personal v. impersonal
- The recent headlines about the lost soul loose cannon at Virginia Tech graphically show the failures of an overly impersonal society.He had given warning signs all over the place for years and only one or two professors tried to do anything.
It would be easy to blame multiversities with 20,000 students and up, but it could happen anywhere. My first year of college was in a small, supposedly personal engineering school. My second was in a state university with maybe 15,000 students, where I actually had better personal relationships with the professors.
We do have our personal cravings. Bruce Perry, The Boy Who Raised as a Dog, has a poignant correleation over centuries between the decline of the EXTENDED family and the rise of various social ills. The human emotional and psychological make-up evolved over about two million years in food-sharing hunter-gatherer bands of about two dozen, per Leakey and Lewin, People of the Lake: Mankind and its Origins. Food-sharing requires sympathetic emotions compelling members of the band to each others' aid and aggressive emotions to deal with cheaters. See the index references on "altruism, reciprocal," about such bands erupting in unison when a member is caught and reducing the miscreant to tears.
That is the arch-type of so much supposedly modern behavior, whether the standard soap opera accusation, on TV or in real life, "You didn't really intend to...," or all the various attempts to run society by fiat, sympathetic or aggressive, also known as political will.
Unfortunately personal relationships have sever limitations in meeting impersonal needs. Adam Smith, Chapter Two, showed the limitations of benevolence alone. Perhaps the most benevolence alone can accomplish in actual production is the old-fashioned barn-raising. Of course there are times when it is necessary, promptly, as in Katrina and such.
But that sort of thing cannot sustain an economy. We have to have due regard and realistic expectatins of the impersonal side of life too. If impersonal currency were abolished tomorrow about 95% of the world's population would starve in two weeks.
There are other vital impersonal considerations too. Keeping track of the personal and impersonal would ease a lot of the problems of the world today.
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Toward a Proper Appreciation of the Impersonal
Primitive peoples unexposed to, say, motor vehicles or DVDs, would explain them as spirits doing this and that, not in our impersonal terms. We appreciate certain impersonal basics of fire and electricity, for all the specialized expertise needed to produce engines or electronic devices. Properly observed, they let us enjoy immeasurable benefits in near complete safety. When fire or electricity do destroy, maim, or kill, it is usually because some numbnuck did not observe them.
We even have a common household expression, "Playing with fire." You dont hit the accelerator when you want the brake or vice-versa, or put pennies in the fusebox. There is nothing personal about it, just cut-and-dried cause and effect.
How do we do in politics? Politics has always been and always will be intensely personal, not what you know, but who you know. As early Tammany figure George Washington Plunkitt said to a cousin, "Tommy, Im goin to be a politician and I want to get a followin; can I count on you? He said: Sure, George. Thats how I started in business. I got a marketable commodity- one vote." (Riordon, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall)
Political problems are seen in personal terms, in two general varieties. Either the greedy, stingy powers-that-be will not share the wealth or the lily-livered powers-that-wont-be are letting off crooks on technicalities or fighting no-win wars.
Making everything personal and ignoring the impersonal creates its own problems. Then politics is little but a contest of personalities, a cauldron of competing wills, whose benefits go to the grossest, most agile opportunists. Then the general public throws up its hands in despair and confusion and says theyre all crooked.
A completely personal politics is just an insiders game, who you know, indeed. Plunkitt also said, "I seen my opportunities, and I took em." It precludes genuine public involvement or benefit, anything beyond inside manipulation and ever more cynicism and disconnection.
We do know what the road to hell is paved with, do we not? Good intentions, for those who do not. If politics is purely personal then all the public can do is vote for the politician with the purest intentions, at least before the election.
There is more to genuine solutions than generating political will or getting the right people elected or hired or getting the proper benefits passed out. A completely personal approach removes any objective, understandable criteria by which political initiatives can be evaluated, from the inside or outside. It precludes government as a public trust and due process to limit arbitrary power. It still has to operate through impersonal bureaucracy.
Social issues are far from completely personal. Largely impersonal factors determine whether political activity accomplishes anything of general public benefit or benefits anyone beyond the gross opportunists. Any worthwhile politics has to properly consider the consequences of action whether anyone intends or even understands them.
Completely personal politics do not distin-guish between internal thoughts and external reality, contrary to both science and mental health. Even ordinary personal consideration needs recognition of the extra-personal, something beyond self-absorbtion.
Cause and effect in social issues is not cut-and-dried or easily understood or precisely calculated. It is there, but it takes mental effort, a scarce com-modity in this heedless age. Consider how "right" intentions fail to produce good results:
1) If punishment deters crime, does more punishment deter more crime? No, not if it is inflicted on the innocent. Protection of the innocent is no idle, idealistic luxury. If the innocent are not protected, then excessive, indiscriminate punish-ment creates its own prospective criminal class, figuring, "Get it if I do, get it if I dont." Then all the blood and treasure expended on deterrence is down the drain. Meat-axe prohibitions of drink, drugs and guns embroil law enforcement in much innocent activity and historically cause more crime and trouble than they save.
2) Does more war make us more secure? No, not if it is not properly addressing a real threat, not if it is making enemies faster than it is killing them. Nazi Germany would have been considerably more secure with considerably less war. See Federalist No. 6 on ulterior motivations for war and effects of unnecessary war. War, however, is its own justifi-cation in many minds, judging by continuing support for the Iraq war after its original pretexts collapsed. See Federalist No. 8 on that one.
3) The famous Supreme Court opinion said of pornography, "I know it when I see it." Education is just as subjective. Marva Collins establishes a relationship with the student, the basis of her success, in twenty-five words or less. Can such a personal, subjective accomplishment come from impersonal marching orders to students, teachers, and administrators? The most personal politics still has to has to operate through impersonal bureaucracy, bureaucracy that can only operate on lowest common denominators. What is the perpet-ual lament of "school reform"? Teaching to test.
4) Can the personal approach restore the ability to support a family with just one job, not two? It wails like King Canute commanding back the tides, but the impersonal approach would make the moon go some other way. It sees a market process hampered and distorted in countless ways, largely by all sorts of ways to get rich off government, notably excessive spending. Then parents have to work countless hours to pay taxes and keep up with inflation. They do not have the proper time for children. Then the "free" impersonal schools blame them for the problems. But Mary Eberstadt, Home Alone America, traces the problems of todays youth to absent parents.
5) If some people get rich off politics, can everybody? Can it spread even modest wealth? Can everyone win at the casino? Unfortunately, for the completely personal approach, wealth beyond the bounty of nature is the product of an impersonal market process. Somewhat beyond the completely personal approach is the notion that government can only take from some and give to others; it produces nothing on its own.
6) The personal approach obviously creates jobs. As Plunkitt put it, "Its a grand idea, the city ownin the railroads, the gas works, and all that. Just see how many thousands of new places there would be for the workers in Tammany!" A bit too obviously; a bit of impersonal analysis shows each make-work job destroys several real jobs. Figure a) taxes come out of future, capital expenditures, not present consumption, and b) the investment the expenses of a make-work job would support. Creating real jobs is an impersonal matter.
7) Has a clearance sale ever charged more, not less? Has a store ever tried to move merchandise by charging more? There us much too much unsold labor, the source of many other problems. Rightly or wrongly, prospective employers do not expect much from it. Is charging more any way to get its foot in the door? The impersonal function of a market price is to match buyers and sellers. More buyers raise prices, more sellers lower them. Dictating prices disrupts the equalizing and proportioning function; it creates artificial shortages here and artificial surpluses there. Thus the hampered but still impersonal market process cannot produce as much of what people willingly pay for, raises the cost of living, and hurts the poor most of all.
8) Does a minimum wage upgrade Chevy jobs into Cadillac jobs? Or does it produce Cadillac jobs for some and Yugo jobs, if any, for everyone else? If it actually raises wages on the lower end, how about the higher end, say, a minimum wage of $20/hr? or $50? Why, think of the money the capitalists would make off all that increased demand! Or would it just put anyone who cannot make that kind of money out of work?
9) Gentrification is another tide the personal approach can only command back. The impersonal approach, however, sees a nanny state for upscale housing, government loans, tax deductions, urban renewal projects. It also sees one Samuel Eberly Gross a century ago who built thousands of homes for common, ordinary working people as a straight commercial deal, without government programs.
The overly impersonal approach is no solution either, as libertarians and conservatives prove all the time. For all their tributes to the "invisible hand," they forget Adam Smith also said "address others self-love." That is, except for arousing resentment, itself overly personal. An overly impersonal approach is playing with fire too.
The personal approach is hard-wired into us. Our emotional and psychological make-ups evolved over two million years in food-sharing bands of about two dozen. Sympathetic emotions impelled members of the band to each others aid; aggressive emotions dealt with cheaters. Members caught in cheating can be reduced to tears by moral aggression, according to Leakey and Lewin, People of the Lake. That works fine in homogenous bands of two dozen, where "from each according to his ability; to each according to his need" is a work-able ideal, at least for those limited resources.
In the diverse, far-flung money economy, however, the impersonal approach demands the "icy, egotistical calculation" so bewailed by the Communist Manifesto, but routinely applied to fire and electricity. It is high time indeed to make some drastic adjustments in political affairs.
What if we shopped for groceries like politics? Every two or four years we would pick a package deal with a lot of stuff we do not want. If more than two packages are running, we might pick the one we like best (Nader, say) and wind up with the one we like least (Bush, for example).
The impersonal approach, on the other hand, would not use government for anything more than absolutely necessary, for things of their nature that cannot be done privately. It seems cold at first to the completely personal approach, but figure you could shop around so much more.
That is not too impersonal, is it? Who knows, a common understanding of objective criteria might be the basis of countless personal relationships.
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William F. Wendt, Jr. Editor and Publisher $5 per copy 10 for $35 hard currency accepted
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