“When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”— Edmund Burke
“Our political movements are conceived in impulse and developed in emotion; they end in fission and fragmentation because there is no thought behind them.”— Will Durant
The problem of identifying the right sort of government is ancient, with the first serious solution offered in Plato’s Republic nearly 2400 years ago. How are we doing on this project?
The status quo would say that university professors, politicians, lawyers, and bureaucrats have been working hard decade after decade to refine and polish the gem of a government we are all so lucky enough to enjoy today. All the fundamental problems are solved and embodied in our present system of government; all we must do is focus on the details and applying their old fundamentals to new realities.
If you buy this fairy tale, then move on.
The truth is that the status quo is radically disconnected from any concern whatsoever that our present government operations are actually fundamentally correct. Many in the status quo would say that such notion of “fundamentally correct” is itself incorrect, that there is no real possibility of such, ergo that is why they don’t pursue it. Nothing to see here, keep your head down and forget about your teenager fantasies of the “proper role of government,” just focus on your career and stock portfolio, and count yourself lucky if you have either.
“If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.”— Samuel Adams
The serious-minded minority who actually understands the power and importance of rational ideas are harassed and fatigued by the vast army of idiots which animate the present state of affairs. Why should we stick out our necks for them? Isn’t it better to just keep our heads down as they say, enjoy whatever freedoms the idiocy provisionally affords, and hope things don’t get too much worse from here? The temptation is understandable, but do you really want to do that?
Surely we must pace ourselves – this is a marathon, not a sprint. But some forward motion, however small, is real progress toward that future world of a secure and reliable justice for all. So if we think ourselves so smart as to judge the status quo as wrong and unacceptable, then we should ask: what is the next smallest step, and the next, and so on, as we proceed at an orderly and sustainable pace toward building our proper future?
Why have all past movements failed, and precisely what would be those qualities that would animate a movement that could ultimately succeed?
“So I have just one wish for you – the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.”— Richard Feynman
I propose that rational integrity is the critical missing ingredient to political movements, the ingredient that will ultimately make the critical difference between our era of chaos and injustice and the next era of progress. In other words, there is presently no real vanguard for those who embrace the ideal of rational consistency; if we want it we’re going to have to create it ourselves. This will happen sooner or later; we should prefer it to be sooner.
The power of integrity may be observed on an individual basis for select geniuses throughout history; it may be barely glimpsed by the emergence of scientific methods and their application to human problems. But the world has yet to see robustly honest scientific institutions, and our other institutions are in even worse shape. The reason why is that these institutions are not really trying. We all got the marketing brochure in high school about how science and academia allegedly works; we all got the cherry-picked and uncritically-examined examples of when things indeed had worked out well for this or that institution. This brochure sounds nice but does not match the reality. It’s not at all their goal to have any kind of rational integrity; on the contrary, they actively buttress themselves against such. Such criticism doesn’t merely apply to our large government-sanctioned institutions; it applies to the vast majority of if not all of the rest. How do you tell? Simply give them rational criticism and watch what happens.
We must revitalize the spirit of The Declaration of Independence by instilling it with an institutional integrity that is actually worthy of its lofty ideals. We must set aside the hagiographers of the American Founders and the apologists for this status quo “capitalism” we suffer with, and fully acknowledge the messy reality of what the Founders had created and the gross sins of our present economic regime. What they had described in their Declaration was truly a noble ideal, but from the start it has been a mostly unrealized vision. We should look back to the past, but only to carry the best things forward. And when we look back, we should not flinch from attaching a harsh criticism wherever it may be applicable. We can be thankful for the progress our ancestors created, while at the same time not making excuses for their hypocrisy. Indeed, those who will not boldly recognize the worst sins of their own “side” only provide the spiritual fuel that their own declared enemies will enthusiastically accept.
Unless a new political movement is based on a striving toward total honesty and a total integrity, then it’s not a movement worth having. It’s not fun, it’s not interesting; it is, indeed, the status quo. You might as well just enjoy the ride the present status quo can give you as to sign up for that. What’s fun and interesting and of great worth is knowing what the actual truth is, and then seeing how much of that truth one can turn into reality given a limited life. So this fundamental honesty and integrity, this vision of science and philosophy as a sincere striving for a whole truth, is the principal precondition that I propose, and that if we aren’t striving for that, then I don’t want to be a part of it. If all you want to do is solve an endless stream of problems while neglecting the root problems that created them, then I will leave you to your Sisyphean journeys (perhaps I’ll send you a donation from time to time).
I propose that the “next smallest step” is to do a consensus-building exercise. A government is most fundamentally a type of agreement among certain parties to do things a certain way. If you wish to proffer a reformed sort of government, then you need to find a set of people who can agree with your reforms. If you can’t figure out how to get them to meaningfully agree on something meaningfully different, then you’re in the wrong business. Note that “consensus-building” is a species of “institution-building.” If you’re building an agreement to do things in a certain way, then you’re creating the groundwork for an institution that can help enact such agreement.
What should be in such agreement?
Ultimately, you’d want to articulate a whole body of reforms. For example, perhaps someday you will carefully craft a new version of the Constitution that would better safeguard our liberties than the present version. But this is getting ahead of things. It’s not the “next smallest step.”
The present status quo is glaringly unmoored not only from basic truths and moral principles, from the kind of feedback process that would set itself straight, and really from even just basic human decency. It’s governed by impunity, a question of “What can I get away with next?”, not any kind of aiming at rational truth. When something is that wrong, it’s not such a huge project to generally orient toward yourself toward something that would be substantially more right. But it is crucial that this general orientation also be accurate, otherwise you’re no different from all the other “moderately reasonable” flops that have come before (when we have learned that to be “moderately reasonable” is to be unreasonable, then we have learned the correct stance).
An institution is only as good as its members. If you don’t begin by keeping out the riffraff, then it doesn’t matter how perfect your founding documents are, these riffraff will figure out a way to undermine them. This of course speaks to Feynman’s idea of integrity, but at an institutional scale. Is there a simply articulable set of beliefs that would tend to include people of sound judgment but exclude persons of unsound judgment?
Certainly we’ve already excluded many by now. (Perhaps we’ve excluded too many, such as the generally rational but pragmatic individual who thinks any such project is too hopeless to consider starting. But working to re-include him is a separate subject.)
I won’t propose anything as the list of truths, but what follows is at least a list of proposed truths that individuals of discerning judgment should ideally be able to agree to, and wherein such agreement constitutes a substantial and meaningful deviation from status quo movements of all stripes and that if some movement were to be created upon such precepts then it would be a force for good in the world.
This list proposes a set of beliefs that if truly accepted by anyone would ultimately lead to self-correction. In other words, all one should really need to do is convince the status quo to accept these, and then they would ultimately solve the problems on their own. But, these are complex assumptions; we can neither articulate briefly what we mean by them nor provide their full justification here. So it is possible that a person might agree with this even while not truly agreeing with what should be meant by them.
Proposed universal fundamentals for all future governments:
Consent of the Governed. A government is a human invention, and since all human beings have equal rights, then all legitimate governments are made by rational agreement; in other words, by consent. No fabrication or counterfeit to true consent is an acceptable substitute, whether that be by majority rule, bogus philosophical arguments (such as utilitarianism), historical precedent, failure to comprehend how a consensual government can work, or a frank defiance of the principle of consent.
While we can agree that it may be difficult to work out precisely how to forge a government based upon authentic consent, this is not at all like “squaring a circle”; rather it is a problem of actually valuing reason and individual rights, and then actually putting in the work to figure out the correct approach to this thorny problem.
This article is a work in progress and I hope that rational readers will help review and revise it. The ideas in this article are too momentous for a single individual to dictate or specify as being perfectly true; and yet, if individuals won’t ever articulate this kind of idea then I believe that no fundamental political progress will ever be made. If we want this kind of progress, then the logic seems clear: we must formally articulate our core principles and we must somehow combine.
And it is, indeed, this kind of idea that is the main idea here; it is a direction not a destination. Such is the nature of progress.
There are two kinds of “thoughtful objections.” The first kind leads to a direct revision and improvement of the foregoing. The second kind are ultimately misguided, so I answer them here:
“It’s hard not to be cynical. Before you can have a conversation with most people, you have to teach them how to have a conversation, and most of the time they aren’t interested in learning. So while I agree with the spirit of this, I think it’s doomed to failure.”
This is called “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Ironically, the actual problem here isn’t with the unskilled reasoners. It’s that the skilled ones have somehow decided that what the unskilled believe is important over the long-term. A better sort of cynicism comes from observing that most skilled reasoners are cynical, that they stubbornly cling to their cynicism, and thus won’t lift a finger no matter how good of an argument you give them that they should. In other words, the problem is not that the “unwashed masses” are immoral; it’s that those who should be the leaders of society are, and their immorality consists precisely in their making excuses for themselves based on how allegedly wicked all the rest of society is.
It actually doesn’t take a large fraction of the populace to be oriented around a given ideal to have an outsized impact upon society. Consider that the NRA has around 5 million members and yet they manage to have a large legislative impact anyway. We could multiply the examples from history whereby a small and committed group had a huge impact upon society.
In other words, the outcomes here are in no way predestined, so it’s irrational to think you can predict it. To quote Alan Kay: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
“I agree with your principles, but I don’t see anything actionable here.”
The concrete action I am proposing at this stage is (1) to register either your agreement or reasons why you disagree, such that we can then take the action of either refining or abandoning this idea (alternatively: point us to an institution that already has this covered so we can support it); and (2) find others who will do likewise.
I think perhaps your issue isn’t so much that there isn’t anything actionable, but that those actions don’t seem to be of much value. That is true at this juncture, but consider Metcalf’s Law: The more people who agree that such institution is important, the exponentially more valuable the activities will be.
Victor Hugo wrote that “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” Is now the time for this idea? You’re part of what decides that question.