August 29, 2011

Power and Distance

In any relationship in which one person or group of persons holds some power over another, the likelihood of that power becoming oppressive increases as the likelihood of contact between two parties decreases. This law holds true regardless of the type or nature of human institution in question. It is as true of left wing governments as of right wing governments. It is true of corporations. It is true of religious hierarchies. While it is always possible for people to treat one another badly face-to-face, it is always easier to deal callously with people that one neither knows nor sees.

This principle sounds so obvious as to hardly be worth mentioning. We have all been on the receiving end of someone else’s thoughtless policy at one time or another. We have all asked ourselves “what idiot made that rule?” Nevertheless, whether we lean left or right, we tend to think that there is some ideal way to organize society. We believe that creating a decent society is just a matter of getting all the rules right. My contention here is that any manipulation of other peoples’ lives on a large, impersonal scale, no matter how well intentioned, will eventually degenerate into an attempt to make human beings conform to the needs of a system, rather than making a system conform to the needs of human beings.

One example of this is the rise of industrial regulation. Unquestionably, it is a good thing that industries be prevented from despoiling their environments in gross and obvious ways. It is a good thing that they should be prohibited from producing unduly dangerous products, or putting employees in serious danger. The guiding principle in all such regulations is one of safety. However, human institutions have a life of their own. Beyond creating rules to advance the cause of safety, the work of the regulator will eventually creep into other realms. They will produce regulations to benefit themselves, or to manipulate industries to suit someone’s theories, or, often, simply for the reason that they can – in other words, purely for the exercise of power. Many laws and policies produce paperwork without producing any tangible benefit to anyone. Of course, in the absence of industrial regulation one finds abuses of similar character rendered by the industries themselves. When it is profitable to despoil someone else’s land or extract money that does not correspond to any actual goods or services it is a rare corporation that will quibble about ethics. It is not a failing of this group or that group. It is simply in the nature of human perception that the problems of distant parties are always tenuous abstractions while producing benefits for oneself, one’s family, one’s institution, or one’s cronies is a far more pressing concern.

Neither should we think that we are discussing a tendency that is a unique disease of power. While this sort of moral myopia is most dramatically expressed by those who wield authority, it is the social distance, not the possession of authority, which is the root of this tendency. Consider the September 11th attacks. A great many Arabs around the world openly reveled in the attacks, not because they hated any of the victims personally, but because they hated America, the ally of Israel, in the abstract. Likewise, many quite peaceable Americans, the sort of people who would readily come to the aid of any real individual in distress, were calling for what amounted to blood vengeance on behalf of their country. Patriotism is nothing if not the reduction of individuals to abstractions. It is the mass dehumanization of both the enemy and oneself. Yet none of this, on either side, was whipped up by any real authority. Rather, it sprang spontaneously from ordinary people.

If, as a species, we want to build a future with less suffering than our past then we had better put at least two unworkable ideas behind us. First, we need to give up on a magical belief in ideal systems. We cannot legislate and organize our way to utopia. To value any idea as more important than a life can only end in denigrating life. Second, we need to drop the recently revived idea that we can extract moral perfection from a careful study of nature. Everything is nature – including the Holocaust. It is only the plasticity of human beings that offers any real hope. The trick is to invent without falling in love with our inventions, not to maintain unwavering fidelity to the customs of banobos and baboons.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with everything except the last statement: on the contrary, we must extract moral perfection from a careful study of nature. I would say that the kind of analysis of power and distance you just engaged in is a study of nature. Studying the customs of baboons is how we rise above them.

    In essence, we are trying to extend our personal moral framework from our evolutionary origins of hundreds-person networks to our social needs of billions-person networks. Studying that biological network is the only way we can invent ways to trick it into expanding itself.