I have taken many graduate political science classes during my years in academia. In almost everyone, at one point or another, the professor posed a certain question. I doubt this question is unique to political science graduate seminars. I expect that it is asked in many other social science and humanities classes. The question is: does society learn?
When I first heard the question as a young graduate student, I found both it and the debate that followed it very interesting. The professors’ intent was to get us to think about whether society evolves, whether it learns from knowledge of mistakes, or of history. But after hearing the question in class after class, it grew tiresome — especially since there was never a definitive answer.
Lately, the more news I read about the Obama administration, Congress, and government bureaucracy at all levels, the more this tiresome question comes to mind. Like other libertarians, I find it troubling. The idea of society learning, rather than individuals, is fundamentally problematic. Initially, I thought the appropriate question should be, “Do people learn?” But the more I’ve been thinking about it, the more I believe the question is, “Does society learn?” and that the answer is no.
The key is “society.” Individuals have the potential to learn — from history, from good and bad experiences, from mistakes. But society cannot learn. Groups cannot learn. Groups always repeat the same mistakes and atrocities in attempting to manifest well-intentioned ideas that are “fair to everyone” or “good for mankind.”
From its inception, America’s free society has been based on individual rights. Yet the present administration, Congress, and bureaucracy seem intent on changing a society based on individual rights to one based on human or group rights. Their efforts at universal healthcare, cap and trade, and wealth redistribution all elevate group rights over individual ones. When individual rights are valued and protected, individuals can exercise their capacity to learn, and are likely to avoid past mistakes and atrocities. When rights are no longer considered individual but human or collective, then “society” or “the community” becomes an entity in and of itself, of greater importance than its individual members. In such a condition it is left to society to learn. And individuals inevitably suffer because society never does.