Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Whatever Should Be, Should Be

A technical standard is a very precise document that is used as a reference for how something should work in the technical world. I spent several years of my life working in this arena and I’d like to relate a peculiar thing I learned in that time.

I learned that the word “should” means “don’t have to.”

I was receiving comments one day from a colleague who had read some text I’d written. He had drawn a red line through a number of sentences I’d written and I couldn’t figure out why. “Why did you do that?” I asked.

“Those sentences don’t say anything,” my colleague explained.

“Of course they do. They tell you what you should do.” I protested.

“Or what? What happens if you don’t. Is it a requirement?”

“No, it’s not a requirement but—”

“Ok, then. Now this phrase over here uses ‘shall.’ Because of the use of ‘shall,’ the user has to do something. It’s in the imperative mode, and so it’s a requirement. And this one here, with ‘must’—another requirement. But the rest of this stuff over here uses ‘should,’ so that’s not a requirement. Nothing happens if the reader ignores your advice.”

“He’s supposed to at least try.”

“But he can decide not to. So from a requirements standpoint, there’s no difference.”

“Right,” I admitted.

“So ‘should’ really just means ‘doesn’t really have to,’ ” he emphasized in triumph.

“Right,” I admitted sadly.

“So take out the text. It has no meaning.”

Although it is routine for Libertarians and Republicans to speak of self-reliance and financial independence, it is never the case in a modern capitalist society that the wealthy have achieved anything on their own because by definition the entire society is based on the consent of others to indulge an economic system in which such wealth is even possible.

I speak of the modern capitalist society because certainly in times past, when the world was underpopulated, there were vast wildernesses available for conquest, and it was theoretically possible to find a place in the woods where one lived without contact with civilization on one’s own. Although even then, it was common to take with one the tools of civilization, such as clothing and weapons, as well as society’s more abstract fruits, such as health and education. The likelihood that a human being, left alone in the wilderness with none of this would survive very long is vanishingly small. So probably even then, and certainly now, we are all beholden to society for our success.

Since at least the time of the New Deal and the Great Society, we as a nation have tended toward acknowledging the importance of the role of government in protecting our weakest members.

Nor is this mere charity on the part of government. Government derives its power from the consent of the governed. For example, simple mathematics tells us that it cannot be the case that the majority of the population has above-average wealth. That means that the majority of people, upon agreeing to participate in capitalistism, have agreed to take a financial position that is less than average. The theory is that by allowing some to get rich, others will benefit, and the wealth of the country will improve.

It should be easily seen that if large numbers of people are failing to see their basic needs met, while a few profit in a manner that is grossly out of proportion, such a society cannot long stand because at that point the social contract permitting the accumulation of wealth has been violated. A government that draws its power from the consent of the electorate will naturally find it in its own best interest to assure that the price of success on the high end is that basic human needs are serviced on the other end.

The stronger among us must therefore always remember that their wealth is a benefit provided under a contract made with all of society, that the wealth will be used for the betterment of all. Well, not every dime of it. If we required that all the money a person made went to charity, that would be like not giving a person the money in the first place.

And yet, many suffer now after the failure of companies from which a tiny number of individuals have seen handsome profits. What must those who have profited do? What is the moral obligation of the well-to-do in the present times? Is there a special obligation on the part of those who have directly profited from the situations that have bankrupted others?

Well, let’s not speak of obligations, shall we? How rudely pushy of us. It’s true that some may be cast from their homes or have nothing to eat, but really—must we be so rude as to speak in the imperative? If someone made an enormous profit, that’s their money. They have earned their right to do with it whatever they wish. So let us avoid the impertinence of imperatives and speak in a more polite way. Because this matter certainly calls for politeness. Let’s just offer polite advice and they’ll know what must be done with that advice.

They should care about the fate of the poor. Whatever else they do, they should make it their business to assure that their enrichment does not come at the expense of others.

There. That’s it. Just some advice. Nothing pushy. Not a requirement. Just a request that they try.

I feel better now, knowing we all share a clear understanding of what should happen.

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Originally published Dec 17, 2008 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, class, class warfare, contract, social contract, breach, rich, wealth, wealthy, well-to-do, strong, poor, weak, weakest, obligation, duty, imperative, shall, should, must, modal, semantics, polite, politeness, rude, rudeness, profit, proportion, proportionality