Anarchists and libertarians fail to acknowledge the nature of collective action problems, and the ways in which various modalities (including hierarchical organization, of which government is one example) are used to address it. The trick is to most effectively blend these different modalities, not to reduce reality to a caricature that allows us to pretend that that challenge doesn’t really exist.
(There’s a famous example used in economic literature, of a barge-pullers guild in 19th century China, that hired overseers to whip slackers in order to eliminate the free-rider problem. In other words, the barge-pullers themselves chose to impose on themselves an overseer in their own collective interest. It’s a strange and complex world in which we live; we need first and foremost to face up to that fact before rendering judgment in broad brushstrokes that fails to acknowledge fundamental aspects of reality.)
The “problem” with government isn’t its existence or the fact that people rely on it for certain purposes, but what in economic, legal and managerial theory is called “the agency problem.” In a popular sovereignty, government is constituted as an agent of the people, its principal. This is in many ways a reversal of most ancient notions of sovereignty, which saw the people as “subjects” of the sovereign. The problem, or challenge, is the degree to which reality can be made to correspond to theory.
In one view, this reversal of theoretical roles occurred organically, because in the crucible of European internecine warfare the crown’s (particularly the English crown’s) need for revenue to finance such wars drove an ongoing liberalization of the political economy to generate such revenue, In other words, international competition drove sovereigns to empower ever-more ever-broadening swathes of their citizenry, since those that did so fared better in the wars among relatively small and easily swallowed states.
In the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, this reversal was institutionally recognized, laying the groundwork for the American revolution’s clearer codification of that institutional shift in its break from Great Britain. The challenge then became aligning the agent’s action’s to the principal’s interests, a challenge compounded by the size and diffuseness of the principal in comparison to the agent. This is the ongoing challenge we face.
A centralized agent ostensibly working on behalf of a diffuse principal can always exploit the transaction costs facing the principal in its translation of some hypothetical “popular will” into a mandate to the agent in order to serve the agent’s interests at the expense of the principal’s. This is the challenge we must continually face. But to then leap from the reality of that challenge to the conclusion that the existence of the agent is a sign of our own self-enslavement neglects the real need we have for such an agent, the real function it performs, and the costs of choosing to “liberate” ourselves from any centralized agency through which to address the collective action problems that face us.
The bottom line is that we live in a complex and subtle world, and that our neat reductions of it, our caricatures of reality, do not serve us well. While it’s true that, historically, governments of large political states were established through military conquest and exploitation, it is also true that the benefits of civilization are a derivative of that brutality, and that there are indeed benefits (as well as costs) of civilization, of a large-scale division of labor which freed up some to do things other than produce food. Our challenge now is not to feed our emotionally gratifying sense of superiority to “the Sheeple” for “knowing” that government is our oppressor, but rather to face, intelligently and effectively, the real challenges and real enterprise of aligning the actions of our agent with the interests of its principal, of making government ever more something that serves the interests of the people in general and ever less something that serves the interests of the few who capture it for their own benefit.
And that is a complex challenge, a complex enterprise, best framed in precise, analytical ways. It is our task to work to maximize the robustness, fairness and sustainability of our political economy, by applying disciplined reason and imagination to methodically gathered and verified information in service to our shared humanity. Unfortunately, caricatures of reality like those popular among ideologues of all stripes do nothing to help us accomplish that, and do much to interfere with our ability to do so effectively.
The biggest challenge that faces human beings is to make sense rather than to make noise. Effectively addressing all other challenges depends on it. Whether we want to change the world or want to protect ourselves from the impositions of others trying to change the world, our beliefs, our goals, our actions, are all a function of how we understand reality, and it is clear, at least in the abstract, that some understandings are more precise, more accurate, and more useful than others.
The first thing we have to understand is that we are not just a collection of individuals, but rather are members of a society and organisms in a biosphere. We exist interdependently with one another and with our environment, unable to survive at all without the latter and unable to survive as human beings without the former. Our continued existence as organisms depends on ingesting food and breathing air, two vital needs that are produced and maintained by the living planet which we inhabit interdependently with other living things. Our consciousness as human beings and our existence beyond bare survival (and in almost all cases our survival itself) depends on our coexistence with other human beings in organized groups, through which our use of language allows us to thrive through a shared but differentiated mind and a shared but differentiated enterprise.
That leads to the first question we must face: Do we, as individuals and as a society, take responsibility for our impact on those systems of which we are a part, or do we leave them to their own organic trajectories, pursuing our own immediate goals without attempting to act with conscious intent beyond them? Do we attempt to be conscious and conscientious participants in these larger wholes of which we are a part, or do we simply live as individual organisms pursuing our own individual desires? Do we take responsibility for one another, for the distribution of suffering and well-being, of opportunity and of relative lack of opportunity, for how well our systems are functioning in terms of their sustainability, their robustness, and their fairness, or do we insist that doing so is either impossible or undesirable?
The second thing we have to understand is our own fallibility. Anything any one of us is certain about may be wrong. Our various beliefs and certainties are conceptualizations of reality in our minds, and must always be considered fallible. This leads to two considerations: 1) the best (and perhaps only rational) argument supporting those who insist that we must not try to govern ourselves as rational people confronting the challenges and opportunities we face is the argument that perhaps we are simply not up to the task, and that we should therefore rely on simple principles that best liberate our collective and individual genius rather than try to “micromanage” our shared existence, and 2) our focus should be on how we arrive at our conclusions, rather than on insisting that our current conclusions are the one absolute truth.
The first consideration is easily dealt with: Recognizing our fallibility and the power of organic processes is a part of being rational people working together to do the best we can, not a displacement of it. The Constitution (created by intentional human thought, arguably a very ambitious act of “social engineering”) and the modern marketplace (also a product of much intentional thought and oversight) are not magical panaceas which free us from the responsibility of striving to be responsible and humane sovereigns, but are merely part of the accumulated material of past efforts by past generations to do what we ourselves are called upon to continue to do: To govern ourselves intelligently, responsibly, and intentionally, in service to our shared humanity.
We should strive to emulate rather than idolize our “founding fathers,” to be the same kind of proactive rational citizens, working together, mobilizing our intelligence, believing in our ability to rationally and humanely govern ourselves. We should utilize rather than surrender to market forces, recognizing that there is nothing about them that automatically resolves all human problems and challenges, but rather that they are one useful institutional modality upon which we can rely in concert with others, in our ongoing efforts to work together to do the best we can in service to our shared humanity.
The second consideration flowing from our recognition of our own fallibility is the one that leads to a broader and deeper commitment to the methodologies that have proved most useful in the modern era at diminishing the aggregate effects of bias and increasing aggregate accuracy in our conclusions. Both scientific methodology and legal procedure are sets of techniques for informing and framing rigorous debates over what is and is not true, following sets of rules regarding what evidence to consider reliable and how to organize and channel the determinations that follow from that evidence. In science, the purpose to which this process is put is to refine our shared consciousness; in law, it is to increase the justness of our coexistence. These, indeed, are the two things we should always be striving to do, as responsible sovereigns, and to do so most effectively we should build on the methodologies that already exist for doing so.
In other words, the most pressing imperative facing our shared human enterprise right now is the expansion of the logic of science and law into the realm of public discourse and public opinion and policy formation. We need to transcend, to leave on the dust heap of history, the myth that all opinions are equal (while protecting the expression of all opinions in order to determine their relative merits), and engage in rigorous, increasingly formal debates in a constant quest for the best understandings, in best service to our shared humanity.
Tragically, we, as a people, are not only faced with the challenge of cultivating these disciplines more broadly among ourselves, but also of convincing those least committed to them that they have any value at all. We are also faced with the challenge of overcoming the reality that human beings in general do not arrive at their conclusions primarily through rational processes, but rather through social and emotional processes that often circumvent or disregard reason and evidence, and often serve narrower interests than our shared humanity.
The challenge facing rational and humane people, therefore, is not just to make the most compelling arguments in best service to our shared humanity, but also to create a context in which the most compelling arguments in best service to our shared humanity are more likely to prevail. That requires us to be rational about human irrationality, and to engage not primarily in a competition of rational arguments but rather in a competition of emotional narratives. The challenge, in other words, is to create a compelling emotional narrative out of the notion of being rational and humane people, and, even more, the notion of being rational and humane people in certain specific, disciplined ways, and then to create a set of mechanisms by which the most compelling rational arguments in best service to our shared humanity are also, simultaneously, compelling emotional narratives that persuade people who do not engage in or necessarily understand the disciplines we are promoting.
The most immediate challenge in the ongoing human endeavor, in other words, is to create, promote, and disseminate a compelling emotional narrative that systematically favors reason in service to humanity, not on a case-by-case basis (as we have been doing), but in a more general and comprehensive way.
There are, therefore, two major branches to the human endeavor: 1) to continue to develop, deepen, and broaden a commitment to disciplined reason in service to our shared humanity, using the methodologies we have developed for doing so, and extending the breadth of contexts in which they are utilized and the number of people striving to utilize them; and 2) to create an emotionally compelling narrative that attracts those who lack the desire or ability to utilize or defer to those disciplines (rigorously applied and debated rational argumentation) or that objective (our shared humanity) to support them not just in name, but also in some effective and authentic way.
To some, this will all seem too abstract, too far removed from the political and cultural realities we grapple with, or too far removed from their own emotional and cognitive inclinations. But those of us who are truly committed to striving to become an ever-more rational and humane people need to recognize that the ongoing mud-fight isn’t the height of what we can do, that we need to reach higher, think deeper, act more ambitiously in service to the highest of ideals and the noblest of purposes. The great cultural and political heroes of modern history, who we revere for their inspired and effective leadership, are who they are precisely because they have had the courage and determination to bite off rather large chunks of this challenge that I have just laid out, opposing imperialism or racism or other injustices. But we can invoke them all now, we can rally them to the greater cause of which they all were a part, and we can promote that cause with the same degree of passion and commitment that they did…, because that truly is the essence of the human endeavor.
(My essays on Colorado Confluence elaborate many of these themes. In the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts are hyperlinks to essays laying out a comprehensive social systemic paradigm through which to understand and analyze our shared cognitive/social institutional/historical/technological landscape. In the second box are hyperlinks to essays laying out a social movement idea for promoting the narrative of and actual commitment to reason in service to humanity. Scattered among the remaining boxes are hyperlinks to essays exploring various aspects of both of these branches of the human endeavor. Together, they form a comprehensive and detailed map of the human endeavor as I have described it in this essay.)
Mischievous imps blowing invisible darts that stoke human passions and spin them out of control, moving twigs a few inches across the forest floor providing links in conflagrations that would not otherwise occur, plucking the strings of nature to produce crescendos of catastrophe. Zen-mathematician wizards dancing in their ice spheres high in the Vaznal Mountains, solving ever-deepening riddles of sound and sight and sensation, weaving order from the chaos the Loci imps foment. Winged muses carving sensuous stories from the clouds and celebrating the lives of those from whose dreams and tribulations they were born.
A fiery giantess is held captive in a hollow mountain. A sea serpent’s breath inspires the priestess of an island oracle poised above a chasm beneath which it sleeps. City-states are at war; slaves, led by a charismatic general, are in uprising; dictators and warlords are vying for power; neighboring kingdoms and empires are strategically courting local clients in pursuit of regional hegemony or outright conquest. Human avarice has strained the natural context on which it thrives. And ordinary people in extraordinary times, caught within the vortex of the powers that both surround and comprise them, navigate those turbulent currents.
Follow the adventures of Algonion Goodbow, the magical archer; Sarena of Ashra, the young girl at the center of this epic tale; their friends and mentors, guides and adversaries, as they thread the needle of great events, and discover truths even more profound than the myths of legend and lore. Discover the truth of fiction and the fiction of truth; celebrate the fantastic and sublime, in this magical tale laden with rich echoes of world history and world mythology, informed by blossoms of human consciousness from Chaos Theory to Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts, from Richard Dawkin’s Meme Theory to Eastern Mysticism, enriched by the author’s own travels and adventures.
A prophesied Disruption is upon the land of Calambria, causing the Earth to quake and societies to crumble. The Loci imps are its agents, but, according to Sadache mythology, it is Chaos, one of the two Parents of the Universe, who is its ultimate author. As Chaos eternally strives to make the One Many, Cosmos, the other Parent of the Universe, strives to make the Many One. The Sadache people view themselves as the children of Cosmos, whom they worship, and the lowest rung of a hierarchy of conscious beings opposing Chaos and the Loci imps. Above them, both of them and apart from them, are the drahmidi priests of the Cult of Cosmos, founded by the hero and conqueror Ogaro centuries before. Above the drahmidi are the Vaznallam wizards, Cosmos’s agents, just as the Loci are Chaos’s.
As the Great Disruption begins to manifest itself, Sarena of Ashra, a peasant girl from a village on the outskirts of the city-state of Boalus, flees an unwanted marriage to an arrogant lord and in search of freedom and destiny. She meets a young vagabond on the road, coming from the seat of the ceremonial High Kingdom, Ogaropol, fleeing his own pursuers. Together they form an alliance that leads through adventures together and apart, and binds them into two halves of a single whole.
Swirling around them are the wars of would be dictators and cult-leaders, of neighboring empires and kingdoms; the adventures of young Champions engaged in the prophesied Contest by which the Redeemer would be chosen and the Realignment realized. But, in both different and similar ways, the culmination of centuries of history flows through these two people, Algonion and Sarena, on haphazard quests of their own. And both the past and the future are forever changed by their discoveries and deeds.
In the continuing debate against Libertarians (and all other ideologues of all stripes, for that matter), here’s the bottom line: There’s only one rational ideology to adhere to, and that is to strive to be rational; there’s only one humane ideology to adhere to, and that is to strive to be humane.
Striving to be rational is not a vague, relative term: We have centuries of experience in the development of disciplined, methodical reasoning. We’ve developed scientific methodology and a wide spectrum of variations of it adapted to situations in which variables can’t be isolated, statistical data analysis, research techniques designed to rigorously minimize the influence of bias and to maximize accuracy. We’ve developed legal procedure based on a debate between competing views framed by a set of rules designed to ensure maximum reliability of the evidence being considered and to identify the goals being pursued (adherence to formally defined laws). We’ve developed formal logic and mathematics, rules of deduction and induction, which maximize the soundness of conclusions drawn from premises, the premises themselves able to be submitted to the same rules for verifying raw data and drawing conclusions from that data.
Not everyone is trained in these techniques, but everyone can acknowledge their value and seek to participate in privileging them over other, more arbitrary and less rational approaches to arriving at conclusions. A commitment to democracy and pluralism does not require a commitment to stupidity and ignorance. The mechanisms by which we balance the need for all to have their say and all interests to be represented with the need for the best analyses to prevail in the formation of our public policies is an ongoing challenge, but we can all agree that we should meet that challenge head-on, rather than pretend that the drowning out of the cogent arguments of informed reason by the relentless and highly motivated noise of irrational ignorance is the height of self-governance.
Striving to be humane is not a vague, relative term either: We have centuries of development of thought concerning what that means, including John Rawls’s “A Theory of Justice”, which provides a pretty good heuristic guideline of what humane policies should look lie (they should be the kinds of policies that highly informed and rational people would choose if they didn’t know what situation they were going to be born into or what chances of life they were going to encounter). This is basically a derivation and elaboration of the Golden Rule, which exists in some form or another in virtually every major religion on Earth. We all understand that justice requires that everyone be assured the same opportunity to thrive, and while we can agree that that is a formidable challenge that is more of an ideal toward which we can continue to strive than a finished achievement we can expect to accomplish in the near future, and that important counterbalancing imperatives must be considered and pursued simultaneously (in other words, that we need to balance the challenges of creating an ever-more more robust, fair, and sustainable social institutional framework), we can also agree that it is one of the guiding principles by which we should navigate as we forge our way into the future.
So, guided by our humanity, we have a clear objective that all of our public policies should strive to serve: Maximizing the robustness, fairness, and sustainability of our social institutional landscape to the greatest extent possible, such that no individual, if fully informed and rational, would want to change any aspect of it if they did not know where or when or into what situation they would be born or what chance occurrences they would encounter in life. And we have a clear means of most effectively pursuing that objective: Robust public discourse in which we allow the most cogent, information-intensive, methodologically and analytically sound arguments regarding how best to maximize the robustness, fairness and sustainability of our social institutional landscape, on a case-by-case, issue-by-issue basis, to prevail.
And THAT, what I just described above in the preceding five paragraphs, is really the only ideology we need, the only ideology we should adhere to as we move forward as a polity, wise enough to know that none of us knows all that much, humane enough not to blithely dismiss –whether implicitly or explicitly– the suffering and gross injustices endured by numerous others, intelligent enough to know that the appropriate role of a democratically and constitutionally circumscribed government in the modern world cannot be intelligently reduced to a handful of platitudes, informed enough to recognize that the rule of law is predominantly a procedural rather than substantive ideal, and smart enough to recognize that it is our commitment to these procedural and methodological disciplines of informing and devising public policies that will define how intelligently, humanely, and effectively we govern ourselves.
What continues to stand against this simple and clear ideology of a commitment to reason and humanity realized through disciplined procedures and methodologies are the plethora of blind dogmas, substantive false certainties, and precipitous conclusions that litter our shared cognitive landscape. Whether it is Marxism, politically active evangelical Christianity, politically active fundamentalist Islam, Libertarianism, or any other substantive dogma which presumes to know what we are in reality continuing to study, debate, and discover, this perennial need by so many to organize in an effort to impose a set of presumptive substantive conclusions on us all, one ideological sledgehammer or another with which to “repair” the machinery of government, is an obstacle rather than productive contribution to truly intelligent and humane self-governance.
It doesn’t matter if any given adherents to such an ideology are right about some things and those arguing from a non-ideological perspective are wrong about some things; it would be extraordinary if that were not the case, because disciplined analysis seeks to track a subtle and elusive object (reality), while blind dogma, like a broken clock, stands in one place, and thus is right on those rare occasions when reality happens to pass through that spot. What matters is that we all say, “I am less committed to my tentative conclusions than to the process for arriving at them, and would gladly suspend any of my own tentative conclusions in exchange for a broad commitment by all engaged in political discourse and political activism to emphasize a shared commitment to reason in service to humanity.”
The claim made by some that libertarians aren’t against using government in limited ways to address our shared challenges and seize our shared opportunities, while insisting that the problem now is that we have “too much government,” ignores the incredible breadth and depth of challenges and opportunities we face, challenges and opportunities that careful economic analysis clearly demonstrate often require extensive use of our governmental apparatus to meet and to seize. That is why every modern, prosperous, free nation on Earth has a large administrative infrastructure, and why every single modern, prosperous, free nation on Earth has had such a large administrative infrastructure in place since prior to participating in the historically unprecedented post-WWII expansion in prosperity and liberty: Because, as an empirical fact, that is what has thus far worked most effectively. But that does not preclude the possibility that the approach I’ve identified would lead to an overall reduction in the size and role of government; it only requires that in each instance the case be made, with methodological rigor, that any particular reduction in government actually does increase the robustness, fairness, and sustainability of our social institutional framework.
The challenge isn’t to doggedly shrink government in service to a blind ideological conviction, but rather to wisely, with open eyes and informed analyses, refine our government by shrinking that which should be shrunk and expanding that which should be expanded, an ongoing endeavor which requires less ideological presumption and more analytical intelligence. We neither need nor benefit from neatly packaged blind dogmas; we need and benefit from an ever-greater commitment to disciplined reason in service to unflagging humanity.
Now, the legitimate contention arises that that is fine in theory, but in the real world of real people, ideological convictions and irrational decision-making prevail, and to refuse to fight the irrational and inhumane policies doggedly favored by some by any and all means possible, including strategies that do not hamstring themselves by seeking an ideal that does not prevail in this world today, is to surrender the world to the least enlightened and most ruthless. To that I respond that I do not oppose the strategic attempts by those who are informed by reason and humanity to implement the products of their discipline and conviction through strategic and realistic political means, but only implore of them two things: 1) That they take pains to ensure that their conclusions actually are the product of reason in service to humanity, and not simply their own blind ideological dogma, and 2) that they invest or encourage the investment of some small portion of our dedicated resources, some fraction of our time and money and energy directed toward productive social change, toward cultivating subtler cultural changes that increase the salience of reason and humanity in future political decision-making processes. I have outlined just such a social movement in A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill.
Another legitimate contention is the recognition of our fallibility, and the need to rely on bedrock principles rather than arrogate to ourselves a case-by-case, issue-by-issue analysis, much as we limit our democratic processes with bedrock Constitutional principles that we can’t elect to violate. There is much truth in this, but it either becomes one more rational consideration that we incorporate into our ongoing effort to do the best we can in a complex and subtle world, or it displaces our reason and humanity entirely and reduces us to automatons enslaved by a historically successful reduction of reality. We see these alternatives in regards to how the Bible and Constitution are utilized, by some as guides which inform their own reason and humanity and require conscious interpretation and application, and by others as rigid confirmation of their own dogmatic ideology, the latter often through selective or distorted interpretations of their own.
We’ve seen the value of improved methodology and increased commitment to methodological discipline in the realm of science, which has bestowed on us a greatly invigorated ability to make sense of a complex and subtle universe. We’ve seen the value of improved procedures and procedural discipline in law, which has increased the justness of our criminal justice system (certainly an improvement over “trial by ordeal,” or the Inquisitor’s securing of a confession by means of torture, for instance). We’ve seen the value of improved methodologies in selecting and holding accountable political leaders, through carefully monitored “free and fair” elections and the supremacy of the rule of law over individual power. To be sure, all of these are mere steps forward, not completed journeys; the human foibles they partially mitigated are not entirely erased from the new paradigms they preside over. But they are steps forward.
And, though it’s more debatable, with more and greater atrocities seeming without end challenging the assertion, I think our humanity has grown in recent centuries as well. Historians almost universally agree that a larger proportion of the human population suffered violent death the further back in time you go. Even while exploitation and inhumanities persist, they are increasingly viewed as morally reprehensible by increasing numbers of people in increasing regions of the Earth. We have, indeed, as a national and international society, improved our formal commitment to human rights, even if our realization of that commitment has woefully lagged behind. It remains incumbent on us to close that gap between the ideal and the reality.
What, then, are the logical next steps for civilization? How do we advance the cause of reason in service to humanity? The answer, I believe, is to extend and expand the domains of these methodologies and attitudes, to increase the degree to which they are truly understood to be the defining vehicle of human progress. If it’s good to have a small cadre of professionals engaging in science, it’s even better to have many more incorporating more of that logic into their own opinion formation process. If it’s good for the election of office holders to be conducted through rational procedures, it’s even better for the knowledge and reasoning of those who vote in those elections to be fostered through more rational procedures as well. And if it’s good for some of us to include larger swathes of humanity in the pronoun “we,” then it’s even better for more of us to do so to an ever greater degree.
Even if the effort to cultivate a movement in this direction only succeeds, over the course of generations, in making the tiniest marginal increase in the use of disciplined reason, and the tiniest increases in the degree of commitment to our shared humanity, by the tiniest marginal fraction of the population, that would be a positive achievement. And if, alongside such marginal increases in the reliance on disciplined reason and commitment to humanity, there is also a marginal increase in the acknowledgement that the products of disciplined reason are more useful to us as a society and a people than the products of arbitrary bigotries and predispositions, and that the recognition of the humanity of others unlike us is more morally laudable than our ancient tribalistic and sectarian reflexes, that, too, would be a positive achievement.
The influence of reason in our lives has been growing steadily for centuries and has had a dramatic impact on our social institutional and technological landscape, though it has only really ever been employed in a disciplined way by a small minority of the human population. The increase in our humanity as well, in such forms as the now nearly universal condemnation of slavery, the increasing recognition of the value of equal rights for all, the generational changes in our own society with some bigotries withering with time, can also be discerned. Even marginal increases in the employment of reason and its perceived legitimacy, and of our shared humanity being the ends to which it is employed, can have very dramatic effects on the robustness, fairness, and sustainability of the social institutional and technological landscape of the future, and on the welfare of human beings everywhere for all time. This is the path that all of our most laudable achievements of the past have followed and contributed to, and it is the path we should pursue going forward ever more consciously and intentionally, because that is what the ever fuller realization of our humanity both requires of us and offers us the opportunity to do.
(This essay is an elaboration of Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems).
Imagine that I offered each person in a group the following deal: You can agree to give me $30, and in return I’ll give $10 to each and every person in the group, including you. I’ll give the $10 to everyone, whether they paid $30 or not, for each person that does pay $30.
Each person is faced with an offer to pay $30 dollars in return for, to him or her individually, $10, a bad deal for that individual (a loss of $20). But since everyone else in the group also each gets $10, for any group with a membership of more than three people, it is a bigger return to the group than cost to the group. If there are 10 people in the group, and everyone makes the deal, they each pay $30 and each get $100 in return, for a net gain of $70. However, if one doesn’t pay, he or she gets $90 outright (9 people taking the deal times $10 to each person in the group) while each of the others only get a net gain of $60 ($90 minus the $30 paid in). The individual incentive is not to pay in, even though everyone is better off the more people who do, with everyone coming out ahead if 3 or more people pay in. Those who don’t pay in, however, always do better than those who do (the “free rider problem”).
This dynamic is a major underlying force in the generation of social institutions, which to a large degree exist to overcome this collective action problem. There are many scenarios woven throughout our collective existence in which people benefit from some form of cooperation (even those forms that establish the rules for competition, such as the enforcement of property rights in service to the functioning of markets), but are tempted by individual incentives to cheat or fail to act cooperatively. Our laws, our contracts, our governments, our social norms, our ideologies, all are laden with mechanisms that have evolved with the purpose of creating mutual commitment mechanisms, enforced either externally by social institutions or internally to one’s own psychological make-up. Combined, they form social institutional technologies which are robust sets of memes self-replicating and spreading throughout our shared cognitive landscape (see the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts).
It has always been a dynamic at the heart of intertribal and international relations, in which sovereign societies must strategically interact in a world with limited international legal enforcement mechanisms. With increasing political, economic and cultural globalization, and information, communication and transportation technologies make the world ever smaller and more tightly integrated, examining these dynamics is one critical component of understanding the shared geopolitical landscape in which we live.
“The War of the Woods”:
Imagine that long ago, two countries, Apestonia and Pulgalandia, had a forest on their border. Both countries desperately needed the wood in the forest, because it was both their primary building material and their fuel. Each country was faced with the choice of either dividing the forest evenly, or attacking the other and trying to get more of the forest for themself.
There are 1000 acres of forest between the two countries. If the two countries agree to draw their border right through the middle of it, they can each have 500 acres of forest, which they both desperately need.
But if one attacks quickly while the other one is planning on sharing the forest evenly (and so isn’t prepared for war), the one that attacks will capture 700 acres of the forest, 300 acres will be burnt or destroyed during the fighting, and the other will get zero acres. Since they are militarily evenly matched, if they both attack each other at the same time, 400 acres of forest will be destroyed in the fighting, and they’ll each end up with 300 acres of forest.
Here’s a table that summarizes these choices and outcomes:Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate(attack) Cooperate
(don’t attack) Apestonia: 500 Acres
Pulgalandia: 500 Acres Apestonia: 0 Acres
Pulgalandia: 700 Acres Don’t Cooperate
(attack) Apestonia: 700 Acres
Pulgalandia: 0 Acres Apestonia: 300 Acres
Pulgalandia: 300 Acres
Each country faces the following logic: “We don’t know what the other country will do. If they decide to cooperate (not attack first), we will get 500 acres if we also cooperate, but 700 acres if we don’t (if we attack unprovoked). Therefore, if they cooperate, we are better off not cooperating (attacking). If they decide not to cooperate (to attack), then we will get zero acres if we cooperate (don’t attack), but 300 acres if we don’t (if we attack). Therefore, no matter what the other country does, we are better off attacking.”
However, if both countries follow that logic, they each end up with 300 acres, though if they had cooperated and split the forest, they would have each ended up with 500 acres. So, while each country has an incentive to attack, if they can find a way to commit one another to cooperation, they both benefit.
So, even though they have a conflict over the forest, they have a shared interest in finding a way to commit one another to cooperating for mutual benefit. This is often the case, with war being costly in blood and treasure, and peaceful coexistence (and even mutually beneficial exchange) being far more conducive to general prosperity.
Historically, real tribes and countries have faced this challenge. Some have said, “Okay, let’s agree to cooperate, and to make sure no one cheats, we’ll exchange hostages.” And then each country would send an important member of their own society (often the ruler’s daughter to be raised by the other ruler as his or her own) to go live with the other society, so that if either cheats, that hostage can be killed in retaliation. Later, countries sent the children of royalty to marry the children of royalty in other countries, sort of as “permanent hostages,” but also to bind the countries together so that they can act more cooperatively.
In the modern world, we’ve developed a much more elaborate system of international diplomacy, with embassies in each other’s countries, and treaties, and international organizations (like the United Nations). The European Union, whose roots go back to post-WWII efforts to create economic ties that would diminish the chances of resumed warfare, is perhaps the most advanced example of emerging international political economic consolidation
Not just internationally, but within nations, overcoming this collective action problem is a big part of why we’ve created many of the social institutions we’ve created. Our Constitution, our laws, even our religions, have developed in many ways to help make it easier for people to commit one another to mutually beneficial actions even when they have individual incentives to cheat or act in non-cooperative ways.
With modern technologies, modern weapons (such as nuclear weapons), modern transportation and communication technologies, an increasingly global economy, increasingly global environmental and natural resource issues, all nations in the world face many collective action problems. Our increasing political globalization is a complex tapestry of conflict and cooperation woven within this underlying logic.
So far, we’ve assumed that the countries were equally matched, and looked at the cost-benefit analysis of each when considering whether to attack the other or to live in peace. But what if they weren’t evenly matched? What if one was militarily stronger than the other? How would that change things?
If Apestonia were more powerful than Pulgalandia, then Apestonia would capture more forest than Pulgalandia would if the two went to war. If Apestonia were to attack first, perhaps it would capture the whole forest against the weaker Pulgalandia, losing only a small portion (let’s say a tenth) in battle. This outcome can be seen in the lower-left square of the two-by-two table, in which Apestonia attacks first and captures 900 acres, while Pulgalandia ends up with zero.
Conversely, if Pulgalandia attacks first, it will gain the advantage of surprise, but will still be facing a superior force, and might manage to capture and control 300 acres against Apestonia’s 500, 200 being lost to the destruction of war. This outcome is summarized in the upper-right square.Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate
(don’t attack) Apestonia: 800 Acres
Pulgalandia: 200 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres
Pulgalandia: 300 Acres Don’t Cooperate
(attack) Apestonia: 900 Acres
Pulgalandia: 0 Acres Apestonia: 600 Acres
Pulgalandia: 100 Acres
If they both attack each other at the same time, more forest will be lost to the destruction of battle, and neither will have the benefit of surprise, but Apestonia will still come out ahead. This is reflected in the lower-right square.
Because of the difference in power, when they negotiate a peace in which neither attacks, Apestonia can demand more of the forest than Pulgalandia. This is reflected in the upper-left square.
The logic that the two countries face is still similar to the logic that they faced when equally powerful. Neither knows what the other will do. Apestonia says to itself, “If Pulgalandia cooperates (doesn’t attack), we can get 800 acres for also cooperating (not attacking), or 900 acres for attacking. If Pulgalandia doesn’t attack, we are better off attacking. If Pulgalandia does attack, we can get 500 acres for not attacking first (only reacting to their attack), and 600 for attacking first, so, again, we are better off attacking. No matter what Pulgalandia does, we’re better off attacking.
Similarly, Pulgalandia is better off attacking no matter what Apestonia do. They say to themselves, “If Apestonia doesn’t attack first, we get 200 acres for also not attacking, but 300 for attacking, and if Apestonia does attack first, we get zero acres for not having attacked at the same time but 100 acres for having attacked at the same time. Either way, we’re better off attacking.”
But they both know this, and both know that they’d be better off not attacking one another. So, just as before, they need to invest in some way of committing one another to cooperation.
But the pay-offs can look different as well. It may be that, while the weaker Pulgalandia has incentives to attack no matter what the stronger Apestonia does, Apestonia gets a stronger benefit from cooperation. In the chart below, Pulgalandia still is better off attacking no matter what Apestonia does, and Apestonia, knowing that, knows it has to attack to get 550 rather than 500 acres. This is reflected in the table below:Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate
(don’t attack) Apestonia: 800 Acres
Pulgalandia: 200 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres
Pulgalandia: 250 Acres Don’t Cooperate
(attack) Apestonia: 650 Acres
Pulgalandia: 100 Acres Apestonia: 550 Acres
Pulgalandia: 200 Acres
But the most Pulgalandia can possibly get is 250 acres, if they attack before Apestonia does. Apestonia can just say, “look, we’ll give you 300 acres, 50 more than you can possibly get by attacking us. We’ll keep 700, which is more than we can get in any other way. If you attack, even while we are planning on cooperating with you, you lose 50 acres. You have no reason to attack, and we’re both better off than we can otherwise be.”
This is reflected in the table below, in which neither country has any incentive to do anything other than cooperate:Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate
(don’t attack) Apestonia: 700 Acres
Pulgalandia: 300 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres
Pulgalandia: 250 Acres Don’t Cooperate
(attack) Apestonia: 650 Acres
Pulgalandia: 100 Acres Apestonia: 550 Acres
Pulgalandia: 200 Acres
This is an illustration of how power is exercised among nations (or factions within a nation), even without having to exert any military force at all to do it. Nations know their relative power to one another, and when they negotiate treaties and deals they negotiate agreements that favor the more powerful. When the United States was formed, the more powerful (populous) states made sure that their power was reflected in the new government (by having representatives in Congress proportional to their population). When the United Nations charter was drafted, the most powerful nations insisted on forming a “security council,” that had far more power over the organization than other nations did.
Weak nations sometimes have the power of threatening to create problems for stronger nations, and thus get concessions to keep them calm. But nations also sometimes have leaders or governments that cease to act rationally, like the current government of North Korea seems to not be acting rationally.
Of course, if, in the end, the United States, worried about an irrational nuclear armed North Korea, gives them large amounts of aid to keep them from causing problems, then it will have turned out that North Korea’s “craziness” was pretty smart after all…. Strategies that “trump” rational considerations can be very rational strategies, including various ways of binding oneself to a limited range of options in order to increase one’s own bargaining power, or behaving in ways which make an opponent question one’s rationality in order to make them more accommodating for fear of erratic responses.
The scenarios presented above are highly simplified, leaving out many factors, such as uncertainty (real actors in such situations don’t know what the exact outcomes of various combinations of choices will be), more complexity in available options (not just binary choices), more interacting actors (not just two), more conflated issues being bargained over (not just a single resource), more costs and benefits to be considered (not just the amount of that single resource gained or lost), factional conflict across levels (different interest groups and political parties vying for different outcomes due to differing material interests and political ideological orientations), less centralized decision-making (not a single ruler making unlimited autocratic decisions, but rather in various ways collective decision-making processes impinging on the negotiations between actors constituted in that way), and various intrusions of emotional and irrational considerations, that even rational actors have to take into account.
But the complexity of the real world does not mean that abstraction from it is not a helpful tool in understanding underlying dynamics. Rather, it is a way of isolating individual dimensions of those underlying dynamics, gradually adding in enough of the complexity to begin to capture a deeper and subtler understanding of how our social institutional landscape really functions.
There is much ado about President Obama’s recent statement “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” The overwrought right is abuzz with angry indignation. How dare he! they shout in unison, aghast that this evil communist could so thoroughly declare war on private enterprise. Let’s take a closer look.
First, it helps to have the entire quote before you:
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.
It’s a bit impolitic, a bit overstated. But how far off is it?
As I said in The War of American Interdependence, there are two cognitive frames in competition here, one which thinks that we are fundamentally, ontologically “individuals,” fundamentally mutually independent, and one which recognizes that we are fundamentally, ontologically members of a society, fundamentally interdependent. We think in languages we didn’t individually invent, using concepts and conceptual tools we didn’t individually invent. Every aspect of our lives implicates and depends on countless others, no matter how much of a rugged individualist one may be: Few frontiersmen built their own firearms, and, if some did, they did not mine the ores that provided the materials for it. And whatever they did, in almost all cases, they learned how to do it from others.
Most of us rely on one another to a far greater extent than that: Most of us don’t grow our own food, or, if we do, we don’t build the tractors and drill for the oil and do myriad other things involved in the enterprise. Most of us don’t make our own clothes, or build our own homes, or make our own tools, or produce our own electronic devises, or, if we do some, we certainly don’t do all. The market isn’t an expression of our mutual independence, but rather a social institutional form which helps deepen and facilitate our fundamental interdependence.
Our laws, as well, are an expression of our interdependence. We forge them in the light of what that interdependence demands of us. The developments of the modern era that led to market economies and popular sovereignty framed by written constitutions with carefully delineated rights and powers are part of the evolution of our interdependence. The concept of “liberty” itself is an expression of our interdependence, of the discovery of both increased vitality and increased humanity achievable by freeing up individual initiative and creativity to as great a degree as possible, while still recognizing and working within the framework of our fundamental interdependence.
Obama was talking about exactly that. It’s not some crazy idea, it’s not even really debatable: It’s a fundamental fact of our existence. We thrive through coordinated efforts and actions, through participation in a society with divisions of labor and mutual reliance on one another. The ideology currently in vogue which attempts to erase that fact from our awareness is pernicious and destructive; it attempts to redefine private wealth as attributable to nothing other than private actions, when that’s simply not true. Ben Franklin, unsurprisingly, got it right: Wealth is as much a function of the laws and markets and other social institutions that we forge together, and of the efforts of countless others channeled through those social institutions, as it is of individual effort, because without the former our own efforts have no framework within which to achieve their ends.
So, no, even in the more exceptional rather than more common instance in which a business is built up without any element of relative privilege (the differential material and social inheritances that we draw at birth) having advantaged the entrepreneur, they are not solely responsible for the creation and success of that business; the myriad other human efforts that it implicitly depended on are as well. And the market does not magically reward all of those efforts in ways which serve the ultimate goal of continuing to create the most robust, fair, and sustainable political economy human genius is capable of.
Those who are adamant that human genius cannot intrude on some imaginary pure and absolute individual “liberty,” that to do so is “social engineering” or “communism,” are rather remarkably ignoring how that individual liberty was legally constructed in the first place. Our own Constitution is an act of “social engineering,” and, in the way that too many now use the word, a “communist” plot. Indeed, the framers had to argue that we needed a government strong enough to facilitate effective collective action in our collective interests, “The Federalist Papers” frequently seeming to forecast the later invention of “game theory” and the recognition of what has since come to be called “collective action problems.” (See Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems).
The right claims to rever our Constitution and our Founding Fathers, and yet can’t seem to recognize that both acknowledged our interdependence. Art. I, Section 8, Clause i of the United States Constitution empowers Congress to tax and spend in the general welfare, meaning that “what’s mine” isn’t just mine; the public also has some claim on it. How much of a claim isn’t specified; that’s for us, as the popular sovereign, to determine and redetermine, in the light of growing knowledge and udnerstanding.
And as for the Founding Fathers, their views differed. Jefferson’s and Madison’s are frequently cited, but Ben Franklin’s are generally ignored, even though Franklin alone among them helped to draft and sign every single one of our founding documents and was the undisputed senior American stateman at the birth of this country. Franklin maintained that any private wealth beyond that need to sustain oneself and one’s family “is the property of the public, who by their laws have created it” (Walter Isaacson, “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life,” Page 424, quoting Franklin).
It’s not about denigrating individual effort and initiative, or failing to respect the vital role they play in our shared social existence. I can only speak for myself, but I’ll tell you clearly: I respect and admire individual effort and initiative, and recognize it as absolutely vital to our collective welfare. It’s not about failing to recognize the need to frame our shared social existence in ways that take that into account, and work to liberate rather than stifle such individual effort and initiative: I am adamant that it is imperative that we recognize the importance of that dimension of our shared existence in every public policy debate.
But it is not the ONLY dimension that we need to consider; it is not the ONLY value that we must respect and maximize. Our nation today has the highest gini coefficient (statistical measure of economic inequality) of any developed nation on Earth, and the statistical reality of one’s socioeconomic status at birth predominantly determining throughout life is inescapable (see http://www.americanprogress.org/kf/hertz_mobility_analysis.pdf). This is not only unjust, but also systemically dysfunctional: The two most catastrophic economic collapses of the last 100 years in America were immediately preceded, by a matter of months, by the two highest peaks in the concentration of wealth in America in the last 100 years, in 1929 and 2008, respectively.
Such gross inequality of opportunity and in the distribution of wealth hurts us all, and violates fundamental American values of fairness. It is one of the challenges facing us as nation, that we have to meet and address as a nation. It’s not wrong to remind those who succeed by some combination of individual effort and good fortune, facilitated, in either case, by our entire social production function, that they succeeded by virtue of their membership in this society, and that their success does not come without reciprocal responsibilities to the society that made it possible.
And that was very clearly and explicitly Ben Franklin’s view as well as mine (in fact, his was a stronger statement of it), so if you want to vilify me for daring to recognize that the public has some claim on private wealth, be sure to vilify him as well.
(This essay originated as a response to a Libertarian commenting on another Libertarian’s Facebook page, making the familiar argument about why Jeffersonian democracy, emphasizing minimal government, was both the intention of our Founding Fathers, and is the best form of government possible.)
As you might have gathered, I like the dialectic, so here’s both the antithesis to your thesis, and the synthesis of the two:
Adams, Franklin, and Hamilton wanted stronger central government than Jefferson did (thus, the first incarnation of our perennial, unintended and undesired,l two-party system was Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans v. Hamilton/Adams’ Federalists, the latter pretty much meaning the opposite of what it does today: a strong federal government). The country was a product of these competing views, and has continued to be carved on the lathe of a similar dichotomy throughout its history, to excellent effect. The Constitution itself was the first victory for the “stronger federal government” side, requiring convincing a population that considered each state a sovereign…, well, “state,” in the original and still used sense of a sovereign political unit.
These arguments to a reluctant public were made, most cogently and famously, in The Federalist Papers, a collection of essays by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay arguing for the need to create a sufficiently strong central government. This was in response to the failed Articles of Confederation, which did not provide a sufficiently strong central government.
The history of the country ever since has been one of a punctuated growth in power of the central government. I know that I just stated your major contention, but I don’t see it as a necessarily bad thing, or a betrayal of our founding philosophy: It is, rather, the articulation of lived history with founding principles, since the latter guided the process and form of the former. We retained strong protections for individual rights within the context of that strong federal government: Free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to organize, freedom of press, freedom of religion, protections from police (i.e., state) overreach into our private lives.
In fact, the stronger federal government has been primarily responsible for, and grew in response to the demand for, the extension of those protections of individual liberty; extending them to categories of people to whom they had been denied, and extending them to protect people from the overreaches of individual states as well as the federal government.
The genealogy of Libertarianism, and the argument on which it depends, while exalted by its association with Jefferson, is in fact characterized more by its defense of inequality and injustice (see also The History of American Libertarianism). From the ratification of the Constitution to the Civil War, it was the argument of slave owners resisting the abolition of slavery, the southern statesman John C. Calhoun famously arguing in Union and Liberty that a commitment to “liberty” and to the protection of “minorities” required the protection of the “liberty” of the “minority” southerners to own slaves! This argument was the argument of the “states’ rights,” small federal government ideological camp. That camp lost by losing the Civil War and by the abolition of slavery.
From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Era, the states’ rights, small federal government ideology was invoked to preserve Jim Crow and resist the enforcement of Constitutional guarantees to protect the rights of minorities (in the modern sense of the word), especially African Americans. That camp lost by a series of Supreme Court holdings (most notably Brown v. Board of Education) and the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (by which President Lyndon B. Johnson knowingly and willingly lost southern whites, who had until then formed a major branch of the Democratic Party, to the Republican Party, where they have since resided, and continue to comprise a large portion of the adherents to this perennial ideology).
Contemporary Libertarianism is the logical next step in this progression, after having resisted the abolition of slavery in the name of “liberty,” and the passage of Civil Rights legislation and Court holdings in the name of “liberty,” it now opposes the further confrontation of the legacy of that racist and discriminatory history by insisting, falsely, that “we’re all equal now, so any attempt to address, as a nation, the injustices still embedded in our political economy and culture is a deprivation of the liberty of those against whose interests it is to do so.” In other words, just as in those previous incarnations throughout our history, this particular concept of “liberty” still means “my liberty to screw you.”
Libertarians, conveniently, don’t see it this way, because it is a passive “screwing,” one that involves leaving in place institutionalized, but not legally reproduced, inequities and injustices. It is, as it has been before, the insistence that “we’ve done enough, and need do no more,” just as the defenders of slavery considered acquiescing to a national constitution was enough, and the defenders of racism considered acquiescing to abolition was enough, modern Libertarians think that acquiescing to a formal, legal end to racial discrimination is enough,and that it is an affront to their “liberty” to attempt to address as a nation, as a polity, the non-legally reproduced but deeply entrenched inequality of opportunity that persists in our country (see, e.g., The Paradox of Property).
This national commitment to ever-deepening and ever-broadening Liberty, including equality of opportunity without which liberty is, to varying degrees and in varying ways, granted to some and denied to others, involves more than just the African American experience: It involves women, Native Americans, gays, practitioners of disfavored religions (such as Islam), members of ethnic groups who are most highly represented in the current wave of undocumented immigration (such as Hispanics), basically, “out-groups” in general. It’s no coincidence that Libertarianism is so closely linked to Christian Fundamentalism and militant nationalism: It is an ideology that focuses on a notion of individual liberty that is, in effect and implementation, highly exclusive and highly discriminatory. (There are, it should be noted, branches of Libertarianism which are more internally consistent, and, at least, reject these overt hypocrisies, while still retaining the implicit, passive, retention of historically determined inequality of opportunity described above.)
History has demanded increasing centralization of powers for other reasons as well: an increasingly complex market economy with increasingly difficult-to-manage opportunities for centralized market actors to game markets in highly pernicious ways (due to information asymmetries); increasingly pernicious economic externalities increasingly robustly generated by our wonderful wealth-producing market dynamo (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems and Political Market Instruments); in general, a complex dynamical system that is highly organic and self-regulating, but not perfectly so, and without some pretty sophisticated centralized management is doomed to frequent and devastating collapse.
(This is why, by the way, every single modern developed nation, without exception, has a large administrative infrastructure, and had in place a large administrative infrastructure prior to participating in the post-WII explosion in the production of wealth. The characteristic that Libertarians insist is antithetical to the production of wealth is one of the characteristics universally present in all nations that have been most successful in producing wealth.)
The tension between our demand for individual liberty and minimal government, on the one hand, and a government adequately large and empowered to confront the real challenges posed by our increasingly complex social institutional landscape on the other, is a healthy tension, just as the tension among the branches of government is a healthy tension. We don’t want one side of any of these forces in tension to predominate absolutely: We want the tension itself to remain intact, largely as it has throughout our history. Through it, we took the genius of the Constitution, and extended it to constraints imposed on state and local as well as federal government, recognizing through our experience with the institution of slavery that tyranny doesn’t have to be vested in the more remote locus of government, and the resistance to it doesn’t always come from the more local locus of government. And through it, we took the genius of the Constitution, and extended it through the lessons of history and the pragmatic demands placed on our national self-governance by the evolution of our technological and social institutional context.
The pragmatic, moderate, flexible, analytical implementation of our ideals that has resulted, protecting the true liberties that we treasure, extending them to those who were excluded, deepening them in many ways for all of us, and allowing, at the same time, for us to act, as a polity, through our agent of collective action (government), in ways that serve our collective interests, is what serves us best, and what we should remain committed to, with ever greater resolve.
…but everything is politics.
On the one hand, the almost exclusive focus of highly engaged, intentionally political activity is electoral politics and governmental decision making proper. On the other hand, the implicit recognition of the paramount importance of public opinion pervades that same narrowly conceived arena. The hot-button issues of campaign finance reform and corporate power, for instance, are firmly rooted in that implicit recognition, for, in the final analysis, campaign finance and corporate political power is entirely a function of the ability to influence public opinion. (“Follow the money” if you doubt that conclusion.)
Human history is a story of the dynamical tapestry of human cognitions and emotions (see e.g., The Politics of Consciousness , Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Emotional Contagion, Bellerophon’s Ascent: The Mutating Memes (and “Emes”) of Human History). Politics is one slice of that dynamo, the slice which involves everything from forceful subjugation to sophisticated mass persuasion. The more democratic a society is, the more salient is the latter modality. Despite the flaws in our own American democracy, it is sound enough that mass persuasion is at the root of all political decision-making.
But we tend to address that paramount challenge of swaying public opinion on too superficial a level, issue by issue, candidate by candidate, fighting against impenetrable fortresses of confirmation biases, with drawbridges raised at first sight of the party or issue-position already opposed. We tug back and forth between ideological and partisan camps, while deeper forces are constantly shifting the ground beneath us.
Those deeper forces are in a largely unconscious struggle of their own, between, on the one hand, reason and goodwill, and, on the other, irrationality and belligerence. One of the principal challenges facing reasonable people of goodwill is to turn that unconscious struggle into a conscious one, to engage in it not just candidate by candidate and issue by issue, but on a more fundamental level. When, for instance, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke before the Lincoln Memorial, what made it so momentous, what made it so effective, was that it wasn’t an appeal just to pass a piece of legislation or elect a particular candidate, but rather an appeal to rise to the heights of our better natures. And that is a very powerful appeal indeed. (See The Power of “Walking the Walk” and The Foundational Progressive Agenda )
I’ve written about Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives, using stories and narratives, without reference to specific policy issues or specific candidates or specific political ideologies, to disseminate and inculcate a framework invoking shared underlying values conducive to the forces of reason and goodwill. My archetypal example of a meta-message has always been Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (which I adapted as such in A Political Christmas Carol), but I did not know until recently that that was exactly how Dickens had intended it.
In Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, by Sylvia Nasar (author of A Beautiful Mind), the author describes how Dickens had written A Christmas Carol as an intentional response to Thomas Malthus’s An Essay On The Principle of Population, which had been the intellectual basis in opposition to England’s public welfare system and a move in the direction of greater cruelty and callousness exemplified by work houses and other memorable relics of Victorian England. Dickens believed, and history has borne out, that we are capable of reaching for and achieving greater heights of humanity than the callous indifference that characterized so many in his time and place, and, shockingly, so many in our own as well.
And who would deny that, while it may be impossible to attribute any specific political achievement to the immense success of his wonderful little tale, it has almost certainly played a role in those gradual, invisible shifts of the ground beneath our feet, keeping them at times from moving as far as they might have in the direction of greater callousness, and perhaps even nudging them at times in the direction of greater kindness.
We can’t all write such wonderful stories, but we can reiterate and amplify on them (as I did in A Political Christmas Carol), disseminate them, facilitate their reverberation through our collective consciousness. Politics, at its most fundamental level, isn’t as much about candidates and elections, or public debates about specific issues and the governmental processes which determine what public policy will be regarding them, as it is about what people think and believe, what people feel, what forms the substance of human consciousness.
So for those who live as though politics is everything –eating, drinking, and breathing what we narrowly conceive of as political engagement– please remember that there is much more beyond those explicitly political endeavors of ultimately deeper and broader significance to how our futures are formed and down what channels the currents of history flow. While some throw all of their weight and all of their passion into the tug-o-war between competing ideologies regarding competing candidates and policy positions, the real struggle, and the more momentous movement of humanity possible within it, lies largely unattended by any conscious and organized effort. Imagine the untapped potential of devoting just some small fraction of our passion and energy to that deeper challenge, tunneling under the ideological fortifications that deny entry to reason and humanity, collapsing those walls with subtler and more strategic assaults upon them.
(See A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill for a complete discussion of how to go about this.)
I’ve frequently encountered the argument that any reference to the legacy of history, to continuing evidence of a racially differentiated distribution of wealth and opportunity, is irrelevant because: 1) “I’ve never owned any slaves;” 2) everyone has the opportunity to succeed in America today, and it’s entirely the fault of those who don’t succeed if they fail to take advantage of that opportunity; and 3) the statistical trends are a result of sub-cultural problems that are the fault of the people who are suffering from them. All three of these rationalizations contain errors that are easily demonstrated.
One commenter insisted that the past is remote and irrelevant, that it is full of discredited ideas and so why should we turn to it to understand anything about the present or future? My answer was that disredited past ideas and well-evidenced past realities are two distinct things, that I am not arguing that we should be bound by past beliefs —far from it— but rather that we should be informed, in part, by past realities.
I do not oppose developing state-of-the-art new ideas and insights. Indeed, that’s what I live for. I’m a student of the ever-evolving explosion of human consciousness and its products. But those are all part of a historical process. They do not just exist in the present; they emanate from the past.
Even aside from the persistence of racist attitudes, of actual prejudice and discrimination (which are far more prevalent than some are willing to admit), there are other mechanisms by which past prejudice and discrimination continue to have present consequences. Children inherit from their parents a variety of legacies which are differentiated by history, passed down through the generations, legacies which include material wealth, social and institutional connections and privileges, and habits of thought and action adapted to and conducive to the social and material context of previous generations. Those who inherit more material wealth, richer social and institutional connections and privileges (such as ivy school “legacies,” in which the children of alumni receive preferential treatment in admissions considerations), and are socialized into the patterns of thought and action incubated in and conducive to socio-economic success, are clearly advantaged over those who inherit less material wealth, poorer social and institutional connections and privileges, and are socialized into patterns of thought and action adapted to and reproductive of relative poverty.
Paradigms persist even when we are no longer invested in their persistence. It is not enough to eradicate racist laws, or even racists attitudes, to eradicate the effects of racism. It requires a social investment, based on a recognition of a social responsibility.
There is an economic concept called “path dependence,” which refers to the tendency to remain in sub-optimal paradigms due to the up-front costs of paradigm shifts. For example, if there is new physical plant that produces something far more efficiently than what had heretofore been used, any calculation of the benefits of replacing the old with the new includes the huge up-front costs involved, and, even if there are huge long-term benefits to be gained, if the up-front costs are onerous enough, those benefits might never be pursued.
This can take many forms, from changing physical plant, to changing forms of government or economic systems, to changing understandings of reality. All of these confront various kinds of path-dependent resistance.
Here’s a very simple (and trivial) example: The “QWERTY” computer keyboard arrangement (named for the first five letters, from upper left, on the computer keyboard). If, for some purpose, someone needed to know why computer keyboards, in the present, are arranged that way, they would not be able to discover the answer by limiting themselves to consideration of present reasons why it might be so. The reason, rather, lies in the past: It minimized the jamming of mechanical typewriter hammers. It is a present reality, determined by past circumstances.
There are limitless other examples, in limitless arenas: The human spine has its shape because we evolved from walking hunched over (from four-legged, going further back), to standing upright. The spine wasn’t designed from scratch, but rather took its form from successive developments that built on previous conditions. And it is a sub-optimal design, leading to a lower back that is weaker than structurally necessary. The past is present in the present.
The notion that meeting current and future challenges requires thinking in the present and in no way benefits from understanding the past relies on a false dichotomy: Acting in the present and understanding the past are not incompatible, and, in fact, to do the former well, you have to include the latter in your approach.
Those “vague events of the past that really have no bearing” (as one commenter put it) are not so vague, and not so irrelevant. Such assertions conveniently ignore the statistical fact that the two most historically oppressed racial groups in American history, African Americans and Native Americans, are far more represented among our impoverished than random chance would allow. Why? Surely those who deny the relevance of this fact aren’t explicitly arguing that those racial minorities just happen to have an excessive amount of non-meritorious people among them, that they are “inferior” races. But it’s hard to see how their argument can be based on anything other than an implicit assumption to that effect.
The argument that members of those races have individually failed to take advantage of the opportunities available to them doesn’t address the statistical reality that so many more individuals from those races have failed in this way than individuals in the race that historically oppressed them. What a coincidence that the descendants of those who were enslaved and conquered are, on average, so much “less meritorious” than the descendants of those who enslaved and conquered them. Just highly improbable random chance, no doubt, and in no way involving those vague and irrelevant facts of history.
And the argument that it is a subcultural phenomenon begs the question: Why these subcultures and not others? Will those arguing this position really stand by the claim that it’s just a coincidence that the subcultures burdened with these problems just happen to encompass the populations we massacred, enslaved, and oppressed for centuries? Or will they admit that, to the extent that a mediating cause of social problems borne by these populations is subcultural in nature, the development of such subcultural dysfunction has as a first cause the centuries of oppression in which it was incubated?
The argument that some once disadvantaged ethnic groups have prospered, so why don’t these, doesn’t cut it either: There are many variables in play, and they lead to a wide variety of outcomes. Two major factors come into play: 1) No other disadvantaged population was ever quite so extremely and enduringly disadvantaged as the two I’ve named, and 2) the fact that there are circumstances in which countervailing factors overcome the liabilities of prejudice and discrimination doesn’t negate the existence and salience of prejudice and discrimination. In the case of generally new waves of exploited and impoverished immigrant groups who then prosper later, combinations of economic factors, less entrenched discrimination, and cultural characteristics particularly conducive to success can all come into play.
Just as some formerly underprivileged groups prosper, so do some individuals from underprivileged backgrounds, not because all is well and everyone has an equal chance, but because other factors intervene to counterbalance the injustices that really do exist. An individual might have gotten lucky by having exceptional talents, or exceptional mentors, or other bits and pieces of countervailing good luck.
But these bits of greater good fortune overwhelming an unjust situation don’t excuse the perpetuation of the unjust situation. There were slaves that escaped and prospered as well; that doesn’t mean that slavery was just fine, because, after all, some born into it prospered. The injustice isn’t erased by some fraction of those who escape it. And the fact that our current distribution of wealth and opportunity is unjust is conclusively proven by statistically significant differences in average outcomes for large populations on the basis of race, ethnicity, or gender.
The purpose of understanding the past isn’t to change the past, or to apportion blame, or to cultivate a sense of guilt and a sense of victimhood, or to suggest that descendants of victims of injustices necessarily deserve reparations beyond a commitment to erasing the legacy of those injustices, or to suggest that any inequality itself is unacceptable. The ultimate goal isn’t to recognize the role of history in forming the present, but rather to mobilize that knowledge in service to humanity today and tomorrow.
Who cares why the keyboard is as it is, or the human spine is as it is, or the inequitable distribution of opportunity in America is as it is, unless there is some present use for that knowledge? In the former two, there really isn’t, because we are willing (or have no choice but to) accept the current state, and so how it became so is of little practical relevance. But, if there were a question of fundamental justice involved, of human rights and human dignity, then it would be relevant, as it is in the last mentioned case.
Letters on a keyboard aren’t conscious and don’t care where they’re located. Human beings are, and do. The “QWERTY” of the distribution of wealth and opportunity has a relevance that the “QWERTY” of the location of keys on a keyboard doesn’t. And the relevance of the history that created that distribution of wealth and opportunity is that it exists, that the injustices of history have not been erased by time, that they are still embedded in the chances of birth. A commitment to our most basic values compels us to face that fact and deal with it responsibly, rather than deny it and pretend that each person fares only according to his or her own merit and effort, despite the overwhelming evidence that that just isn’t so.
It is not merely, or even primarily, to demonstrate the relevance of past racial discrimination to current inequitable distributions of wealth and opportunity that we should be informed by this presence of history, but rather to demonstrate the existence of social and economic injustice itself. I might be inclined to argue that those who are impoverished in America, or struggling in circumstances characterized by poorer than average opportunities to thrive, regardless of their race, are by-and-large victims of ill-fortunes that were not their own making, and did not enjoy a true equality of opportunity such as we, as a people, should be striving to realize. I might be inclined to argue that our policies for addressing these injustices shouldn’t be racially targeted, or race-conscious, but rather address the problems themselves that are disproportionately borne by members of some formerly oppressed races, and by doing so address the injustices at their root, as they occur, rather than superficially by the categories in which they most prevalently occur.
But the people who deny that the injustices of the past have any relevance to the injustices of the present are doing so to argue that there are no injustices in the present, or at least no injustices of a kind that incur any social responsibility borne by us collectively as a people and a nation. They argue that those who are poor are poor because they lack merit, lack resolve, lack something that those others who are not poor have, in complete defiance of the evidence.
The number one predictor of future wealth is the wealth into which one is born: If you are born into a wealthy family, you are likely to become a wealthy adult; if you are born into a poor family, you are likely to become a poor adult. There is far less social mobility than our mythology pretends (indeed, less even than in the more liberal countries of Western Europe). When one’s fate is largely determined by the socioeconomic class into which they are born, there is less difference, in terms of social justice, between our current political economy, and the more unabashedly inequitable systems of the past. Obviously, the ideal of equality of opportunity is far from being a reality in this country.
One of the fundamental challenges facing us as a people is to recognize this, and continue to strive to remedy it. In America, too many people hide behind a political philosophy that allows them to “have their cake and eat it too,” to enjoy the benefits of living in a society without undertaking any of the moral responsibilities that that incurs (see The Catastrophic Marriage of Extreme Individualism and Ultra-Nationalism for a discussion of a different aspect of this overly-convenient and pernicious blend of individualism and nationalism). It is time we once again heeded John Donne’s famous admonition that
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
“Property” is a concept concerning the relationship of people to one another regarding objects that have value. It refers to who is included in the circle of people with a legal right to utilize or dispose of the object(s) in question, and who is excluded. The object, at least in any direct sense, is unaffected by these relationships (of course, it may be affected in terms of how it is utilized, destroyed or exhausted). While at first glance it might appear that property rights define the relationship between individuals and objects (both tangible and intangible), it really defines relationships among people by identifying who can and can’t exclude which others from access to or utilization of those objects (sometimes with the assistance of third parties authorized to enforce these rights).
Two essential truths about property are in tension with one another:
1) A market economy depends on well-defined property rights, and preferably extensive private property rights (in which the right to access and to exclude others from access is vested in a single individual), and a hybrid, predominantly market economy is the most robust producer and distributor of wealth yet discovered; and
2) Property is theft, especially historically.
Most Americans bristle at the second observation, usually assuming that it implies a denial of the first, even when both are stated. But the second observation is clearly accurate, though a bit paradoxical itself (how can property be “theft,” if “theft” presupposes the existence of property?). As a “first cause,” when a human being or group of human beings first encounters land or other objects that they lay claim to, this is the creation of property. Calling this first encounter “theft” is a bit of a stretch: It can be depicted as “theft” from all other would-be claimants, since it is held by force against others unable to exert superior force, such that its possession isn’t a function of first encounter, but rather a function of greater might. But the “theft” really occurs once the force is exerted.
For the sake of argument, let’s consider this first creation of property to be the one instance in which property is not theft; if those who encounter first can hold it, let’s say they are entitled to do so. All other involuntary transfers, when someone takes property by force from another, can then be considered “theft,” and any subsequent transfers of such stolen property can be considered exactly that.
From prehistory into the modern age, territories have been possessed, defended, conquered, and expanded primarily by means of force. Probably no current tract of land is possessed primarily by the decendents of those who first encountered it. Probably every or virtually every current tract of land is either possessed by someone who is descended from, or was originally purchased from someone who was descended from, some individual or group who took that land from others by force. Thus, all land is stolen property.
There is a line from my novel, set in an ancient civilization, in which a warrior of non-noble birth who is leading an up-start army against the nobles of his own land tells his gathered soldiers before the decisive battle, “if we lose this battle, the nobles will shackle us in chains and label us criminals for doing ourselves what their great-grandfathers did for them.”
It’s not difficult to extrapolate from this objects other than land, since such objects are ultimately derived from the land in various ways (from mined ores, logged timber, and so on). If the land on which resources are found is all stolen property, then the resources exploited upon it are as well.
But that is then and this is now: Given that well-defined property rights, and particularly private property rights, are a cornerstone of a robust economy from which everyone, to varying degrees, benefits (in relation to the alternatives), what difference does it make? The difference it makes is that we stop pretending that property is a god-given right, and that its distribution at any given moment can be defended as somehow inherently just. Of all of the virtues that private property legitimately can be defended as providing, fairness is not, and never has been, one of them.
One of the defining characteristics of private property is the right to give it to whom one wishes at any time, including the right to devise to whom one wishes upon one’s own death. That means that people are born into an inequitable distribution of originally stolen property. Every baby at birth is born into a property-context not of their own making, not to their own credit or fault, which yet determines a great deal of what their opportunities will be. Such determinations are not just due to the direct material implications of the differential property-contexts into which people are born, but also into complex consequences of the property differentials, such as social and professional networks that parents have, the traditions and habits and attitudes associated with the possession and preservation of property that they transmit through socialization, and so on.
Many on the right today want to pretend that the persistent disproportionate poverty of some categories of people –most notably, Native Americans and African Americans– is due to failures of their own. But, while there are complex mechanisms by which this occurs, it is clear that the First Cause of that persistent disproportionate poverty is the fact that people from these categories are born into long chains of unpropertied lineage, chains that began with the theft of the land from those who occupied it when the Europeans arrived, and the importation and conversion of others from another land into property themselves.
There is another complexity, perhaps more salient but even less obvious, that renders the conceptualization of private property as inherently just and equitable a ruse to protect what is in fact quite unjust and inequitable: The fact that property, and wealth, are produced by social processes that involve complex, articulated in-puts and result in socially institutionalized distributions of the product of those processes. In other words, the political economy by which we produce and distribute wealth doesn’t distribute it fundamentally on the basis of merit, as some conveniently mythologize it to be, but rather on the basis of privilege, as has been the case throughout human history.
This system of distribution primarily on the basis of privilege functions through a variety of mechanisms. One such mechanism is that the occupations that receive the highest remuneration are the occupations that require the longest education. Since such education is expensive, it is more easily accessed by those who have the money to invest in it. Since wealth is inherited, and few have earned much on their own prior to entering into such advanced education, it is the wealth of one’s parents that determines the ease of access to the educational opportunities which position one to remain wealthy in the future.
But there are subtler aspects of this system as well, subtler mechanisms embedded within it. Not only are inequitably distributed material endowments transmitted from generation to generation, but so too are the inequitably distributed skill sets and cultural adaptations that are associated with that inequitable distribution of material endowments. Parents teach children how to cope with the world that the parents encountered and understood, and, even as times and opportunity structures change, the sub-cultural adaptations to past circumstances remain embedded in the lineage of socialization transmitted from generation to generation.
While some social mobility exists, and some individuals rise out of the most opportunity-deprived circumstances to achieve phenomenal success against the odds, the actual statistical rates of social mobility are far lower than what many imagine them to be, and the exceptional cases both fewer and less accessible than many imagine them to be. For every exceptional case, there are some set of particular circumstances that applied in that case to make it exceptional (e.g., the good fortune to find an exceptional mentor, an unsually fortuitous genetic endowment, etc.). The underlying fact remains that the opportunities available, on average and in the aggregate, between those born into poverty and those born into wealth are inequitably and unjustly distributed.
So the challenge becomes how to preserve the robustness of markets, which depend on the existence of private property, and at the same time mitigate the inequities and injustices inherent in the existence of private property. This is really what the development of the wealthiest nations, particularly over the last 80 or so years, has been all about: Spiralling toward some balance of robust markets dependent on clearly defined private property rights, and administrative interventions that both preserve the health of those markets and increase the equity of opportunity faced by members of society despite the inequities inherent in private property rights. (The fact that such interventions not only can be used to increase the justness of distribution, but also are necessary to maintaining the functioning of the market economies at all, is evident throughout the historical record, in which periods of underregulation have led to spikes in the concentration of wealth followed by catastrophic market collapses, most notably in 1929 and 2008.)
Though the two necessary functions of government in a modern predominantly market economy (i.e., preserving the efficiency and well-functioning of markets, on the one hand, and increasing the equitability of the distribution of opportunities and benefits produced by those markets, on the other) are closely intertwined, I am focusing only on the latter in this essay. The question is how best to mitigate the inequities of markets without undermining them (and, indeed, whenver possible, enhancing and invigorating them).
There are two areas which rise to the fore: 1) Improving real access to education, at all levels; and 2) heavily taxing inheritance. In fact, education, at all levels, should be completely publicly funded, and the way in which it can be completely publicly funded is through inheritance taxes with gradually rising marginal rates approaching 100% at the extreme heights of personal wealth. Obviously, this is politically impossible in America today, but is approximated in most other developed nations to varying degrees, with unambiguously beneficial results.
There is more involved in improving real access to education than simply making it free to all at all levels. It would also involve community development and related up-front investments which would increase the ability of those who are currently born into lower socio-economic strata to succeed in school, so that the opportunity available is a real one rather than merely a formal one. That is something I discuss in my essays on education (see. e.g., Education Policy Ideas, Real Education Reform , Mistaken Locus of Education Reform, School Vouchers, Pros & Cons, West Generation Academy, American Universities: Two Dimensions on which to Improve).
However we move forward, however we address the myriad challenges and opportunities facing us, it’s time we did so by letting go of the mythologies which insulate social injustice from scrutiny, and instead confronted our world and our social systems as they are, with both strengths and weaknesses, both virtues and shortcomings. There is much that works well and should be defended, preserved, and built upon. And there is much that doesn’t, which should be examined, analyzed, addressed, and improved upon. That is what the human endeavor is all about.