Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The End of Politics—Part One : The Freeman : Foundation for Economic Education

Someday we’ll look back on politics and shake our heads. It will have been a necessary phase—but not one we’ll want to relive. Necessary, because we have been undergoing a series of phases, none of which we could have bypassed.

We have already entered the next phase. Call it the Age of Connection. Once we realize all the benefits of this next phase, we’ll see how wasteful and acrimonious the prior phase had been.

Politics is a way humanely to fight over the control of hierarchy. The U.S. republic was in certain respects designed to create checks between factions and parties by setting them against each other. Ballots over bullets and all that. It was thought of as a necessary evil—an alternative to the subjugation of people, which came from monarchy, feudalism, and aristocratic privilege. In Madison’s Federalist 10, he expressed concern about the “mischiefs of faction” found in democracies of various sizes. The republic had been a way to temper the consequences of faction, even as “causes of faction cannot be removed.” The democratic republic was thus a kind of rationally conceived operating system, forged in compromise after a unique opportunity to start fresh. In other respects, however, the development of this American-style republic was a phase transition.

In other words, the democratic republic was likely to have arisen at some point due to the world’s becoming more complex. Some revere the founding as the explication of timeless principles we only had to discover using reason. And yet we know the founders were crafting rules at a certain stage of technological development and historical context. They were moving headlong into a future informed by reasonable assumptions about human nature and the world in which they found themselves. To understand this stage and stages prior, it will benefit us first to take our time machine a little further into the past, then to zip back to the future.

To read the news, though, you wouldn’t think anybody could claim things are getting better. The media sell more spectacle and turmoil than they offer happier trends over longer timescales. Their reports leave many of us with both a false impression and a general ignorance about just how good we’ve got it compared to people throughout most of history. As writer and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker says in an interview with the New Scientist:
I was struck by a graph I saw of homicide rates in British towns and cities going back to the 14th century. The rates had plummeted by between 30 and 100-fold. That stuck with me, because you tend to have an image of medieval times with happy peasants coexisting in close-knit communities, whereas we think of the present as filled with school shootings and muggings and terrorist attacks.

Then in Lawrence Keeley's 1996 book War Before Civilization I read that modern states at their worst, such as Germany in the twentieth century or France in the nineteenth century, had rates of death in warfare that were dwarfed by those of hunter-gatherer and hunter-horticultural societies. That, too, is of profound significance in terms of our understanding of the costs and benefits of civilization.

From the perspective of the grand sweep of history, we are living in an age of peace and abundance.

Even the poorest places on earth are far better off than they were just a few decades ago. Indeed, in the last 30 years alone, the number of people living in abject poverty has been cut in half. Day by day, violent aggression over resources is rapidly being replaced by the structures of commercial competition and human cooperation.

In thinking about phase transition, though, the Founding still looms large. The American Republic and many democratic republics since were brilliantly crafted systems designed to maximize freedom and limit the excesses of hierarchy. Or, put another way, documents like the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution put forth answers to the question, “What sort of political order can be created to unleash as much human autonomy possible?”
But our operating system, as operating systems will, has become buggy, strained, and outdated. Not only are people becoming increasingly weary of a system designed to pit people against each other with a crude majoritarian calculus, but new systems are being developed to accommodate phase transition. Indeed, some of these systems don’t require the permission of authorities. They arise from technologically connected people along the lines of what James C. Scott describes in Two Cheers for Anarchism:
More regimes have been brought, piecemeal, to their knees by what was once called “Irish Democracy,” the silent, dogged resistance, withdrawal, and truculence of millions of ordinary people, than by revolutionary vanguards or rioting mobs.
Some will try to argue that our social operating system as originally conceived by the Founders would be a lot better than the corrupted version we have now. I am sympathetic to that position, but Public Choice considerations like those found in the works of James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, and Mancur Olson caution otherwise. With the rise of special interests, they remind us, something is bound to go wrong. Now there is a sense in which we cannot turn back the clock and debug the program. Instead, for the first time in history, technology and culture are allowing us more and more opportunities to create new systems and migrate between them. Indeed, it used to be that to change systems, one had quite literally to migrate, as in pick up within one territorial jurisdiction and move to another. And that, too, is an increasingly viable option. But migrating between systems is also something that, increasingly, you can do from your sofa.

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