He dressed decently and had a decent meal before going to work. He showed some common decency toward his next-door neighbor. He did the decent thing to do.
From these examples, you might conclude that the word decent refers to following some rule or standard of conduct, or behaving in some proper and ethical way toward others; and you would be right according to most dictionary definitions. But listening to some, to act decently requires you to be a tribal collectivist.
Turn to, say, the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and you discover that the word decent means to act appropriately; to conform to standards of propriety, good taste, or morality; to follow or achieve some agreed-upon standard or benchmark; to show moral integrity, kindness, and good will in interactions with others.
All these refer to the nature of the conduct, but not to the content. It all depends upon what the specific standard may be and the particular code of ethics expected to be followed in one’s own actions and towards others. But according to Umair Haque, a London- and New York–based consultant who writes frequently about what he considers to be wrong with individualism and free market capitalism, most people in the United States lack a proper sense of decency and have a fundamentally flawed and indecent social behavior because they have turned their back on the ethics of group-oriented altruism.
The Sharing, Caring Society of Tribal Man
In a recent article “Why Decency Is the Most Powerful Idea Human Beings Ever Had,” Mr. Haque argues that our ancient human ancestors who lived in small tribal bands, at an admittedly primitive standard and quality of life compared to ours, were, nonetheless, ethically far superior to us in our modern world with all our advanced science, technology, and comforts for everyday life.
You see, they cared about each other, while far too many of us do not care about our fellow human beings. Oh, their ancient diet was barely subsistence, the tools they used may only have been stone knives and a stick, medical practice may have been the witch doctor sprinkling incense and reading the entrails of the goose, and education was only a tribal elder telling tales to the young folks around the fire because they had no written language. But what they had was a collectivist ethics of communal caring and sharing. And that made them light-years ahead of us socially, even though theirs was a way of living now long gone in the past, says Mr. Haque.
Our ancient ancestors placed needs of all the members ahead of their individual wants and desires. Theirs was an ethics of communal sharing, and not personal taking. Food, medical care, education may have been simple and backward by the standards of our contemporary life, but no one said, “This is mine; you cannot have it.” Collective production had its match in fair and just collective distribution. Here was a system and a way of living that was grounded in an ethics of decency, Mr. Haque insists:
Our distant ancestors were better people than us, in my estimation. They cared about one another, respected one another, in ways we do not — and simply do not seem to even think about anymore. They cared about a very great deal: each other, their young, their old, their environment, their past, their future, their little societies. And it strikes me these days — just how different we have become.…
They were kinder, better, gentler to each other, sharing what basics they did have in fairer, truer, and smarter ways, because they had something we lack: the deep wisdom of decency.
The Supposed Indecency of Modern Man
Modern man, by which Mr. Haque means individualist, capitalist, self-interested man, only wants more for himself, and at the expense of others through lying, cheating, stealing, defrauding, with no concern about the weak, innocent, and plundered who are left behind. Individualist, capitalist society, regardless of its scientific and technological achievements, is inherently immoral, indecent, and even fundamentally evil. In Mr. Haque’s words:
We are the only people I can think of who take care of nothing at all — not their young, not their old, not their land, not each other — only caring for themselves.… We don’t care about anything but ourselves — and even then, we only care for ourselves in increasingly stupid, backwards, narrow-minded, evanescent ways.…
We don’t believe it’s important to share what we have made and accomplished in fair, equitable, and reasonable ways. We believe that all the gains should go to the rich, to the powerful, to the cruel, to the abusive. Maybe not you — but certainly enough of us. We don’t remotely [have] the same quality, nuance, insight, standard, power of morality, ethics, truth, that even our distant ancestors had.…
It’s true that we’ve made technological progress. But it seems to me that we have made profound, ruinous moral regress, too, along the way.… Nobody in history, really, so far as I can see, has been as indecent as us. As obscene, selfish, abusive, cruel. Our indecency is unmatched.
Can you think of anyone — anyone at all — else who didn’t take care of their young, old, neighbors, selves, or environments? Who didn’t give each other education, healthcare, retirement, childcare, and so on — in the ways that they could afford, in the forms they could achieve? … We are not enlightened and civilized people.
Small-Tribe Socialism Kept Humankind Poor
For thousands of years humankind lived and survived in small bands as hunters and gatherers, as nomadic travelers moving according to the seasons, following the animal herds for their meat and skins, and not only searching for water holes but on the lookout for other, rival bands that were also foraging for subsistence, either to avoid or plunder them.
Mr. Haque admits that these bands were often authoritarian, certainly non-democratic, and frequently warlike. But everyone knew the other, and each had their expected and required place in the tiny community in terms of efforts and activities. They were, no doubt, forms of small roving islands of primitive socialism traveling over areas of the earth in the quest for the primordial basic needs of life.
But why did humans live for so long like this? Why did it take so long for elementary tools and means of material and related improvement to be developed and take hold to ease the difficulties of existence? In these small bands it may be assumed that everything was circumscribed for all members of the tribe in terms of actions, attitudes, responsibilities, and restrictions. Innovation, differentiation, and experimentation, as well as any significant dissent or disagreement, would have been looked upon with suspicion and social disapproval.
Chieftains and witch doctors would have imposed the rules of conduct and implied communal “ethics.” Paternalistic belief that order and obedience were essential for the tribe’s survival against natural and human threats, as well as power lusting and personal preservation of position and status within the tribe, would have been the motives for the chiefs and witch doctors to instill and inculcate peer-pressure acceptance of the group’s heritage of moral norms, including submission to the chief and the witch doctor.
Poverty and Constraint Under Tribal Collectivism
A collectivist ethics of obedience and group responsibility, enforced by the physical retribution of the chief, as well as the superstitions and fears surrounding the magic of the witch doctor, would have ensured that traditions, customs, and imposed obligations to others in the tribe were maintained. As a result, intellectual and technological progress would have been arrested for untold generations among the tribes that survived.
The ethical decency to which Mr. Haque so nostalgically harks back and hankers for a return to in his own time represents a small-band socialism of fear and superstition, matched with stagnation and poverty. How many individuals would have thought of or had the incentive to imagine new ways of doing things when the rulers and their tribal peers would have frowned upon and shunned any threatened break from the established way of doing things? And why demonstrate greater-than-average skill and ability in better and more-productive performance, when any of the positive results must be shared out in some assigned equal proportions to all in the tribe, without your personal agreement or permission?
Little wonder that thousands of years went by with little improvement in the human condition much above subsistence poverty, in a setting of group ethical pressures and primitive political constraints. The present-day technological and medical availabilities that Mr. Haque so easily shrugs off would not have emerged if there had not been the appropriate changes in the social and institutional norms that made them possible.
Even more, if the world had stayed frozen in the collectivist “decency” ethics that he most longingly desires, it is doubtful if Mr. Haque would even be alive today. The world’s population probably would have remained stationary, no doubt, numbering only in the millions rather than the billions of people who are alive now. Mr. Haque’s ancestors most likely would have died of starvation, disease, injury, or murder in the conflicts among the “decent” socialist tribes in some earlier time. Mr. Haque would never have existed to make the case for a social system that would have made it likely that he would never have been born. (See my article “Preserved Primitivism Versus Freedom and Prosperity.”)
Progress Through Ending the Tribal Sharing Mentality
But, in fact, what is decent about a society in which humanity is condemned to a life of abject poverty, because any new idea or possible way of doing things differently and better is doubted, denigrated, and discarded as destabilizing the “just” and “fair” order of things? Few will try to get ahead of the other tribal members when they know that anything they bring into existence through their own mind and effort will have to be shared with all the others in the tribe whether they wish to or not, and on the basis of the collective’s standard of what is fair and decent, and not their own.
Human progress began when individuals found ways openly or in the interstices of the social system in which they lived to keep some or most of what their intellect and labor had successfully created and produced outside of the existing ethical order of things. Progress began when the individual at least partly escaped from the stranglehold of the “decency” ethics of tribal socialism.
And that gets us to a fundamental question: why should collectivist sharing based on an ethics of tribal altruism — that the needs and interests of the group come before the individual’s own judgment and assessment of how to dispose of the fruits of his own mental and physical labors — be considered the right ethical norm and standard of decency and the decent society, about which Mr. Haque speaks?
It has taken a long time in the West to at least partially overcome the ethics of collectivism. A thinker like Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) shocked many in the polite society of his time in the early 18th century when, in his poem “The Fable of the Bees” (first version 1705, revised extended version 1714), he gave to it the subtitle “Private Vices, Public Goods.”
What? The “decency” of the “public good” based on the individual’s sacrifice of his own personal interest and desires was to be turned on its head, with self-interest proclaimed as the source of human industry and social betterment? Children were forbidden to read and severely chastised if found to have read this immoral and most certainly “indecent” piece of poetry. (See my article “Bernard Mandeville and the Social Betterment Arising From Private Vices.”)
John Locke on Individual Rights and Limited Government
Here in very stark terms was an economic aspect of the natural-rights philosophy articulated only a few years earlier by John Locke (1632-1704) in his Second Treatise on Government (1689). Each individual has a natural right to his life, liberty, and honestly acquired property (either through first settlement and development, or peaceful and voluntary trade).
Individualism, as a philosophy of man, society, and government, was not an abridgement of or an embarrassment to a more decent collectivist human ethics. No, very much the opposite. “Society” is a community of free and sovereign individuals, each at liberty to preserve and better their lives in a peaceful way that they find most advantageous in terms of personally chosen ends and selected useful means.
All human relationships and interpersonal associations, therefore, should be based on the mutual respect for voluntary consent and free exchange. No man should be forced to be the slave of another, and no man should have his life violently taken by someone through an act of aggression. Alas, human beings are too frequently shortsighted and aroused in their emotions to always act reasonably in their dealings with others.
Thus, governments are formed among men to secure and protect their individual rights and liberty from the aggressions of other human beings. Government’s role, therefore, is a “negative” and defensive one, Locke argued. Its duties do not include compelling and commanding the members of society to act and live contrary to their own respective ideas and conscience. Reason and persuasion are considered to be the essential and morally limiting methods to move people to live and act and associate in ways differently than they were peacefully choosing to. (See my article “John Locke Is Needed Now More Than Ever.”)
It was nearly 90 years later, in 1776, when Adam Smith detailed and clarified the nature and workings of a “system of natural liberty” for improving the human condition through an increase in “the wealth of nations,” as Smith entitled his famous book. If a society has a social system of division of labor, permits open and free competition, and bases all interactions on voluntary exchange, and if the institutions of that society recognize individual rights to personal freedom and private property, then, as if by an “invisible hand,” each individual in pursuit of his own self-interest best serves it by directing his productive efforts to improving the circumstances of others at the same time.
To acquire from others what they have that we want, we must offer them in trade something that they may value more highly than what they currently possess that we desire from them in trade. It is worth repeating some of Adam Smith’s famous words on self-interest and mutual betterment:
Man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favor, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them.
Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of.
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, or the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but to their advantages.
Prosperity Through Freedom
It would not be too surprising if Mr. Haque, at this point, said something like: “But you see that is just my point. While men are pursuing their self-interests with little direct regard for their fellow man anymore, what will happen to the ‘social’ dimension of humankind, that earlier decency concerning the well-being of others who are our fellows in the wider community of humanity?”
Nothing has done more for the well-being of our fellow human beings than the freeing of the individual from the constraints of the collective tribe, so he has the liberty and the latitude to apply himself as he thinks best to advance his own personal circumstances, precisely because in that system of natural liberty about which Adam Smith and others spoke, all are made better off through the unintended consequences of human action.
The technologies, medical and other advances in science, and improvements in the material and cultural aspects of humankind that are rapidly eliminating poverty from the face of the earth have been made possible through the individualism that Mr. Haque dislikes and clearly would like to eliminate.
Freedom Fosters Voluntarism in Civil Society
In addition, it was in the United States, especially during those decades in the 19th century that came closest in some parts of the country to that practice of unrestrained individual freedom that Mr. Haque considers the essence of American “indecency,” that there also blossomed the institutions of civil society that concerned themselves with wider community interests outside of simple market supply and demand.
Is this a figment of the imagination of an “apologist” for classical liberal individualism? Here is a description of that rugged-individualist epoch in American history and the accompanying “decency” of a free people precisely because these matters were not considered the concern of government. These are the words of Alexis de Tocqueville in his famous Democracy in America (Vol. 2, 1840):
The political associations that exist in the United States are only a single feature in the midst of the immense assemblage of associations in that country. Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which they take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive.
The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, schools.…
As soon as several of the inhabitants of the United States have taken up an opinion or a feeling which they wish to promote in the world, they look out for mutual assistance; and as soon as they have found one another out, they combine. From that moment they are no longer isolated men, but a power seen from afar, whose actions serve for an example and whose language is listened to.
I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and inducing them voluntarily to pursue it.… Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America.
It is precisely in a free society that there is likely to be cultivated a sense of social participation and personal responsibility for a part of the society on one’s own shoulders. This arises not out of a misguided sense that you owe the world because you have been more successful and better off than others around you as an obligation of sacrifice, butut because the free human being properly, “decently,” understands that he lives in a wider society in which if individuals do not concern themselves with certain common affairs no one will.
We can go back in time to ancient Greece, and Aristotle’s observation that when men are allowed to own property and keep the fruits of their labors, the very prosperity they may experience tends to awaken generous inclination to share some of their good fortune with others out of a sense of benevolence towards one’s fellow men. (See my article “Aristotle Understood the Importance of Property.”)
Another instance of Mr. Haque’s confused misunderstandings is his assertion that individualism and capitalism generate plunder, privilege, corruption, and disregard for and abuse of others in society. If anything, these are elements embedded in the more politicized system that he wants humankind to go back to. When it is possible to advance one’s self-interest through use of government regulations, redistributions, and spending, individuals and special interest groups will be drawn to the dirty and indecent political trough of crony capitalism. It was these corruptions and constraints on individual freedom and a freer market economy that Adam Smith was opposing when he called for that system of natural liberty, under which government was to be restrained to being a protector of life and property, not an active accomplice in the pursuit of political plunder for some in society. (See my articles “Free Market Capitalism vs. Crony Capitalism” and “Crony Capitalism the Cause of Society’s Problems.”)
The Ethical Decency of the Individualist, Market Society
What can be a more decent society than one in which each and every individual is viewed and treated as an end in him- or herself, and not a coerced means to someone else’s ends? What is a more decent conception of the human being than a social system based on the premise and practice of voluntary consent and peaceful mutual consent in all interpersonal relationships and associations, inside and outside of the market arena of supply and demand? Where is a sense of benevolent decency towards one’s fellow human being more likely to be cultivated and encouraged than in a social setting in which all such “good works” or common community interests require the free choice and willingness of each participant of their own accord?
Like too many others, Mr. Haque confuses “society” with the state or the political authority. So when he refers to introducing greater social decency in human relationships he does not mean what has just been suggested, that is, the voluntary institutions and associations of civil society; instead, what is implied is a compulsory giving and doing imposed by political power under an arrogantly presumed paternalism.
Real and true human decency is based on and grows out of free association and chosen voluntarism. Compelling people to be “decent” through government taxing and spending in fact drains decency from human relationships. What is decent about depersonalized bureaucracies that siphon off the honestly earned income and wealth of the private producers in society, and then determine on the basis of political pull and power manipulations who will get what and in which amount?
The last thing that humanity needs is a return to the tribal and primitive collectivism of Mr. Haque’s fantasyland of communal decency through forced doing and giving. The right road to the decent society is individual liberty, free association, and the self-interested actions of free people in the open and competitive market economy.
This article was originally posted at The American Institute for Economic Research.