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They Should Just....

“They should just….”

You’ve probably said it. I know I have. When we see a problem in the structures of our society, it is so easy to pronounce it someone else’s responsibility to fix. The solution seems obvious to us, and “they should just…”

Something about this has long bothered me, and I have finally figured out what. It is the pronoun, and the assumptions behind it. We assume that we can’t do anything to fix the problem, and that those we perceive to have direct involvement in the issue are the only ones who can fix it. Unfortunately, the solution that seems so obvious to us usually requires groups of people to act against their self-interest, and frankly, the chances of that being the actual solution to any problem are slim to none.

In other words, the “they should just…” solutions are often not viable solutions at all. They are white lies we tell ourselves to make us feel better about the problem. After all, we see the problem, and if only those people over there would stop doing the perfectly legal and/or accepted thing they are doing, the problem would be solved!

When we say “they should just…” we are abdicating our own responsibility and power to fix problems. And we have more power than we acknowledge. If we don’t like the way certain corporations conduct their business, we can work to change the rules that govern them- i.e., the laws. Most other solutions are liable to fail because “shareholder value” usually trumps all other considerations. If we don’t like the way certain laws play out in the courtroom, the most direct fix is to change the laws. And, as Lawrence Lessig argues in One Way Forward, if we don’t like the impact big money is having on our politics, we need to reform the system to remove the money- wishing for braver politicians who will be less beholden to the monied interests that helped elect them is a losing proposition.

I do not discount the potential of other methods of solving problems. We do not need a law for everything. Direct consumer campaigns and the like can bring about change, too, for instance. But I am increasingly inclined to be a cynic, and think about how to change the self-interest of the people whose behavior I want to change, rather than idealistically appeal to their better nature and hope they just “do the right thing,” whatever that is.

I am also increasingly leery of people who want one group of people (invariably a group to which they do not belong) to assume all of the effort and risk required to change the world. I do not know if reading Lessig’s book is what started this line of thinking, but it certainly changed how I thought about some of the political issues I care about. I increasingly see government as part of the solution to problems, not necessarily because I think government needs to be directly involved in solving all problems, but because government is the means by which a society sets the rules it wants companies and individuals to follow. I am well aware that government is an imperfect means of bringing change. However, I can think of no better means for the members of a democracy to express our collective standards for behavior.

So perhaps Lessig is right, and the first thing we need to do to fix what we think is broken in our world is to make government more responsive to us, and less corruptible by the interests of those with the most money to spend. I am not sure I agree with his specific proposals for how to achieve that, but I am sure that it is unlikely to happen just by hoping politicians develop more backbone.

And I’m trying to ban “they should just…” from my thinking about how to solve the problems I see in the world. It does nothing but provide me false comfort. I’d rather be a little less comfortable and a little more involved in the solutions.

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