Modern Barbarians and Civilization

The word “barbarian” derives from the Greek “barbaros,” which originally meant someone who did not speak Greek, i.e., an outsider, and since then its derivations through Latin and French have come to take on the connotation of an outsider who is uncultured, indeed uncivilized. The modern concept of “civilization” in turn has its roots in the Roman “civitas,” the body of citizens united under the common law that bound them together, giving them responsibilities on the one hand and rights of citizenship on the other.

An accepted and shared law that lays out responsibilities and rights for citizens is not only the definition of civilization but also a practical requirement for any civilized culture to endure. But… in this sense culture and civilization are not synonymous. One can have a civilization of many cultures, or a single culture that is in no way a civilization.

The rise of the “modern barbarian” is the result, paradoxically, of technological advances and the massive human population growth that technology has engendered. Higher technology levels and greater population density combine so that every human being has the potential to create greater harm to every other human being, often in ways not considered by or known to the individual. In order to prevent or at least minimize this harm, civilizations pass laws, such as emissions standards on cars, where certain businesses can be located, how individuals and businesses must handle waste so that it doesn’t poison their neighbors or neighborhoods, safety standards for products, traffic laws… The list is long, but the laws have generally proved necessary because there are always individuals who believe it is “their right” to do what is not prohibited.

Then there are the “modern barbarians,” who reject any law or regulation that impedes their “right” to do what they think best, regardless of the impact on others. Some of these barbarians are individuals, and some are businesses and corporations, but whatever the type of barbarian, they all ignore the laws, or twist them – or flout them – so that they can continue practices that harm others in order to make money, gain power… if not both.

Maybe we should consider a different way of dealing with the severe lawbreakers, who break the compact, and “modern barbarians,” who break, bend, or ignore it. Since they don’t want to abide by the laws, perhaps we should remove all protections and privileges of civilization from them. You don’t want to follow the laws, then the laws won’t protect you… and no one will be prosecuted for shooting you, or dumping trash on your property. You won’t have to pay taxes, but you won’t get any benefits, no medical care unless you can pay cash for it, and you can’t drive on any road or highway because you aren’t paying for its construction and upkeep… and so on.

Such an approach would never fly… but it is a useful thought experiment. Not that any of the modern barbarians would understand. Nor would most liberals be anything but horrified, I suspect, at even the thought.

7 thoughts on “Modern Barbarians and Civilization”

  1. Grey says:

    I would love to see it. Funnily enough, just as this essay had me thinking of the old saw about how quickly a libertarian will abandon their values when their house is on fire, I saw this article about people in Central Washington complaining about how the federal government didn’t do enough when their homes were threatened by fires: http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2025579014_dnrfireresponsexml.html

    For context, central (and Eastern) Washington are hotbeds of stereotypical Tea Party/Libertarian types (‘small government,’ anti-regulation, complain about their taxes being spent on bridges in Seattle, etc.), so seeing this amused me to no end (I shouldn’t need to say it, but I’m talking about the hypocrisy, not the loss of property and threat to lives, which are horrible).

    This entire region gets more back in benefits than they pay in taxes, and would probably be non-viable economically without massive government intervention in infrastructure and subsidies, so it would be an ideal place for your experiment.

  2. Wine Guy says:

    This is similar to the State of Jefferson movement in northern California. On one hand, they are correct: their views are given zero credence when it comes to policy-making in the State Legislature and the Representatives and Senators on the national stage tend to vote directly opposite of their wishes. On the other hand… they ignore the obvious in their intake of tax benefits compared with how much they pay out (see excellent examples above in Grey and LEMs posts).

    If the State of Jefferson does ever manage to split off… it will be worse than Mississippi or West Virginia in terms of tax base and the comforts of government-led civilization (schools for the kids, adequate roads, law enforcement, etc.). I know of what I speak because I live there.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    There are multiple reports of fire departments that didn’t serve those houses that didn’t pay, although they would stand by to ensure that the fire didn’t spread to neighboring houses that did pay.

    I have no problem with that.

    Some of Heinlein’s stories posited a vast escape-proof area known as “Coventry”, to which those who put themselves outside the law by harming others (self-harm was exempt from response) were exiled, if reorientation was refused or did not apply; the law did not operate there.

    I have no problem with that either, save that it’s unfeasible, unless there’s an unused island large enough.

    I do have a problem with those who would seek to identify all hidden costs and ensure they were placed squarely on whoever generated those costs. The problem is that rather than pointing to a specific person harmed by a specific act by a specific person, it identifies a pool of harmed and a pool of contributors to harm, and simply apportions the harm among the contributors to harm. It’s law meets statistics, and even if the statistics were mathematically valid to a degree comparable with “beyond a reasonable doubt”, action contributing fractionally to long-term consequences are impossible to evaluate to that degree – there are too many unknowns between action and consequence, esp. given a planetary scale arena of action.

    I have slightly less problem with the idea if the relationship of cause and effect are very clear, and the interval short enough that intervening or mitigating factors are unlikely.

    1. Grey says:

      Wait, so, if it’s ‘too hard’ to precisely calculate to an individual level, then anything goes? I.e., it’s too hard to figure out if the coal-fired power plant Grey wants to build next to R. Hamilton’s house will cause asthma or premature death, so you can’t stop him from building there and he doesn’t have to install carbon scrubbers on his smokestacks?

      How is that better than the system we have now?

      1. D Archerd says:

        Even in cases where governments wish to be more “small” and libertarian, interfering with individual decisions as little as possible and collecting the costs of what services are provided directly from the beneficiaries of such services, there are still going to be situations where it is either too difficult to ascribe the costs to individual beneficiaries or to collect the associated fees. The classic example offered is a lighthouse. It benefits any vessel in its vicinity, and thus provides a vital part of nautical infrastructure and facilitates maritime trade. But it would be more trouble than it’s worth to try to collect a fee from every vessel in sight of the lighthouse; furthermore, some of the vessels might just be in transit and not even bound for or departing from the territory of the government hosting the lighthouse, so even collecting fees from ships entering or leaving a nearby harbor would not fairly capture the full costs from all the beneficiaries. Faced with such realities, governments by and large provide lighthouses and other nautical aids from the general funds for the general welfare, and there are numerous other examples where governments simply choose to provide services for the general benefit of all where trying to collect tolls, fees, or other specific charges to individual beneficiaries.

        Similarly, governments can and do impose regulations needed to protect the population in general without attempting to determine individual levels of harm, e.g. noxious gas scrubbers on industrial smokestacks.

        I’m all for user fees in lieu of taxes wherever they can be reasonably applied, but that last is an important caveat. Financing the construction and maintenance of a bridge via user fees (i.e. bridge tolls) is easy to do because one can readily identify the beneficiaries and charge them directly – anyone who wants to cross the bridge. But identifying the individual beneficiaries most government services are not so easy, nor is it easy to identify the individuals harmed by actions of other individuals or corporations. So governments have to make all sorts of compromises and approximations, based primarily on what is feasible and less so on what is fair.

        1. alecia says:

          The issue with fairness is what to do with those who can’t pay their ‘fair share’? People under the poverty line, children, the disabled, etc. are the ones that need the most help yet have the fewest resources. To be fair, we should be looking at getting rid of tax breaks given to companies making billions in profits, or to those who are eliminating jobs in the US for those in other countries, or making sure that tax shelters aren’t being exploited (like, say a prize horse to be ridden in the Olympics). I am perfectly happy to pay my taxes (people who complain about paying their taxes are rater inane to me), but I do resent the fact that I pay a higher percentage of my income that does Mitt Romney & others who so effectively use these shelters. Where are the shelters for poor people?

  4. Joe says:

    I’m surprised you don’t see this is almost the world we live in already.

    Lawyers, gun protected gated communities, private airplanes, corporations in other countries let the rich dispense with paying taxes, following the law, or submitting to democracy. There’s no reason for such people to worry about the state of the roads, or medical care for the general public, since they don’t use these things.

    Once we get to the point we can shoot them, it will be hard to distinguish the USA from Russia.

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