posted Apr 19, 2007

Do you live in civilization?

Like so many such questions, the answer entirely depends on your definition of "civilization"; once you've accepted the definition, the answer is obvious. Another of my favorite examples is "Is X art?"; once you accept the definition of art, the answer is usually obvious. It's the accepting of a definition that's the interesting part, not the question itself. Often it's not even meaningful to try to say which definition is "better" or "worse", it's just a matter of what each given definition captures and highlights.

By some useful definitions, the answer is clearly "yes". I am submersed in creature comforts. I have hot and cold running water. I have so much culture of every kind available, high and low, that it takes a conscious effort to avoid it, so I can have a moment's peace. My question is not "Will I starve?", but "How can I lose weight?", and not "Will I eat?" but "How tasty will my next meal be?" (And hopefully I'm being good, and there's some "How nutritious can I make it?" in there too.)

Every day I can contact an almost unimaginable number of people. I routinely conduct commerce many levels removed from actual physical reality, like when my TiVo account is automatically billed so my TiVo continues to be sent metadata about when particular bits which represent video will be available on my copper wire. Of such reliable and abstract commerce is a civilization made.

This is an important definition of civilization, and I do not mean to demean it. If anything, I wish more people understood it. But it is itself built upon an even deeper level of "civilization", the social contract. In exchange for giving up many of my natural freedoms, I agree to behave according to certain social norms (such as believing in this "money" thing), and we agree to help each other when we are under attack by the forces of Nature, or those who have placed themselves outside of civilization. We commonly call these people "criminals", although I tend to say that only violent criminals have chosen to leave civilization behind. (There's some fuzziness here, but I don't think copying an MP3 illegally is exactly rejecting civilization.)

The question "Do you live in civilization?" is much more interesting and nuanced for this definition of civilization. You only live in civilization to the extent that you are required to conform to the civilization's norms, and to the extent you can cash in on the obligation to be helped. The former is a no-brainer; we are all required to act in accordance with civilization or face the consequences, so take it as given. The italicized portion is somewhat less clear.

The basic emergency services, who are the people we directly charge with offering these civilizational services on a routine basis (because specialization is good), differ widely in their effectiveness. While they all have the same rough response time of "several minutes to an hour" or so in most localities, the time-sensitivity of the events they are responding to varies. It is better to have medical treatment immediately when a problem occurs... heck, in many cases it's better to have preemptive medical treatment... but even with a several-minute lead time, medical treatment can radically improve your prognosis. It's better for the fire simply to not start, but even with a several minute head start for the fire, a firefighter can do a lot of good vs. no firefighter at all. But with the police... ah, there things get somewhat interesting.

Many crimes happen within seconds or minutes. There's no way the police can get there in time to prevent it, and the fact is that even if they could, they still might not prevent it. (They have an obligation to keep themselves reasonably safe too, and if anybody has earned that, they have.) And then it's over, and all the justice system can do is pick up the pieces, and deal out post facto justice, if that.

It's not quite as bad as that paragraph might sound at first, because the police do reduce crime. But it's a second-order effect; they reduce crime by impressing upon criminals that the costs of their crimes will outweigh the benefits, and by removing criminally-inclined people from the body politic. They don't actually prevent crimes already in progress.

When it comes to law-enforcement-civilization, the only people you can even hope to count on are the ones within the range of your voice. It doesn't have to be formally-designated "police", it can be anyone willing to pay their dues to civilization and help you out. But that's all you'll have.

And sometimes, the only person in the range of your voice is you.

You can quibble with my interpretation of these facts, but unless you always live somewhere where you can summon protection within, say, five seconds, it is simply a fact that you do not live in law-enforcement civilization. If you are reading this, you most likely live within it's second-order penumbra, which is a hell of a lot better than nothing as anyone who doesn't can attest, but it's still far from perfect protection.

I will concede that you are probably safe in deriving my views on the virtue and reason for the Second Amendment from this post. (The second-order penumbra from law enforcement has expanded a lot since the late 1700's, but immediate law enforcement presence hasn't changed significantly since then.) But I will say that even more important than any amount of armament of any kind in anybody's hand is the culture. Are you willing to do your part to help others when they need it? Because in the aggregate, if not, you probably won't get help when you need it.

The passengers of Flight 93 were civilized, and they didn't need a gun to do it, just determination.

If Mark Steyn is accurate in his description of the behavior of those in the Marc Lepine/Gamil Gharbi shooting, then the shooter wasn't the only barbarian present. One man was legally culpable, but many men betrayed civilization.

Professor Liviu Librescu was a civilized man, which is particularly notable after being the victim of one of the largest betrayals of civilization in history.

An even more important question that "Do you live in civilization?" is, Are you civilized when the bill comes?


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