On Philosophy

August 11, 2007

Societies Of Adults And Children

Filed under: Political Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

No government is a good fit for every possible society. For example, if society was composed mostly of people who had strong unethical tendencies then the best government would be one which kept as much power as possible in the hands of the few good people, and which had the ability to closely monitor its citizens in order to catch any criminal behavior. But of course that government is not a good fit for us, because our society is composed of mostly of people who are ethical, or at least not too unethical.

More interesting is the distinction between governments best suited for societies of adults and those best suited for societies of children. Of course I don’t mean to literally designate adults and children by the use of these terms. Rather I mean to point to a distinction between people who act as we tell children that adults should act, versus people who act as children in fact do act. An “adult” then, in this context, is someone who puts effort into learning about the world so as to make better choices, and who has other interests besides personal pleasure including, at the minimum, the wellbeing of other people and of society as a whole. A “child”, in contrast, is interested almost exclusively in their own happiness, and thus, as a consequence, spends little time learning about the world. By the terms I have picked it is clear that I disapprove of “children”, but to be honest that is more of a personal bias. I am not interested here in arguing that one is better, rather I intend just to examine what kinds of governments fit a society composed of them best. Every society contains a mix of both types of people, but here I am considering societies that contain significantly more of one than the other.

As I see it a society of adults is best suited to democracy. Democracy can be problematic, but only when voters are ignorant, vote exclusively with their self-interest in mind, and/or vote because of party loyalty instead of honest preference. But of course adults, so described, suffer from none of these problems. An adult makes for an excellent voter, they do their research on the issues and listen to the relevant experts rather than relying only on their own opinions. Also adults will often be unhappy in situations where they don’t have some say in government. Since they know that they are responsible it feels unfair to them if all the power is given to a small group of people.

Children, naturally, are ill suited to democracy. In a democracy they will simply vote themselves unhealthy amounts of ice cream. But what kind of government is best for them is a matter of debate. Some abhor any thought of “paternalistic” government, reasoning that people get what they deserve, but I have a hard time buying into that idea. So the problem then becomes to devise a government that keeps the power out of the hands of the mostly incompetent populace without opening the doors to tyranny. Representative democracy certainly isn’t the solution, since children will simply vote in whoever promises them the most ice cream. But neither is a benevolent monarchy, because we can’t guarantee that everyone who inherits the throne will be a good leader. My personal favorite solution is a meritocracy combined with a scheme in which power is divided, hopefully preventing any single individual from grabbing all the power and rewriting the rules. But I won’t pretend this is the only possible solution.

The question then arises: which are we, adults or children? Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but I think here at least (USA) the answer is children, a fact I blame on the consumer culture. Which of course sounds like an empty reason, since some people seem to blame the consumer culture for everything that goes wrong in the world, but I think in this case it is an honest complaint. In a capitalist economy it becomes necessary to encourage so-called artificial wants when technology reaches a certain point. You see, as technology becomes better it becomes possible to make extremely long lasting versions of all the basic goods that people need. Which means that people won’t be motivated to spend much money at that point. Of course they will spend some money on luxuries, but most people will focus only on one or two things (on their hobbies), and hence the spending they do will be limited. And that would be a disaster, because without customers businesses can’t make money, and so they would go under, or at least shrink in size, increasing unemployment and contracting the economy. To prevent this companies use advertising to make people want to buy more stuff, stuff that they otherwise wouldn’t necessarily want otherwise. Usually newer and more fashionable stuff to replace their old and unfashionable stuff. Unfortunately a byproduct of this is that it encourages people to be more self-centered, to care more about their material wants and less about everything else, essentially to encourage them to be children rather than adults. Is this bad? I withhold judgment. But it means that while democracy may have been the best fit for us at one point it no longer is, we either need to grow up again or change governments.

As a final note I would like to make a methodological observation, specifically about why this kind of analysis is likely to work (by this kind of analysis I mean thinking about the dispositions of the average agent and considering what kind of government would be best for them). Obviously if it is to work we must assume that most people share a common disposition; nothing interesting could be said using this kind of analysis about a society that was made up of a broad spectrum of people in equal proportion. However, we should expect there to usually be a dominant disposition, because most societies have a dominant culture, and every culture holds certain dispositions up as better than others. And this gives us the required homogeneity.


  1. This entry is quite thought provoking.

    I wonder though if you’re giving up too soon. Yes, America is sliding into infantilism, but is it there yet and can we prevent it from getting there?

    Comment by Carl — August 11, 2007 @ 5:35 pm

  2. Peter, I think this is the best essay I’ve read of yours, so far (I haven’t read that many, true).
    I especially like your point about a Paternalistic Government, and not signing up for the attached rationale of “people get what they deserve”.
    One of the hallmarks of true power is the maturity shown by someone who uses it with wisdom and logical compassion (no, not diametrically opposed ideas: compassion without logic is merely deserved or undeserved sympathy, and logic without compassion is robotic).
    I really like what you’ve done here.
    I like Carl’s comment, too, and I do think there is a growing community of academicians and other well-reasoned “adults” who are striving to see if there are effective ways to not only stop the infantilism of Americans from going further, but to find a way to “grow them up”.
    Good stuff, you guys — important stuff.
    Not stiff or testy, either. :)
    Well done.

    Comment by Monica Englander msw — August 11, 2007 @ 6:27 pm

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