Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

Changes in the social institutional and technological landscape ripple through the system, demanding and facilitating adjustments and modifications throughout, which in turn demand and facilitate adjustments and modifications of their own. Choices we make affecting the framework within which this occurs help determine how robust this process is, what kinds of positive and negative consequences it generates, and in what ways and to what extent it affects the human and natural world.

One recent set of technological innovations has had epoch-making implications. Accelerating developments in Information Technologies (computer and communications technologies combined) have rippled through the economy and culture, changing the way we communicate, seek and disseminate information, access entertainments (and the entertainments available), and even conceptualize the nature of reality (with complex dynamical systems analysis, a child of computerized mathematical modeling techniques, transforming several of our underlying scientific paradigms).

These developments have partially displaced and challenged the viability of newspapers and the postal service, vastly increased the liquidity and volatility of financial markets, vastly increased the robustness and diffusion of both the flow of information and the unreliable “noise” that accompanies it, and has become an indispensable tool in virtually every economic, academic, professional, and technological human endeavor.

Other examples abound. The invention of the internal combustion engine led to an enormous demand for oil, which turned the Middle East into a region of vital geopolitical significance, and led to a vastly increased rate of environmental contamination and destabilizing climate change. The invention of the airplane led to the development of a widespread rapid global transportation system, and transformations in warfare, economics, and epidemiology.

Even slight modifications can have rippling consequences. Improvements in the thrust of jet engines, for instance, have necessitated improvements in the strength and heat resistance of composite materials (both giving rise to a demand for their creation and providing new engineering opportunities elsewhere, which gave rise in turn to other systemic demands and opportunities). These together made larger jet airliners both technologically and economically feasible, resulting in new demands on airport designs, requiring more space and creating new challenges for municipal governments seeking to establish international airports, all in turn merging into a vibrant international air traffic system.

Not only technological, but also social institutional innovations have similar effects. The invention of currency, for instance, freed markets from the necessity of a double coincidence of bilateral wants imposed by a barter system. (In a barter system, two people each must have something that the other wants more than they want what they already have, whereas currency allows an unlimited ongoing multilateral exchange via a medium that stores and transports value in the abstract). The consequences of this social institutional innovation have been enormous.

The establishment of the American Political system, codified in the American Constitution, drawing on and marginally refining existing forms and emerging ideas, is another example of a highly consequential set of social institutional innovations. It has proven to be a highly robust general model, not just in the United States but around the world. And it too unleashed myriad complex, rippling, unforeseen and unforeseeable dynamics.

Governments have always been vital agents in these processes. From the great architectural monuments of ancient history (e.g., the pyramids and the Great Wall of China) to our most robust modern technologies (e.g., computers, and myriad technologies emanating from space exploration), governments have been uniquely situated to mobilize massive resources in concentrated purposive endeavors that could not have otherwise been accomplished.

Not all such endeavors have necessarily served human welfare, and not all government functions that do are necessarily massive in scale. But the vital role of governments as concentrations of human organizational action for purposes other than profit or cultural expression is undeniable. The challenge is to free ourselves from the stiflingly non-productive debate over whether government has a vital role to play in the human endeavor, and focus our energies instead on the meaningful and multi-faceted question of what precisely that role is.

The answer lies, of course, in understanding the nature of the social systems within which it is embedded, and how the tandem processes of social institutional and technological evolution can most effectively be simultaneously invigorated and channeled by collective decision-making via the instrument of government. To do so, we face several interrelated challenges, some in tension with one another. At a bare minimum, we must liberate and lubricate the processes by which innovation and its rippling effects occur, while catching and mitigating negative effects (i.e., effects ultimately destructive to human welfare).

Despite the conservative myth that government is in general an impediment to economic growth, the exact opposite is true (and has been proven true repeatedly by historical experience). The obsessive ideological commitment to starve and shrink government is the true impediment to economic growth. This is so because it creates a bottleneck in the system, decreasing the fluidity with which innovations ripple through the social institutional field by eliminating our ability consciously to adapt to them, to facilitate and channel them. It impedes the development of human and material infrastructure which has played such a vital role in the astronomical acceleration in the production of wealth that characterizes the modern era.

Moreover, it forces an unconsciousness onto these robust, highly consequential, constant and constantly accelerating transformations rippling through our social institutional landscape. It relies on an empirically discredited certainty that these transformations automatically always serve human welfare as long as we close our collective eyes tightly enough. It relies on a set of idolatries (see “Political Fundamentalism”, “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, Small Government Idolatry) rather than on living minds taking on living responsibilities, within a legal and political framework that has developed from the Constitution, and faithful to the Constitution. It eschews the responsibility that comes with freedom and self-governance, the responsibility of thinking, and understanding, and acting in a world that poses constant challenges to those who exist within it, and cannot simply be relegated to blind ideologies and false certainties posing as patriotism.

Social institutional and technological evolution occurs not only through chain reactions of adaptations and innovations rippling through our social system, but also through our own collective adaptations to it. Coordination of efforts and imposition of consciousness and foresight upon them have always been vital, if insufficiently employed, ingredients. Government is nothing more or less than one such organizational overlay of human consciousness on these processes, providing one more vehicle to harness and channel the dynamo that we have created, and that has created us.

As I’ve often said, the agency problems involved, that form the basis of the ideological rejection of government, are both real and normal, common to all principal-agent relationships, though such relationships are a vital and robust aspect of modern social organization. The principal-agent relationtionship between a polity and their government, along with the diverse interests and beliefs of the principal, and the uneven distribution of resources with which factions within the principal can influence the agent, form part of the complexity of the challenge of using government to maximum advantage. They do not mean that government is any more problematic than any other social insitutional arrangement, however, since all such arrangements have similar or analogous problems embedded in them.

It’s time to stop wasting our human cognitive resources on the enervating debate over whether this organizational overlay called “government” is “good” or “bad,” and instead focus on the more meaningful question of how best to use it.

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Understanding what causes memes to reproduce most robustly is an important aspect of moving our social institutional landscape in directions that best serve humanity. Moving “minds and hearts” doesn’t always move them in positive directions: Many minds and hearts have been moved recently in some very self-destructive directions. But they were moved by recourse to a proliferation of a combination of haphazard and sophisticated messages which appealed to people’s frames and narratives, which tapped into the metaphors that comprise our minds and resonated with them. Doing so is an essential part of the challenge.

When we debate what can and can’t be done, what does and doesn’t work, one of the fundamental dimensions to be considered involves the variable malleability of reality. I can easily divert a small trickle of water following a rainfall, not so easily a large river, and probably not at all a planet in orbit around a star, particularly one that is light years away. When I’m attempting to affect the world, or any part of it (including another person), I need to look for those things that are most amenable to modification, and use them as leverage to address those things less amenable to modification. The time frame involved, mass, momentum, accessibility, available materials and technologies, existing social institutional and organizational vehicles and techniques, the rates and processes of change of the system or element that is the object to be altered, are all relevant variables contributing to malleability.

When you pick a goal, you need to identify a means to achieve it via those aspects of reality that are malleable enough to create an in-road to success. One of the biggest mistakes people often make when they talk about public policy, for instance, is to suggest something that a large number of decentralized actors have to spontaneously decide to do. For examples: “the solution to the crime problem is for parents to impose more responsibility on their kids,” or “the solution to war is for soldiers everywhere to refuse to fight.” The list is endless. The problem is that the suggestion not only fails to change the reality, it also fails to identify a meaningful strategy for changing the reality. It is a wish rather than a plan.

It makes as much sense to say, “the solution to the crime problem is for criminals to stop committing crime,” or “the solution to collective action and time horizon problems is for everyone to just automatically act in our collective long-term interests.” It’s meaningless, because it recommends as a solution an equally intractable intermediate challenge (sometimes merely restating the problem itself), rather than considering how to address it. How do you get parents to be better parents, criminals to commit less crimes, and people to act more cooperatively and farsightedly? These are the questions to be addressed. 

The difference between identifying decentralized wishes and viable strategies is organizational and social institutional. I alone can divert that small trickle of water I mentioned above, but I would need to organize an effort and mobilize resources to divert a river. The challenge is to identify first the collective action problems involved, then ways in which it might be addressed, followed by how to get more people interested in realizing change and how they can contribute to doing so, and finally to design and implement policies which move us in the right direction.

Many dramatic changes in our social reality can be realized, but only by investing heavily in an analytical understanding of the systems which comprise it, and seeking the “pressure points” in those systems where manageable applications of focused human effort can have a rippling effect through the fabric of those social (and surrounding) systems. More parents can be assisted at being better parents, more criminals rehabilitated or, better yet, prevented from ever going down that path with early interventions and proactive policies, and more people in general channeled into more cooperative and far-sighted endeavors, by understanding what motivates them, what affects their decisions and choices, and creating institutional contexts which produce better rather than worse outcomes.

For those who insist that it can’t be done, all that is required is to point out that it has been done, frequently and on very large scales. Virtually every developed nation on Earth invests more in the challenges I just described than the U.S. does, and virtually every developed nation on Earth does a better job of meeting these challenges than the U.S. does. It’s no coincidence. 

By far the most important political arena, the most important “pressure point” for social change, is the human mind, affected by formal and informal instruments of education, propaganda, and socialization, as well as by changes in the legal and economic context in which we live. “Will and Grace” arguably did as much for gay rights (along with all of the proliferating soap opera gay couples, and concomitant cultural shifts) as any law that anyone could have passed, because the change in attitude eases in the change in law, while a change in law grunts mightily against resistant attitudes. It’s a dialectic, to be sure, and laws help to change attitudes as well, become faits accomplis that are eventually accepted as the norm. But it is the cascade of changes in attitudes and understandings that is the real goal, and the real triumph.

One place to look for the dynamics of how such change occurs is to nature itself, and how life evolved: Those genes which were best at replicating themselves are the ones that persisted into the future. Humans are a product of that process as well, and, despite the resistance to the notion from various quarters, much of what we are can be best understood by understanding how that process, that lathe of heaven upon which we were rotated and carved over the millenia, made us what we are.

Human history spins on a similar lathe, an echo of Nature’s primary one (see, e.g.,  The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix).

There are caveats: Just because change, even “progressive” change, can be effected doesn’t mean that it will increase human welfare to do so. The social institutions we sometimes too blithely condemn are more subtle and sophisticated than we are sometimes willing to acknowledge, because they are the product of a secondary lathe of heaven, the one which involves the reproduction and natural selection of memes, and they reflect the ways in which humans imperfectly align the interests of self-interested individuals in order to serve the interests of self-interested individuals. Not just those “in power,” but to a limited extent, and with great injustices of distributions of gains, their constituents as well.

The mistake many people make is in presuming that if they could just erase all that is and replace it with what they think would work better, the world would be a better place for it. In fact, whenever people have had some success in doing that, they have created only suffering and destitution. Arguably the most successful political revolution in World History (The American Revolution) wasn’t a revolution at all; it was a war of secession, which incorporated some very subtle and marginal modifications into the existing scheme of things, to great effect.

We must work with the material on the ground, understand it (by far the most difficult and important step of all), refine it, develop it, cultivate it to better serve the needs of social justice, economic robustness, and sustainability. This involves an appreciation for, and ongoing analysis of, the social institutions and social institutional materials that have been generated over millenia of cultural evolution, as well as a deftness in discerning where to tweak it, where to redirect it, where to channel it in new ways and utilize it in new combinations, in order to better serve the interests of humanity.

There are errors on both sides; the error of doing nothing on the pretext that it can only do harm, and the error of doing anything on the pretext that it can only do good. Trying to change that which can’t be changed, or is more resistant to change than the efforts mobilized have taken into account, leads to results often worse than those from which the change was made. The Russian and French Revolutions were bloody messes, and the Russian Revolution, at least, probably made just about everyone’s life worse, in perpetuity. The problem was that it replaced tyranny with tyranny, as so often happens, informed by the “good-guy/bad-guy” fallacy, and certain that replacing the bad guys with the good guys would solve all problems. But it failed to replace bad ideas with better ideas, and so only perpetuated and augmented the problems already deeply rooted in the social institutional landscape.

What the Tea Partiers call “socialists” are for the most part people who are pretty much right where we should be, preserving most of the institutional framework in which we live, but tweaking it in significant ways to address the unaddressed problems that have been festering for decades. The Tea Partiers themselves are extraordinarily addicted to stagnation and regression, clinging to a fictionalized past in order to create a dangerous new future, and obstructing any and all sensible attempts to make any improvements in our social institutional framework. Those at the other extreme, who would err on the side of sweeping away too much of our established social institutional framework, are such an insignificant minority, and so powerless to advance their agenda, that they are at present hardly relevant to the discussion.

The challenge now is to find the mechanisms, the pressure points, the means of social persuasion and institutional catalyst that will allow us to move the center of gravity to a more functional and useful place, where the debate revolves around questions of what works and what doesn’t work, what can be accomplished and what can’t be accomplished, costs and benefits, means and ends, inspiration and aspiration, hope and progress. We have a long way to go, but it’s not beyond our ability to get there.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

In this complex and subtle world of ours, the path of reason usually isn’t one of the paths that is most clearly marked or heavily traversed, but is rather the one that weaves a barely discernible thread among those others, combining what to them are incompatible contradictions, and avoiding what to them are incontrovertible truths. One such path combines cynicism and idealism, dodging the idols strewn across the political ideological landscape, while embracing the elusive wisdom that whispers past them on momentary gusts of wind.

The title marriage of yin and yang, of thesis and antithesis, can be phrased in various ways: Realistic Idealism or Pragmatic Idealism, for instance. But the point remains the same: Being pragmatic, recognizing reality, acknowledging the aspects of human nature and nature in general that present sometimes immutable challenges, does not need to be in service to surrender, but can rather be in service to aspiration. The notion that we can’t do better stands in stark disregard of the fact that we occupy only the latest moment of a world history full of doing better, hardly pausing at all in the relentless march of progress. Not all of the progressions have been good ones, but, I would say, on average and overall, we’ve made more gains than losses, improved more than we’ve worsened, increased wealth and justice more than we’ve decreased them. Change is the one constant, and progress seems to be an enduring aspect of that constant.

So, despite human aggression, selfishness, violence, predation, exploitation, cruelty, and nastiness; and despite the limitations of nature and its bounty; we have more reason to believe in our ability to do better than to disbelieve in it. However, that ability is better realized to the extent that we are more precisely informed of, sharply focused on, and diligently grappling with the realities which comprise the challenge which faces us. To be effective, we must be pragmatic. To create what might be, we must fully and deeply understand what is.  To be dedicated to ideals, we must be cynically aware of what stands between us and their realization.

It’s important, however, to combine useful cynicism with achievable idealism, rather than, as is more often the case, emotionally gratifying cynicism with impossible idealism. To a large extent, discerning between the two involves an understanding of what I call “The Variable Malleability of Reality.” Being cynical about a superficial aspect of reality, and idealistic about a more fundamental one, is backwards, because the superficial aspect isn’t a parameter which can’t be changed, whereas the fundamental aspect is. We should be cynical about the least malleable elements of our existence that form apparent obstacles to progress, and idealistic about the most malleable aggregations of the elements, that can be reshaped by reframing the dynamics by which they are generated.

One mistake is to be cynical in the identification of “bad guys” out there, and idealistic in the belief that if the “good guys” (including the speaker) prevail over them, then all is well. This is only true to the extent that there are those who are advocating bad ideas, and those who are advocating good ideas, the ideas rather than their carriers being the proper focus of judgment. So, the crowd on the left that is big on identifying “corporate fascism” as the root of all evil is caught on the treadmill of human folly, because it blames the human greed, which is not terribly curable, instead of the social institutions, which are. Neither corporations nor the humans which comprise them are the villain. They are merely part of an imperfect social institutional landscape which channels that greed in ways that are partially useful and partially predatory. 

So, it makes sense to be cynical about human motivations, recognizing that some degree of local and ego bias is probably more or less inherent to human nature (I know that this is debated, and I’m open to good arguments, but the apparent absence of widespread and prevailing altruism in both natural and human history suggests that some degree of selfishness or local bias is simply one of the parameters with which we must contend). But it makes less sense to be cynical about particular aggregations of that underlying reality, such as a belief that frequent and large-scale warfare is inevitable, or that excessive inequality in the distribution of wealth and opportunity is a necessary motivator of human productivity, or that it’s necessary to allow deadly environmental contamination in order to facilitate the robust production of wealth. The latter are precipitous conclusions about how underlying realities have played out, rather than about how they inherently must play out.

The prevailing ideology on the far right today, The Tea Party, engages in this backwards combination of cynicism and idealism, considering particular aggregations of underlying realities are inescapable (poverty, gross inequality, widespread avoidable human suffering, social injustice), and therefore refraining from working with those underlying realities is ideal. “Liberty,” redefined as complete surrender to prevailing inequality, social injustice, and human suffering, becomes the highest ideal, while intentional institutionalized collective action, which is the intentional aggregation of human efforts for human benefit, is an affront to all that is good and holy (except when mobilized aggressively against others, such as “securing our borders” against the brown invasion of eager labor from the south, or the occasional indulgence in committing mass murder abroad to advance our own national interests).

We need, instead of enshrining bad results as inevitable and unconstrained individualistic caprice as ideal, need instead to recognize that human nature (generally something subtler than what we reduce it to) may be, at some level, immutable, but how we frame the context in which it aggregates into social institutional consequences is not.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

There’s a new column on on philanthropy ( The up-side of this column and its focus and purpose is that it, hopefully, will help to cultivate an awareness of the human suffering we are not addressing but can, of others who are stepping up and contributing to solutions, and of the amount of money increasingly put into circulation to do so. The down-side is that it continues to reinforce a vision of addressing our deep structural problems through a slight diversion of the surplus produced by the status quo, accompanied by a continued failure to consider how to alter the status quo in systemic ways to more substantially address those deep structural problems.

The author discusses three myths that motivate our current widespread lack of investment in positive social change through philanthropy: That there’s not enough money to go around, that more money makes one better, and that the injustices and suffering in the world is just the way it is. Similar myths, on a deeper level, motivate our widespread lack of commitment to fomenting positive systemic social change: Our political economic system cannot be fundamentally improved upon in ways that won’t hurt those who are currently faring well; the current distribution of wealth and welfare in the world is fair because those who have it deserve it and those who don’t don’t; and making significant headway on solving the world’s problems is an unrealistic Utopian dream.

It’s been said that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, and can as well be said that those who don’t understand history are doomed to be blind to its implications. We have a social movement in America that reveres a mythologized Constitution as a sacred document, that considers the country as it was established to be the perfection of political form. Yet those who understand history recognize these events as moments on a continuum, sequential developments built on previous ones. It is a lesson in the reality of progress, and a strong suggestion that there is further progress yet to be achieved, not only in terms of what is done within the political context we have created, but also what is done to refine and build upon the political context we have created.

The same holds true in economics: The development of “capitalism,” of our complex modern market economy, is a marvel of diffuse, evolutionary human genius. But it has been developing from time immemorial, and continues to develop today, and those developments are affected by conscious choices with conscious goals in mind. The notion that we can’t take this engine of wealth production and continue to refine it so that it becomes both more sustainable and more equitable is another variation of the ahistorical belief that what is is what must forever be, or that some marvelous product of history can’t be improved upon, when, in fact, what is has never remained what would be in the future, and every marvelous product of history that has preceded us has indeed been improved upon, and was itself the product of earlier improvements of earlier forms.

As I’ve written in several other posts (The Politics of Consciousness; Information and Energy), human history is an evolutionary process, an accumulation of innovations that create accelerating progressions in our social institutional, technological, and cognitive landscapes. The notion that this dynamical systemic logic somehow does not apply to the improvement of our world on the dimensions of humanity and sustainability is arbitrary and absurd. Just as we do not live in Oliver Twist’s Victorian England, future generations can and will live in circumstances different from, and hopefully better than, ours. The form and degree of those differences depend on our commitment to ushering them in, just as our transcendence of past deficiencies depended on the efforts of past visionaries.

Yes, we need more philanthropy and philanthropic spirit. But we also need more optimism, more compassion, more commitment to doing better as a society. And we need to believe that we can do far more than merely toss the peasants a coin from time to time.

Click here to learn about my mind-bending epic mythological novel A Conspiracy of Wizards!!!

Political discourse habitually loses the forest for the trees, because too rarely do we discuss human consciousness in political terms, though consciousness is both the soil from which all of our other endeavors grow, and the essence of the fruit which those endeavors strive to bear.

Consciousness is both political and evolutionary: It is fought over every step of the way, but carved on a lathe of trial and error such that it transcends, over time, the battles that comprise it. Economist John Maynard Keynes and Winston Churchill are alternately attributed with this eloquent summation: “[People] will do the rational thing, but only after exploring all other alternatives.”

British Biologist Richard Dawkins framed this process in terms of “memes,” cognitions which, like genes, are packets of information which self-replicate (through communication), mutate (through interpretation, synthesis, and innovation), compete for reproductive success (in individual choices of what to believe and what techniques to utilize, which aggregate into social institutions and prevailing technologies), and thus evolve.

American Philosopher of Science Thomas Kuhn, at about the same time (the mid-1960s), framed the process as one invigorated by the emergence of dominant paradigms (from the chaos of competing views), thus allowing focused investigation within that paradigm, the subsequent accumulation of anomalies (findings that are incompatible with the paradigm), and an eventual paradigm shift through attention to and resolution of those anomalies.

Combining these two independently developed theories into a single framework, we can discern in the realms of human consciousness the ubiquitous interplay of the parts and the whole, of the microcosm and the macrocosm (an interplay that exists more broadly across levels from the quanta or superstrings of physics to the universe in its entirety, and between individual organisms and the biosphere as a whole). The reproductive robustness of memes and the shifting of paradigms are interdependent phenomena, with the robustness of memes being a function, to some extent, of the robustness of the paradigms into which they coalesce, and the robustness of paradigms being a function, to some extent, of the robustness of the memes that comprise them.

For instance, the “anomalies” of Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts are an example of emerging memes that are incompatible with a prevailing paradigm, often displacing now discredited opposing memes that were compatible with that paradigm. This new set of memes might enjoy increasing reproductive success that simultaneously diminish the reproductive robustness of the displaced memes. This displacement can happen in part through countervailing empirical evidence, and subsequently, for the public at large, through a removal of the stamp of the endorsement of expert opinion, thus leading to an eventual replacement of the entire paradigm. As a result, other memes that comprise that paradigm but are not found in the paradigm that comes to replace it are weakened (though not necessarily eliminated) in tandem with the paradigm itself, even if no other evidence or social processes arose to undermine those memes.

(This also points to the value of attempting conceptually to separate memes and the paradigms to which they belong to some extent, since a discredited paradigm doesn’t necessarily imply that all of the memes that comprise it are similarly discredited, nor do discredited memes within a paradigm necessarily discredit that paradigm in its entirety. So, for instance, there are those who roundly reject the concept of “God,” an amazingly robust meme throughout human history, because they rightly criticize some of the paradigms which have evolved around it, though, as I argue in A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization, the meme of god and gods may have great positive value to human consciousness if embedded in other kinds of paradigms.)

George Lakoff offered another angle of insight into this set of both political and evolutionary processes in his book The Political Mind. Lakoff emphasizes that the human mind thinks in frames and narratives which can as easily support rational or irrational beliefs and opinions; it is by appealing to the human mind as it really works (by fitting new information into existing frames and narratives), rather than as we would like to believe it works (weighing out competing arguments on their merits, and selecting the most rational one), that particular memes and paradigms (with their implications for how well they serve either reason and goodwill or their opposites) are advanced.

Referring back to paragraph two of this essay (including the quote sometimes attributed to John Maynard Keynes), the irrational exploration of “all other alternatives” is a function of how well those alternatives appeal to our existing frames and narratives, while the eventual triumph of “the rational thing” is a function of how relentlessly utility seeps into those frames and narratives and oh-so-slowly weeds out those that are irrational and self-destructive, creating the paradox of a horrifying prevalence of irrationality in the short run, serving a remarkable florescence of highly sophisticated rationality in the long run.

The complexity and subtlety of these processes are dazzling, with many apparent contradictions as a result. To begin to explore these complexities and subtleties, please peruse my series of essays that give this paradigm a more precise and comprehensive treatment: 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, Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix.

Nested within these intertwined progressions of memes and paradigms are bitter battles over what is and is not true. Scientists might discern a heliocentric solar system, but inquisitors can obstruct and punish the dissemination of this knowledge. There is, however, no a priori reason to assume that either the heretics or the defenders of the faith (whether religious or secular), in any given instance, are on the side of truth or utility: Either can be right, and either can be wrong. History is defined by the accumulation of victories of innovative memes over established memes, but this belies the vaster number of innovative memes that did not prevail, often due to their relative superficiality or naiveté. Just as in biological evolution, in which the vast majority of mutations are disadvantageous to the reproductive success of that gene, so too the vast majority of radical new ideas are less useful to human welfare than their well-established counterparts honed by the genius of time and numbers.

Of course, that genius is forever skewed by concentrations of political and economic power, such that existing memes and paradigms may disproportionately favor those already materially favored, and new ideas that may produce less human welfare may be at least momentarily popular if they are either effectively disseminated by and in service to those with more political and economic power, or if they are products of certain kinds of intense reactions to that power, promising to distribute that which is produced more fairly, but  succeeding only in destroying or undermining existing institutions in ways destructive to the interests of the poor and disenfranchised as well as the rich and powerful. Often, some combination of these two forces is at work, as in the case of the current Tea Party Movement.

Many, if not most, marginal extensions of the franchise, on the other hand, have historically led to a more robust rather than less robust production of human welfare, enriching the rich as well as the poor. The lessons of history, therefore, suggest that increasing distributional justice generally increases total wealth, increases social justice, and contributes to the social stability that is conducive to both, but that the increase in distributional justice must not be overly dismissive of the complex and highly functional social institutional landscape that has evolved over time, even though it has evolved to favor the interests of some over others.

Modern political struggles are defined by these dynamics: Conservatives (in theory) defend the tried-and-true wisdom of established institutions, while progressives (in theory) strive to extend the franchise and refine the social institutional landscape in service to human welfare. To the extent that we can all acknowledge the wisdom and utility of both agendas, and devote ourselves collectively to their simultaneous realization, we will have increased the efficiency of this evolutionary process, wasting less time and effort on blind ideological disputes, and devoting more productive energy to cautious innovation. This is not to suggest that we are capable of eliminating partisanship or of living by a happy consensus, but rather that reasonable people of good will can be drawn toward a center defined by the application of careful analysis to reliable data in service to human welfare. Let our disputes be increasingly defined by the limits of our reason rather than by the extent of our bigotry.

More than anything else, my own efforts have always been, and continue to be, focused on human consciousness, and on the goal of ushering in a paradigm shift in how we predominantly perceive and address this inevitable political-evolutionary process. In one sense, the paradigm shift I hope for is the mere continuation of an historical trajectory long underway, passing through the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the political revolutions (including our own) informed by the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the accelerating stream of social, technological, political, and economic innovations that have ensued ever since.

History, Social Theory, Science, and Philosophy all conspire to impress upon us that change is, in a sense, the only constant. Certainly, the human mind reaches beneath that frothing sea of change, and looks for the constants that underwrite it. But those underlying relative constants, too, like the laws of physics, change, at least as far as our awareness of them is concerned, and we must reach further down still, as Thomas Kuhn and Richard Dawkins (and many others) did, to find the relative constants that underwrite those rules of change (See The Wizards’ Eye for a fantasy-fiction representation of this). As the Taoists understood thousands of years ago, whatever we can reduce to words or equations is not the immutable truth. It is essential, therefore, that while we admire the brilliance of our founding concepts, and respect their power and sophistication, we honor them by understanding that they, like those that preceded them, are meant to grow richer and subtler under the patient lathe of historical experience.

It is in this spirit that I suggest that it is time to recognize that “Liberty,” that most precious and fundamental of our values, should not be treated as the ossified talisman that it has become for so many, but should be appreciated for the living concept that it in reality is. “Liberty,” to too many, merely means “freedom from government.” While that was the core of its meaning at the time of the American Revolution, it has evolved, as good memes do, to embrace the mobilization of our consciousness, of our entire social institutional and technological landscape, to actively augment freedom, to produce and distribute a wealth of sustainable opportunities through which human beings, and the human spirit, can more effectively and enduringly thrive.

For those who find this suggestion heretical, consider the words of Thomas Jefferson himself: “[L]aws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

Even in Jefferson’s time, the government that defined and enforced property rights was seen to augment rather than interfere with individual liberty. With the growth of the discipline of economics, we have come to understand that the government that reduces transaction costs and internalizes externalities in order to facilitate a more robust and efficient market economy augments individual liberty and human welfare as well. Who now doubts that the government that amended the U.S. Constitution to abolish slavery and to extend the franchise to women, and that passed legislation to protect civil rights even from private infringements, augmented individual liberty and human welfare by doing so? And who does not recognize that the expansion of government more “socialist” than any before or since in American history, the institutionalization of free and compulsory public education, is not absolutely necessary to the individual liberty and life-long welfare of all of those who benefit from it?

If the state were to be removed from the equation (ignoring, for this conversation, the foreign and private vortices of organized political economic power that would fill the vacuum), people would band together for predation or defense, violent gangs eventually coalescing into local governments, in a sense pressing the reset button on political history, and leaving us with an undoubtedly more tyrannical government than the one it replaced. The state is an inherent part of the formula, for good or for ill. The challenge of using it for good is the one we must face. The threat to liberty is not state action, but rather failure on any level to ensure equality of opportunity and diffusion of political and economic power: A government captured by any faction is tyrannical, but a government effectively designed to act as the agent of the people is liberating.

Of course, the latter challenge is never fully met. The disparate ideologies and interests of the people ensure that some will never feel that their government is acting as their agent. But this country has laid a brilliant foundation for addressing the challenge, by combining representative democracy with constitutionalism, thus enabling the many to prevail, with constitutional limits protecting minorities from their tyranny. Within this context, government is far more our agent than our enemy.

Doing the best we can with the materials we have is the essence of the human endeavor, to which all reasonable people of good will can and should dedicate themselves. Neither obstinate obstructionists clinging with ideological purity to historical memes unadapted to changing circumstances, nor rash radicals dismissing and disdaining our rich and highly sophisticated social institutional heritage, are contributing most effectively to this enterprise.

Let’s join together in common cause, rational people of good will striving to do the best we can. We will continue to debate the details, and form parties around our differences. But let’s leave blind ideology, whether of the Right or of the Left, on the dust heap of history, and instead, with eyes and minds wide open, use our accumulated wisdom, our historical experience, and our improved techniques, to wear a coat that fits us now, rather than be straight-jacketed by the one that fit us as a child.

Click here to learn about my mind-bending epic mythological novel A Conspiracy of Wizards!!!