What Do I Owe You?

The idea that society has a claim on its members is one of most pernicious ever conceived.

The late anthropologist David Graeber traces this idea to ancient antiquity and associates it with the evolutionary development of formal governments. His theory is that debt obligation is the original excuse for one part of society controlling the remainder. Oversimplified, the legitimacy of government boils down to, “You owe us.”

The idea, in other words, is just a coercion, a trick of psychological warfare. Like other illusions the idea falls apart under scrutiny.

You can’t prove that society has a claim on its members because society can’t speak for itself either to make or defend such a claim. And since society cannot speak for itself, the idea can only be put forth by some person who pretends to know the secret will of society and to be able — like a priest in a mystery cult — to represent society’s interests to anyone who will listen.

There is, however, a sense in which it makes sense to talk about society’s claims on the individual. All of us owe debts to others, whether debts of kindness or debts of animosity. Because these “micro debts” exist, it is conceivable that they add up in some way to “macro debts.”

Problem is, no individual can pay off macro debt. Just as society has no voice with which to claim the sum of all debts it is owed, neither is any individual capable of paying off such a claim. This paradox cannot be resolved.

The whole concept is unworkable, except that it works nicely for aspiring tyrants.

41 thoughts on “What Do I Owe You?

    1. You are trying to reverse the issue raised by Mr. Roberts. The issue is – What do YOU owe society, not what does society owe you.

      You, for example, get a lot more from society than just the Rule of Law and national defense. You seem to think that enjoying those benefits does not entail ANY obligations.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You could make a case that a proportional cast for shared infrastructure could be included, though in most cases those could be better provided privately, but the personification of the ‘public good’ in the state is the basis of fascism.

        And of course, extracting that ‘public good’ does more harm to those taking than those taken from.


          1. Not me, man. I pave all my own roads. I have one for everywhere I need to go. Anytime I want to try a new restaurant, I pave a brand new road.

            I also process my own sewage, sterilize my own drinking water, and generate my own electricity. My life is better this way.

            Liked by 2 people

      2. RE: “The issue is – What do YOU owe society, not what does society owe you.”

        The issue is the same either way: (a) how do you quantify the value of the obligation, and (b) how do you apportion the debt?


  1. “ You can’t prove that society has a claim on its members because society can’t speak for itself either to make or defend such a claim.”

    Congress, or other legislative bodies is how “society speaks for itself” in a democratically elected republic like ours. Add in protections for individual rights and you have the makings of a symbiotic relationship that is dependent upon compromise to stay workable…mostly.

    When the powers of society become concentrated in one person or, in our case, the executive branch, then protections unravel. Which is where we are now with the growth of the executive power in contrast with the original intent in 1784.

    Aside from that, a person’s obligations to others starts when you are no longer alone.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. RE: “Congress, or other legislative bodies is how ‘society speaks for itself’ in a democratically elected republic like ours.”

      Is that a fact, or just an illusion? I think it would be impossible to prove.


      1. Why would it be impossible to prove?

        You don’t know the folks personally in Indiana. But they are part of our society.

        Yet, when federal legislation sponsored by the members from Indiana becomes the law of the land, society has spoken. And, as a voting citizen, you agree to abide by the results. You may not like it, and you might work to overturn it, but you have an obligation to obey the law until it is overturned or changed.

        And the power to overturn or change is why we have elected officials from around the country.
        And because you can do this, and consequently make others follow your favored law, individual obligations to society are baked into our system.

        Rule of Law says you are obligated to follow the law whether you like it or not, or face agreed upon consequences. And so is everyone else.

        Note that the individual rights enumerated and guaranteed in our Constitution keeps a tight rein on abuse by societal popularity. Not perfectly, though. So we have a judiciary to provide a safety net. And that net protects us against both legislative and executive abuse.

        A dictator won’t allow that.

        A caveat is the unequal effects of power through wealth. Congressional legislators are not always representing their voting constituents because they are financially beholden to big money in order to stay elected. Yet, under the Rule of Law, you have an obligation to obey until the law is changed.

        Democratic societies are tumultuous, but is there a better way to define societal roles and to…

        “… establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty…”?

        Perhaps, but we haven’t found it yet.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

          Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Democratically elected representatives in a Constitutional Republic is kind of ungainly to type every time. Few, if any, actually support pure democracy anywhere.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Every time the subject comes up, rebuttals always tout the evils of democracy as if there were any true, non-representative democracies in the world.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. I guess I was too cryptic.

            I was referring to the joke you(I think it was you) posted yesterday.

            The point is that there are no pure democracies to point to because they self destruct so fast the examples are not there long enough


          4. “The point is that there are no pure democracies to point to because they self destruct so fast”

            Care to cite an example of such a rapidly self-destructing democracy? Just one? Other than a few small city-states in ancient Greece – and they lasted for centuries – I cannot think of a pure democracy ever being tried on any kind scale. A few villages in New England and a few cantons in Switzerland, maybe, but they are still going strong.


        2. RE: “Democratic societies are tumultuous, but is there a better way to define societal roles…”

          I’d say that depends on your objectives. My objective in the post was to share an insight from an anthropologist who theorized on the natural origins of government. He claims that the earliest governments for which we have records evolved in societies where interpersonal obligations (or debts) became formalized in various practical ways. But debt is a lousy way to organize society, because debt is a kind of enslavement.

          In effect, a political theory based on the concept of social obligation is in fact a political theory based on the concept of slavery.


          1. Slavery is exactly the right definition. In fact, slavery as a legal status emerges from the same social/anthropological processes as the legal status of debt obligation. In both instances, an individual loses some part of self-ownership.


      2. RE: “Why would it be impossible to prove?”

        Because the proof would require asking society whether or not a legislative body speaks for it.


    1. Hmmm…can we expect a false flag accusation that the bridge was sabotaged to make the Infrastructure Bill seem a great victory for Biden.

      Sadly, this is a possibility in today’s conspiratorial climate. Just sayin’.

      Liked by 2 people

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