Who are we?

I wonder if part of the reason for persistent disagreement on political positions is that people mean quite different things by ‘We’ in sentences like ‘We should do x’. Here are three:

We = ‘the government’

As in, ‘we should control markets to avoid the dangers of their extremes’, ‘we should have discretion in the treatment of prisoners to allow for the complexities of the situation’,  ‘we should ban smoking even though people want to smoke, because they won’t when they stop being addicted’,  and ‘we should censor especially harmful writing’.

This is interesting because if ‘we’ should do these things, naturally ‘we’ should be given the power to do them. However in practice since you aren’t actually in the government, what you think ‘we’ should do is not very relevant once you have allowed such power. This is especially the case with issues where you can’t easily check that ‘we’ are doing what ‘we’ should, or do anything about it.  For instance issues which prohibit your knowing what’s going on (e.g. censorship), or where good and bad actions would be hard to tell apart from the outside (for instance well justified paternalism and interest-driven paternalism), issues which involve no simple standards to check behavior against (where much discretion is allowed it is hard to claim particular decisions were wrong, or to show this to others), and issues where you are expected to disagree (for instance paternalistic laws). By calling the government ‘we’ it’s easy to forget the difference in effort required to do something and to check a large powerful organization elsewhere is doing something.

We = ‘everyone’

As in, ‘if we just cut our meat consumption in half we would cut carbon emissions by –%’

This one is interesting for similar reasons to the above; it makes it extremely easy to overlook the fact that you don’t make decisions for everyone else, and don’t know what they are doing mostly. ‘Just cutting our meat consumption in half’ requires somehow persuading perhaps billions of others to reduce their meat consumption, despite their other priorities, disagreement with the claim, lack of sympathy to the cause, inability to hear you or know that you are suggesting such a thing even if you can afford a very expensive advertising campaign, lack of reason to trust you, lack of evidence that others will take part, and ability to just free ride if most people were to do what you say.  Despite these problems, when I was a teenager it took me a while to work out why ‘we’ don’t ‘just’ make electric cars powered by solar energy instead of petrol driven ones if we know carbon emissions are such a problem.

We = ‘you and I’

As in, ‘we shouldn’t have to pay for a corrupt bureaucracy to oppress us in the name of the majority’s interests’

This seems the least delusional meaning of ‘we’, but the others must exist for a reason. I suspect that if everyone thinks of themselves as part of ‘we’ and talks and acts as if their decisions are the ones everyone will make, they do avoid some of the coordination problems that their word usage overlooks. For instance if a bunch of people avoid polluting their local river because ‘if we just keep it clean will be much nicer’, they do actually get what they want, at least until someone has enough at stake to think about it more.

I think these meanings of ‘we’ are more popular amongst those with different political leanings.  In general, whoever ‘we’ are to you, you will tend to ignore the coordination problems within that group, or between that group and the real you. This helps policies that sound good to one group sound absurd to another.

6 responses to “Who are we?

  1. This seems to be a symptom of people’s existing disagreements in interests. It may be the proximate cause of overt disagreements, but the ultimate cause is still differences in interest.

    Perhaps you think that if people can come to acknowledge their differences in interest they would at least “agree to disagree”. But the strategy is probably deliberate. To pretend that your interests do in fact align with that of others, so that you can appear to be magnanimous while actually being selfish. Or to pretend that policies are cheaper than their true costs.

    Finally, political disputes among common folk are not about what should be done, but about what you think should be done and what your values are.

  2. “Coordination is expensive.” God, I love that quote.

  3. Obligatory reference: Lose the we.

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