I hope you are well. I woke up early this morning to find out that we have a new President-Elect of the United States of America. It is my hope that with Joe Biden taking the reins everything can return to normal, that the pandemic will be addressed sensibly and we can all once again resume discussion about things that aren’t politics. There is something uncanny about living in a world in which the line between reality and reality television has been blurred, and I don’t like it.
Trump has been claiming that the election has been stolen from him, and that he will take the outcome to the Supreme Court. Many are understandably worried that this is a threat to the democracy, but I don’t believe there is much he can do. In fact, I don’t even believe there is much he wants to do. In my mind, he is just trying to save face. He wants others to believe — and perhaps he also wants to tell himself — that he is the real winner of it all. Maybe we should just let him?
When our lives have changed to this extent, and establish a new norm, we can forget what life was like before. The Trump phenomenon is beyond a partisan one; I recently watched the concession speech from John McCain when he lost to Obama and felt a tingle of nostalgia for the standards we once held.
“We have come to the end of a long journey. The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly.
A little while ago I had the honour of calling Senator Barrack Obama to congratulate him on being elected to be president of this country which we both love.”
John McCain, 2008
Remember when this was how politicians expressed themselves?
We once took this for granted, and now we ought to realise we were sorely mistaken. We treated this cultural progress as if it were a given, and we lost it on that fateful day four years ago. We should not fixate so much on what we view as wrong in the world, that we lose perspective and touch with all that is right. To be blind to the precious and precarious aspects of our circumstance is to let them slip through our fingers.
It is now time we raised the bar once again, and this time we should be thankful that it is there.
The laws of nature mandate nothing good in our circumstance; since we can never truly take it for granted so we should be grateful for it all.
We can do this while working joyfully towards a better world.
Freedom to the nth degree
A system is working beautifully when we can simply go on with our lives and not have to think about it. Rather than us having to continually work to maintain it, it works for us. I view politics the same way, if everything is going well, we do not have to think about it.
Everything we are doing, we should do so that we can all finally relax and enjoy ourselves.
I have been thinking about this place, where we no longer have to worry.
How would it appear? How will it be run? How can we get there?
In the world that I yearn for, not a single person needs to go hungry, and not a single one needs to spend their days doing work that they loathe. A world where we are all free to simply do as we please. A world that requires as little upkeep and maintenance as the laws of physics allow. That all the unpleasant tasks needed to run a civilisation and manage our lives have been taken care of, leaving us all free to enjoy the fruits of life.
The way we are running things right now involves forcing all children to spend most of their time confined to the classroom, only so that most of them can go on to working unsatisfying jobs full time. We are warming up the planet to uninhabitable levels, we slaughter billions of farm animals each year to whet our appetites, and we leave a billion of our brethren undernourished while we do so.
These are all problems we have yet to solve.
I believe that all problems are solvable. That to travel from A to B, the knowledge of how to do so is all that is needed. There has to be some way to get to the place where we want to go, to a world where we are all happy.
Problems may also be inevitable, but suffering is not.
I can envision a world where we are all free to work on problems that we were interested in and really enjoy them.
When will we be free?
I have written before about libertarianism and the implied coercion we are living with, in my August letter; The Puzzle of Liberty.
In society, the way we run it, there are things that we can do that are entirely peaceful that will nonetheless result in us being imprisoned. This is coercion.
The titular “puzzle” refers to the problem of relaxing and releasing the laws we have placed on ourselves (which need to be backed up with force) without devolving into chaos, or losing anything that mattered to us.
For example: To address the concerns of a spreading pandemic we have enforced lockdowns across the globe, preventing people from leaving their homes, running their businesses, seeing their families and even postponing marriages and funerals. Anyone breaking these stringent rules would be subject to punishment. These laws — although not on their own — have largely worked. People have been able to coordinate and live in such a way to minimise the spread of the disease. However, it has been at an immense cost to their freedom, and there’s no reason to believe this is the only way.
The puzzle is simply this: Can we coordinate effectively as a civilisation and address our shared problems without threatening one another with force?
We introduced the idea of a government with a monopoly over all violence to keep us from harming one another and enable us to coordinate more effectively as civilisations. It is tragic, however, that we believe that what we need to play nice is the constant threat of being locked up. Even though it works, there is no reason to believe it is the only way.
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
What if we could be more like angels?
You are walking through a wide-open field far from houses and signs of civilisation. You come across an old, abandoned fence. It is in the way, but you could walk around it. You really can’t see the use of it, should you go ahead and knock it down?
Fences do not pop up left and right on their own. Another person, whoever they might be, built it for a reason. Their reason may be a good one, or it may be a bad one. But it would be reckless to knock it down without knowing for sure.
“Do not remove a fence until you know why it was put up in the first place.”
Chesterton's fence is a heuristic inspired by the scholar G.K. Chesterton in his 1929 book; The Thing.
When we create an institution or structure society a certain way, it is in response to a problem. We humans aren’t in the business of running around, and building fences left and right. We have reasons that drive our behaviour, be they good or bad. The shape that society takes today is the result of many such humans trying to live in this world.
We have structured our society in a way that has lead to numerous social, economic and environmental problems — yet, we did so for a reason. We have moulded the institutions that govern our lives to help address problems we have encountered in the past.
Before we summoned the leviathan of the government to keep us all in awe, we were in a state of constant conflict among ourselves.
The complex of systems we have forged have caused countless problems for us, but they have solved countless more. How foolish would we be to rush and dismantle everything without addressing the problems they were created to solve first? The state’s monopoly over violence has kept us from fighting one another, our laws keep us from harming and exploiting one another (as much as we could), and the redistribution of wealth aims to keep more of us fed, clothed and educated even in unfortunate circumstances.
The notion of democracy itself could even be described as flaws — as it permits the majority to impose sanctions on the minority. Yet, it is clear that it would be lunacy to rush into suddenly dispense with it.
(Liberal democracies, have measures to protect against mob rule by deeming that all citizens have a set of unalienable rights. The US Constitution, which was made to be incredibly difficult to alter, is an example of this.)
Before rushing to dismantle what we have, we need to address the problems they intend to solve.
Karl Popper’s Incrementalism
The brilliant Karl Popper described two types of social engineering — that is; ways of going about changing the world:
- Utopian Engineering
- Piecemeal Engineering
A utopian social engineer envisions their perfect society and works out the best way of getting there.
A piecemeal social engineer looks to the problems of the society of the day and addresses them one-by-one, while looking carefully for unintended consequences.
Karl Popper’s critique of the utopian social engineer is quite simple; we are all fallible humans prone to making mistakes. It is an error to believe that it is easy to even conceive of a system, or societal structure radically different to what we have that will happen to solve each and every one of our problems without any unintended consequences.
If we change all of society in one fell swoop, who knows what side-effects we will incur? How many of Chesterton’s fences will we knockdown? What problems will we cause ourselves for the future?
As he puts it:
“It is very hard to learn from very big mistakes.”
Karl Popper, The Open Society
It is important we that look at the problems and suffering we face as a society, and also that we look at the way that our systems and institutions create and perpetuate them. Yet, to make sweeping changes to them, even in pursuit of a better world, is a recipe for disaster. To be a piecemeal engineer is to have an understanding of why society is as it is, make measured changes in response to a specific problem and watch closely to see if unintended results arise and address them appropriately.
When you make a single, targetted change to how we run society, and it brings about unintended consequences, there is a clear path to reverse it. When we introduce a whole slew of changes at once, and things go awry, it becomes exceedingly difficult to sort out cause and correlations to discover which change caused which problem.
Which is another advantage to a piecemeal approach: We can learn from our mistakes.
When everything goes wrong, we can go back to how we were before all-the-wiser. The term anti-fragile — coined by the scholar Nassim Taleb — is useful here: A system that improves, rather than shatters, when exposed to uncertainty and stress.
Rather than viewing the task of civilisation as reaching some glorified final state, we should view it as a never-ending process of continual improvement as we learn from our mistakes. It is and always will be a work-in-progress.
There are two mistakes I see people make on all sides of the political spectrum.
- They fail to see many of the problems in society and how our existing systems, cultural norms and institutions contribute to them
- They see the ills of the world and demand sweeping changes in response, imagining that there is a utopia around the corner that we can install smoothly and without side-effects
The middle way between the two is simple:
- We look to the problems that we face today and we take our best shot at addressing them, doing so cautiously, piece-by-piece so that we can rollback any changes we make and learn from our mistakes.
Given that we cannot see the edge of possibility, it strikes me as appropriate to dream as big as we can. From there, we can take measured and reasonable steps we can to actualise those dreams.
My 2019 letter, A Beatific Vision
By realising our dreams, I do not mean to reach an ideal, utopic, stasis beyond which no improvements can be made — but rather a world where the problem is solved.
We must walk one foot after the other towards the lofty ideal of freedom that we aspire to.
Before I let you all go, I want to share with you a novel solution to the problem of changing the world: Charter Cities.
- We live in a society with problems
- We want to solve them, but without creating even worse problems
What if we rolled out our proposed improvements to a smaller region first, waited to see if any side-effects arose and then begin to implement them nationwide?
Charter Cities are special cities that countries can use to test new policies and solutions to problems without rolling the changes out nationwide.
“They allow countries to experiment with new policies designed to attract business, foster economic growth, create jobs, empower small business, and support historically disadvantaged groups. By fostering an innovation-friendly environment, charter cities enable better institutions and economic growth.”
From the Charter Cities website
These strike me a sensible solution to the problem of how to make progress in society while minimising the risk of unintended consequences.
Thank you for reading to the end of another letter.
Time for some housekeeping.
If you have a look at my website, you might have noticed that there are two types of pieces: Letters and Articles.
The Letters are supposed to be conversational in style, and written week-to-week. I remember taking a long time to put my work out in the past, so the letters force me to put aside my perfectionism and write regularly. By writing to you every week here, it is my hope that I am continually improving.
The Articles are a space for me to write without any pressure or deadline, sometimes I want to be perfectionist. To allow myself to spend weeks or months finetuning a piece until it delivers precisely the message I want.
You can see why there are a lot more letters on the page than articles, right?
Well, I want to let you know now that I am in the process of writing a new one called How we know what we know.
I want to explain how it is we can know anything at all. We can come up with many theories as to why the world is as it is, but how exactly is it that we can tell which are better and worse? Where does the line between fact and opinion reside? How is it that we come to know?
Is there anything here that you are curious about? That you feel I ought to address?
Please let me know (you can reply to this letter).
Also, I’d appreciate feedback on my letters in general (how am I going?)
It’s through criticism that we improve after all.
Once again, thank you for reading my writing and being interested in what I have to say.