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(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.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

In our exploration of our collective consciousness and our shared existence, much can be understood in terms of how far down into underlying ordering principles particular thoughts and actions reach. The vast majority of our academic and political debates occur between ideas residing at similar levels of subtlety, with decreasing participation as depth increases. These conflicting positions are generally more compatible in some essential ways than their various adherents realize, but also generally defective due to errors of oversimplification and “overreach” of application.

Examples in science include the 19th century debate between particle and wave theories of light, reconciled in the 20th century into a paradigm that transcended the distinction; and the apparent incompatibility of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, reconciled by String Theory, which provides a subtler mathematical penetration transcending that apparent incompatibility.

The principal modern example in geopolitics was the “debate,” culminating in a half-century long Cold War, between Totalitarian Command Economies and Democratic Capitalism, between political economic centralization and political economic decentralization. The lessons of history clearly point to some subtle blend of market dynamics and state regulation, of representative democracy rather than either plebiscite or dictatorship, as a form that transcends either of the previous political ideological poles. Even so, depending on the history of the particular country, extremists at one pole or the other (or both) are likely to continue to obstruct and disrupt the approach toward that transcendent blend, insisting that their pure ideology, existing on a more simplistic plane of conceptualization, is superior. In such instances the dialectic is across levels of subtlety, and the preference should be , in the light of the paradigm I am developing here, for the deeper level of subtlety.

(There are many today who are convinced that the fall of Communism conclusively vindicates its extreme opposite, though even if it had fallen to its extreme opposite, it would only have proven that it was the inferior, in terms of competitiveness, of two extreme views, not that there were no forms superior to both. In reality, Communism didn’t fall to its extreme opposite, but rather to the hybrid form that had developed from the Great Depression onward, that all societies that had participated in the post-WWII expansion of wealth had already implemented and continued to develop, by far the most successful modern form, which blind anti-government ideologues seek to undermine by insisting that their never-tested and fundamentally flawed ideal replace it.)

Another way to conceptualize this historical dynamic is in terms of the Hegelian dialectic, or the Taoist dance of opposites. In the Hegelian dialectic, a thesis is developed and argued, generating an antithesis and counterarguments, resulting eventually in a synthesis, which becomes a new thesis, generating a new antithesis…, and so on, constantly penetrating into deeper levels of subtlety by means of this dialectic. In Taoism, yin and yang are in a constant dynamic tension with one another, each always bearing the seed of its opposite (as in the image of the Taiji Tu, the Taoist symbol of yin and yang).

But it is not just the dance of opposites; it is also the resolution of puzzles. Hegel’s thesis and antithesis are both attempts to understand something, their interaction leading to a deeper understanding. But there is a perhaps even more robust “dialectic” involving Dominant Paradigm, Emerging Anomalies, and Subsequent Paradigm Shift. Frequently, the traditional dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis both precedes and occurs in the interstices of this paradigm-anomalies-paradigm shift dynamic, with competing pre-paradigmatic views vying for dominance, and then, within a given paradigm increasingly beset by anomalies, competing proposed resolutions vying for dominance.

There is even a dialectic that can be discerned in the competition of these two views, between those who understand human history primarily in terms of class conflict punctuated with occasional revolutions, and those who understand human history primarily in terms of dominant paradigms undergoing constant refinement through a process of trial-and-error and responses by centralized regimes to historical exigencies. An example of this can be seen in the competing views on the rise of modern democracy, between those who view it as the result of the less powerful confronting and challenging the more powerful and gradually advancing as a result (the Hegelian dialectic), and those who view it as the result of the English Crown’s need to empower broader and broader swathes of the population in order to finance internecine European wars (the dominant paradigm, anomalies or challenges, paradigm shift view).

In academe as in politics, people debate these competing views, these competing paradigms, these competing theses, as though they are mutually incompatible, only grudgingly and gradually arriving at some evenutal reconciliation which recognizes a subtler reality beneath them, subsuming them, transcending them.

Recently, I broadened and deepened the colorful thesis/paradigm described in The Fractal Geometry of Social Change (and the related posts on “the evolutionary ecology of natural, human, and technological systems”) by adding in the concept of Emotional Contagion, and by doing so, continued to reconcile with new interweaving threads the social theoretical and social movement tapestries of thought being simultaneously developed on this blog. Another development of the thesis/paradigm might include recognition of the ways in which that pulsating, reverberating, expanding and contracting fractal flow of memes across our collective cognitive landscape involves a progression into ever-increasing subtlety and complexity, penetrating deeper into the ever-more fundamental algorithms generating ever-broader swathes of the complexity around and within us.

Just as the character Algono, in The Wizards’ Eye, was reaching ever-deeper into the potential of human consciousness, finding the algorithms by which change occurs, and then the algorithms by which those algorithms themselves change (as, for instance, scientific paradigms do, as we delve deeper into their implications, discover their anomalies, and transcend them), and so forth, into levels beneath levels, we are, or could be, forever reaching down into the deeper currents that subsume the shallower ones.

To put it another way, this act of reaching down into deeper currents is the act of finding the subtlest algorithms generating the greatest complexity, in much the way that a simple algorithm generates the Mandelbrot Set fractal. (Videos exploring the Mandelbrot Set: The Mandelbrot Set: Images of Complexity. See also http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=foxD6ZQlnlU&NR=1, capturing the combination of self-similarity and complexity across scales; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEw8xpb1aRA, emphasizing self-similarity across scales, and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5eD9IRS9_tc&feature=BFa&list=SP6848FE2899BA0E73&index=10, emphasizing the complexity across scales. See YouTube “Mandelbrot Set Zooms” or “Fractal Zooms” for a wide variety of different projections, no two exactly the same. Also, see http://www.cs.princeton.edu/~wayne/mandel/gallery/, for a wide selection of different still images from the Mandelbrot Set.)

The implication is that, in both thought and action, our challenge in The Dance of Consciousness is to reach into ever deeper currents, finding ever-subtler algorithms of change that affect ever-broader swathes of the encompassing complexity of our existence. When we discuss the actual, practical problems that confront us as a people –problems such as unemployment, the collapse of the housing market, climate change, and illegal immigration– the most useful and effective policies for addressing them are invariably the policies based on more rather than less systemic understanding, reaching deeper down into the currents beneath the superficial phenomena under discussion. This effort, one aspect of which I have outlined in The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, is what I will call “Transcendental Politics.”

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