Monday, May 30

Is there a "social tipping point"?

In watching the relentless struggle between Right and Left, it seems to me that one of the defining characteristics of Leftists is that they claim one can take away all standards for responsible behavior, all requirements for personal responsibility and accountability, all rewards for hard work and playing by the rules, and all disincentives for criminality and brutality, without any negative consequences for society.

The Left's shining stars and talking heads tell us (usually by inference, but sometimes explicitly) that what this country needs is more tolerance for crack sellers and users, more leniency in sentencing habitual criminals. They tell us that anyone who opposes homosexual marriage is a bigot; that it's okay for a major television network to use obviously-forged documents to throw a presidential election to the party it favors; that anyone who opposes unlimited immigration is a racist; that the U.S. is an evil nation that invaded Iraq to grab that nation's oil; that it's all right for unmarried teenagers to have babies; that it's a violation of an individual's rights for a state to require sex offenders to register after they've served their jail terms;

It's not my intent to debate each of these points here. Intuitively, I think they're all *way* wrong-headed, but for now I'd like to address two slightly different topics: First, is it indeed the position of most of those on the Left that there is no social or quality-of-life cost of doing the things listed above?

And second, if this is indeed the position of most on the Left, do less-biased analysts agree that this assertion is true?

As far as I can determine, Leftists consider themselves the avant-garde --their thinking and lifestyles lead the rest of the country toward a more "progressive" (thus presumably better) society. As they see things, conservatives are reactionary Neanderthals who reflexively oppose all change. In the Left's view, change (more specifically, change they suggest) is good, and only a fearful bigot would oppose it.

By contrast, most conservatives seem to believe in what I'll call the Law of Consequences: that whenever one disregards sound principles (derived from at least a century or so of experience), there's a price or consequence. Of course sometimes it can be difficult to agree on just what those 'sound principles' are, but history is full of examples of societies that have been foolish and have paid the price.

Let me try to fine-tune that just a bit: The folks who design buildings and airplanes and bridges design them with a lot of excess strength, mainly so they can withstand the occasional failure of a bolt or rivet--or an unintended high load--without collapsing. This is the well-known "factor of safety," and one of its effects is that you could cut part-way thru lots of structural steel and never notice it. But take away one ounce too much and the failure is sudden and catastrophic.

It's the same way with flying: when a plane is on final approach for landing, by regulation it's flying 20-30 knots above the "stall speed," just in case. If you're a good pilot on a calm day you can edge this approach speed down a bit (which lets you turn off the runway closer to the terminal). But if you reduce your approach speed, you're using up that factor of safety. And again, if you cut one knot too many the result is sudden and catastrophic.

Sociologists are familiar with a concept called the "tipping point:" You can slowly weaken a community or neighborhood for years by allowing graffiti to accumulate, cutting police patrols, losing successful families, positive role models, legitimate jobs, with almost no detectable effect. But at some point, when some invisible line is crossed, the collapse is devastating, and happens in a matter of days.

One of the significant points to note here is that before the collapse the "warning signs" are generally intangible statistics. As a result, there's always enough 'wiggle room' for the so-called experts to rationalize away any alarm if that's what the political leaders want.

I don't know whether the Law of Consequences applies to societies. But I do know that it applies in so many other fields that it would be surprising if it didn't apply to societies as well.

But even if the law does apply, there still may be a loophole: Unlike flying, structural engineering, personal health and most chemical systems, the heterogenous nature of large social entities may mean that even if we stray past the "tipping point", the collapse will initially be limited to the most unhealthy communities. If so, there *might* be enough time for us to pull the larger society back behind the invisible line to relative safety.

Then again, there might not be.

Aww, don't worry about it: it'll probably be okay.


Blogger Barb said...

It's bleak to think that we may have passed the tipping point already. Kind of like the method for boiling a frog - heating the water slowly.

What this means to me is that we need zero tolerance on societal standards ... Now!

11:18 AM  

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