Saturday, 28 December 2013

Exchange and the essence of society


So here we all are. Sat with a mug of tea in that slightly hazy period between Christmas and the New Year. And wondering.

Some of the wondering is prosaic and practical. When will the headache fade enough to make opening the curtains worthwhile? Where are the car keys? Are we going to go shop or try and scrape together another creative culinary masterpiece from amongst the festive leftovers?

Perhaps the wondering is more romantic - love found or lost, good stuff remembered or, better still anticipated. The prospect of more party, of the New Year's celebrations.

Or maybe the fading of Christmas goodwill into the reality of normality prompts something more philosophical? A little more chewing on the bones of metaphysics or picking at the carcass of 'why'.

If the last of these things, here's a question.

Humans are both social creatures and also individuals. We are very conscious of our personality and identity for they are uniquely ours. Yet we also know that this identity is as much a mirror of that around us as it is a self-contained uniqueness. So are we an element of society, of some greater whole? Or are we, as Margaret Thatcher would have it, individual men and women that create society through our joint, mutual actions?

Before you leap to the obvious in assessing this question, it's not a simple as it seems.  Nor is accepting the former idea - that society is greater than the sum of its human parts - some sort of reject of individualism or justification for government. It could be argued that government is necessary because in an imperfect world (less than compliant with the expectations of society) it serves the function of policing the imperfectly compliant.

Such a position assumes that society is created, is a deliberate act of human ingenuity rather than a consequence of humans behaving as social creatures. It also reckons that man can be made perfect
through the administration of society. but only where that administration is by mandarins, by Plato's philosopher kings.

Such an argument is commonplace in socialism (although not exclusive to left-wing beliefs). And it's counter is to say that man is not perfectable, that to attempt such a project is hubris. Society is organic and essential. It is the consequence of human exchange for mutual benefit - you can call this exchange 'collaboration', 'cooperation' or even 'trade' but it is what makes us human and what makes our human society.

When we try to make a different society, to pretend that we can make one that isn't based on exchange - on trade - we fail. It doesn't matter whether this is communism's ordered society or Ayn Rand's selfish individualism, if it denies that mutual benefit through exchange it also denies the essential nature of society.

Society is greater than the sum of its parts. Not in the way that some socialists might argue. The value - in the broadest sense of that word - we get from exchange is that 'greater sum', the advantage society gives us is the benefit of trade. If we stop free exchange we damage human society.


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