Human dignity

Yesterday I mentioned the importance of self-help in improving lives. While government policy is  critical, public discussion needs to rebalance, by bringing into focus the ways in which we can help ourselves

Policy and individual choices interact in interesting ways, one of which is the propensity for well-intentioned policymakers to diminish the dignity of others, which then affects the latter’s outlook and decisions. Whether it is viewing people as being in need of help, or  actually trying to help them, policymakers undermine peoples’ dignity, much to the detriment of society.

As government diminished the need for those who support us by providing risk management services, it reduced the consequences of bad decisions. We now seem to have a dysfunctional working class, beset with problems such as drug abuse, obesity, unemployment and government dependency, culminating in a dignity deficit.

As people sought safety, security and stability (and government provided it), we sacrificed the opportunity to be of value to others. We shifted our dependence from family, friends and community to the government, emancipating us from obligations (both good and bad). (It seems that independence, space and privacy are normal goods, meaning we want more of them as we become richer, and we have been willing to pay for them. If we cannot pay for them ourselves, the government has provided it.)

A major cause of the loss of human dignity is the social scientist working with the politician (collectively: ‘planners’). The social scientist sees humans not as agents of their own destiny but as data points to manipulate, and politicians have public choice influences on their decisions. The result is that an ordinary person turns into the means of achieving a planners’ end. There is no dignity there, no matter how good the planner’s intentions.

Many commentators say that planners have ignored the working class. But this is not quite true. We have certainly thrown money at it, which is attempting to help people (e.g., the War on Poverty in the US). But planners have also seen them as people that need helping, which strips them of their dignity. Instead of offering a positive message, planners offer a negative one.  They haven’t ignored the working class per se, but they have stripped them of their dignity by attempting to save them.

Planners have also focused on less relevant issues than basic economic opportunity and human dignity, while imposing regulation that blocks opportunity. So, the pretense of care shown by planners is shallow and selective. Their actions are actually a sign weakness and selfishness, the former because they meekly wilt in the presence of hardship, and the latter because they need to allay their own guilt and seek righteousness and redemption. It is about the working class’s need to be saved (and the planners’ divine need to be a saviour (see Joseph Bottum’s thesis on the shift from seeking righteousness through religion to seeking righteousness through politics)).

The focus in public debate should shift from what we can do for other people to what we can do for ourselves. It should also shift to providing an environment that is incentive-compatible with dignity. And we should also not view people as pawns to be manipulated in accordance with our vision of the world.


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