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Subject: In Search of Consensus on Personal Responsibility rss

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Kelsey Rinella
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I've been thinking a bit about risk, insurance, and responsibility. I wonder whether it would be possible to get broad-based agreement on a view of personal responsibility I find coalescing in my head, though not yet well worked-out. Here are some pieces:

- I have read that Adam Smith's reason for preferring capitalism was its effect on the characters of its participants. By exposing people to the risks and opportunities attendant to their behavior, it would encourage probity and the governance of impulses. Under certain fairly restrictive assumptions, this makes sense to me.
- We are not morally responsible for that over which we have no control, and our degree of responsibility essentially scales with our degree of control (neglecting concerns about the formation of the self).

So, a question each for the left and the right:
Isn't it legitimate, even important, for the government to encourage the character of its citizens such as will improve the nation?
How does it promote such character to allow the market to punish just the sort of behavior we wish to encourage?

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1) Yes, it absolutely does. Any grouping of people, be it a nation-state or a football team, is only as good as the quality of the PEOPLE that comprise it. This is why I have such a hard-on for education. Without it being of sufficient quality (in terms of attainment AND character-formation) we build our castles on sand. In the UK we're doubly screwed as we have had the worst of the bleeding-heart "nobody can fail" excesses coupled with a ripping out of any curricular activity that doesn't directly train you for being a productive economic resource unit.

2) I am tired of hearing the word "market" applied to every thread of life's tapestry regardless of suitability.
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A free market just like a democracy reflects the values of the people who are involved in it. If the people value responsibility then the government and the market will encourage such. If the people are greedy and value getting more stuff above all else regardless of responsibility the market and government will reflect that as well.

The market is a reflection of what the people want who are involved in it.
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Ed Bradley
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jeff brown wrote:
A free market just like a democracy reflects the values of the people who are involved in it.


Yeah. Nice theory at least.
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Fwing wrote:
jeff brown wrote:
A free market just like a democracy reflects the values of the people who are involved in it.


Yeah. Nice theory at least.

I'd be interested in where you disagree.

A lot of people think that our democracy is failing because it doesn't reflect the values of the people. I think that our democracy is failing because it reflects the values of the people

There is a reason why we won't vote for someone who doesn't lie to us.

The market is the same: it efficiently provides whatever there is a demand for, for good or for ill.
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rinelk wrote:
Isn't it legitimate, even important, for the government to encourage the character of its citizens such as will improve the nation?


Absolutely. Personal responsibility is critical for successful relationships, parenting, citizenship, finances, etc.

Quote:
How does it promote such character to allow the market to punish just the sort of behavior we wish to encourage?


I don't think "punishing" is the right word. People need to be able to fail. We learn from failing. The question (to me) is not "should people be prevented from failing?" First, that's not just impractical, it's stupid. Second, if you're prevented from failing then you, by default, are required to take far less personal responsibility.

I think the argument ends up being "What should the impacts of failure be?" If you fail to repay your mortgage (for whatever reason - signed a bad loan, lost your job, just a lazy bum), you should lose your house. Does that mean that you should end up on the streets? That your family should? If you lose your job, what's an appropriate degree of support to provide that keeps you from starving and dying from exposure without making you a ward of the state?

That's the argument in my mind. It's got nothing to do with markets. It has to do with what we believe we should offer to each other as members of society. I personally think that we are so focused on money in the US that we miss those discussions repeatedly. We miss them on fiscal policy, welfare, health care, infrastructure, etc. because our emphasis is on personal income and wealth first. That's fine - you should be able to earn the former and accumulate the latter. But it seems that the measure of a society should be how it looks after all of its members not the accumulated scratch of its wealthiest members. We're failing there.
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Ken
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jeff brown wrote:
A lot of people think that our democracy is failing because it doesn't reflect the values of the people. I think that our democracy is failing because it reflects the values of the people


If it's failing, it's because we haven't a consensus on what the values of the people are. We probably should agree on that before we try implementing a society that tries to reflect it.
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perfalbion wrote:
jeff brown wrote:
A lot of people think that our democracy is failing because it doesn't reflect the values of the people. I think that our democracy is failing because it reflects the values of the people


If it's failing, it's because we haven't a consensus on what the values of the people are. We probably should agree on that before we try implementing a society that tries to reflect it.


You don't have to decide on values before you have them. In its simplest form what you value is what you want. Values are what you desire because you "value" them more then other things. Government and the market automatically reflect what the people most want, we don't have to decide on what that is.
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perfalbion wrote:


If it's failing, it's because we haven't a consensus on what the values of the people are. We probably should agree on that before we try implementing a society that tries to reflect it.


As Ken often does, he's identified a key issue. However, I am not sure that it's possible to get to a consensus anymore.

Our society doesn't share many common values. And, even when it comes to things everyone agrees on, like not kicking kittens or eating babies, we can't agree on how to implement policy to prevent this behavior.

In the "good old days," everyone expected to work hard and be rewarded. Some lucky or particularly hard workers would strike it rich. I don't think everyone agrees on that even that.




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qzhdad wrote:
perfalbion wrote:


If it's failing, it's because we haven't a consensus on what the values of the people are. We probably should agree on that before we try implementing a society that tries to reflect it.


As Ken often does, he's identified a key issue. However, I am not sure that it's possible to get to a consensus anymore.

Our society doesn't share many common values. And, even when it comes to things everyone agrees on, like not kicking kittens or eating babies, we can't agree on how to implement policy to prevent this behavior.

In the "good old days," everyone expected to work hard and be rewarded. Some lucky or particularly hard workers would strike it rich. I don't think everyone agrees on that even that.



I think that a common value that we now have is we want stuff and we don't want to have to pay for it. In other words greed. That's why our government and market both reflect that.
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In the battle between Economy and Culture, we have set up a system where culture will inevitably lose if we don't impose elements of the Culture (in this case some values) on the Economy. In this case, I use Economy to mean the system we have allowed to evolve that allows us to exchange goods and services and to become more comfortable and secure surviving this life we live.

In a context of freedom, which is one of the few cultural artifacts we all agree the U.S. is based on, we have set up a system of adversarialism (I made that word up I think) that actually encourages profiting at others expenses. In many cases, you profit more the more you make others sacrifice. Chad's new negotiation blog is a great example of what skills are needed to survive in todays Economy. We are presented with choices that many times are, at best, unfair and often times destructive to the other parties involved in our choices. Literally, these choices happen thousands of times a day across our Economy, Having to make these choices are having a reverse-feedback effect on our culture in that people are now being educated, both formally and though experience, to see every opportunity as a chance for gain, often at others expense. Sure, there have been people since time immortal that have gamed the system for personal gain, but often the culture they existed in self-limited (read: curtailed their "freedom") their damage to the tribal/town/city/region group.

So, I think other posters have it right when they say, what are our shared values and what is our shared culture? At some point along the way we decided, for better or worse, to allow our Economy to dictate our Culture instead of vice-versa. As long as people are willing to adopt the primitive "survival of the fittest" value structure, our civilization will be stalled and any Cultural problems we have now will not be resolved.

Having said that, I am at a loss to say what Culture we should adopt. There are many cultures whose values I find anywhere from irritating to loathsome and I'm not sure I'd want to have those values mandated. I will say, that the culture being foisted on us by our current Plutocracy/Corporatocracy is definitely not high on my list of ideals.
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Ken
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jeff brown wrote:
You don't have to decide on values before you have them.


At a societal level? Sure you do. There's not 100% agreement and we don't discuss the compromises we're willing to accept very much right now.

The market and the government need to be defined by the society. If the society doesn't decide what the parameters for those are, then you can't expect the market or government to reflet them.

For example - we debated how we fund health care. Who gives a shit? We needed to discuss whether we think providing health care should be a job of the society overall or not. Is it moral to deny someone care because they can't afford it? If the answer to that is "yes," then there's no reason whatsoever to continue to discuss the issue. If the answer is "no," then we need to discuss what limits should apply.
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jeff brown wrote:
Fwing wrote:
jeff brown wrote:
A free market just like a democracy reflects the values of the people who are involved in it.


Yeah. Nice theory at least.

I'd be interested in where you disagree.


I don't disagree I just don't think a truly free market or a pure democracy exists anywhere. Or has ever existed.

Our current democracies are consumerist propaganda machines. We're stuck on a treadmill and are never offered any perspective beyond "buy this! want that" blaring at us every second of the day. We have a poor education system that helps people fail to realise this. We have such "necessarily" busy lives we have no time to contemplate either way. The only beliefs we inculcate in ourselves are the ones related to material status. As a wiser man than I said: Spend money you don't have on stuff you don't need to make impressions that don't last on people you don't care about.

Free markets and democracy. Lovely theories. Shitty in practice.
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Kelsey Rinella
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perfalbion wrote:
Quote:
How does it promote such character to allow the market to punish just the sort of behavior we wish to encourage?


I don't think "punishing" is the right word. People need to be able to fail. We learn from failing. The question (to me) is not "should people be prevented from failing?" First, that's not just impractical, it's stupid. Second, if you're prevented from failing then you, by default, are required to take far less personal responsibility.

I think the argument ends up being "What should the impacts of failure be?" If you fail to repay your mortgage (for whatever reason - signed a bad loan, lost your job, just a lazy bum), you should lose your house.


So if someone does work hard and exercise probity and good judgment, doesn't that mean that having that person fail is bad?

What I'm wondering about is the economic equivalent of a lightning strike (on a house with all reasonable countermeasures). If you chose your job as well as anyone could, worked hard at it, didn't make frivolous purchases or overextend yourself, and you lose your job for reasons over which you couldn't possibly exercise control, that seems like the sort of economic dislocation which doesn't serve the polity. You say "punishment" seems like the wrong word, and I'm fine with that, but "failure" seems equally wrong when you're talking about someone who did everything they ought--there's an overtone of, well, personal responsibility, and that seems inaccurate.

Possibly what's going on is something to which, as a consequentialist, I'm actually sort of friendly: the retrospective evaluation of action. On this view, we know an action was (economically) right only after the fact, when we see how it turned out. There's no standard for good economic decision-making which can be applied beforehand. But if that's true, it seems to collapse the distinction between virtue and economic success, which makes nonsense of Smith's position.
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qzhdad wrote:
Our society doesn't share many common values.


Actually, I don't think that's true. I think what's actually true is that we've allowed the political process to become so much about where we disagree that we actually forget where we agree.

I see it all over this very board. Republicans are all pure free-marketeers who don't think government should be doing just about anything. Democrats are coddling idiots that want everyone to live a middle-class lifestyle even if they don't work. Republicans are bible-thumping zealots who want to dictate personal behavior. Democrats are for "whatever you want" and think your 14 year-old daughter should be able to participate in ecstasy fogged orgies.

We miss where we share values because we've allowed our politics to be defined by wedge issues.
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Kelsey Rinella
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TheChin! wrote:
As long as people are willing to adopt the primitive "survival of the fittest" value structure, our civilization will be stalled and any Cultural problems we have now will not be resolved.


I guess what I'm getting at is that it both seems like we ought to be promoting fitness at some level, and that we aren't even doing that--right now, we seem frequently to be treating fitness which fails through no fault of its own and unfitness too similarly.

A more nuanced version of the fitness = success position I sketched earlier might be that, even though we might agree that they aren't the same, we don't have a good method for pulling them apart, so that's the measure we ought to use. In fact, I think something like this is sort of assumed a lot of the time, but I'd be interested to know whether any effort has ever been put into demonstrating it or exploring other options.
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rinelk wrote:
So if someone does work hard and exercise probity and good judgment, doesn't that mean that having that person fail is bad?


You can't create a perfect world. Luck still matters sometimes. External events still matter. There's lots of reasons to fail that all the hard work, probity, and judgment can't overcome. Presume that you're designing a game. You spend money getting it ready to go to market. 2 weeks before you release, Rio Grande releases a nearly identical title with marketing muscle you can't hope to compete with. Completely coincidental, but what does that do to the likelihood that you'll succeed?

One of the most prevailing myths in the US culture is "well if you'd just work harder..." Which is really crap. Work matters, but it's hardly the only factor.

Quote:
You say "punishment" seems like the wrong word, and I'm fine with that, but "failure" seems equally wrong when you're talking about someone who did everything they ought--there's an overtone of, well, personal responsibility, and that seems inaccurate.


Which is why I specifically call out that failure has many sources in my post. You can bust your ass and still fail. Having done two relatively extended stints on the unemployment line, I'm very aware of that.

Quote:
There's no standard for good economic decision-making which can be applied beforehand.


I don't agree at all. I was personally amazed that we permitted 2/28 pay option mortgages with prepayment penalties for the first 3-5 years and negative amortization. I was personally surprised that we went through the idiocy of the Bush tax cuts and swallowed that somehow the economy would grow so fast it would close the deficit after we'd been through supply-side economics. I am continuously stunned that we discuss fiscal responsibility while we pretty much ignore infrastructure spending, entitlement restructuring, funding pensions etc.

We tend to boil everything down to one metric - money. That's a bad metric sometimes. But since we don't set any other metrics we want to use, that's all that we really have for common ground.
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rinelk wrote:
I've been thinking a bit about risk, insurance, and responsibility. I wonder whether it would be possible to get broad-based agreement on a view of personal responsibility I find coalescing in my head, though not yet well worked-out. Here are some pieces:

- I have read that Adam Smith's reason for preferring capitalism was its effect on the characters of its participants. By exposing people to the risks and opportunities attendant to their behavior, it would encourage probity and the governance of impulses. Under certain fairly restrictive assumptions, this makes sense to me.
- We are not morally responsible for that over which we have no control, and our degree of responsibility essentially scales with our degree of control (neglecting concerns about the formation of the self).

So, a question each for the left and the right:
Isn't it legitimate, even important, for the government to encourage the character of its citizens such as will improve the nation?
How does it promote such character to allow the market to punish just the sort of behavior we wish to encourage?



I see a lot of potential problems here Rinelk.

1) If it is best for the "nation" to reduce people to a state of effective slavery, then should nations encourage their citizens to be slaves?
2) If freedom of the individual is destructive to the "nation", then should nations discourage valuing freedom of the individual?
3) Different strengths are valuable at different times. During some times, you want social order- during others you want the ability to adapt rapidly to change- during others you want people to resist the existing social order. You can't really predict which will be valuable 15 years in advance- so how do you want your next crop of kids to come up? Do you raise some to value individuality and some to value conformity?

Each nation gets (more than picks) a set of characteristics and then those nations either advance or decline depending on how circumstances line up with the characteristics the citizens already have.

Almost every virtue is a vice in the wrong situation and that means many vices are virtues under certain circumstances.

It's like trying to plan for retirement- you just can't know if the government is going to inflate your savings to nothing, change the tax laws, discontinue national health care, discontinue national pensions, do really well while other countries fall apart (and so you lose your investment if you tied to hedge overseas)

I value freedom and individuality so my answer is obvious-- but someone from a clan based culture would feel uncomfortable with that and their answer would be obvious (and almost opposed to mine).
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Kelsey Rinella
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perfalbion wrote:
rinelk wrote:
So if someone does work hard and exercise probity and good judgment, doesn't that mean that having that person fail is bad?


You can't create a perfect world. Luck still matters sometimes. External events still matter. There's lots of reasons to fail that all the hard work, probity, and judgment can't overcome. Presume that you're designing a game. You spend money getting it ready to go to market. 2 weeks before you release, Rio Grande releases a nearly identical title with marketing muscle you can't hope to compete with. Completely coincidental, but what does that do to the likelihood that you'll succeed?

One of the most prevailing myths in the US culture is "well if you'd just work harder..." Which is really crap. Work matters, but it's hardly the only factor.


I don't mean to suggest that this is a wrong I think we can fix, but much of the discourse seems to assume that it isn't even bad. One of the benefits of maintaining conceptual clarity about the issue is that it forestalls that sort of talk, and makes it seem worthwhile to ask the question of whether or not we can mitigate that sort of risk, and to what degree it's worth it.
 
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rinelk wrote:
Quote:
One of the most prevailing myths in the US culture is "well if you'd just work harder..." Which is really crap. Work matters, but it's hardly the only factor.


I don't mean to suggest that this is a wrong I think we can fix, but much of the discourse seems to assume that it isn't even bad. One of the benefits of maintaining conceptual clarity about the issue is that it forestalls that sort of talk, and makes it seem worthwhile to ask the question of whether or not we can mitigate that sort of risk, and to what degree it's worth it.


I'm not sure I'm taking your meaning. Are you suggesting that we should be focusing on ways to eliminate failures due to external events? If so, it's a fool's errand. You'd have the same amount of luck suggesting that we should be able to dictate tomorrow's weather with current technology.

If you want conceptual clarity about the issue, then the thing you need to clear away is that hard work always results in success. It clearly doesn't - there are plenty of people working hard that are finding it difficult or impossible to move up in the world. There are those that don't work hard at all and succeed. There are those that succeed through corruption. You can't change that - it will always be there.

The question is - how do you balance the support you offer to those that do fail in such a way that they have incentives to try?
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Kelsey Rinella
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maxo-texas wrote:

I see a lot of potential problems here Rinelk.

1) If it is best for the "nation" to reduce people to a state of effective slavery, then should nations encourage their citizens to be slaves?
2) If freedom of the individual is destructive to the "nation", then should nations discourage valuing freedom of the individual?
3) Different strengths are valuable at different times. During some times, you want social order- during others you want the ability to adapt rapidly to change- during others you want people to resist the existing social order. You can't really predict which will be valuable 15 years in advance- so how do you want your next crop of kids to come up? Do you raise some to value individuality and some to value conformity?

Each nation gets (more than picks) a set of characteristics and then those nations either advance or decline depending on how circumstances line up with the characteristics the citizens already have.

Almost every virtue is a vice in the wrong situation and that means many vices are virtues under certain circumstances.

It's like trying to plan for retirement- you just can't know if the government is going to inflate your savings to nothing, change the tax laws, discontinue national health care, discontinue national pensions, do really well while other countries fall apart (and so you lose your investment if you tied to hedge overseas)

I value freedom and individuality so my answer is obvious-- but someone from a clan based culture would feel uncomfortable with that and their answer would be obvious (and almost opposed to mine).


I have a lot of sympathy for suspicion about government mind control. However, I basically agree with Smith here--the sorts of virtues he had it in mind to encourage are those which make it more likely that you'll accomplish what you set out to accomplish, no matter what that is. I'm absolutely okay with encouraging people to be more effective, so long as doing so does not constrain their goals. Realistically, I'm even okay with brainwashing people not to adopt goals which are truly repellent (raping the most kids, for example) if that's what it takes to prevent those things from happening.

We might have somewhat different set points on this issue, but I suspect it's more difference in where we'd strike the balance rather than one of pure principle.
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perfalbion wrote:

If you want conceptual clarity about the issue, then the thing you need to clear away is that hard work always results in success. It clearly doesn't - there are plenty of people working hard that are finding it difficult or impossible to move up in the world. There are those that don't work hard at all and succeed. There are those that succeed through corruption. You can't change that - it will always be there.

The question is - how do you balance the support you offer to those that do fail in such a way that they have incentives to try?


That's fair--I think you've captured most of my concerns by thinking about it that way.

But think about your example of the noble game designer who gets crushed by the vagaries of the market. If I were that designer, I'd be quite willing to sign away a portion of my profits (assuming I make some) in order to get some insurance against the kind of random ill luck which RGG's release represents. There doesn't seem to be the sort of moral hazard of reducing the incentive to work in this kind of insurance that does exist in a more blunt insurance against failure.

Defining the "ill luck" scenarios may well be so hard that you're right to think it a fool's errand. But I like knowing when I choose not to do something because I can't think of a way to do it, and distinguishing that from choosing not to do it because it's an undesirable goal. It seems that even the most conservative, ownership-society promoting individualist would concede that it would be better to prevent people from suffering when they've done everything they ought. That seems like a compelling element of our sense of justice.
 
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Fwing wrote:
Spend money you don't have on stuff you don't need to make impressions that don't last on people you don't care about.


If we didn't value doing this then our markets and our democracy wouldn't reflect it. The problem again is that it reflects what we want and we want that which is bad for us.

If we desired that which is good for us our markets and government would more effectively be good for us.
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jeff brown wrote:
Fwing wrote:
Spend money you don't have on stuff you don't need to make impressions that don't last on people you don't care about.


If we didn't value doing this then our markets and our democracy wouldn't reflect it. The problem again is that it reflects what we want and we want that which is bad for us.

If we desired that which is good for us our markets and government would more effectively be good for us.


Where does "what we really want" end and "responses inculcated by 1600+ marketing impressions per day" start?
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jeff brown wrote:
Fwing wrote:
Spend money you don't have on stuff you don't need to make impressions that don't last on people you don't care about.


If we didn't value doing this then our markets and our democracy wouldn't reflect it. The problem again is that it reflects what we want and we want that which is bad for us.

If we desired that which is good for us our markets and government would more effectively be good for us.


Do you make a distinction between impulses and considered preferences?
 
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