I have often proposed radical social changes, and I have met with several kinds of objection that do not address the actual proposal and its benefits and shortcomings, but rather give general reasons why such reforms are impractical or undesirable. These kinds of arguments are not confined to the socio-political sphere. Any new and unfamiliar idea, including revolutionary inventions, are liable to be met with the same kinds of argument. I will use as an example the notion that we should abandon the practice of personal inheritance. Please be clear that in this particular essay I am not arguing the case for this point of view, but rather attempting to show how certain kinds of objection are invalid as a response to the proposal.
It does not solve all the problems. Theodore Roosevelt in 1886 denounced men who mistakenly believed that “at this stage of the world’s progress it is possible to make everyone happy by an immense social revolution.” This is what is known as a straw man argument. He is mischaracterizing the views of his opponents. Of course those interested in social reforms realize that even if they were successful it would not make everyone in the world happy, but that is not a reason to oppose improving the situation. All that the proponents of reform need to show is that sufficient good will come of it to more than counterbalance whatever harm may do, and to make it worth the cost.
Another common objection we often hear is “well, you can devise all the social systems you want but you cannot overcome human nature.” What is usually meant by this is that greed and laziness will always ruin whatever system we come up with, and the implication is that for this reason it is not even worth putting much time into the issue unless we can come up with a way of changing human nature.
First, the idea that greed is an uncontrollable force is wrong. It is no more uncontrollable that lust and violence, and we have done quite a good job that of corralling those immutable forces by our laws and social structures. That is really the whole point of those institutions in fact. As we settled down into societies we found that certain kinds of behavior cannot be condoned in a civilized society, so we made rules to control those kinds of behaviors. To claim the preeminence of personal freedom to oppose the making of laws, to say “I should be free to make my own choices with being told what to do” is to miss the point. All behaviors forbidden by laws are things people would like to be free to do; if people did not have any desire to do something, there would be no need to forbid it. Greed is socially harmful, just as is violence, and we need to take step to make it socially unacceptable.
Laziness is another matter. We are told that if you gave people their basic living needs the would not bother to work at all. It is implied that people (especially poor people) are fundamentally lazy. I do not believe this to be true. I believe that people are fundamentally curious, and have a strong desire to better themselves, and make a contribution. In fact one of the most basic human needs is to feel useful. This, in my opinion, is at the root of much that is wrong with our society: young people growing up in poor neighborhoods see no prospect of improvement. They see, correctly, that the game is overwhelmingly stacked against them. The only people like them who seem to have any kind of success are those who make it in show business, sports or crime. Since most do not have the talent for the first two, many fall into the third path. The remainder live lives of low level hopelessness.
Imagine a world in which everyone had a chance at starting a business. Suppose at a certain age, and having fulfilled certain conditions, we were given a workspace and tools and materials and whatever resources were needed to carry out whatever occupation we decided to pursue. When we started to become profitable, a portion of the profit would go to repay what we had been given. If we were unsuccessful, the tools and materials remaining would go back into the common stock of resources, and the space given to someone else. Under such a system the young would take a very different attitude towards their education. They would see that there was a very real and valid reason to acquire knowledge and skills.
Human beings are curiosity machines. Observe an infant at play: you will see a study in experimentation and learning. If older students are lackadaisical in school, it can only be because we have somehow managed to eradicate their drive to learn. The only force that can achieve this is a sense of hopelessness. Give children hope and the confidence that their work will be rewarded, and see them blossom.
And finally, even if the theory of laziness were in some cases true, so what? Suppose a percentage of people are in fact lazy and would prefer to just stay home and play video games. At least they would not need to cheat and steal in order to do so. Right now these same people cost us a fortune in police and the justice system and mass incarceration and emergency health care. It would be far cheaper and less socially destructive to just pay them to stay home.