posted Jan 29, 2007

I've wanted to write something similar to this: The trajectory of a society matters. (I've retitled it for my link as I don't think the original really captures the point.)

I'm fairly confident that one of the reasons why my political views differ from others is the firm belief that what we have here in the US and civilized world, where we don't worry about where our next meal is coming from or whether we'll have good water to drink and that sort of thing, is more fragile than most people think. Things that we take for granted like a certain degree of trust in the government, the ability to trust our business associates (and we all have hundreds of business associates), and the reasonable expectation that nobody is going to point a gun at me today, are all vitally important components of our society. No matter how strong those characteristics might become, we can never afford to be blasé about them, because the "tipping point" where it all comes apart can come upon you faster than you think.

This is a component of many of my opinions. I don't think we're ever so strong that we can afford to let people who are in a shooting war with the United States go running around freely, even if they don't have a lot of power today, and even if they have some set of justifiable grievances. Even if you don't think the terrorists are a real threat at this moment in time... a formulation I actually largely agree with(!)... tell me the trajectory of the Islamists isn't worth doing something about.

On the other side of the traditional ideological spectrum, I think white collar crime is horribly underrated in our system, both the formal legal system and the informal media system. I hate to place implied values on people's lives, but what was done by Enron was far worse than a single murder in almost every way. The money stolen, the trust squandered, the subsequent money wasted on half-assed laws like Sarbanes-Oxley that really don't solve anything but sure cost a lot of money to do it, it's a huge blow to society. Even that doesn't capture the fact that this "blow to society" will manifest itself in actual hurt and pain distributed across millions of people. The negative effect of this on our societal trajectory is hard to overstate.

This is the biggest problem with the sensationalist nature of our current media. When everything is unremittingly the worst possible bad news, trust in our society is unnecessarily and improperly degraded, leaving us excessively cynical, and ironically in the end more tolerant of real problems because we've spent all of our energy worrying about fake ones. Isn't it odd how similar the coverage intensity is for the (putatively, but that's another post) disastrous Iraq war, and the Kidnapping of the Week? I'd say the coverage of the Kidnapping of the Week does far more harm than the kidnapping itself, by convincing people that we're on a more negative trajectory than we are.

These vital characteristics that are what truly separate us from a third world country are so fragile. Of course, who am I to truly know whether my opinions are correct? But I can wish more people would be considering societal cohesion and strength in their debating and their tactics; some groups are deliberately tearing at the fabric of society in the misguided notion that they can put the shreds back together better, rather than ending up with violent chaos, which is how societies actually come apart.

The traditional conclusion to an essay like this is to say that we're going down, down, down, and there's nothing we can do to stop it. Actually, I don't think that's true. I think that we're actually in really good shape, and that the greatest problem we currently face is the false perception that everything around us is in a permanent state of disaster. By almost any concrete metric you can think of, things have gotten a lot better in the past century and continue to improve. This perception causes us to concentrate on non-problems, resulting in solutions to those non-problems, which are therefore almost entirely harmful.


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