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.