- Everything alright?
- Fine. Why do you ask?
- It's been a while since our last conversation. Last month* you proposed that like there was atrophy of muscles and memory in their disuse, so there was an atrophy of good.
- You wonder if I've atrophied. You're welcome to test me.
- Then I will. Here's my question: Is the same true of societies as for individuals? Is there an atrophy good in a society? I've been reading the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Ferguson who seems to have thought so. His 1757 book is called Essay on the History Of Civil Society. I've marked a few passages:
There have certainly been very few examples of states, who have, by
arts of policy, improved the original dispositions of human nature, or
endeavoured, by wise and effectual precautions, to prevent its
corruption. Affection, and force of mind, which are the band and the
strength of communities, were the inspiration of God, and original
attributes in the nature of man. The wisest policy of nations, except
in a few instances, has tended, we may suspect, rather to maintain the peace of society, and to repress the external effects of bad passions, than to strengthen the disposition of the heart itself to justice and goodness. It has tended, by introducing a variety of arts, to exercise the ingenuity of men, and by engaging them in a variety of pursuits, inquiries, and studies, to inform, but frequently to corrupt the mind. It has tended to furnish matter of distinction and vanity; and by incumbering the individual with new subjects of personal care, to substitute the anxiety he entertains for a separate fortune, instead of the confidence and the affection with which he should unite with his fellow creatures, for their joint preservation.
If to any people it be the avowed object of policy in all its internal
refinements, to secure only the person and the property of the
subject, without any regard to his political character, the
constitution indeed may be free, but its members may likewise become unworthy of the freedom they possess, and unfit to preserve it.
But, apart from these considerations, the separation of professions,That last sentence has the most weight for me. Specialization, the division of labor, tends to corrupt the mind: make people selfish, self absorbed, and vain of their power within their speciality. Without deliberate attempt to strengthen the disposition of heart to justice and goodness society atrophies. Do you think he was right?
while it seems to promise improvement of skill, and is actually the
cause why the productions of every art become more perfect as commerce advances; yet, in its termination and ultimate effects, serves, in some measure, to break the bands of society, to substitute mere forms and rules of art in place of ingenuity, and to withdraw individuals from the common scene of occupation, on which the sentiments of the heart, and the mind, are most happily employed.
- A muscle atrophies by poisoning itself, one chemical process interfering with another. Is there a parellel in society? Looking at our times, is there some regular process in which one part is poisoned by the other? Is the free market the poisoning mechanism?
- Many people say so. The free market creates conditions that make a good life, a life of confidence and affection, more difficult. People even say that the disruption of everyday life is deliberate: market societies deliberately start wars, grant unpayable loans, cause economic depressions, so as later to move in, cheaply pick up the pieces, increase their market share acquiring businesses and properties.
- A market society, letting good atrophy, deliberately poisons itself, together with the soon to be incorporated world around it.
- Yes. So the argument goes.
- And like the invisible hand of the market place in which everyone seeking their own advantage is, it's claimed, to the advantage of all, this process of poisoning also is automatic?
- Yes. Market society makes a life doing good difficult or impossible, which incapacity opens further markets to the society of trade, making life of doing good even more difficult. Wouldn't a good example would be today's news, the mass migration of refugees from war-torn Syria towards Germany? Market society creates huge disorder with two big wars, one in Iraq and one in Afganistan, and refugees stream from newly opened war zones out to market society's home territory, to Germany, Europe's most powerful market society. Along their way in Hungary the migrants encounter mistreatment by the market society's own home grown disruption, neo-fascist anti-immigration political parties. The German government is now showing signs of willingness accept the migrants for the very sake of creating further internal disruption, a new labor pool to lower the wages of workers, the cost of the surplus migrants presence paid mostly by workers themselves who unlike the rich can't bribe the government to lower their taxes. The surplus remain in the country as internal, eternal migrants, forced to move place to place, no place their own, functioning like the American army of the dying on the street as a source of permanent fright and disruption of everyday life.
- How can a process like that be automatic?
- The disruption is restricted to economic realms that are still uncontrolled: local businesses not yet taken over by a chain store, undeveloped countries invaded militarily or their markets conquered by import of subsidized grain. The desire for profit, and the ability to control government war making and subsidies, brings the rest.
- An automatic process in which government in control of big business creates disruption, inside the country and out, which disruption creates conditions of expansion. And expansion brings progressive atrophy of good.
- Which I, doing all the talking, was supposed to be testing you on.
- But giving you the exercise, saving you from atrophy, wasn't that good of me?
* The Atrophy Of Good