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American Fault Lines

Posted in liberty, philosophy, political by dingodonkey on September 2, 2009

We’re saved from civil war by geography.  To the extent that we are a deeply divided nation (and I believe we are, albeit along different fault lines than have been acknowledged until recently), it is not a geographic division.  It is not a division that roughly corresponds with existing political entities.  The Civil War was possible because the South was a region of the country and it was a region of the country with political structures separate from the rest of the country.  Thankfully, we have a much higher hurdle to pass today.

I picked up Thomas Paine’s revolutionary pamphlet, Common Sense.  I was at the bookstore a while ago, thumbing through a big stack of books that I had little intention of buying — a typical trip for me.  I was eager to crack into this one, having never read it but living in such interesting times that it could be strangely relevant once more.  When I finally got past the introduction, the very first sentence (and its subsequent articulation) struck me so hard I closed the book and felt no need to read on.

SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness POSITIVELY by uniting our affections, the latter NEGATIVELY by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.

Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.

I don’t really believe that “liberal” and “conservative” are very useful labels for classifying the country politically.  I know a lot of politically liberal people that I would say are, in their general sensibilities, conservatives.  I’m not saying they’re economically conservative, or socially conservative, or somehow libertarian, but that they are conservative in the sense of having a prudent disposition and a deference to tradition.  When I say that I am a conservative, it is chiefly this to which I refer.  I also believe that this is something fundamental to the American system.  This sort of conservatism is the natural heir to classical liberalism.

This disposition leads me to very naturally separate government and society.  I can say that I love America but that I despise the government.  I can say I have the highest confidence in America and the least in her government.  I can say I believe that America owes her existence to Divine Providence, but also that this falls very far short of giving our government the sort of divine sanction traditionally attributed to the monarchies it overthrew.  These are ideas very old and deeply ingrained in America, but are today in peril.  There are many who do not draw these distinctions.  When their ideological opponents are the dominant party in power, they despise the nation and are ashamed to call themselves Americans.  I saw this attitude pervade the far left during the Bush years, it has always existed in the (smaller) far right.

This is the fault line.  The parties may reflect a certain kind of liberal/conservative split, but forget about that for a minute.  Here I’m talking about basic philosophy of government and society.  It’s not liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican.  I don’t have the language to describe it, but I’m coming close saying it’s collectivist/individualist, statist/libertarian.  It’s not about policy, all of that is secondary.  It’s about identity.  Because of that, these are groups that can and do span liberalism and conservatism and both parties.

When the government becomes tyrannical, the American thing is to oppose and if necessary overthrow it.  Most of the left was very familiar with that concept during the Bush years, and most of the right is very acutely aware of it now — Americanness is not rooted in the government; in fact, the two necessarily exist in tension.

Complex World

Posted in liberty, philosophy, political by dingodonkey on August 30, 2009

Complexity, emergence, self-organization, evolution — these are all related ideas that have been written and read about pretty extensively in the last few years.  They’re good and valuable ideas, and I’m glad we’re doing a better job now of using them in our thinking.  The idea that order and structure can emerge and organize based on a few basic thermodynamical laws and the inherent properties of the basic building blocks of that structure and the environment they exist in, is very powerful.  And it’s very sensible.

I’ve encountered two very different types of mindsets that restrict the applicability of these ideas to what I’ll call “favored spaces” of understanding.  I believe both groups are wrong to do so.

  1. The first group, less common amongst the intelligentsia, is that human institutions and endeavors such as free markets are self-organizing, but that natural ones are not.  Members of this group are inclined toward small-government conservatism and libertarianism.  At the same time, they’re mostly Christians or other religious.  They look at the stunning simplicity and beauty of a complex natural world, and conclude that only a Great Being could have put it in such a spectacular ordering as what they are admiring.  That Great Being, of course, is God.
  2. The second group is somewhat the opposite.  These are academics and professional thinkers of a variety of trades.  They look out into the world and see evolutionary and emergent processes at work.  They see a world without a director, or at least without need of one.  At the same time, they turn to fields of human endeavor, and are perfectly content to deny these principles.  Free markets cannot self-organize, individual liberties must be restricted to maintain a social order and prevent chaos.  They look at the monumental institutions of mankind, and conclude that only a Great Being could maintain and advance such a spectacular ordering of human endeavor.  That Great Being, of course, is Them.

So why am I talking about all this?  I recently read an article in the Boston Globe, Too Complex to Exist:

It may be true, in fact, that complex networks such as financial systems face an inescapable trade-off – between size and efficiency on one hand, and global stability on the other. Once they have been assembled, in other words, globally interconnected and integrated financial networks just may be too complex to prevent crises like the current one from reoccurring.

Rather than waiting until the next cascade is imminent, and then following the usual modus operandi of propping up the handful of firms that seem to pose the greatest threat, it may be time for a new approach: preventing the system from becoming overly complex in the first place.

I’ve had similar notions of my own, that these big, complex, and efficient systems are growing far too complex to be managed from above, that due to their complexity they cannot be effectively regulated by the government.  But where I differ is in the conclusion I draw from it.  I don’t want to shout, “Stop!  Your achievements are too complex for me to orchestrate!  Slow down!  Do less!”  I would rather accept something that used to be very hard for me to accept: that we don’t need a small elite overseeing our work and lives, that we don’t need to be managed as part of a coherent and comprehensible system of engineered order, designed to maximize a collective quality of life.

Maybe the proponents of Intelligent Design can’t prove their holy grail theory, that nature was put into order by a Great Being.  Maybe they should stop trying to make that leap, from the structure of the eye to the existence of a Great Being designer.  Maybe there are other things they could be doing.

Maybe trying to be prepared for every outside risk is ludicrous.  Maybe it can’t be governed away.  Maybe we simply can’t do it.  Maybe that’s not what we should be trying to do at all.  Maybe we’re not Great Beings.

On a routine basis, regulators could review the largest and most connected firms in each industry, and ask themselves essentially the same question that crisis situations already force them to answer: “Would the sudden failure of this company generate intolerable knock-on effects for the wider economy?” If the answer is “yes,” the firm could be required to downsize, or shed business lines in an orderly manner until regulators are satisfied that it no longer poses a serious systemic risk.