I’m almost done with school (in fact, by the time this is published, I will be done). I’m happy about it, of course, but a little worried that I’ll lose all the inspiration I’ve gained by interacting with academics and all the students willing and excited to learn.

I previously mentioned a class where the curriculum basically involves talking about all of the most controversial topics of the day. It’s an understatement to say that it is fascinating to hear my classmate’s (and the professor’s) perspectives on these topics.

However, the running theme seems to be impassioned declarations of how things should be, rarely how they truly are. Or even better, how we can work within reality to bring about our ideals. For example, more often than not, it seems expected that government will magically bring about the realization of all of these “shoulds.”

So, I began formulating in my mind a response, something to say that would make clear why certain tensions exist in society. Why the struggle between business and government, government and activists, business and communities, etc. Furthermore, why do we tend to pick an ideology and think those who don’t agree are somehow twisted?

So, here it is: 

Let’s imagine that society is composed of four types of people (obviously there are many more, but just go with me here).

Each type interacts in such a way to benefit how they see fit.

Let’s call these four types the businessman, the politician, the activist and the neighbor. Each of these types has a distinctly different worldview. Each type possesses a unique vision as to how they and society can prosper.

The businessman wants to make some money. Not only does he see making money as good for him, he understands that a prosperous society with thriving markets is good for everyone. Jobs are available and goods, services and cash flow through society. Obviously, in his quest for more money, the businessman might not act for the benefit of others, society, the environment, etc. It happens. And unregulated, it leads to the tragedy of the commons.

The politician wants power. They want to run the show; they want to exert their influence and they want a sense of importance. It’s not beyond reason that some politicians think that if they have the power, they can make society better. But it’s a tricky game and the politician must often spend more time hanging on to their power than they do actually doing any good.

Now, this one seems to be tricky for a lot of people and honestly, if you accept the truth of the previous paragraph, a lot of other truths fall into place. In any case, I get the sense that many of us confuse the politician with the neighbor.

The neighbor sees society as one big neighborhood. They concern themselves with values like equality and fairness. They tend to feel that if we all just share amongst each other, society will become one big, smoothly functioning community. It’s a very nice thought, and possibly the reason socialism and the welfare state are such popular notions. And it might work if people were all the same, were willing to contribute equally and shared this neighborly outlook, but they aren’t, and they don’t.

Lastly, we have the activist. These folks see something wrong and they’re willing to make some noise about it. They are society’s town criers. The activist is instrumental in bringing new values, important and necessary values into society. Their greatest weakness, however, is that they must, by nature, focus on a very specific niche in society. This doesn’t do much good when all of society is in a tailspin.

The Conflict 

Some conflicts between these folks are easy to see at first glance. Obviously, the activist conflicts with the politician and, as recent social movements have illustrated, the businessman as well, if not more.

But we might not realize how the neighbor conflicts with the businessman. In the U.S., this is a raging battle. The neighbor wants things for their community, things like public transit systems, assistance programs for the poor, laws regarding employment practices, regulations on business practices, health care, etc. But the neighbor doesn’t have the power to enforce their will on the businessman, so they turn to the politician.

The politician knows that it’s the neighbor who keeps him in power (in an ideal democracy), so he does what he does best: starts handing out mandates or raising taxes, which cut into the businessman’s profits and autonomy. Society’s two great powerhouse institutions go to war.

The endgame

In society, the pendulum is always swinging. Take North Korea, it’s a perfect example of what an unchecked politician will do. On the other hand, the U.S. (depending on how you look at it) is run by the businessman. He’s got the politician in his pocket. Why? Because it’s not the neighbor or the activist who keeps the politician in power in the U.S., it’s the businessman.

In Western Europe, (in highly simplified terms) the neighbor reigns. As a result, they are ill-equipped to handle the influx of immigrants, are completely unable to keep the lofty promises of their social welfare states and government infiltrates nearly every facet of the individual’s life, in the name of security of course.

You see, we could dualize the conflict by saying that it’s a battle between the desire to be safe and secure while running the risk of totalitarianism or the desire for prosperity and autonomy while running the risk of uncertainty and/or an oligarchic plutocracy.

But all of these mentalities—the businessman, the politician, the activist and the neighbor—serve important, necessary roles in society. A balance must be struck and no, we cannot all just get along. But at least we might stop thinking of each other as stupid or unenlightened.

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