Conversation Starter: Walking Contradictions

Image by Toronto Public Library Special Collections

By Seunghwa Madeleine Han

New Harmony: a promising utopian community founded near the Wabash River in 1825. Robert Owens, the founder of New Harmony, had a vision for a “New Moral World,” in which people would be guaranteed security, education, and peaceful, communal living–because they would provide for such needs by themselves.

When Owens returned to New Harmony a few months later, he found that it had devolved into disarray. The community struggled to become self-sufficient. After Owens failed to establish a viable form of government, small groups began to splinter away from the community. By 1827, New Harmony had wiped itself off of the map.

But why don’t ungoverned communities–utopian or otherwise–last?

The answer is both plain and complex. Simply put, people have autonomy, or free will. I can get up in the morning, determine whether I want to finish last night’s physics homework or risk it, choose between an apple and an orange for breakfast (or choose not to eat breakfast at all), and decide whether to attend–or not to attend–school on this particular day.

But autonomy isn’t just about breakfast or physics homework. Theives, rapists, axe murderers, international terrorists, and the kid who keyed your car in the parking lot are also exercising their inherent free will.

Autonomy is just one of countless reasons why people in ungoverned communities cannot sufficiently provide for community needs. People are self-interested and, therefore, exist in natural competition spurred by the lure of incentives. Natural self-interest cannot always be qualified as a “good” or “bad” thing: it manifests itself as a byproduct of free will and remains a fact of life. As long as it remains a part of human biology, and as long as humans live in proximity to one another, they must establish a way to balance their need for autonomy with other basic needs, such as protection and relationship-building (let’s face it: we’re all walking bundles of contradictions).

Human nature–a strange, sort of contradictory thing–is the reason people agree to enter societies, in which they subsequently agree to abide by common laws under government. In exchange, the government agrees to provide the people with basic needs that they would not normally provide for one another.

But here’s where it gets tricky: where is the balance between individual autonomy and need for government? In other words, at what point is a government considered oppressive? It’s a big question, and I’m not sure it’s one that can be answered in a single blog post…or ever. People will agree to disagree on where the line should be drawn between government and the individual it governs. I could go on about covering just the basic needs, or government’s role in the higher stages of Maslow’s hierarchy, or the inevitability of arbitrariness, but the line government cannot cross is a whole new topic.

For now, I’ve accepted that I’m a self-interested, walking contradiction who can afford to sacrifice a little autonomy in exchange for basic provisions. Sort of. People, myself included, are always going to complain about what government is or isn’t doing.

But hey, politicians are people too.

What characterizes an effective government? Does autonomy precede other rights? Where is the line that government cannot cross? Let us know in the comments below!

3 responses to “Conversation Starter: Walking Contradictions

  1. The line is moved dynamically with time and on demand.
    The failure of Bush’s adminstration’s neo-liberal economic policy causes the strengthening of economic regulation under Obama’s administration. Therefore, casting a vote is one of determinents for how to draw the line of the society.

  2. Since you mention rights, the most common view in the Western world is based on natural rights philosophy, where social groups form a “social contract” that they mutually abide by to form government, which, in turn, protects their life, liberty, and property (which are, as they say, inalienable, and must be protected by government), along with whatever other rights the social group decides to protect. Leaving aside the actual mechanism, the prioritization between life, liberty, and property seems to follow in roughly that order. Property is contributed to the government on a mandatory basis (taxes) in order to provide the funds for governance. Liberty is sacrificed insofar as is necessary to protect life– as John Locke would put it, were there no law, people would have the right to murder, rape, pillage, etc. outside of government, but relinquishes those rights as part of the social contract. The exact balance, of course, is commonly referred to as freedom vs. security, and, on a theoretical level, is decided in democratic society by the will of the people by majority rule.

    Invariably, a government that is oppressive can be subjective but is broadly defined by a willing failure to protect the rights it sets out to protect. Since the advent of “human rights” as a global concept, one could say that an oppressive government is strictly one that does not protect human rights, but exactly what human rights entails is contested, though historically split between civil and political rights and social, economic, and cultural rights. The right to life, for the normal citizen, seem to be the most universally accepted right on a global scale, though it varies as to implementation and extent.

    In essence, the balance is open to interpretation, which is essentially the point the essay was trying to make. :)

  3. A further issue is video games are generally serious in nature with the main focus on knowing things rather than amusement. Although, it has an entertainment part to keep your kids engaged, each one game is often designed to develop a specific expertise or area, such as mathematics or scientific discipline. Thanks for your posting.

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