I wouldn’t say I never swear, but I don’t swear much, in real life, or in writing. I’ve been blogging for almost two decades now, and I just checked the stats, I average about one swear word every two years. I’ve only used three of George Carlin’s seven dirty words. I’ve used the word “shit” five times, four of which are in the form of the word “bullshit”. I’ve used the word “piss” twice, both times in the form of “pissed off”. And I’ve used the word “fuck” three times, but each time I was quoting someone else. My Twitter rate stats are similar.
The word “asshole” is not one of Carlin’s seven words, but up until now, I’ve only used it while blogging once. I have used it on Twitter a bit more, but still, only in five different conversations over the years.
All of which is to say, I don’t take swearing lightly. When I use one of these words, I usually use it because it’s the precisely the word that needs to be used.
* * *
I’ve read a lot of essays trying to explain Trumpism. They talk about economic displacement, demographic shifts, the perverse incentives of our political structure–you know, explanations using all the usual sorts of social science academic jargon. But sometimes, you just gotta go, fuck the academic jargon, here’s the best model that explains things:
The Democrats have become the “You’re Not Allowed To Be An Asshole” Party.
The Republicans have become the “I Have The Right To Be An Asshole” Party.
This is one of the major questions of our times. Should people be allowed to be assholes?
* * *
For the academic jargony types out there, let’s define what we mean by an asshole. An asshole is a selfish person, but not just any kind of selfish person. It’s a particular kind of selfishness that defines an asshole.
An asshole is a selfish person whose selfishness causes foreseeable indirect collateral damage to the people around them.
So an asshole isn’t someone who, for example, goes into a gas station and robs it. The robbery causes direct damage. A robber is a bad person, but not necessarily an asshole, at least not in this case.
And an asshole isn’t someone who, for example, takes a job just for the money. They don’t like the job, they don’t enjoy the job, they’re just doing it for the selfish reward of the money. That’s selfish, but it causes no real damage to anyone else. So that’s not an asshole, either.
Nor is an asshole someone who causes collateral damage but wasn’t behaving selfishly. An asshole isn’t someone who slips on some unseen ice and then knocks over and injures someone else while falling. That was just an unforeseeable accident.
An asshole is someone who is late for work and therefore drives fast and weaves in and out of the various lanes, cutting people off, and causing them to brake suddenly, which causes a cascade of braking behind them, which triggers a traffic jam. The asshole didn’t get into an accident, they didn’t directly harm anyone, but they left a wake of collateral indirect harm in their wake. And they should have known, if they had any kind of common sense, that that’s a likely consequence of that behavior.
Assholes take risks that provide upside to themselves, but transfer the downsides of those risks to other people.
* * *
When academic jargony types talk about the limits of freedom, they usually talk about the robbers. Obviously, you can’t let people just rob and kill and rape each other, so obviously you have to have some limits on freedom.
But the true test case for the limits of freedom is the asshole. Philosophically speaking, assholes walk the line between intentions and consequences. Assholes form the boundary between freedom and control.
Assholes don’t intend to do direct harm. They just don’t think about, and/or care about, and/or believe, and/or comprehend, that their actions can or will have negative consequences for other people beyond their direct intentions.
Patient 31 in South Korea, who went to church despite knowing that she was sick with coronavirus, didn’t intend to pass on her illness. She just wanted to go to church. It wasn’t her intention to trigger a cascade of illness that, traced directly back to her, killed several hundred people and made several thousand more sick. But any reasonable non-asshole could have told her that was a risk of her going to church. She was an asshole.
How do you judge an asshole like Patient 31? On her intentions, or on her consequences?
If you judge her only on her intentions, she’s completely innocent. If you judge her only on her consequences, she’s a mass murderer.
The consequences of being an asshole are usually not so catastrophic. Usually, societies can tolerate a certain amount of assholes and be fine. But this pandemic has changed that calculation. One asshole doing the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time could kill millions.
This is a very serious question that free societies have to answer. What the fuck do you do about assholes?
* * *
Assholes have a very clever trick that allows them to keep being assholes.
If you try to stop them from being an asshole, they will declare you to be an asshole who, although perhaps intending to prevent some bad thing from happening, causes harm by denying some very fine people, who have no intention of harming anyone, their freedom. So who’s the real asshole here, anyway?
See, I told you it was a very clever trick.
That very clever trick works because the boundaries on the map of freedom and control are formed and defined by assholes. Some things clearly need to be controlled, and some things clearly should be free to do. But assholes do things that are both and neither at the same time. They can step onto either side of their line to suit their selfish needs whenever and however they want.
This is why assholes are such a dilemma for free societies. If you value freedom as a right, assholes will test you to find out exactly how much you hold that value. Obviously no one should be free to intentionally kill someone. But should an asshole be free to do something that unintentionally but foreseeably kills one person? Ten? A hundred? A thousand? A million? A billion?
But what if it’s not killing, but causing economic harm? What if an asshole unintentionally but foreseeably causes $100 in economic harm? $100,000? $100,000,000? $100,000,000,000?
Where do you draw the line to stop the asshole? Draw that line anywhere, and now you’re an asshole, too.
* * *
This is why in my essay The Quick Start Guide to Human Society, I argued that freedom isn’t an absolute. The key to a prosperous society is to “give people freedom in an environment of trust.” You want to give people as much freedom as possible while preserving trust. Therefore, freedom is an optimization problem, always and everywhere.
When people don’t trust each other, they aren’t willing to give each other freedom. When people are given freedom, but do untrustworthy things with that freedom, that freedom will inevitably be curtailed. The more trustworthy the people in a society are, the less temptation there is to put limits on their freedom.
This gives us an angle to approach issues that differ from the “not allowed to be an asshole” view. America needs to break out of this binary mode of thought that dominates our political discussions. From this third point of view, when you’re limiting the freedom of assholes, you’re not doing it to prevent harm, you’re doing it to preserve trust and optimize freedom.
You may think that preventing harm and preserving trust are the same thing, but they’re not. 38,000 people die every year in traffic accidents in the US. That’s harm. But those statistics haven’t destroyed our trust in driving, so we let people drive. Now maybe, those numbers should destroy our trust in driving, but that’s a different issue. The point here is that while preventing harm and increasing trust may be correlated, they are not the same thing.
Looking at it through the lens of trust, we can talk coherently about the difference between the physical harm of the coronavirus pandemic, and the economic harm. Our tolerance for physical harm is much lower than our tolerance for economic harm. If people are dying, we’re going to lose trust much faster than if people are losing money.
So you judge people not on their intentions, or their consequences, but rather on the effect they have on the environment of trust. That effect contains intentions and consequences as part of the function we’re calculating, but they’re not the same thing.
When we talk about “reopening our economy” after we’ve turned the growth curve of the pandemic downward, if you talk about it from the angle of avoiding harm, you’re not going to open it at all until there’s a cure or a vaccine. If you talk about it from the angle of preserving the freedom of assholes to keep being assholes, you’re going to open things up too fast and far more people are going to die than necessary.
But if you look at it from the angle of optimizing trust, you’re going to start thinking about how and when you can open things up in a slow and controlled and limited way. You ask, how can we interact with each other in a trustworthy way, given the current rates of infection? You’ll come up with different ideas that perhaps aren’t risk-free or harm-free, but manageable. You’ll move towards that optimal balance of freedom and trust, where our low tolerance for physical harm comes in balance with our higher tolerance for economic harm.
* * *
Assholes exploit their freedom in a way that reduces trust. Assholes think they are promoting freedom by exercising their right to be an asshole, but actually, by reducing trust, they ruin freedom for everyone else. You don’t need rules to stop assholes if people are kind and thoughtful instead of assholes. If you really love freedom, and want to preserve it and grow it and spread it, be trustworthy. Don’t be an asshole.