The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number

Keith Oxenrider August 20, 2012

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This is a topic I have talked about various times to various people. To me the topic is quite clear, but recently communications with a friend has caused me to realize that what is clear to one person can be interpreted completely differently by some else. This is an attempt to detail what I envision as a way to provide a more substantive base from which to have discussions.

Though I readily acknowledge that much of what I will be discussing is impractical (or outright fantasy) when applied to the ‘real’ world (particularly in today’s socio economic environment in the US), in order to have any sort of meaningful discussion one generally has to frame the discussion in a way to minimize outside influences just to be able to agree on something. For example, any conversation about ‘democracy’ generally has built-in assumptions about who can vote, how voting is done, who is running for office, etc. Then people can compare reality against the ideal and discuss deviations. I am going to try to do the same, but I do realize that in our oligarchical police state society most of what I am about to talk about is total nonsense once you step beyond the theoretical.

To me the most fundamental aspect of the greatest good for the greatest number (man that is a pain to type, how about GGGN instead?) is about fairness. To me, fairness is a level playing field where the rules apply equally to the players and are consistently applied. Just because something is fair doesn’t mean everyone is the same! In sports, for instance, the best athletes are those who not only have exceptional physical attributes matched to the sport, but excellent mental agility and the knowledge to take advantage of how the rules are written and enforced. Pretty idiotic to be playing baseball and be arguing about whether a touchdown was in or out of the endzone, eh? Thus, fairness has nothing to do with everyone getting the same results, only about having the same opportunities.

Thus, GGGN has at its most basic level fairness in opportunities. So, quickly and easily, GGGN could be translated to the most fair to the most people. Not everyone is born with the same opportunities to begin with, so for some people life is unfair out of the womb. However, when life is so unfair that your lot in life is decided solely by who your parents are and nothing about your own individuality comes into play, I think most people (except, perhaps, for those born into lofty positions) would agree that is neither fair nor the GGGN. Fairness is exclusively about opportunity. Our Declaration of Independence only talks about the right to _pursue_ happiness, it talks nothing about any guarantees. So, GGGN is not about guarantees of anything, only about opportunities. While it is clear to me in any real situation that someone born to wealthy parents will have boatloads more opportunities than someone born in a slum, there should be enough opportunities to both that they could not only switch places in life, but swap back and forth a few times. The opportunity to succeed is also the opportunity to fail, though humans in general (and Americans in particular) really seem to object to that latter part.

So what makes something the ‘greatest good’? This is perhaps where people get all socialist on me, they think I am implying that everyone gets to have their life handed to them on a platter and never has to lift a finger (sort of like those born into privilege; why is it OK for them but not OK for some poor guy?). I do not mean to imply that at all, my intent is to provide a society where the random tribulations of life to the average person are not enough to cause them to lose all opportunity in life, likely for generations to come. When a society supports those who are worst off and provide a mechanism whereby those people have the _opportunity_ to recover from their tribulations, then I feel we are approaching the GGGN.

One caveat here... GGGN can’t come at the expense of making some small population miserable. As I have written a time or twain, GGGN has to balance the minority that gets shafted. Let’s approach this from the socialist direction: I do not advocate (as seems to happen in a lot of European countries) that we tax the rich until there are no more rich. Just like I would like to see opportunities for the poor to lift themselves out of poverty (of course, this would take work but should only require the tiniest bit of luck), I would like to see opportunities for the poor to get wealthy (a lot of work and more than a bit of luck) and the wealthy to get wealthier (funny how often that happens without the need for any luck, or indeed, effort). I believe there is plenty of room for a middle ground where the wealthy contribute some of their excess to society (if, for nothing else, in simple repayment for the society that allowed them to get and remain rich! why is it so many wealthy people seem to forget that?) but can, with some work and by avoiding bad luck, remain wealthy.

So where does society get its return on its GGGN investment? On a practical matter, it is fairly well documented that intelligent people bear average children, so the next Einstein is statistically vastly more likely to be born in some slum somewhere with absolutely no means to achieve the education to realize his (or her!) potential. Just this element alone, absent any other factor, should be enough to encourage society’s members to support the GGGN, but given the anti-science attitude prevalent in our culture today, I guess no one really wants another Einstein. Additionally, generally the wealthy do not actually invest in anything that leads to breakthroughs or paradigm shifts. As a group they tend to be very conservative with their money and (except when they are lured into gambling on hedge funds (I just read an article that indicated that 90% of hedge funds provided less value than a simple S&P stock index!)) and don’t care for the risk of taking on the highly uncertain world of seed capital. They all love Google once it has grown up, but rarely like to invest in the proto-Google since the likelihood of failure is so high. Thus, in order to have the next Google, etc., we need to have a large and comfortably funded middle class. It wasn’t that long ago that a single income could pay for a nice home, a car or twain and put 2.5 children through college. Today that is pretty much out of the question, two incomes (at a minimum) are needed just to get by and you can forget about sending your kids to college! If our society decided that we wanted to increase the freedom of entrepreneurial people by making it easier to gamble that their idea will be the next Google, then we need to make it more realistic for a single income to cover a family in some decent way. I can see endless debates on where that should be, but I think it should be a subject of debate as opposed to the hysterical socialist pronouncements we get today.

Vertical mobility is the key, without it, we devolve into a feudal society (we are pretty close right now). Because the wealthy despise the idea of negative vertical mobility and don’t care for the competition that positive mobility provides, the wealthy have a negative incentive to support things like the GGGN. While I am quite convinced that the GGGN will make the wealthier even wealthier (on average), once you have already achieved a certain minimum amount of wealth anything extra is just keeping score, so increasing wealth isn’t an incentive for those already having it. Also, the wealthy tend to not see any real point to paradigm shifts or breakthroughs in technology, they are generally quite happy with the way things are (one of the reasons I think feudal China was so stable despite inventing pretty much every idea that eventually led to the industrial revolution). The drive to implement the GGGN has to come from the middle and lower class and indeed, they will be the ones to benefit and actually will be funding the bulk of it (as the GGGN seeps into society, the fraction of society’s wealth held by the elite decreases even as the total wealth increases, unlike today where the opposite is happening (meaning total wealth _decreases_ but what remains is increasingly concentrated in the elite)).

Up to this point I have tried to focus this discussion on practical economic considerations and intended to leave out issues like morality and ethics. Not because I don’t feel either are important, but because my ‘target demographic’ are not ‘bleeding heart’ liberals that already believe that the European direction is the ideal (I do not, as I hoped I made clear), but the way more conservative types that seem to have a knee jerk (emphasis on the ‘jerk’) reaction to any discussion of giving the less fortunate a hand up. As I hope I have tried to show, giving a poor fellow a hand up is actually giving a boost to society as a whole, so for no other reason than basic enlightened self interest people should be willing to help out. It is, of course, the more moral and ethical thing to do as well. Helping the needy shouldn’t be something that our society turns its nose up at from a humanitarian standpoint, but with the realization that _failing_ to lend the hand actually is an economic negative to society in general that will directly effect the one not lending the hand in a negative way should make everyone assume moral and ethical airs and help out the needy.

Yes, there will always be losers who will milk the system to their advantage. Guess what? Every system has that! What the heck do you think is ‘too big to fail’? What is the trillions of dollars of handouts to the big lending institutions? Why this socialized risk, privatized reward? Isn’t that milking the system? I guarantee you that the oligarchy has ‘milked’ the system for vastly more sums than any welfare queen or fake disability fraudster. I think that it is much better for society to make benefits easy to get for ordinary people and then aggressively go after the criminals rather than making benefits so difficult to get that only criminals have the patience to get them. Recall what happened after Katrina: the government was so paranoid about losing money to fraudsters that it made the process so onerous that (at least according to what I remember reading, can’t find any citation at the moment) the percentage of fraud increased while the actual payouts decreased. This because only the criminal types had the patience to wade through the process, legitimate claimants were too damn busy trying to survive to jump through all the hoops.

So, to wind this up, to me the GGGN has as important elements a strong social safety net to catch those who gamble and lose or who have bad luck. I think that society should insist that enough production (i.e., manufacturing) be kept within its purview that even though the T-shirt made in America costs more than the Chinese version, we accept that by keeping those extra dollars actually in America it serves as stimulus and helps to make for a stronger society. I think that as a society we should demand universal health care where the minimum amount of care is provided so that no one has to become a pauper simply because they had a bad run of illness. Of course, I think that government representatives should actually represent society instead of the oligarchy, but that requires society to insist that there be a bright line regarding the limits what individuals can influence. All this is socialist liberal crap that terrifies the oligarchy because it dilutes their power and influence. What is the GGGN tends to be contrary to what is an acceptable ideal for the wealthy elite, so as long as the oligarchy remains in control, documents like this are pure fantasy.

Copyright 2012 by Keith Oxenrider
Questions or comments to koxenrider[at]sol[dash]biotech[dot]com