There are no social problems – only competing claims about them

Social problems

Some people can say that in fact social problems do not exist and all these huge public debates are just a matter of somebody wanting to discuss something that sounds intelligent and not very clear. Let us take a closer look at what we call everyday social problems and see if in fact they exist or just a matter of our imagination.

The reasons from social problems exist on several levels. When we ask where do the common social problem like unemployment, crime, war and poverty come from we often cannot find any answers that would completely satisfy us. Poverty comes from the fact that some people can’t find a job or if they find one they are paid very little, however why is the salary level so low? Probably because of imperfect tax system, why would we use the imperfect tax system? Clearly because someone benefits from it, and this can go on forever.

However if we go very far and deep in analyzing the origins of the causes of social problems we may point out the three basic ones: greed, apathy and ignorance. The best medicine would therefore be the confrontation of those three causes.

As a result of the greed, apathy and ignorance coming together we can view the issue of pollution. Let’s assume that the most effective measure against the pollutions would be a fine for the damage done by the pollutant. But government thinks differently and runs the policy of regulation instead, that mostly just increases unemployment and reduces economic growth. The cause of this is most probably ignorance.

But assume that we do know the best and most efficient policy. The owners of the polluting industries would do their best to prevent from adapting the policy. Since it is beneficial for the polluting industries business, the government refuses from the best pollution policy. The cause of all this is greed, both corrupted politicians and industry owners possess it.

Greed is wanting and taking more than one morally deserves. The mere desire for wealth is avarice, rather than greed. By itself, avarice does no harm, and may even do social good as a motivator to produce wealth. The desire of the owners and managers of polluting industries to avoid the social cost of their pollution is greed, a morally undeserved portion of income. Greed can take the form of seeking undeserved subsidies or privileges, or protection from competition. Greed also motivates dictators, politicians, and government officials to seek and maintain their power.

Greed alone is not sufficient for policy failure, since the question then is why the people do not organize to counter the influence of the greedy interests and power seekers. The answer is the apathy of the voters. With the benefits concentrated among a few interests, and the costs spread among the whole population, the incentives of the greedy dominate the incentives of the masses. For the average voter, the cost of organizing and lobbying is greater than his own benefit, since the benefit goes to everybody.

But these benefits and costs are still not sufficient to cause the policy failure. Voters could overcome their financial and time cost of getting informed and organizing an opposition if they were sufficiently interested and aroused to contribute resources to defeat the minority interests. Besides their low financial incentive, there is a low sympathetic incentive. Apathy combined with low commercial returns is sufficient to prevent social action.

Apathy, greed, and ignorance are mutually reinforcing. Some folks take more than they morally deserve, but in ignorance. Many people are apathetic about a social problem because they are not informed. People can be aroused to action with a well-formulated presentation of some problem that evokes their sympathy, as is done with appeals to charity. The reduction of ignorance is also related to greed, since sympathy can replace greed with giving. The desire of a person for the goods of others or goods that harm others can be reduced by any sympathy he has for the well being of others. A greedy person might steal from strangers but not from a friend.

So, greed, apathy, and ignorance are all related. Greed depends on the absence of sympathy, and it benefits from ignorance about a social problem. Apathy can be reduced if there is less ignorance and less greed. Ignorance is reinforced by apathy, since apathetic folks don’t care to obtain the knowledge, which would reduce their apathy. Greed exploits the ignorance of the majority who do not have sufficient sympathy to counter the greedy faction.

What can a social reformer do about this root cause? Henry George pointed to the answer, that sympathy is potentially a much stronger motivating force than self-interest:

“Shortsighted is the philosophy which counts on selfishness as the master motive of human action… If you would move men to action, to what shall you appeal? Not to their pockets, but to their patriotism; not to selfishness, but to sympathy. Self-interest is, as it were, a mechanical force – potent, it is true; capable of large and wide results. But there is in human nature what may be likened to a chemical force; which melts and fuses and overwhelms; to which nothing seems impossible. ‘All that a man hath will he give for his life’ [Job 2:4] – that is self-interest.

Social reformers must first eliminate their own ignorance to educate themselves to gain knowledge of the basic causes and remedies for social problems, including the economics, politics, and ethics of the problems and solutions. Then when they educate others, they must at the same time invoke their antipathy to the problem and arouse their sympathy with the remedy. When the masses are roused with sympathy and armed with knowledge of the remedy, the few greedy opponents will either be swayed themselves to join the righteous battle, or be overwhelmed by the greater force of the righteous revolution. To remedy social ills, replace ignorance, apathy and greed with knowledge, sympathy, and charity.

To conclude everything I would like to disagree that social problems do not exist, contrary I think that they lay deeper than we usually think. And something that does not let us to deal with them is the assumption that we already lost when we even have not started the struggle yet.


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