How to recruit people to the cause of reforming America

Summary:  After the long journey to create modern representative democracies, we might have forgotten how our political machinery works. The basic workings of the engine, not the operation of the buttons on the dashboard. Worse, many of us have adopted superstitions about the engine. All this makes difficult the deep reforms necessary for the 21st century. Here we sketch out one aspect of the problem, and speculate about a viable path forward. Discussing reform is a first step to taking reforms.

The condition of Man … is a condition of war of every one against every one. … … To this war of every man against every man, this also in consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law, where no law, no injustice. Force, and fraud, are in war the cardinal virtues.

… [In this war there are] no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

— Thomas Hobbs explains why we need a State, from Leviathan (1651)

Modern philosophers

  1. The power of forgetting & imagination
  2. Talking with empowered true believers
  3. Yes, it can happen here
  4. For More Information
  5. A map showing how we got here

(1)  The power of forgetting & imagination

“Their citizens glorified their mythology of rights and lost track of their duties. No nation, so constituted, can endure.”
— Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959)

Centuries of intellectual work by enlightenment philosophers, including Hobbs, Locke and Hume, resulted in the creation of modern republican democracies. Centuries of evolution — hard won through trial and error — produced working systems that have survived wars, depressions, and massive social changes.  Now another wave of reforms is needed to face the challenges of the 21st century.

One of the oddities about politics in 21st America is the role of imagining and forgetting. The Tea Party movement is, in this as in so many things, the extreme case, with decades of indoctrination giving them imaginary history and economics (amply documented in these posts).

Libertarians are also interesting (the 2 groups overlap). Hobbs and Enlightenment philosophers would consider naive their ideas about the nature of individuals and society. Libertarians ask what the State owes individuals, unaware that civilization begins when individuals band together to make a State — that the things libertarians value, such as freedom and property, exist only only after the creation of a State — that each generation must recreate the State — and that States often fail, with horrific consequences.

These are important insights today, when Americans know what the State owes them. “I know my rights” is our mantra. But our obligations to the State remain less clear to us, becoming less so with each generation. The growth of libertarian thinking is symptomatic of this. It’s an easy path to national decline, and a starting point for discussions about reforms.

(2)  Discussions in a world with empowered true believers

“Stability is in unity.”
— Mencius (372 – 292 BC), Chinese philosopher, follower of Confucius

Discussions of this problem and possible solutions are clogged by true believers from the Tea Party and libertarian movements. The first are misinformed; the second idealistic. Members of both often unreachable with fact or logic (proven by long experience here and elsewhere). These groups pose operational challenges on all levels to reformers, from internet comments to national elections.

Looking at the larger issue first — my guess (emphasis on guess) is that they are in general impossible to enroll in any reform coalition (which I suspect will cross existing party lines).

Looking at the other extreme — politics on a microscopic scale — their participation in comment threads are equally problematic. Internet discussions tend to self-sort into forums with people of similar views — so that people pleasantly re-enforce each other’s opinions (the FM website breaks this rule, one reason for its often acrimonious comment threads). On more content-focused sites (i.e., not discussion forums), the trend seems to be toward having no comments, or comments only with heavy moderation (e.g., commends posted only after approval). For details see this post, with quotes from websites grappling with management of their comment sections.

There are no easy solutions, unfortunately — only trade-offs.



One reason for this: a high degree of agreement is necessary for a fruitful dialog (i.e., something more than a bar or dormitory bull session). Hence the question of what do do with people who start with the belief that Hobbs was wrong, Ayn Rand makes sense, Keynes was a fool, Saddam actually had WMDs and conspired with al Qaeda, or that they know more than Nobel-prize winning scientists? Long experience has convinced me that discussions with such folks are a waste of time.  Their beliefs are rooted in the bedrock of their minds, and debates with them usually focus on matters of little interest to others (there is little common ground for discussion) — effectively preventing value creation.

My guess is that in the long-run open forums will act mostly to distribute information and put like-minded people in touch with each other. Deeper discussions will take place in invitation-only forums (or open with limited registration to post comments). Not secret forums, for there are no secrets in the information age (as even the NSA has learned). But closed in terms of participation. If so, the question becomes how to run a website to discover and recruit people willing to talk about reform? Recruitment is one of the first steps to starting the engines of reform.

The clock is running. The problems of the 21st century loom before us. We need to find the right tools before we can begin to fix them. The consequences of failure could be unpleasant.

“To understand this for sense it is not required that a man should be a geometrician or a logician, but that he should be mad.”

— Thomas Hobbs (1588-1679) discussing what we call calculus, but this well describes the dream of democracy. It’s a challenge against history, probability, and perhaps human nature.

(3)  Yes, it can happen here

About the balance of the mutual obligations of States and citizens, expressed as their collective identity and actions: what happens when a prosperous nations loses its social cohesion? Bad things. Mentioning the possibility of such failure to Americans typically produces incredulity, who often believe such things happen only to other nations. We are exceptional, at least in our own minds.

History gives us cautionary examples. In the 1920’s people said “Rich as an Argentinian”. Nobody says that today.

The story of Argentine economic growth in the 20thC is one of decline unparalleled in the annals of economic history. Once one of the richest and fastest growing countries in the world, Argentine is now firmly entrenched in the ranks of less-developed countries, and the Belle Epoque, the turn-of-the century golden age, a time of rapid growth, high culture and dream of continued prosperity, is but a dim and distant memory for most Argentines.

— “Three Phases of Argentine Economic Growth”, Alan M. Taylor, NBER, October 1994

(4) For More Information

(a)  For more information see the FM Reference Page:

(b)  Articles about Libertarianism:

  1. Recommended: “If Wishes Were Horses, Beggars Would Ride — A Pony!“, John & Belle Have a Blog, 6 March 2004 — One of the best political posts, ever.
  2. What I Think About Atlas Shrugged“, John Scalzi (sci-fi writer, bio), 1 October 2010
  3. The liberty of local bullies“, Noah Smith (student), 26 November 2011 — How Ron Paul fits in the broader currents of libertarian thought
  4. Why Don’t Libertarians Care About Ron Paul’s Bigoted Newsletters?“, James Kirchick, The New Republic, 22 December 2011 — A very good question.
  5. The American Right and Ayn Rand: A Love Story“, Travis Benton, 14 August 2012
  6. Conservatives once ridiculed Ayn Rand“, Michael Lind, Salon, 8 August 2013 — “Today’s doltish conservatives, like Paul Ryan, worship her. But their forebears called Rand’s work ‘preposterous'”
  7. Where are you on the Political Compass — libertarian-authoratarian and liberal-conservative?

(c)  Other posts about Libertarianism:

  1. All you need to know about Ayn Rand, savior of modern conservatism, 22 March 2009
  2. A modern conservative dresses up Mr. Potter to suit our libertarian fashions, 17 November 2011
  3. Ron Paul’s exotic past tells us much about him, the GOP, libertarians – and about us, 27 December 2011
  4. Choose your team: our election is a conflict between long-dead philosophers, 12 September 2012

(d)  Steps to fixing America:

  1. Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step
  2. Five steps to fixing America
  3. A third try: The First Step to reforming America
  4. The second step to reforming America
  5. The third step to reforming America, with music

(5) A map showing how we got here

From the website of Stephen Hicks (Prof Philosophy, Rockford College):

hickss: the enlightenment vision
By Stephen Hicks



24 thoughts on “How to recruit people to the cause of reforming America”

  1. An interesting post FM. This post focuses on discussions in the online realm; I am often more worried about conversations that happen outside of it. Perhaps I am just a dogged skeptic of the inter net’s capacity to create meaningful social capital, relationships, or the capacity to move past conversation and make things happen in the physical world.

    I have helped make things happen there. I find, however, that when I spend too much time online conversing with those with intellects like my own I often lose my ability to communicate effectively and easily about these same matters to people in the ‘real world.’

    The problem is not that I spend my time reading things I only agree with – the trouble is that I spend time reading things written to a similar standard of depth, accuracy, and knowledge as my own. Back in the real world most people have not heard of many important things and many more do not care to know. Going back and talking to these folks can be… jarring.

    It disturbs me how jarring an experience this can be.

  2. “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
    -another good quote

    1. Rob,

      Thanks for the link!

      See the For More Information for links to other articles. Also, the posts about Libertarianism include links to a wide range of materials about it.

    1. fish,

      All opinions are welcomed here.

      Why do you believe John Scalzi is an inappropriate voice to discuss Libertarianism? He is a noted science fiction writer, has written on a wide range of other subjects, and a former president of the Science Fiction Writers of America.

      For this kind of analysis, I look at the article not the author. For same reason I read Ender’s Game without care about Orson Scott Card’s views about gay people or President Obama (i.e., his weird views).

      Also, I think a science fiction writer provides a useful perspective on Libertairianism, as it is a form of utopian fiction. That’s just my opinion, of course.

  3. Fabius,
    Do you really put people who disagree with Hobbs/Hobbes in the category of people with whom discussion is a waste of time? What does that even mean? Hobbes said and claimed many things, some of which many or most political scientists disagree with today.

    I can surmise you mean his idea that nature is red in tooth and claw, and that man in the mythical “state of nature” would be brutal. Well, there is a lot of disagreement with that belief, starting with Rousseau up until the present day by real, working anthropologists.

    If you are really that strict in your own beliefs about who is worth working with, then good luck.

    I am a Rousseauian anti-Hobbesian myself, believing that human’s eusocial, cooperative tendencies are more powerful than the atavistic, completely selfish-gene theories that are so popular today. That certainly doesn’t make me a libertarian. In fact, Rousseau believed very strongly in democracy and republics, and also thought such a form of gov’t to be impossible without a very virtuous citenzry.

    He also believed that republics and nations age, become senescent, and die. The USA is obviously at the stage where the citizens have lost their virtues, the venal elites have corrupted the republic to become parasites, sucking away the resources, at the same time that secular, global trends in resource depletion and biosphere degradation cause a new zero-sum-game economic reality.

    It don’t look good for the republic, which is already just a republic in name only
    Anyway, I just think it’s odd that you equate Hobbes’ ideas with some kind of orthodoxy, and if someone disagrees, it puts them beyond the pale. Odd.But then you always strangely skirt a line of inclusiveness and extreme intolerance.

    1. Todd,

      Thank you for this well-expressed, well-thought out comment. I agree with most of this, and am unclear with what part of this post you disagree.

      (1) “I am a Rousseauian anti-Hobbesian myself, believing that human’s eusocial, cooperative tendencies are more powerful than the atavistic, completely selfish-gene theories that are so popular today.”

      (a) I am only somewhat familiar with the selfish gene sociobiology theories, and do not see how they conflict with Rousseau. Their proponents do not predict that peaceful societies are impossible — which is nice for them, because such societies are a commonplace of history.

      (b) I don’t see how your views about the nature of people conflict with the point of this post. Those traits you describe make society possible (expressed in the modern era through the political structures of States). But they don’t prevent horrific effects of social breakdowns. In large societies it requires complex social structures to harness these aspects of our nature to counterbalance our dark side. Like irrigation systems, they require constant tending to function.

      A logical expression of the contrary view would be belief that failed States provide an opportunity for people’s cooperative tendencies to flower. I doubt you mean that, and so am unclear as to your point.

      (2) “Rousseau believed very strongly in democracy and republics, and also thought such a form of gov’t to be impossible without a very virtuous citenzry.”

      As did the Founders. Me, too. But I am unclear about the relationship of that to Hobbs, or anything in this post.

      He also believed that republics and nations age, become senescent, and die. The USA is obviously at the stage where the citizens have lost their virtues, the venal elites have corrupted the republic to become parasites, sucking away the resources, at the same time that secular, global trends in resource depletion and biosphere degradation cause a new zero-sum-game economic reality.

      It don’t look good for the republic, which is already just a republic in name only

  4. Whether, how, and why America needs reform depends a great deal on one’s own perspective. You’ll get many different answers depending on who you ask.
    Regardless, I would say there are two great impediments to the sort of reform I would want to see:
    1. People are selfish
    2. People are stupid
    What I mean is that the great majority of people will only support a reform if they think it will benefit them personally, they will actively oppose even a good reform if they think it might harm them even a little bit, and they generally have a very bad understanding of what actually does benefit and harm them.
    In my mind, that’s why the Tea Party has been so successful, because it played very well to these two great demons of public life. The platform called out to a certain set people who felt they were being harmed (older white men), placed blame for that harm in a way that would appeal to their baser instincts (the government and racial minorities are taking things from you). It didn’t matter that the message was wrong on so many levels; it still resonated with millions of Americans, driving their efforts away from what might have otherwise been productive pursuits, into an irrational hatred of the one man who epitomized their perception of the forces acting against them – President Obama.
    I think that any successful national reform movement will need to either incorporate or avoid these two very human obstacles. We would be deluding ourselves to think it’s possible to fix these essential elements of our collective condition.

    1. Todd,

      That is quite a dark description. And IMO not accurate.

      People are selfish, but also will to pay for what they believe worthwhile, up to and including sacrifice of their own lives and those of their loved ones.

      People do not understand complex phenomena, but that applies to us all.i have heard intelligent well-educated people say silly things about matters outside their area of expertise. I have done so (but am careful to avoid that; posting one’s errors on a SmackDowns pages provides strong negative re enforcement).

      I agree with your core point, that reforms must appeal to people’s values, usually but not always to their self-interest, and be easily understood. American independence, abolition of slavery, civil rights for Blacks and gays, votes for women, the progressive era and New Deal reforms — all of these won.

      We can as well.

      None of those came fast, easy, or cheap. Nor will the necessary reforms to America.

  5. While we’re on the subject of Libertarians (and particularly those of the Ayn Rand ilk which seems to be growing in popularity), I’ve always considered this little parody to be remarkably incisive when it comes to capturing what appears to be at best rather cavalier and heedless (not to mention incredibly myopic) naivete — and at worst raging narcissism — on their part:

    (*Sung to the tune of “I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major-General” from “The Pirates Of Penzance”…with gratitude and apology to Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan*)

    I am the very model of a modern Libertarian:
    I teem with glowing notions for proposals millenarian,
    I’ve nothing but contempt for ideologies collectivist
    (My own ideas of social good tend more toward Objectivist).
    You see, I’ve just discovered, by my intellectual bravery,
    That civic obligations are all tantamount to slavery;
    And thus that ancient pastime, viz., complaining of tax-a-ti-on,
    Assumes the glorious aspect of a war for li-ber-a-ti-on!

    You really must admit it’s a delightful re-ve-la-ti-on:
    To bitch about your taxes is to fight for li-ber-a-ti-on!

    I bolster up my claims with lucubrations rather risible
    About the Founding Fathers and the market’s hand invisible;
    In fact, my slight acquaintance with the fountainhead Pi-er-i-an
    Makes me the very model of a modern Libertarian!

    His very slight acquaintance with the fountainhead Pi-er-i-an
    Makes him the very model of a modern Libertarian!

    All “public wealth” is robbery, we never will accede to it;
    You have no rights in anything if you can’t show your deed to it.
    (But don’t fear repossession by our Amerind minority:
    Those treaties aren’t valid — Uncle Sam had no authority!)
    We re-a-lize whales and wolves and moose find wilderness quite vital,
    We’ll give back their habitats…as long as they can prove title.
    But people like un-spoil-ed lands (we too will say “hooray” for them),
    So we have faith that someone else will freely choose to pay for them.

    Yes, when the parks are auctioned it will be a lucky day for them—
    We’re confident that someone else will freely choose to pay for them!

    We’ll guard the health of nature by our self-interest most astute:
    Pollution is destructive, so nobody ever will pollute.
    Thus fac-to-ries will safeguard our communities riparian—
    I am the very model of a modern Libertarian!

    Yes, fac-to-ries will safeguard our communities riparian,
    He is the very model of a modern Libertarian!

    In short, when I can tell you why the individual consumers
    Know best who should approve their drugs and be allowed to treat tumors;
    Why civilized existence in its intricate confusion
    Will be simple and straightforward, absent government in-tru-si-on;
    Why markets cannot err within the system I’ve described,
    Why poor folk won’t be bullied and why rich folk simply can’t be bribed,
    And why all vast inequities of power and po-si-ti-on
    Will vanish when I wave my wand and utter “COM-PE-TI-TI-ON!”

    He’s so much more exciting than a common pol-i-ti-ci-an,
    Inequities will vanish when he hollers “Com-pe-ti-ti-on!”

    And why my lofty rhetoric and arguments meticulous
    Inspire shouts of laughter and the hearty cry, “Ridiculous!”,
    And why my social the-o-ries all seem so pre-Sumerian
    I’ll be the very model of a modern Libertarian!

    His novel social the-o-ries all seem so pre-Sumerian—
    He is the very model of a modern Libertarian!

  6. My 2 cents. Most of this is probably obvious, but like FM says, it’s work! A lot of it is stuff that’s done routinely during elections.

    problem: apathy

    agitaiton / instigation / crazy stunts / celebrities. probably not FM’s forte, but the level of care naturally rises whenever there is any national crisis. Have stuff ready to ride that wave.

    problem: misinformed / stupid public

    websites like this + outreach* … anti-propaganda campaigns? **

    problem: myopic / greedy / misguided-ly self interested public

    same as above

    problem: corrupt system:


    problem: well-meaning people trapped in system that presents only bad choices:

    focus attention on the concept that there is a false dilemma. focus attention on other states/countries that do it better. remind that we have the power to fix it.

    problem: extreme ideologues immune to reason
    don’t get sucked in, conserve time/energy, don’t debate. send them over to places/organizations you don’t like, use them to discredit someone else


    * by outreach, could mean going out to other discussion forums (the opposite of preaching to the choir), and also in the real world, and leaving a trail that leads to…. NOT an in-depth discussion, but rather some kind of simplified manifesto or talking points, and slowly ratchets up the level of detail. Many years of reading / thinking / trying out different ideas and seeing which ones are good, is not something you can dump all at once on someone who starts out with a different point of view. Also may be better to point out how libertarians (or environmentalists or whoever) can be wrong, without being too harsh about it, unless the audience is used to extreme directness. I get the feeling that accepting FM’s style of argument takes a certain amount of training.

    Another outreach idea is to prepare real/online handouts to take advantage of events that focus attention of problems (such as, presidential elections, any kind of national crisis, rallies such as tea party or occupy, heated discussions when we consider going to war, etc.). these bring motivated people together. good opportunity to inform those who already care, try to win over those who are kind-of sort-of on the right track. assign a real person to go in person and hand out materials. Spam rather than debate.

    more PR 101: all the “web 2.0” stuff like facebook, twitter and so forth. Use and abuse these. Pictures are good.

    Also make a “press kit”.

    ** anti-propaganda. pick a particularly destructive false idea. refute it using the most antisocial, obnoxious, spam-like marketing / guerilla advertising you can think of. Spam rather than debate.

    1. asdff,

      All important points. But it all starts with people, organized to pursuit a common goal, with broad agreement on the range of means. That was the starting point with the Sam Adams and the Committees of Correspondence and William Wilberforce and the UK anti-slavery campaign.

      Until we have people, we have nothing.

  7. As comments here provided the picture that all of those false values came from economic theories, i would say that it is the economic theories that need change so that people will change. It is the mainstream economics that preached those false values; Market as the natural system and people and the planet should serve the market.

    Bill Mitchell awesome work is excellently describing what values are needed to return:

    “Some broad principles to develop might be:

    1. The Government is Us!
    2. The government is our agent and like all agents we cede resources and discretion to it because we trust that it can create benefits for all of us that each on of us individually cannot achieve. We understand scale.
    3. Governments invest in our immediate well-being by providing essential services without the need for profit.
    4. Governments invest in the next generation’s well-being through building productive infrastructure that delvers services for decades.
    5. We empower governments with unique characteristics so that it can pursue our interests without the constraints we face ourselves.
    6. We understand that a deficit for us means we have to find funds to cover it, whereas a deficit for our agent, the currency-issuing government means it is funding our spending and saving choices.
    7. A government deficit enhances our freedom because it boosts our income and allows us more options.”

    I would repeat the 1. again; The government is Our agency. Once this understanding of the reality returns it will bring needed social values back.

    1. Jordan,

      The government cannot at once be “us” and “our agent”. Which is it?

      Also, stating all of those in that fashion is quite delusional. Would be sensible if added “sometimes” or “can, if properly guided”.

    2. “Which is it?”
      That is Bill Mitchell’s writing and i will try to explain it as i understand it.
      The word Government has two usages as in 1) people in government and 2) government accounting.
      Bill here, for the sake of the simplifications in writing a textbook, interchanges those two meanings. People in government are our agency while government accounting is Us (people and corporations as our agencies for income (accountants can understand this)), record of our own economic activity including the people in government.

      “Also, stating all of those in that fashion is quite delusional. Would be sensible if added “sometimes” or “can, if properly guided”.”
      I agree with second part but not with that it is delusional since sometimes it is properly guided.

      Accepting this by public at large would make a shift in this purposeful destruction of government as our agency in controling the economy and its outcomes.
      To be “properly guided” people in government have to accept most of this, and i believe that they all understand this, it is just that they have completely different ways of achieving economic outcomes.
      That is how people in government understand their role, it is the Us, people outside the role of governing that do not comprehend this.

      Where the problem in division on solutions comes from?
      Using the government in such manner will improve the wellbeing of many, but some will suffer loosing some of their power and status, the 1%.
      1%ers do not want to loose any of it no matter what and how much it helps others so they supported developement of economic theories that support their status as completely meritocratic achievement.
      If you understand that their wealth is only achieved by system that government set up and 1% guided it towards exactly that, not by some natural forces, then the problem is easy to resolve if government takes guidance by more benefitial values.

      Writings of Bill Mitchell are easy to read, so i would recomend his blog and linked post to better describe what i tried to write today.

      And, yes, we all need to be involved politicaly in order to excersise full agency through our government, then it won’t be delusional.

      1. Jordan,

        First you say:
        “(1) The Government is Us!
        (2) The government is our agent”

        Then you say that “The Government is us”, the first item on Mitchell’s list, refers to “government accounting”. As if “government accounting” is the most important thing on this list of important things about the US political system.

        Quite weird. Since Mitchell does not have a reputation as being foolish, I suspect something is missing from your quote (perhaps context?).

        Reminder: your comments are moderated. Please post quotes with citations only, as your descriptions are consistently inaccurate. Other comments probably will not go through.

    3. Also from the same post by Mitchell;

      The surge in public interest in matters macroeconomic has been channelled by the dominant neo-classical paradigm in economics. As a consequence, the public understanding becomes straitjacketed by orthodox concepts and conclusions that, in themselves, are erroneous, but also lead to policy outcomes that undermine prosperity and subvert public purpose.

      The abandonment of full employment in the 1980s and the willingness to tolerate mass unemployment is a manifestation of this syndrome.

      If looking for context and do not trust my understanding of it, why not read his post. it is an easy read even tough 6000 words? I know it is hard to enter different paradigm from the one You used to all your life, but maybe give it a shot.

  8. By Albert Einstein from 1949;

    I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.

    The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil. We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor—not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules. In this respect, it is important to realize that the means of production—that is to say, the entire productive capacity that is needed for producing consumer goods as well as additional capital goods—may legally be, and for the most part are, the private property of individuals.

  9. When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get three
    emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that service?
    Many thanks!

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