, government is the problem." Milton Friedman concurs: "There is nothing wrong with the United States that a dose of smaller and less intrusive government would not cure." Note the uncompromising absolutism of these remarks.

No regulation, no governmental functions beyond basic protection of life, liberty and property, no taxes except to support these minimal functions. Any governmental activity beyond this should, in Grover Norquist's words, be "drowned in the bathtub."

Let the free market reign without constraint, allow all "capitalist acts between consenting adults" (Robert Nozick).  As each individual, in Adam Smith's words, "intends only his own gain," then each individual will be "led by an invisible hand to promote ... the public interest."

Good for each, good for all.

In contrast, the progressive views society as more than the sum of its parts; it is what philosophers call an "emergent entity," with properties and principles distinct from those of its components. In this sense society and its economy is like a computer, an engine, an ecosystem, a living language. If the system malfunctions, there are victims -- the poor, the oppressed, the addicted, the uneducated -- and the system is thus in need of adjustment or repair or even overhaul and redesign. And these are legitimate functions of government.

Progressives are not a dogmatists; they are empirical and pragmatic. Thus they do not completely reject free markets. That is the fatal error of communism.  Instead, Progressivism affirms that markets should neither count for nothing nor count for everything. No question, free enterprise has produced an abundance of beneficial goods and services, and has won many individuals well-deserved fortunes. It should be protected and cherished. But it should also be regulated.

For a marketplace involves more than voluntary transactions between buyers and sellers. There are, in addition, "stakeholders" -- non-participating individuals who are involuntarily affected by private transactions; for example, people who live downwind and downstream of industries that spew out pollutants. Pollution is but one of many types of "externality" resulting from private transactions that have serious public consequences. And in a democratic society, the institution specifically instituted to act in the public interest and by public consent is the government.  (Those who do not believe this should re-read the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States).

Every complex game requires a referee, beholden to no "side" but rather functioning to regulate the activity and enforce the rules, to the advantage all players in general, and none in particular. In the "game" of commerce, the "referee" is the government. For history has shown, time and again, that an unregulated "free market" leads to monopoly. In other words, it contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. The remedy, of course, is anti-trust legislation, which is to say, government.  (See my "The New Alchemy").

"Good for each, bad for all." "Bad for each, good for all." The "referee function" of democratic government -- these are not original ideas. Quite the contrary, they resound throughout the history of political thought, and in the civilized and industrialized world today, they are commonplace and virtually axiomatic, like gravity and the multiplication tables.

But not here in the United States. The free-market absolutism plus libertarian anarchism, proclaimed here by the right wing and accepted with scant criticism by the corporate media, is regarded abroad as somewhat insane. Unfortunately for us all, most Americans are immersed in this insanity.

Why, then, is regressivism dominant in our society, despite its obvious shortcomings?

Quite simply, because regressivism is what Nietzsche called a "master morality" -- an ethos devised and promulgated by, and operating to the advantage of, the wealthy and powerful. Regressivism, with its precepts of "trickle down," "the sin of poverty," taxation as "theft," the unqualified superiority of privatism over government, is essentially an elaborate justification of greed and an institutionalization of privilege.

It is, in effect, a contemporary re-incarnation of the eighteenth century dogma of "the divine right of kings," and the nineteenth century dogma of "social darwism."

We had to fight a revolution to rid ourselves of the dogma of the "Diving right." Must we fight another to free ourselves of the "master morality" of regressivism?

If so, then let it be a bloodless, "velvet" revolution.

And let begin now.

These ideas have been developed and expressed at great length in several of my published papers, available at my personal website, The Online Gadfly.  (EP)

Copyright 2004 by Ernest Partridge




Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .