Funny how this post feels more like shooting sacred cows than Should we talk about religion did. That checks-and-balances image … really? Does anyone really think that happens?
First, some structuralism. The twin fallacies to avoid are based on perhaps too much pop intellectualism about fractals, and the classical trap of synecdoche. In other words, there’s no reason to think of a government or any organization as a thinking, acting entity at its own level just because it’s made of them. Nor is there any reason to think that it represents or expresses either a gestalt version of all the little entities composing it, or is directed by any one of them in some “commanding the behemoth” way. I think it makes more sense to recognize that there isn’t any such entity. No government. No nation. No state. One cannot say the United States did something in 1945 and the United States did something in 1991 and the United States did something in 2003 in any way that indicates continuity of an entity’s actions. I don’t even buy the common shorthand of speaking of any state, or its capital city, as an acting entity.
People group up into alliances, themselves in uneasy accord with nepotist and outbreeding priorities, and out of the dynamics of these behaviors, they do stuff together. Since collective action has tremendous effect, even at the level of dozens as opposed to two or three people, the history of such alliances in a given region establishes major social precedents and power-bases based on anything you can think of regarding economics, violence, and reputation. But every moment is a new moment and the only acting entities are people. I’m interested in the mental and social processes by which people now act collectively in the context of what has gone before.
The basics lie in reciprocity vs. exploitation, which is exactly as easy as it sounds. Working together in mutually helpful ways is one thing, getting shafted while working for someone else is another – the trick is that the one shifts quickly into the other. Making sure that doesn’t happen, or getting to happen in your favor, is what power is. Bump this up to the collective action and group-inclusion level and now we’re talking society. The ultimate degree of exploitation includes slavery and serfdom, both versions of what the (good, i.e., few) economists call the rentier problem, meaning a society in which you basically are allowed to live insofar as you submit to lethal threat and all your work goes to someone else.
One nuance concerns accuracy of individuals’ perceptions of their available options, in that there’s no real reason to expect much. People act as if such alliances obtain “normally” if and when they believe they do. I don’t know how correct the claim is that we think in terms of villages and extended families, and that all activity toward or with larger groups is only perceived in these smaller terms, but I’ve never seen or learned of anything to contradict this interpretation. In case I’m being opaque, I’ll say it flatly: this is exactly like I was talking about in the comments to Little thinks, in which I said that technology alters how we do thing, and obviously imposes new levels and kinds of consequences, but the things we’re doing aren’t any different from when we didn’t have the technology. Because a larger organization with greater reach is involved, and granted that such activity has different and more drastic consequences than if a little organization were involved, the things people are doing in-and-with that organization are the same old things.
Related: the distinction between ethics and policy, which frankly I think is a huge failing in the general discourse. The difference is simple: what a person would or should do, including any and all debate thereof; and what a group makes a person or persons do via any means. Assuming that making policy is merely a matter of arriving at an ethical decision, and “then we all do it,” or “and then that’s the law, obviously,” is … there’s no other word for it, that’s stupid. If policy doesn’t include making or inducing people to do the thing when they don’t wanna, then it’s not policy at all. Therefore the dynamics of making policy, let alone the specific policy’s substance, relative to the current standards of “how we do things around here,” is a topic utterly divorced from discussions of what is or is not the right thing to do as you, a person, or as any person, may see it.
That brings us to institutional memory, and the difference between its strict definition – accurate knowledge of what has happened and how it’s affecting current policy today – and a looser concept, sometimes called “institutional culture,” or “cultural inertia.” Not to waste time, this latter thing is huge. I’m not even going to bother making a case for its constant prevalence in our lives; I can’t think of any way in which it isn’t. It may in fact be the context for our perceived individual ecological situation, the precise “game-space” of our decision-making as the behavioral ecologists would chart in an ethogram.
You see what’s missing, right? All talk of society’s purpose. That’s ’cause I think it’s a huge Herring of Redness with no imaginable reality-based component. I’m thinking here of the rock-bottom foundation of a popular book I see on everyone’s shelf, Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly, which treats historical instances of “folly” (meaning outcomes opposed to the perpetrators’ stated goals) as a puzzling mystery – how can policy makers do “irrational” things and persist in policies which go belly up? She flatly fails to identify that in each case, the policy makers were profiting in status, privilege, and money like bandits – literally, because they were bandits – the whole time. It’s like asking why the former head of AIG, when instated as the chief administrator of TARP, ripped off the U.S. Treasury for zillions of dollars to preserve banks’ current fictional holdings and their chief executives’ massive
bonuses thefts, instead of taking over the crap mortgages like it was supposed to and letting the banks pound sand. Is anyone really wondering “why?” Is this supposed to be a mystery?
I think “rational” is a useless word at this level, as it hopelessly confounds a purported type of cognitive process with policy goals that the observer approves of. It also overlooks the stark contrast between whatever reassuring hogwash may be coming out of a person’s mouth and whatever exact deals and interactions that person is engaged in, institutionally. Or stares puzzled at the contrast, wondering how that can be. This is me wondering how that puzzlement can be. You expected something else?
Now let’s take it to how poor ol’ evolutionary vocabulary got roped into this, which is kind of why I’m talking about this at all. Quickly and dismissively, nix to the kiddie notion that government is an adaptation because something-or-other usually involving alleged species survival or for its or the “good.” No, I’m talking about the naughty ol’ 19th century and its simple persistent legacy that you say how the world works and insist that policies to follow must be striven for, because they will come about after all. (Bit of a confusion there, because if it’s natural law why bother striving for it, but whatever.) You have your transform it all now revolutionaries, your stomp on everyone and light a stogie industrialists, and your organize to overcome reformers – all the same, under Spencer’s umbrella. Society is evolving, which means improving, or becoming what it’s supposed to be, or being what it naturally (i.e. rightly) is. It’s so basic to the primary social movements of our time (i.e. the past 150 years) that no one even says it any more.
One manifestation is empire: the notion that a “great” or “superior” society will subordinate the economies of other regions toward its own, and depending on your outlook, grind them into their rightful place or uplift them into a golden age of … well, being in their rightful place. Much stupid ink has been spilled on rises and declines of empires, failing to note that the commerce in question tends to stay the same.
Another manifestation is (you have to pronounce it right) da-mock-rissy, which is not to say, voting, but some ineffable quality that voting is supposed to impart, to which I say, big whoop. Voting is everywhere and can be found throughout human history. Dressing it up with Enlightenment rhetoric didn’t change anything. Scratch it to find out what the speaker means and what you find is usually pretty frightening. (And believe me, you don’t want to know why I think voting is a pretty good idea, and the conditions under which I think it actually works out OK.)
Then there’s progressivism, and I know I’m not making friends by saying this, but slogans such as those in the image strike me as not much different from mumbling “Every day in every way I am getting better and better; every day in every way …”, and frankly, one shy step short of such stuff as The Secret. I don’t know what gets up my nose more, the co-opting of the term “evolved” as a synonym for “agrees with me,” or the remarkable willingness to compromise, i.e., lose, at the drop of a hat. My only saving grace perhaps is my contempt for the captains-of-industry corollary, as in, I do hate imperialism and war, so a plague on both your Naturalistic Fallacy houses. Or put it this way, I generally desire to live in a society a lot like what progressivism espouses, absent the patronizing parts, but would you please stop suiciding your efforts to get there by assuming that you naturally (soon) will?
Ranting snark aside, I’m trying to highlight that thinking of governments or their types as entities or individuals, thinking of their history as a changing and developing phenomenon, thinking of it as subject to any form of evolution let alone the face-melting distortions it’s been saddled with … has no basis in actual evolutionary terms. This legacy of thought is so pervasive, and so distorting, that I can only ask, “Try it without that, just a little, and see what you think.” It’d be nice to have a conversation with someone who does that, some day.