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)
- The power of forgetting & imagination
- Talking with empowered true believers
- Yes, it can happen here
- For More Information
- 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:
- 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.
- “What I Think About Atlas Shrugged“, John Scalzi (sci-fi writer, bio), 1 October 2010
- “The liberty of local bullies“, Noah Smith (student), 26 November 2011 — How Ron Paul fits in the broader currents of libertarian thought
- “Why Don’t Libertarians Care About Ron Paul’s Bigoted Newsletters?“, James Kirchick, The New Republic, 22 December 2011 — A very good question.
- “The American Right and Ayn Rand: A Love Story“, Travis Benton, 14 August 2012
- “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'”
- Where are you on the Political Compass — libertarian-authoratarian and liberal-conservative?
(c) Other posts about Libertarianism:
- All you need to know about Ayn Rand, savior of modern conservatism, 22 March 2009
- A modern conservative dresses up Mr. Potter to suit our libertarian fashions, 17 November 2011
- Ron Paul’s exotic past tells us much about him, the GOP, libertarians – and about us, 27 December 2011
- Choose your team: our election is a conflict between long-dead philosophers, 12 September 2012
(d) Steps to fixing America:
- Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step
- Five steps to fixing America
- A third try: The First Step to reforming America
- The second step to reforming America
- 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):