When I was in my early twenties I started thinking a lot about the law, paying taxes, and how society functions. I had a lot of troubling thoughts about it, in fact. I remember thinking something along the lines of 'I am supposed to obey the law and pay my taxes. Before I became an adult, my parents were responsible for taking care of me, and they also had to obey the law and pay their taxes. Now I am adult. The responsibility is mine. But I don't remember asking for this responsibilty. I never signed up for anything. Neither did my parents, I suppose.'
I started reading about political philosophy, and then I learned about the concept of the social contract. After many years I've now begun to believe that this so called social contract is at least to some extent an illusion (or perhaps a delusion) that we keep ourself in. I feel that society may really be based on the threat of violence and incarceration. At least to a very large extent.
For example -- why do we do what the police tells us?
Its not always because we think they are right, for certain. For example -- some years ago some friends and I were having a party. A bunch of us were standing on the sidewalk outside the apartment, smoking. Then two police officers happened by. They told us to directly go inside because a few of us were holding beer cans. (It happens to be illegal to drink in the street in Sweden) One guy said 'yeah ok just let us finish our smokes' and the cops said no, extinguish your cigarettes and go inside now. There was a tense moment of silence. Then someone said 'why do you have to be like this? We're not bothering anyone.'
Then one of the police officers snatched the beer can out of my hand and poured its content out into the gutter. They then proceeded to do the same to the rest of my friends.
My first thought was not: 'Good. These good police officers are upholding the law. Without them society would be thrown into chaos.'
It was in fact 'Fucking cops. That law is stupid, and they know it. They're doing this just because they can. But I'm not going to do anything, because then I'll be forced to spend the night in jail, and then I'll probably have to pay a stiff fine, which I can't afford right now.'
So we all just stood there quietly and let ourselves be humiliated by those police officers.
I don't remember ever wanting such a law. I still do not believe it is a good law, really. And yet I have to obey it, or I will be punished.
I've begun to think its the same with a lot of things in society. In the end, I think we do what we have to mostly because we're affraid of what will happen if we don't. At the same time the sociopats of the 1% can almost get away with anything, because they do not respect the so-called social contract, and their influence and money makes them effectively above the law. To a very great extent, at least.
I'm grateful that my country has a reasonably well functioning society. But why do we have to kid ourselves into believing that it is based on some kind of voluntary agreement or truly democratic process?
The law is a democratic process, but it is not voluntary. It is like being in a large room, a social dance. You're contributing to the mood whether you're participating or a wallflower. In this room, just because you can't get everyone to stop dancing and vote for your issue instantaneously doesn't mean it's not democratic.
Not to be rude, but I don't really understand your simile. Also, representative democracy isn't the only form of democracy there is. In Switzerland, for example, some cantons use direct democracy to a very large extent.
Now then. I don't know as much about US history and politics as I would like, but I'd like to write a little about Sweden.
My country is a Constitutional Monarchy. It is not a 'socialist country' like some, especially Americans, seem to think. (Damn I'm so tired of hearing people calling Sweden a socialist country.)
Quite a long time ago, Sweden was a real monarchy where the King and the nobility had almost absolute power. I'm not a fan of Marx, but I believe some of his observations and conclusions are true.
Now, the thing that started to happen when industrialism came along was that the sneaky Bourgeoisie (i.e. Big Money) started to want to be the new rulers. And they pulled it off.
That's how we gradually got democracy. Except in the beginning, only MEN who made enough money could vote. So the pyramidal structure of was maintained nicely. The only thing that changed was the tip. Big Money was now the tip of the pyramid, instead of the aristocrats, who were reduced to a bunch of rich but silly fops with no influence, and nothing to do.
Now for the really tricky part... The King is the Swedish head of state. He gives his power to rule Sweden to the parliment. (By law he can't refuse to do this, but it still comes from him). Now who said the King was the big boss!?
Now we are getting there... Why it was god, of course!
Much to the chagrin of the new 1%, the filthy mob that did all the work then started to get smart. They thought 'Hey! We dig the iron out of the ground, we chop down the trees, we work in the factory... But those fat guys in the tall black hats, they get almost all the money! How come, when they hardly do jack shit!?'
Now the 1%, they didn't like this at all. They really, really liked the pyramid. But they also understood that the mob would probably burn their houses and slit their throats if they didn't come up with something real quick. WHy -- even the cops and the soldiers who were supposed to shoot and hack the poor with sabres when they got uppity were part of the mob, really!
So they started to compromise. Instead of giving the mob 1 and keeping 100 for themselves, they started giving them 2. Very grudgingly, they also agreed to some laws that kept little children from being used as nearly free labor in brick factories. Gritting their teeth they had to agree that the workers shouldn't be working 12-14 hours a day 7 days per week, and later that the machines shouldn't spew out deadly poison or routinely chop the workers limbs off. The unreasonable demands of the masses weighed heavily on their backs, but being an entrepeneur sometimes means having to give an inch to gain a yard...
So the mob became really pleased with themselves and built something called the 'welfare state' (a very poor translation, since welfare basically has come to mean charity in US English) where the mob gave 1 of their 2 to the state, And the state used the money to build hospitals, and schools, and a bunch of good stuff for the mob so they wouldn't go and hang the 1% from the lamp posts for just being a bunch of sociopatic, money-grabbing pricks.
The mob was appeased. But the thing was, the old pyramid was still the same. Some of the laws were just common sense, like don't kill one another and don't rape, and so on. But the vast majority were there to protect private property and to keep the mob in line, just like they had always been. The mob thought the state could make things better, but all the state could do really was to balance the numbers and decide how to spend the tax money. And where did the tax money come from?
Why the 1% of course. The ones who own almost everything. By right of law, no less! And as long as they own almost everything, it doesn't matter much which party you elect for goverment -- all they can do is balance the numbers, spend the tax money and hope the 1% don't stop paying their taxes, and the salaries of the mob, so that they can pay their taxes. Politicians don't have any real power. Wealth is power, and the 1% controls the wealth.
99% are born into this system without ever having any say, and pretty much a 0% chance of ever changing anything that really matters. Is that really democracy?
Here is a variation of the social contract illussion that most of us deal with every day. Since it is not always in front of us, people often are not ware of it.
You buy a car and drive it off the lot to find it already lost money. It is not as valuable as it was before you drove it away.
Now you buy a house and all it does is increase in value. Your old $8,000 house of years ago is now worth $85,000. This is simply amazing but it cannot be true. Why is the house and property worth so much more money now?
It's because of upkeep on roads, schools, community and public property. Services on this line always increase and do not go down. Everything increases every year. To supply the money for this much needed service we have to create the MYTH of property value. Property taxes have to be increased. It's the only way to get the much needed money.
It's all a LIE but a necessary one. I'd love to see a comedy movie done on this.
There must be a spectrum about personal philosophy, with one end being "It's all about me. I do what I want, and get what I want, and get away with whatever I can get away with" and the other end being "I will give my life to make the world better for those nameless people who follow".
So on one end, narcissism - possibly, even psychopath. On the other end, altruism, possibly codependency.
I think most of us are some place in between, and have different values about different aspects.
Everyone benefits from roads, and in return we agree to pay taxes to maintain roads. Everyone benefits from medical research, and in return we pay taxes to further that research.
A true libertarian would disagree emphatically. Someone with communitarian philosophy would agree. I think.
Generally speaking, cops aren't always jerks. Some thrive on the opportunity to be in a controlling position; others will turn a blind eye if they don't see a real problem.
It's true that so much of what we do as members in a society is based on trust. Money used to represent actual gold or silver; not anymore. We simply agree that these pieces of paper represent value of some sort.
Taxes are a great deal higher than they once were, and so much of it is wasted on poor policy and corruption. But we can't stop paying them, though often I wonder what would happen if an entire country simply refused on principle.....yeah right! Won't happen. We're cornered.
The value of pretty much anything is merely perceived, such is the marketing industry. Just keeps society chugging along.
The restriction upon your “right” to drink beer on a public sidewalk is not the result of some government official, or body, one morning waking up and deciding, for no reason, that they didn’t like alcohol being consumed on the “commons”.
At the foundation of your grievance is the idea that the police might be selectively enforcing the law, which is always an egregious violation of the spirit of law enforcement . . . as is acting like a bully.
A law, a rule, an ordinance etc. that some perceive as infringing upon their “right” are the result of people who abuse that assumed “right”.
For example, we wouldn’t be arguing about gun control in America if the “right to bear arms” wasn’t, with regularity, so glaringly abused.
It is the abuse of privilege that results in the inevitable limitations of privilege . . . well, that and the mistaken identification of a privilege as a “right”.
The institutionalization of privilege results, over time, in the social embrace of a privilege as some sort of a “right”.
In our own Constitution there is no explicit recognition of the “right” to vote*, as there is the “right to bear arms”. Voting is a privilege that has “assumed” the status of a “right”. Carrying a gun is a declared “right” when, in reality, it should be considered a privilege.
*several State Constitutions explicitly regard voting as a "right", however.
I suppose you put quotation marks around the word "right" to add some sort of sarcastic inflection. I will take that to mean that you don't believe I have any right to drink alcohol in public. In a legal sense, you are correct. I have no legal right to do that.
It was only a small example of how we are forced to live by laws that we may or not agree with. Our opinions very rarely matter. In Sweden, laws are proposed to the parlament, which then takes a vote to decide if the law should be passed or not. The voters decide who is going to sit in parlament, but they have little say about how their representative is going to vote. Sometimes, they vote contrary to what their party is supposed to stand for.
One of the advantages of representative democracy is that the goverment can sometimes do extremely impopular things for the common, future good. I am not 100% certain of this, but I do believe that Sweden's parliment can implement pretty extreme legal changes without any public referendum. One example of such a thing would be a 500% increase on veichle tax for cars that emit greenhouse gases. I think that would be a very good idea. Such a proposal would never pass a public referendum, because most people are lazy and near-sighted. Driving cars is also shitloads of fun. Its sort of like shooting guns, I suppose.
That is why I assume that gun control in the US is an issue that faces problems that are similar, in some ways.
I apologize if I left the impression that the quotation marks were an effort to leave a “sarcastic inflection”.
What I wanted to express was the idea that everybody does not share what the word “right” means, much less agree about what is or is not a "right".
And, yes, I believe you do not have a “right” to drink alcohol in public. Drinking alcohol in public is a simple behavior until some sort of value (either positive or negative) is perceived in that behavior. At that point, “we” will decide whether or not to protect that behavior by declaring it a “right”, or in some measure, place restrictions on that behavior .
(I put WE in quotations because "we" means different things in different countries and to different individuals. In America it seems that “we” is a Socialist concept to be crushed under the boot of the “free market”. And yes, now I see how the quotation marks can be over-used.)
Thanks for your thoughtful post Sven
I'm curious Sven if you have a powerful Lobbying effort in Sweden like we do here in the US. By that I mean organizations whose sole purpose is to petition the government on behalf of their members who send in money to support this organization. The NRA (National Rifle Association) would be one example in the US, where their purpose is to stop any sort of gun control by government or state laws that they feel impedes on the Constitution. Quite often you will find that these lobbyists even write the bills that are being voted on in the House or Senate.
As for the social contract, I'm quite happy that these are in place (to a certain extent). I enjoy driving on roads where I drive on the right and the person coming toward me is driving on his right and we manage to pass each other without mishap (and if they don't do their part by staying on their side, then the consequences are settled with some laws that have developed over time to most people's satisfaction). In fact, I quite enjoy driving on roads full stop. The taxes that I pay go toward maintaining those roads, keeping them plowed in the winter, filling up the potholes in summer. Anyone can drive on these roads as long as they have a driver's license (I wish I could say the same about health care in the US). Having this convenience makes life easier. I don't see it as appeasing the mob, I see it as making life better for everyone. Do I think it's fair that CEO's in the US get 500 times the salary that their employees do? No. Do I think it's ok for chemical companies to pollute the water with minimal financial obligation? No. Do I think that the 1% in the US have become The Entitled that have all the tax breaks and all the power? Yes, yes I do and shame on me for not standing up more often and making my voice heard.
We're both pretty lucky to live in the countries that we do and have freedoms that some in other countries do not. I, for one, am quite happy that I don't have to wear a burka, that I can kiss my husband in public, that I can proclaim myself to be an atheist, that I can go to the library and check out a book on nude portraits of the French Impressionists, that I have internet access. Should we strive to make things better only for ourselves? Or should we strive to make things better for everyone no matter who they are or where they live?
Thanks for the chance to participate in your discussion! Reg
It used to be that lobbyism 'US-style' was very, very rare in Sweden, but during the last two or three decades it has become increasingly common. I saw a documentary about this not so long ago. Apparently, a common complaint among members of the Swedish Riksdag has become that they have trouble getting any work done because they are bothered by so many lobbyists.
There was a news story some time ago about the fact that Sweden uses another model for calculating emissions of greenhouse gases than most other countries. According to this model, Sweden's emissions are steadily decreasing -- something that the goverment is very proud of. According to the more commonly accepted model, however, Sweden's emissions are steadily rising.
A person I know who is a journalist said that there was a news story that several papers wanted to publish, but they decided against that because they had too much trouble verifying their sources. It was mainly about a group of lobbyists who had convinced many politicians to accept the more flattering figures. Everyone who was supposedly involved in this denied that it was true, but its an interesting story anyway, I think.
a 500% increase on veichle tax for cars that emit greenhouse gases
Keep in mind that it's extremely inefficient and eco-unfriendly to manufacture the batteries for hybrid cars, as far as I understand.
As for drinking out on the street, I can see how that would easily get out of hand quickly. The idea of that being legalized makes me cringe, though I can understand how most people would be able to handle it.
Lobbyists are a big problem, though.