Disconnected Consequences

by Chris Swanson


In 2009, Gutenberg College held a Summer Institute on economics that addressed many interesting issues about capitalism and communism, free markets and planned economies. As I have thought about the many perspectives of the authors and attendees, a question arises about how individuals interact with the large political and economic structures of our society. Specifically, in our interactions with the larger public world, how does one love one’s neighbor? We vote, we shop, we become involved in political and economic life. We desire to act lovingly in those interactions. But the system we live in is so large and complex that as often as not we are reduced to throwing up our hands in despair. Should we shop at Walmart? How should we think about border security? These decisions may have significant impact on a lot of people, and it is often difficult to sort out what is right. I certainly have not arrived at answers. Rather, I would like to share some observations about a roadblock built into the very fabric of our system that hinders our task—namely, the enormous separation between our social actions and the consequences of those actions. The separation seems to be ubiquitous, especially in our political and economic lives, and its results are potentially devastating.

Public Sector

First let us consider our role as individuals in public life, where the separation between our actions and their consequences is particularly clear. Voting is a prime example. The results of our decisions as voters are separated from the effects by unimaginably deep layers of bureaucracy. It seems impossible to calculate how my vote for a senatorial candidate might impact people.

More important and damaging, though, is our tendency to relinquish our responsibility to others by ceding it to the government. When this happens, we put an enormous barrier between ourselves and our neighbor. For instance, in the absence of expansive government oversight, each individual has to deal with the local social issues he or she faces. In our current situation, when we are faced with a social problem, our natural assumption is to expect the government to solve it. Of course, that assumption is appropriate in many cases since one of the primary roles of government is to solve social problems. Police, courts, and jails, for instance, are within the government’s purview. However, our society is slowly and steadily moving toward an expectation that government take a much greater social role.

The knowledge of and trust in such a problem-solving entity releases us from needing to take on responsibility in a more direct manner; we are absolved. As a consequence, subtle shifts can occur in our thinking. First, we can feel justified in ignoring various social issues that we see. Second, if we wish to do good, we are led to redefine what it means to do good as “fixing” government. Instead of focusing on people, we are encouraged to focus on power and influence. Social responsibility can then turn to activism or causes, and proponents can appeal to our sense of “doing good” in order to raise money or garner political support. Goodness is thus redefined as addressing those issues—and only those issues—that government programs can address. But I cannot love my neighbor through government action because I am too separated from my neighbor to know his needs.

Furthermore, the separation between action and consequences in public life encourages selfishness. I may support some program that will benefit a segment of the population because it is “good” to help disadvantaged people. Of course, I am even more motivated if I am included in the benefitting segment of the population or benefit in some other way. Helping and aiding one group usually happens at the expense of some other group. Because the negative consequences are diffused or unfelt or unseen, however, I can ignore them. It is easy to be selfish.

The separation between actions and consequences also affects the efficacy of government. Increasingly, our society sees the responsibility to care for those in need as belonging to the government. While there are debates about what needs should be met and how, we count on the government to help the disadvantaged because it is the right thing to do for those people. Because of the government’s size and nature, however, it is not capable of dealing well with that responsibility.

Individuals have specific, complex, and multifaceted needs, and to help someone wisely requires intimate knowledge of their situation; without that knowledge, aid offered may be counterproductive. But consider the sort of knowledge of individual needs that is possible when dispensing government aid. The ultimate authority for making decisions about who will receive aid rests with the voters. They elect representatives who pass laws, which are then interpreted by administrators and bureaucrats and finally implemented by still more government employees. At some point, someone interacts directly with the person in need, although this interaction may be minimal. So then, those dispensing aid have little knowledge of the recipients’ true needs, and, in turn, those receiving aid have little opportunity to express the ways in which the aid either benefits or does not benefit them.

Further, government employees may be aware of problems, inefficiencies, or corruption in the distribution of aid, but that information is not easily communicated up the ladder to the lawmakers or the voters. Nor is there always incentive to pass on that information. If problems do exist in a government program, the program may be cut and thereby impact the jobs of the employees involved. Barriers to knowledge and communication accompany every step in the process. We voters have virtually no pertinent knowledge of the aid given or the helpfulness of that aid.

In lieu of real knowledge, our society substitutes statistics. We aim at needs that are easy for voters to identify, such as financial, health, or housing needs. We try to solve the needs of vocal minorities of whom we are made aware by the media. We try to target groups without addressing the needy as individuals. For example, while one person may be helped by welfare support, another person may be helped more by cutting off welfare support in order to motivate him to find a job and regain his self worth. Who is to judge? Those given the responsibility to take social action—voters—are removed by many layers from the consequences of their actions. We voters are hard put to love our neighbor through this avenue of our social system.

In lieu of dealing with individuals, our society deals with groups by creating rules to address public issues. But rules, as much as they are intended to do good, are inherently inflexible and can create as much harm as good. Typically rules are applied uniformly, without consideration for particular circumstances. Those who apply a rule are not trusted with discernment, and so they are not given the authority to make judgments in individual cases. Thus, those closest to and most knowledgeable of the situation have the least ability to act. This frustrates all involved and can create tension between public employees and the people they are attempting to serve.

Not only does the separation between actions and their consequences affect the efficacy of government, it also affects the individuals who work in the government. While there are always selfish people, many people in government are of good will and have a desire to help those in need. Strong forces, however, hinder that aim. First of all, those with decision-making authority and influence are beset with innumerable competing requests for resources. The decision-maker at all levels is faced with prioritizing needs, often without the real information necessary to decide. How can the decision-maker gain the necessary experience to fully appreciate all of these competing requests? Secondly, because rewards are often given for maintaining or improving one’s position in the public sector, helping those in need can be transformed into a means to an end rather than an end in itself, thus reducing the goal of loving one’s neighbor. And lastly, as mentioned above, the overwhelming amount of human need drives us to think of people in terms of groups. When faced with large numbers, we tend to base decisions on ideology and theory rather than on particular situations. Government employees who are confronted day in and day out with needs are not in a position to interact with people as complex individuals.

I am confident that many good, caring, and courageous people work in government positions and accomplish great things, but the obstacles are equally great and are endemic to the size and structure of our government.

Private Sector

Now let us consider how the separation between our actions and their consequences affects our economic lives.

Consider first our role as consumers. I have heard that shopping at certain large retail outlets may be immoral because by doing so I may be encouraging those corporations to do evil. By demanding low prices, I may be supporting only those companies who are most committed to the bottom line and, consequently, to ruthless business practices. This issue is complex and would require a great deal of thought, research, and information to sort out, and I certainly do not have sufficient knowledge to make an informed decision. The consequences of my purchases are so separated from my decisions that I am at a loss to make judgments; typically I decide based on factors outside my immediate experience.

Furthermore, economic exchange has become almost completely depersonalized. I recently purchased a computer upgrade online. In this transaction, I saw no face nor heard any voice. I clicked the mouse a few times, a few digits changed on my credit card balance and a product showed up in my mailbox a week later. In contrast, consider the children’s clothing business that my wife operated for a number of years. She was involved in all steps of the production and sold to individuals personally at an outdoor market. To be clear, I am not trying to condemn and extol one practice over the other. Selling self-manufactured computer memory at an outdoor market is ludicrous. I am merely pointing out that for many reasons our shopping is becoming more socially insulated as the complexity of the world increases. The only way really to gauge the effect I am having when making an economic transaction is through a relationship with another person, but relationships are precluded from our economic activity.

This absence of relationship is even more pronounced if we consider how large corporations function within our society. Just as the separation between actions and consequences has resulted in severe problems in government, so this separation presents similar challenges to large companies. While it is true that even large corporations can in many ways respond to changing needs better than government, they face many of the same problems.

If we critique politicians for seeing individuals primarily as voters, we must critique corporations for seeing individuals primarily as consumers. All aspects of a consumer’s life are filtered through their impact on buying habits. Consumers become objects and statistics who can be manipulated based on natural human propensities, both good and bad. While corporate executives realize that the company’s existence depends ultimately on the consumer’s satisfaction, it clearly does not depend on the consumer’s welfare. In fact, the true welfare of a consumer is sometimes in direct conflict with the corporation’s profitability; for instance, making food products that are both addictive and have poor health content may be more profitable than making healthy foods.

Just as the size of government affects government employees, so too the size of corporations affects its workers. While there are good bosses and bad bosses, the larger the corporation, the greater is the inclination to see labor not as individuals, not as neighbors, but rather in abstract, statistical terms. Workers can become variables in a complex equation carefully balanced to maximize profit; for instance, workers are treated well so that they are productive or so that they do not unionize. With extremely large corporations, entire manufacturing plants can be moved from one region to another in order to reduce labor costs. The executives who make such decisions are distant on many levels from the workers. They do not live with the workers and share in their lives. They do not have a vested interest in the workers’ communities. They do not directly bear any of the responsibility for the consequences to the workers.

This same disconnect between action and consequence occurs when decisions are made concerning the land and natural environment occupied by a corporation. Those who make corporate decisions about land use are not invested in the longevity and quality of that land, and they do not feel the consequences of their decisions as the local individuals do. Executives can be influenced to take some responsibility for the land, but the natural relationship between land owner and land is missing. The land and environment are simply “assets.”

Furthermore, because decisions in large corporations are typically made in committee, subcommittee, and sub-subcommittee, responsibility for the corporation’s actions is diffused. Various people at a wide range of levels in the corporate hierarchy bring information and opinions to a decision, which means no one person is culpable for harm that might be caused.

The ultimate irony occurs in the corporate world when the separation between actions and consequences results in the goal of profitability having a negative impact on the company itself. Because stock holders, who wield ultimate control over the direction of the company, are typically interested in short-term stock increases, some executives will make decisions that damage the long-term future and health of the company in order to present a better quarterly earnings statement. The stock holders own the company, but since they can “sell” their stake in the company, they bear little responsibility for it.

Finally, just as those in government are influenced by ideology, so corporations are influenced by ideology. As one example, there is a belief that making money is a worthy goal because it boosts the economy. This is certainly true, and there is nothing wrong with boosting the economy. However, man does not live by bread alone, and the monetary health of the nation is but a part of the actual health of the nation. That a corporation can use ideology to rationalize decisions while ignoring other responsibilities to individuals is a concern.

In Conclusion

I am not promoting a return to the “old days” of local, self-reliant communities. Such a move is impossible, and, personally, I like computers and cheap gasoline. Nor am I saying that those in government or large corporations are any worse than the rest of us. What I am saying is that we are stuck in a world in which our political and economic responsibility to our neighbor is extremely confusing and complex. The many problems intrinsic to such a world can be very harmful. Further, we are moving in the direction of more separation between our actions and their consequences, not less. We are increasingly able to be anonymous and unconcerned with the consequences of our actions.

I wish I had some nice, easy solutions to help us find meaning and value in all our political and economic lives. But I do not. Our complex, alienating system will be with us for the foreseeable future. But it is perhaps valuable to be aware of the situation and to resist as best we can. We can resist the cultural myth that government can solve our problems. We can resist the cultural myth that the private sector can solve our problems through economic growth. We can remind ourselves that seeing people ideologically or in statistical terms hides more than it shows, for humans are much more than simply socioeconomic beings. In the process of navigating the complexity of our world, we can attempt to be attentive to the needs of individuals as individuals. We can try to know those around us and, from that knowledge, endeavor to love them.

Copyright June 2010 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Chris Swanson