Government is about control: who gets it, how much they get, and what they can do with it. That part is simple.
However, how we think about it determines whether it’s a crushing burden or a liberating source of structure, and that part is not simple at all.
Control and ideas about how to apply it are two unrelated forces, like gravity and thought. Gravity, by itself, is boring. It’s just there and dealing with it is a lot of work. Thought, by itself, also results in nothing new, although that’s a better outcome than applying it badly. Then it can be lethal. A theory about how to fly that ignores gravity would have regrettable results, and unsatisfactory governments based on untenable theories have killed millions of people. But when ideas and forces work well together then thought can invent airplanes and spacecraft. Whole new worlds open up and everyone can benefit.
I’d like to discuss and, if I can, contribute to two things in this work, both of which are needed if government is to apply its power for the greatest good of the greatest number.
The first is the importance of limiting the control people exercise over each other consistent with the same desirable situation for everyone else. The understanding of how to limit power has advanced since the time when kings ruled by divine right, but power is still allowed to accumulate to the point of unaccountability and there is still work to do.
The second focus is on rights, which are the tools that draw those essential limits on what people can do to each other. By now the understanding of our inalienable human rights has been well articulated so it might seem there shouldn’t be a problem. And yet although we’re clear on the ideas, their application keeps failing. The implementation of inalienable rights becomes a mystery every time a new situation comes up. The right to life is quietly ignored in favor of dumping chemicals, or the injunction against owning people becomes invisible when there’s money to be made from owning their DNA. We need structural methods that prevent this backchannel loss of rights to interested parties.
My questions are more or less limited to methods of sustaining equity and liberty. That implies a degree of both are there to be sustained, or at least that the evolution required doesn’t involve a change into an unrelated organism. So, even though this is a work about rights, it’s not about how to acquire them. It’s only about what’s needed not to lose them. I don’t have a new or improved way to change bad governments into good ones. I wish I did.
Placing consistent limits on people’s ability to take resources and control is much harder than logic suggests it ought to be. After all, there are always more people getting the bad end of the deal, so majority rule ought to be enough to put an end to inequity for all time. Except it doesn’t. After just a few years, one morning it turns out that the rich have gotten richer, civil liberties have been quietly legislated away, and massive global problems with obvious solutions stay unsolved no matter what the majority wants.
There are often legislative loopholes that facilitate the process, but the real problem is more basic than that. We’re fighting human nature. Until we recognize that and compensate appropriately, I don’t think we can escape the cycle of increasing inequality and subsequent nasty corrections.
Consider a basic premise of democracies. Safeguarding freedom and our rights takes vigilance. We have to inform ourselves about the issues. The system depends on an informed electorate.
That has not been working out well for us. One can point to deficiencies in education and the media, but I think even if they were perfect, we’d still have the problem. Less of it, perhaps, but always enough to lead to the inevitable consequences. The reason is that people have weddings and funerals and jobs to attend to. They have neither the time nor the interest to stay current on the minutiae of government.
And it is in the minutiae that the trouble starts. How many voters will notice changes in liability law that make vaccine development too risky? When an epidemic is sweeping the land it’s too late for a do-over. How many will notice that a lethally boring redistricting law is being passed? How many will realize it disenfranchises some voters? How many will care, if it’s not their vote? [Update ten years later, post-Trump, when arguably the damage has been done. US citizens are waking up to the dangers of gerrymandering. As I say, people aren’t going to pay attention until it hurts.]
Take an easy example. In the US, five states (South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming) with just over three million people have the same Senate voting power as the five states (California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois) with 110 million. (2007 numbers) The Senate can effectively derail legislation. So a Californian has less than 3% of the political clout of a South Dakotan. Three percent.
(That disenfranchisement has been accomplished without protecting minority rights. Minority rights do need protection when the majority rules, and that was once the stated intent of the skewed representation of one particular group. In the US case one third of the population has lost much of its voice while minorities still have no protection. I discuss possible solutions in Chapter 6.)
Giving some people three percent representation compared to others is so anti-democratic it’s not even funny, and yet nobody can find a practical solution within the current system. That’s because there is none at this point, given the limits of human nature. It would involve dozens of politicians casting votes to throw themselves out of a job. The solution was to pay attention when the problem was tiny and boring, when nobody except professionals or interested parties was ever going to notice it. So we’re headed into one of those nasty corrections. Not any time soon (as of 2008), but the longer it waits, the bigger it’ll be. All of history shows it’s a matter of when not if.
The problem is that nothing on earth is going to make people sit up and take notice of tiny boring issues. Building a system dependent on that is no smarter than building one dependent on people feeling altruistic enough to provide for others according to their needs. It’s as doomed as an economic system that thinks it can rely on rational decision-making. It just isn’t going to happen. Instead, some people will use the loopholes made by unrealistic ideas to use the system for their own ends. Communism becomes totalitarianism, and dies. Capitalism becomes a set of interlocking oligopolies that privatize profit and socialize risk. Democracies become … well, it varies. Some places are more successful than others at slowing the slide into media circuses funded by the usual suspects.
There’s another aspect of human nature in conflict with the way democracies are supposed to work. It’s the idea that freedom is not free, that we the people must defend it. There’s nothing wrong with the idea, all things being equal. The problem is that all things are not equal.
Abuses of power start small. They start when someone with even the smallest advantage pushes the envelope just a little bit. In other words, they’re started by people already some way up the social tree, which means others will be reluctant to stop them. The many who aren’t immediately affected won’t want to create a scene, and even those few who are hurt will be reluctant to do anything. That may seem counterintuitive, but remember that the situation is going to be a challenge to a social superior over something minor. That doesn’t feel like a noble defense of freedom. It feels like making a fuss over nothing. It feels like a waste of time and an embarrassment. So even at those early, small stages, there’s a cost associated with doing something. People tend to look at the cost, weigh it against the smallness of the issue, and decide it’s not worth doing anything just yet. The next time the envelope is pushed, the issue is a bit bigger, but the cost is also higher because the perpetrator now has more power. Pretty soon, there may be personal consequences, small ones at first. By the time people wake up to the fact that freedom itself is being lost, the price of resistance has grown so high that it’s still not worth fighting for at the time. It’s only in hindsight that the mind reels at people’s lack of action.
Another complication is that the process does not take place in the full glare of consciousness. The original issue may evade attention simply by being too small to notice. Once there’s a cost associated with noticing, the tendency is not to go there. We’d rather forget about it, and we’re very good at finding reasons why we can.
The resistance to examining disparities of power is one example. In the good old days, nothing needed to be examined because inequality was natural or ordained. Generations of goofy, inbred aristocrats made no difference to the conviction that God on high had ordained them as the best. Now nothing needs to be examined because we’re all equal. In the immortal words of Anatole France, “The law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges.” The idea that we’re legal equals is essential, but the idea that we’re all social equals is patently absurd, and yet it’s so pervasive that a President can compare the homeless to campers  (Roberts 1988) and it is considered evidence only of his heartlessness, not of his lack of mental capacity. We’re convinced, so the evidence makes no impression.
Not only are the issues hard to follow. We don’t want to follow them.
Does that mean it’s hopeless to aim for an equitable self-regulating system such as democracies are supposed to be? I don’t think so, or I wouldn’t be writing this tract. Exhortations to be better citizens might not work, but that’s not the only choice.
The solution is to match the ease and effectiveness of action with the level of motivation. That’s not a startling insight, but it does suggest that the wrong question is being asked in the search for a solution. The question is not why people don’t make the necessary effort. The question is what prevents people from using or defending their rights. How long does it take to find information once someone starts looking for it? How many steps are involved in acting on it? How obvious are the steps? How much time, knowhow, or money do they take? Is there any personal vulnerability at any point? You see where this is headed. The solution is to remove the obstacles. It is not a luxury to make it easy to fight back. It is a critical, perhaps the critical lever for sustaining a free society.
Another part of the solution is to minimize the number of problems needing action to begin with. Again, that’s not a startling insight, but it does run counter to the prevailing model. Now we have laws to stop abuses. That requires the abuse to be committed before it can be dealt with. In the best case scenario that means dealing with issue after issue, as each one comes up. A better model is one of prevention. The desire to commit abuses has to be reduced, and that’s not as impossible as one might think. The trick is to shorten the feedback loop caused by abuse until it affects the person committing it.
Imagine a simple world in which a person owned a factory. Then imagine the law said they and their family had to live downwind of it. In a world without loopholes, pure air would be coming out the “smoke”stack. In a world where it was effortless to take action against evasion of the law, there’d be no loopholes. Both pollution and ownership are too complicated for obvious solutions, but that doesn’t mean there are no solutions. A salary feedback loop, to give another easy example, would require management decisions about workers’ pay to be applied in equal proportion to management’s own net compensation. One real world example was a law requiring state legislators in Hawaii to enroll their children in public schools. It was one of the few US public school systems that was not underfunded. (I don’t know if the law still exists or if they’ve found a way to evade the intent by now.)
Effective feedback loops aren’t always simple, and finding a short term loop that accurately reflects a long term situation is much harder than rocket science. However, the point of the feedback loops is the same: to bring home the consequences of actions to those people who make the relevant decisions. Initial solutions that are less than perfect could evolve toward improved effectiveness if the system was set up to make the process easy. The degree to which feedback loops sound nice but impossible to implement is a measure of how far we are from actual equality.
If I’m right that people ignore the small stuff, and that what matters all starts as small stuff, why would things ever change?
First, I’d like to mention a couple of reasons why enlightened self-interest says they should change. The state of enlightenment being what it is, these factors probably won’t make much difference, but you never know, so they’re worth pointing out.
Accumulations of power actually benefit nobody, not even the supposed elite beneficiaries. The effect of power on society is like that of gravity on matter. Eventually the mass becomes so huge that movement on the surface is impossible. Economic mobility, social mobility, inventiveness, and in the end even physical mobility, all become limited. It becomes a very boring world which even the elites seek to escape. Take an archetypal concentration of power, that found in Saudi Arabia. The process has gone so far there that half the population can’t go for a walk. And yet, if being at the top of the tree is so nice, why is the proportion of wealthy Saudi men vacationing outside the country so much higher than the percentage of, say, rich European men relaxing in Saudi Arabia? Just because many people lose by the system in Saudi Arabia does not mean it’s actually doing anyone any good. For some reason, it’s counterintuitive that when everyone wins, there’s more winning to be had, but it is a matter of observable fact that life is richer and more secure for everyone in equitable societies. Logically, that would imply the elites ought to be in the forefront of limiting themselves, since it’s easy for them and they stand to gain by it in every run except the shortest one. They are, after all, supposed to be the ones who take the long view, unlike the working classes who live from day to day. (Which just goes to show how much of a role logic plays in this.)
Accumulations of power do worse than no good. Eventually, they bring the whole society down. That, too, is a matter of observable fact. So far, no society with a significant level of technology has managed to limit power sustainably and ensure sufficient adaptability and innovation to survive. The only societies that have made it longer than a few thousand years (and only China has made it that long) are hunter-gatherers, such as the Australian aborigines who archeological evidence indicates have had a continuous culture for over 40,000 years (AG staff 2011). Living as a hunter-gatherer seems like a high price to pay for stability. We have over 1300 cc of brain. We can figure out how to build renewal into the system instead of falling into periods of destruction before we let it happen.
Although history doesn’t give much ground for hope based on enlightened self-interest, the track record for plain old self-interest is better. Not perfect, but better. When survival is at stake, people are capable of great things, even changing a few habits and working together. Ostrom’s work (e.g. 1990 , or a very potted summary  on Wikipedia) examines avoidance of ecosystem collapse in detail. What I find most interesting is the large role played by widespread responsiveness to social members and by distribution of power. These are the egalitarian attitudes that seem naively optimistic to hope for, and yet when survival is at stake some societies achieve that. It’s probably significant that the type of danger involved is a force of nature, which doesn’t lend itself to the same kind of unproductive resentment as an enemy. Likewise, the situations they’re coping with, such as regular flooding, benefit from the application of foresight and coordinated action, which facilitates beneficial social structures that rein in self-interest.
I’m putting it backwards in that paragraph. To be more precise, humans started out lacking sufficient technology to control environmental factors and constantly faced death unless they cooperated. Hunter-gatherer societies are remarkable for their egalitarianism, compared to those that succeeded them. So, it’s probably not that later groups achieved eventual power-sharing but that they rediscovered what works.
Social tools that work are very relevant to us since we all live in a disaster-prone world now. For all of us the only solution is to work together and expend the resources necessary to control the situation. It’s not naive to hope we’ll do it. People have, in fact, shown that they’re capable of it.
The truly utopian hope is to wait for a technical fix. Not because a technical fix is impossible, but because it’s irrelevant. Technology is not an unstoppable force of nature. Human beings have to apply it. And people apply technology for the benefit of those controlling it, not selflessly for the good of all. Expecting that to change suddenly for no reason except that the technology is new is silly. It’s like hoping a change in gun design will lead to the end of murder.
Technological advancements increase the physical power available to people. They use that amplified power, as usual, for their own benefit. However, because it is amplified, it has another critical consequence. Enough of it, used badly, can destroy the society that couldn’t figure out how to control the power of the people using it.
That is not hyperbole. It might seem like it because modern technological societies are only at the very earliest stages of being able to destroy the planet. At this point, we’d probably only be able to destroy it for us. The proverbial cockroaches would move in. But it’s no longer hard to imagine a scenario in which we destroy it for life. A big nuclear war could have done it. The planet Venus shows that enough global warming can do it. In a far future when everyone has personal spaceships, an evil mastermind could orbit a light-bending device between us and the Sun which would shade the whole Earth to death before the machine could be found and destroyed. There isn’t just one way to destroy a highly technological society, and the more advanced it is, the more ways there are. Bad governments can do it. All the people together can do it with tiny actions that add up. Mad individuals can do it with sabotage. There are so many ways that it is literally only a matter of time. The more technologically advanced the society, the more essential limits to power are for its very survival.
So, to return to wondering why things would change, it looks like that may be the wrong question again. It’s trite, but nonetheless true that things always change. The status quo can never be maintained. The only choice is to follow the path of least resistance or to expend more energy and take action. The path of least social resistance is to let the powerful do their thing but, sooner or later, that is fatal. Death, as the saying goes, is the greatest teacher, and faced with it people have in the past and might in the future change for the better.
Planetary changes are just as threatening now as any flood, so much so that plenty of people see the need for action. However, “plenty” hasn’t become “enough” yet because of the usual impediments. Those who don’t know, don’t want to know. Many of them — those with little control over the situation — would do something about it if they could, but it’s just too difficult. The remaining few do control the situation, and there’s currently no way to bring the consequences of their actions back to them. The reason there’s no way is because they’ve made sure of it, and the reason they can make it stick is because of the power imbalance that’s been allowed to develop. It’s the same story over and over again. And the reason it persists is also the same. Too many people feel the effort of taking action costs too much for the perceived benefit.
It all comes down to limiting power. The pattern is so obvious and repeated so many times in so many different spheres that there has to be a common element preventing effective action. There’s at least one thing pervasive enough to qualify. Everybody wants to limit the ability of others to hurt them, but not as many want to limit their own ability to take advantage of others. That, by itself, may be enough to explain why we don’t get effective limits. The problem is more than global threats and too much power in too few hands. It’s also that we have to put limits on ourselves to get to the good life. And to avoid the opposite. That’s hard to take on board. It just feels so right that if somebody else loses, I must be winning. But no matter how self-evident it feels, that’s not actually a logical necessity. We can all lose. We’re doing it right now.