There is no such thing as society

Margret Thatcher is sometimes praised and often criticized for saying that there is no such thing as society.

This is the whole of what she said, and she was right – “There is no such thing as society. There is [a] living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us [is] prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”

I have been reading a lot about emergence and society. Humans are an immensely social species. We are cooperative in ways no other animals are, while (so far) avoiding the tyranny termites, ants and bees. Our conflicts about cooperation are about how much, not if it is going to happen.

Those of us who believe in free market democracy are often accused by progressives and always by socialists of being somehow in favor of a cruel competition. In fact, my views are much closer to a true interactive community than most progressives and all socialists. Community presupposes interactions and reciprocal help and obligations among all members, as Mrs. Thatcher says. Contrary to socialism (or worse) that rely on centralize planning, command and control, free market democracies rely on the people and their emerging cooperation based mostly on free associations among individuals to guide societal change.

Barack Obama drew the ire of many, me included, when he chided successful people by saying “you didn’t build that.” He was actually correct in what he said, but wrong in why he said. it. None of us is independent and almost nobody really wants to be. We live with the accumulated wealth, wisdom and (yes) mistakes of humans who came before us and those that currently share our planet. This is like the fish not knowing he is in water. It does not preclude individual free will, but rather supports it. It also supports our freedom and autonomy. We are in the tapestry and cannot escape, but within that we have choices that make life better or worse for us and for others. We choose. We are not carried along like a cork in a stream, but the most effective decisions are informed by understandings of currents and possibilities.

Some things come easily to us humans. We usually think of those are “natural.” We can easily determine nuances in languages, verbal and non-verbal, that we cannot teach to our most sophisticated computers. Others are harder for us. The math problems that computers can solve in nanoseconds, befuddle most of us. These are learnable, but “unnatural”. And some things we just cannot have, no matter how much we want them. (I always thought that quotation “Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.” was inspirational until you thought about it and saw it was just claptrap) Distinguishing among these things, preferentially choosing natural paths when possible, pushing through the less natural when necessary and avoiding things we cannot have, even if we really want them, is what makes life for individuals and societies better or worse.

So nobody is an island, entire of themselves, but we all have autonomy (if we choose to take it) and we all have contributions to make and enjoy. However, only those who choose the somewhat more difficult path of looking to what they can contribute, rather than what they can have, looking to responsibilities as well as rights, can have the chance of being complete human beings.

I know I make a value judgement here and I am indeed saying that we are not all equal in what we do and the outcomes we seek. I am not saying I always know the right, but I am saying that it is incumbent on all of us to seek it.

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