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Trump and the USA’s failure, part 2: effective law and distributed power

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I have established the republic. But today it is not clear whether the form of government is a republic, a dictatorship, or personal rule.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

Australia’s House of Reps – politics as a team sport – mostly!

Australia has a Constitution, and so does Britain, but we don’t talk about them much – they don’t loom so large over the political system. The Westminster system doesn’t have an impeachment process, for the obvious reason that it is surplus to requirements. Due to its being a political process, impeachment is an unmitigated disaster.

So what happens, under the Westminster system, if a Prime Minister ‘goes rogue’ and either breaks the law or conducts herself in a manner contrary to the nation’s interest?

Well we need to step back a little to answer this question, because, under the US system, an elected President can be a rogue from the start. Trump is a clear case in point. Trump was, of course, far from being regarded as kosher by the Republican powers-that-be when he first suggested himself as a Presidential candidate, so he took his Barnum & Bailey campaign directly to the public, and in doing so highlighted the central problem of democracy, recognised two and a half thousand years ago, by Plato and Aristotle, who were unabashed anti-democratic elitists. The problem being, of course, demagoguery or populism – the notion that the public can be easily swayed by a candidate who promises everything and delivers nothing. The fact that this remains the most central problem of democracy surely says something about humanity in general – something that we may not be able to fix, but which we need to be on our guard against. Democracy is in fact a seriously flawed system – but far better than any other political system we’ve devised to regulate our seriously flawed human nature.

Under the Westminster system it’s far more difficult (though perhaps not impossible) for a ‘rogue from the beginning’ to reach the top of the political tree, because Prime Ministers aren’t directly elected. In fact the Westminster system has no correlate to the US presidential system, its general elections being much more correlated to the US mid-terms. This means, in effect, that under the Westminster system there is one set of general elections to two under the US system. Having two sets of general elections every four years seems a little over-indulgent. It means that you’re always preparing for or recovering from some election or other, and I’m not convinced that this is a good thing for your political health or your economy. And if you were ever to consider dispensing with one of those two sets of elections, clearly the Presidential elections should be the one to go.

Of course, this is sacrilege. Americans are obsessed with their Presidents – they even remember them as numbers – it’s bizarre. But it’s part-and-parcel, of course, with US individualism. It’s not surprising that the superhero is largely a US phenomenon. Many of your worst movies feature a Rambo or Indiana Jones-like character who single-handedly wins out over the baddies, often against a background of official incompetence or corruption. Think again of Trump’s OTT drain-the-swamp campaign rhetoric. And speaking of OTT, let’s not forget the carnivalesque razzamatazz of US Presidential elections, and the oodles of money that candidates are expected to raise, for no reasonable reason as far as I can see.

So, bearing all this in mind, let’s compare the situation and the job description of a Westminster-style Prime Minister with a US President.

Generally the Prime Minister is already an elected member of a party (either of the left or the right) and is chosen by parliamentary members of that party to be leader – much like a captain of a soccer team is already a player in the team and has proven herself to be experienced and knowledgable about playing the game and getting results. She has, in other words, earned the respect of her fellows. The Prime Minister works alongside her fellows, and under the scrutiny of her opponents, in the parliament. The President, on the other hand, is completely separate from parliament and surrounded by his own hand-picked team of very powerful courtiers, who need not have had any previous political experience.

The Prime Minister is able to choose her own cabinet, but only, of course, from elected members of parliament. All cabinet ministers, and indeed all MPs, are under continual scrutiny from other members of the House or the Senate. If the Prime Minister herself (or any other minister) is thought to be ‘going rogue’ or underperforming, she can be subjected to a no-confidence or censure motion in the House – requiring a simple majority. These have sometimes been successful, resulting in a change of Prime Minister between federal elections. While traumatic, such changes of leadership have nowhere near the impact that a change of President would have, since under the Westminster system the power is far more distributed, the team is far more important than its captain. The ‘great man’ Presidential system is such, however, that the only feasible way of dumping a President is by impeachment – an overly elaborate and highly political procedure that is almost designed to inflict trauma upon the populace.

There is, of course, no provision for impeachment in the Westminster system, and there has never been any need for such a process. A Prime Minister can, of course, be dumped for any number of reasons – most of which fall very far short of high crimes and misdemeanours. However, if a Prime Minister does go that far, she would be dealt with by law. There’s no suggestion under the Westminster system that a Prime Minister or any other minister or government official, would be immune from prosecution while in office. To me, the idea is totally absurd, for it seems far more reasonable that the precise opposite should be the case – that a country’s leader should be held to a higher legal standard than any other citizen. In other words, with great power comes greater legal responsibility, as a matter of course. Any political system that operates otherwise is simply rotten at its very core. It follows that the nation’s body of law, not the constitution, should govern the behaviour of those holding high office in government. For example, gaining a financial benefit from holding high office, other than the official salary and benefits that accrue to that office, should be illegal and cause for immediate dismissal in the most straightforward way. Contravening campaign finance laws should also be dealt with severely and immediately. If this causes a crisis in government, then clearly the system of government needs to be reformed, not the law. The constitution is at best a quasi-legal document, a laying out of the political system and the roles of its component parts. As an eighteenth century document, it can’t possibly be expected to cover the legal responsibilities of 21st century office-holders. That’s the vital role of a living, constantly adjusting body of law, to keep up with the legal responsibilities of a constantly modernising and complexifying political and business sector.

But let me return to the situation of Presidents, and candidates for the Presidency, since it’s unlikely that the US is going to give up on that institution.

You’ve learned the hard way that a rogue from the outset can bypass the traditional party system and win enough popular vote – with the help of a foreign nation – to become the leader of the most militarily and economically powerful nation on earth, despite having no political experience, no understanding of his nation’s history, no understanding of the geopolitical framework within which his nation operates, and no understanding of or interest in the global issues that all nations need to work together to solve. In other words, you’ve learned the hard way that anyone can indeed become your President, no matter how unsuited they are to the position. So how do you stop this from ever happening again?

Well if you insist on maintaining a system which ultimately pits one superhero against another, then you need I’m afraid, to admit to a serious but really rather obvious deficiency of democracy – the attraction of the demagogue (and I leave aside here the inherent problems of a state in which so many people can be hoodwinked). You need to vet all Presidential candidates with a set of questions and problems pertaining to both character and knowledge. Character questions wouldn’t be just of the type “What would you do if…” or ‘Do you think it is right to…’, questions that a sociopathic personality can always find the ‘successful’ answer to (though it’s doubtful that Trump could). They should be in the form of complex moral dilemmas that experimental psychologists have been adept at formulating over the years, requiring essay-type responses. The knowledge questions, by comparison, would be straightforward enough. Such tests should be assessed by professional diplomats and psychologists. This vetting, of course, cuts across the democratic process with a measure of ‘adults in the room’ intellectual, emotional and ethical elitism. Because of course you need a member of the intellectual and ethical elite to hold such a high office.

You might argue that Prime Ministers aren’t formally vetted, and that’s strictly true, but there’s at least an informal vetting system in that leaders have generally to climb from the ranks by impressing colleagues with their communication skills, their understanding of policy, their work ethic and so forth. It’s also the case that Prime Ministers have far less power than US Presidents – who have pardoning powers, special executive powers, power to shut down the government, veto powers, power to select unelected individuals to a range of high offices, power to appoint people to high judicial office and so forth. It’s hardly any wonder that characters like Trump are frustrated that they can’t take the next few steps towards total dictatorship. It’s interesting that I’ve recently heard a number of US pundits saying out loud ‘this isn’t a dictatorship’, as if they need to remind themselves of this fact!

Many will scoff at all this gratuitous advice. But you currently have a self-styled ‘very stable genius’ – a boorish, blustering, bullying, belly-aching buffoon in fact – in barricaded isolation in your White House and due to the multi-faceted failings of your politico-legal system, you can’t get rid of him as easily as you obviously should be able to, and I honestly feel that things will get much much worse before you do get rid of him. You can’t blame Trump for this – he has been exactly the same person for over 60 years. The fault lies with your system. If you don’t change it, you’ll never be able to regain the respect of the rest of the democratic world.

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2019 at 1:21 pm

random thoughts on human rights

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Over the years I’ve had arguments and discussions with people, and semi-disputes online, about the status of human rights, and rights in general. Some have been quite dismissive of their ‘mythical’ nature, others like Scott Attran have described them as a crazy, transcendental idea invented by a handful of Enlightenment figures back in the day, and boosted by the reaction to world wars in the 20th century. There have been objections by certain states claiming they don’t give sufficient cognisance to ‘Asian values’, and Moslem countries have argued that they need to be amended in accordance with Shar’ia Law.

The first point I would make is that, granted that rights are a human invention, that doesn’t make them ‘unreal’ or in some sense nugatory. Tables, chairs, buildings, computers, bombs, democracy and totalitarianism are all human inventions, but very real, if not all of equal value. To describe human rights as a form of transcendentalism also doesn’t make sense to me. Certainly if you say ‘God has granted certain inalienable rights…’ you’re using transcendental language, but that language is, I think, superfluous to the idea of rights, which, I would argue, is grounded in both empiricism and pragmatism.

I would also argue, no doubt more controversially, that human rights make little sense if based entirely on the individual. They are principally about human relations, and so imply that each individual is part of a larger social entity, within which they may be accorded ‘freedoms from’ and ‘freedoms to’. Aristotle puts the point well in his Politics:

the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state.

It follows that rights must be under the guardianship of states and enshrined in and upheld by their laws. This is vital because individuals often have competing interests, and it’s sometimes the case that particular individuals don’t recognise or understand that there’s a common, social interest beyond their own. This is the difficulty with rights – because we often think of them as my rights or my freedoms, we fail to understand that these rights, though granted in some sense to individuals, must be based on the thriving of the wider social sector, whether we’re referring to village, tribe or state. And it is to these larger social entities – states, or civilisations – that we owe our phenomenal success as a species, for better or worse.

This raises a question of whether the best human rights should flow from the best states, or vice versa. Interestingly, Aristotle and his students collected some 150 constitutions from the world of Greek poleis or city-states in order to devise the best, most ‘thriving’ city-state possible, which of course should have involved comparing the constitutions with the situation on the ground in those city-states. We don’t know if any such comparison was made (it’s very doubtful), but it does suggest that Aristotle thought that the state, via its constitution, was the engine of a thriving citizenry rather than the other way around.

Turning to rights in the modern world, the unfortunate claim by Tom Paine in his Rights of man (1791) that ‘rights are inherently in all the inhabitants’ of a state, has helped to create the confusion about rights being ‘natural’ to humans, like having two legs and a complex prefrontal cortex (the latter being largely the result of living in increasingly complex and organised society). If we’re to take human rights seriously, we need to be honest about their a posteriori nature. They need to be seen as the result of our understanding of how to create an environment that best suits us, as the most socially constructed mammals on the planet. In that respect, we’ve come a long way, not only from Aristotle (who excluded women and slaves from his citizenry), but also from the the late eighteenth century revolutionaries (who executed Olympe de Gouges for daring to even suggest adding women to the rights-owning citizenry of her own nation). Indeed, examining the issue of rights historically should remind us that they need to be updated on the basis of our ongoing advances in knowledge. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by this understanding, should certainly not be fixed in stone.

My views, of course clash with ‘natural law’ notions of human rights, which tend to be based on the individual an sich, and have claims to be outside of social or temporal considerations.

If we try to think of rights as ‘natural’ or self-evident, rather than something we construct to help us understand what we owe to, and might expect from, the best of civil states, we might well agree with Alasdair McIntyre’s view that there’s nothing natural or self-evident, say, about allowing people, by right, the freedom to express or live by their religious views. Many religious views are notoriously idiosyncratic and sometimes offensive from an outsider’s perspective, and adding the ‘no harm’ principle doesn’t suffice to smooth things over. The jury is very much out as to whether religion is, or has been, a benefit to society, but it’s well known that some religions have, in the past, engaged in human sacrifices. And even today new religions might crop up which may involve practices that the majority would find inimical both to individual and social well-being. And of course the very definition of religion is far from being self-evident. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

However, it makes no attempt to define religion, and in the same Article it claims the right of all to ‘manifest his… belief…in practice and observance’. This, if taken literally, is absurd, as a person might hold a belief that slave-owning is okay, and is given the green light by this Article to ‘manifest that belief in practice.. and observance’. No doubt my criticism doesn’t capture the liberal ‘spirit’ of the Article, but it does highlight an obvious problem. People do act on beliefs, and many actions, based on those beliefs, can be harmful, and subject to criminal prosecution. The law, of course, prosecutes acts, not thoughts, so we know that we’re free to think what we want – we don’t need a ‘right’ to protect this. I won’t try to define religion, but at least it seems to involve both beliefs and actions. Actions will be subject to civil and criminal law, so it might be argued that rights don’t find a place there. Beliefs are private unless and until they’re acted on, in which case they’ll be subject to law. So there’s a question whether rights have a place there also.

The more I look at human rights, the more difficulties I see. Let me take, more or less at random, Article 21 of the UDHR:

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Section 3 here reads like a directive, but I agree that every member of a state should be allowed at least the opportunity to cast a vote for government. In Australia, voting is compulsory for eligible parties, as it is in some 22 countries (though enforced in only 11). It’s questionable whether compulsion accords with human rights and freedoms, but given the socially constructed nature of humanity, voting should definitely be encouraged as a duty, at the very least. The ideal, of course, would be that everybody is aware of what they owe to the state, and their interest in creating and maintaining a state that is beneficial to the whole and so to themselves as a part.

There is no doubt in my mind that participatory democracies make for better states than any alternatives, and if this can be bolstered by human rights language that is fine, though I think that interest and duty (what we owe to ourselves and others) makes more sense as an argument. The ‘Asian values’ objection here (revisited recently by the Chinese oligarchy) is bogus and self-serving, as evidenced by the success of democratic nations such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. There is a tendency in Asian nations to be more collectivist in thinking and behaviour than in many European nations, and especially the USA, but this would make them more attracted to participatory democracy, not less.

Concluding remarks – the more I look at rights, the more questionable I find them. I would rather encourage a neo-Aristotelian way of thinking. We’re now political animals more than ever, in a wider sense than Aristotle saw it, because civilisation itself is political, and civilisation is hardly something we can opt out of. I don’t advocate world government – that was an impossible if admirable ideal – but I certainly advocate intergovernmental co-operation as opposed to zero sum nationalism. We need to make an all-out effort to improve our state structures and understanding between them for the sake of all their members (and the rest of the biosphere).

Written by stewart henderson

August 31, 2019 at 8:44 am

situation USA 2 – very likely, the worst is yet to come

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The USA, over the past two and a half years, has been the object of a global ridicule and opprobrium never experienced before in its history, and it’s largely deserved. And the reason lies in a flaw in democracy pointed out by Greek philosophers, unabashed anti-democratic elitists, some 2500 years ago. Their concern was that the people could be too easily swayed by populist demagogues, individuals who, either through self-delusion or basic deceit, promised everything and delivered nothing, or worse.

There’s a famous quote, attributed to Churchill, that democracy ‘is the worst system of government, apart from all the others’. That description should be taken seriously. There’s no perfect system of government, in fact far from it. And democracy, in its purest form, is never practised anywhere. I’ve heard it said that a free press and an independent judiciary are two of the ‘pillars of democracy’. This is false. They’re in fact bulwarks against democracy. Both of these institutions are elite meritocracies. Another essential bulwark against democracy is an independent science and technology sector. If we based our acceptance of science on popular vote, we’d almost certainly still be living in caves, subsisting on the most basic requirements for survival. So let’s not worship democracy, but nor should we throw it out with the bathwater.

Democracy’s biggest saving grace is that it is inclusive. Everybody gets to have a say. One possible vote for each adult – assuming there’s no corruption of the process. In this respect, if nothing else, everybody is equal. Yet we know that no two people reflect in an ‘equal’ way, whatever that means, before casting their vote. Some are massively invested in voting, others barely at all, and their investments go in innumerable directions. Some of those directions never change, others zig-zag all over the place. And history shows, as the Greek philosophers knew well, that a licence to vote doesn’t turn anyone into a discerning voter.

The USA, it seems to me, suffers from two problems – too much democracy on the one hand, and too great a concentration of power on the other. They say that in the USA, anyone can become President. This is something Americans like to brag about. It’s not true of course, but even if it were, it wouldn’t be a positive. There appears to be no screening for such candidature. Some Americans are calling for extreme vetting of immigrants, but nobody appears to be calling for the same for Presidential candidates. You might argue that the same goes under the Westminster system of democracy, but in fact there is such a system, albeit informal, for attaining the position of Prime Minister. She must first gain the approval of her party, her team (and she can be dumped by that team at any time). In the 2016 US election, the candidate Trump by-passed the party he claimed to be a member of, and appealed entirely to the people, with a wide range of vague promises and claims about his own brilliance and effectiveness. The business cognoscenti knew well enough that Trump was a buffoon, a blowhard and a flim-flam man, but they also knew that his presidency, in being good for his own business, would be good for other businesses too, especially in the field of taxation. The Republican Party as a whole – with a number of notable exceptions – fell in line. Those who believed in minimal government recognised that Trump’s noisy incompetence would actually bring about minimal government by default, and give the governmental process a bad name, which was all fine by them. The question of ethics rarely entered into it.

As a distant watcher of what I’ve called the slow-motion train wreck of the Trump presidency, I’ve learned more than I ever thought I would know about the US presidential system, and more than I ever wanted to know about Trump himself.

For some time, Trump was nothing more than a funny name to me. My first full-on experience of him must have come from an early showing of ‘The Apprentice’, probably accidentally stumbled on through channel-hopping. I’ve never taken much interest in the business world, mea culpa. Within literally seconds, I was thinking ‘If I didn’t know better, I’d assume this was a black comedy. The host talks total gobshite, and the contestants, all actors, treat him like a deity. His very name is meant as a joke – he trumps everyone else in spite of being tasteless, boorish and pig-ignorant – and the contestants, who are put up in a monument to vulgarity called ‘Trump Tower’, swoon at all the gimcrack opulence. No better caricature of the Ugly American has ever been created’. Yet I knew that this was no caricature. Or rather, Trump was a caricature, but also a real human being.

What I didn’t know then, and what I’ve learned since his accession to the presidency, was the extent of Trump’s criminality. This has been fully revealed through a couple of New York Times stories, but I first learned about it through Sam Harris podcasts and other outlets, as well as through the words and behaviour of Trump himself, and his thuggish cronies. His use of standover men, fixers and the like has all the markings of organised crime – or somewhat disorganised crime in Trump’s case. The fact that he has gotten away with this behaviour for decades is a testament to the problems of the US justice system.

Trump became President with a minority of votes – this time revealing a problem with the federal electoral system. Claims by pundits such as Niall Ferguson that Putin’s interference in that election had a minimal effect were either naive or politically motivated. The Putin dictatorship’s actions were sophisticated and brilliantly targeted, and the subsequent response of Trump to the clear evidence of that interference should have been enough to have him thrown out of office. Another massive problem with the US federal system.

Sensible Americans are now faced with the problem of getting rid of Trump, and engaging in the root and branch reform of the disastrous system that allowed Trump’s rise to and maintenance of power. It seems, from other pundits I’ve read, that the US Presidency has experienced a kind of ‘dictatorship creep’ over the years, and this now needs to be confronted directly. The judiciary, for example needs to be fully independent, with the highest positions decided upon by judicial peers. Presidential emoluments need to be eliminated through clear, solid law. Presidential pardoning powers need to be sharply restricted, or preferably removed from the President altogether and placed in the hands of senior law officials. The presentation of all available taxation documents must be a sine qua non of presidential candidacy. If Presidents are to be directly elected – not a great idea IMHO – it should be through a first-past-the-post, one-vote-one-value system. Presidential immunity must be jettisoned, and if this interferes with the President’s role, this should scream to the American people that the President’s role is too burdensome, and that governmental power needs to be less concentrated and more distributed.

All of the preceding, and more, seems obvious to an outsider, but among Americans, brought up since infancy to believe they have the best government in the multiverse, self-criticism in this area is hard to come by. Possibly more abuse of the system by Trump and his enablers will wake Americans up to what’s needed, but I remain skeptical.

Which brings us back to the immediate situation. I have to admit, what has surprised me more than anything about this presidency is that Trump’s following hasn’t been reduced substantially since falling to around the 40% mark very early in his term. Clearly, his base, much-despised by Trump himself, has gained nothing from his incumbency, as opposed to the super-rich (small in number but gargantuan in power), who see through Trump but cynically support his lazy, neglectful attitude to government administration. The fact that this base is solid and easily aroused reveals a long-standing problem in America’s individualistic, mistrustful, and massively divided society. Trump is wily enough to try to take advantage of this discontent, especially as the law appears to be closing in on him. He may not have the numbers to win another election, but he is very likely to use those numbers to do as much damage to America’s much-vaunted but clearly very fragile separation of powers as he possibly can. I’m unfortunately quite convinced that the worst of the Trump presidency is yet to come.

Written by stewart henderson

May 13, 2019 at 7:30 pm

a few thoughts on libertarianism

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Libertarianism is like Leninism: a fascinating, internally consistent political theory with some good underlying points that, regrettably, makes prescriptions about how to run human society that can only work if we replace real messy human beings with frictionless spherical humanoids of uniform density (because it relies on simplifying assumptions about human behavior which are unfortunately wrong). I don’t know who wrote this.

not quite

Aren’t libertarians a lovely lot?

I might look more closely at some libertarian philosophy later, but for now I want to critique the kind of standard libertarianism I’ve heard from politicians and bloggers.

Well, okay, I’ll start with a philosopher, Robert Nozick, whose much-vaunted/pilloried book Anarchy, State and Utopia I tried to read in the eighties. I found it pretty indigestible and essentially learned from others that his argument depended rather too much on one principle – the human right of individuals to certain positive and negative freedoms, but especially negative ones, like the right to be left largely alone, to make their own decisions for example about how to contribute to the greater good. The book ended up advocating for a minimalist state, in which everyone gets to create their own communities of kindred spirits, organically grown A cornucopia of utopias. The kind of state that, ummm, like, doesn’t exist anywhere. That’s the problem. Utopia is definable as a society that only exists in fantasy.

And then there’s the exaltation of the individual. This is the problem I’ve encountered with every libertarian I’ve read or viewed – and I’m quite glad I’ve rarely had any personal encounters with them.

If I did, here would be my response. Homo sapiens are the most socially constructed mammals on the planet. Language has massively facilitated this, and in turn has become our most powerful social product. Common languages have created civilisations, and this has allowed us to dominate the planet, for better or worse. And civilisation requires, or just is, organised social structure. That’s to say, a state, that eternal bogey-man of the libertarian.

This entity, the state, has shaped humans for millennia. Today, we owe (largely) to the state the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the education we’re hopefully still having, the jobs we’ve had and lost, the houses we live in, the cars we used to drive, and the good health we increasingly enjoy. That’s why, it seems to me, we owe it to ourselves to make the state we live in as good as we can make it, in terms of health, safety, opportunity, support, pleasure and self-improvement, for all its members.

It seems to me we have to work with what exists instead of trying to invent utopias – because, obviously, one person’s utopia is another’s nightmare. What exists today is a variety of states, some clearly better than others. The minimalist states are among the worst, and they’re understandably called failed states. There is no effectively functioning minimalist state on the planet, a fact that many libertarians blithely ignore. Their emphasis on individual liberty seems to me the product of either beggar-thy-neighbour selfishness or starry-eyed optimism about natural affinities.

Again, I turn to the USA, my favourite whipping-state. This hotbed of libertarians has not blossomed as it could, considering its booming economy. From this distance, it seems a sad and often stomach-turning mixture of white-collar fraudsters and chronically disadvantaged, over-incarcerated victims, and good people who largely accept this as the status quo. The you-can-achieve-anything mantra of the American Dream generally sees individuals as blank slates who can best fulfil their potential when pulled from the rubble of the coercive state. Or State, as many libertarians prefer.

It didn’t take my recent reading of Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, a superb overview of human behaviour and its multifarious and interactive underpinnings, or Steven Pinker’s earlier The Blank Slate, to realise that this was a dangerous myth. It was always screamingly obvious to me, from my observation of the working-class milieu of my childhood, the variety of skills my classmates displayed and the problems they faced from the outset, together with my readings of more privileged worthies and their patrician connections (Bertrand Russell on the knee of William Gladstone always comes irritatingly to mind), that there has never been anything like an even playing field for exhibiting and making the most of whatever qualities we’re gifted with or are motivated to cultivate and improve.

So this is the problem: we’re not free to undo what has been ‘done to us’ – the parents we have, the country (or century) we’re born in, the traumas and joys we’ve experienced in the womb, our complex genetic inheritance and so forth. All of these things are connected to a much wider world and a past over which we have no control. They shape us (into go-getting libertarians or bleeding-heart liberals or whatever) much more than we’re generally prepared to admit. And these shaping forces, since the emergence of civilisation and that sometimes messily organised unit called the state, are profoundly social. And even if we’re not talking about western civilisation it’s the same – it takes a village to raise a child.

These shaping forces aren’t necessarily bad or good, they just are. But all in all we should be glad they are. The social brain is the brightest, most complex brain, and such brains wouldn’t have developed if the individual was sacrosanct, in receipt of the right to be ‘left alone’. Civilisation is surely the most impressive achievement of human evolution, and as Ralph Adolphs of Caltech puts it, ‘no component of our civilization would be possible without large-scale collective behavior’. 

The state, of course, has its drawbacks, as do all large-scale multifaceted administrative entities. The ancient Greek city-states produced a host of brilliant contributors to their own esteem as well as to the world history of drama, philosophy, mathematics and history itself, in spite of being built on slavery and denying any equitable role to women, but even there the (probably few) slaves who worked in the most enlightened households would’ve benefitted from the collective, and the women, however officially treated, were surely just as involved and brainy as the men.

As society has grown increasingly complex we as individuals have grown in proportion, as have our individual delusions of grandeur. At least in some cases. What the best of us should have learned, though, is that a rich, diverse, dynamic society, which cannot but be organised, produces the best offerings to its children. Diminishing the state by refusing to contribute to it actually diminishes and impoverishes the self, diminishes connection and the recognition of collective value. This raises the rather large point that the self isn’t what most people think it is – an autonomous, self-actuated entity. Instead, it is driven by complex social inputs from the very start, indeed from long before it came into being. Just as events from long before a crow is born, or even conceived, will go a long way in determining how that adult crow behaves.

Yet the myth of the individual, autonomous self is a live one, and it’s what drives most libertarians. In so far as people see themselves as self-actualising, they will argue the same for others, and absolve themselves from responsibility for others’ failures, mistakes or incapacities. Such attitudes significantly play down disadvantages of background, and even reduce exposure to those differences. Since everyone has the choice to be as successful as me (according to my own measure of success), why should I waste time hanging out with losers? By that measure, to suggest that silver-spoon libertarians would willingly provide support to disadvantaged communities is as unrealistic as expecting Donald Trump to hang out with the construction workers on his trumpy towers.

In some respects, libertarianism represents the opposite pole to communism, on a continuum that stretches into complete delusion at both ends. There have never been any actual, functioning communist or libertarian states. Both are essentially abstract ideologies, which take little account of the science of evolved human behaviour. When we do take account of that science, we find it is fiendishly complex, with the individual as a unit being driven and shaped by social dependencies, connections and responsibilities, which are generally vital to that individual’s well-being. In western democratic societies, apart from family and workplace organisations, we have government, which includes, in Australia, councils, states and a federation of states. It all sound terribly complex and web-like, and some apparently see it as ‘the enemy of individual liberty’ but in fact it’s the web of civilised human life, which we’ve all contributed to creating, and it’s a pretty impressive web – though more impressive in some places than in others. I think the best thing we can try to do is to improve it rather than trying to extricate ourselves from it. In any case, doing so – I mean, removing ourselves from organised society – just won’t work, and fundamentally misunderstands the nature of our evolved humanity.

Written by stewart henderson

April 3, 2019 at 2:32 pm

some thoughts on the importance of nations

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America – the most important country in the world (Fareed Zacharia)

There have been many most important countries in the world throughout human history. Usually self-styled. They become important through economic and military success. And they think, everyone of them, that this success gives them moral authority. This is the fundamental error of every powerful state in history, so tedious to relate. The fact is that Americans are no way morally superior to Mexicans, Australians or Koreans, or whoever. Every country, or state, or tribe, is full of individual humans striving equally to thrive – like every other life form.

If you believe, however, that you’re a member of the most important country in the world, that may play on your mind a little. It may move you, just a little, to believe, just a little, that you’re just a little more important than people from less important countries.

What does it mean though, to be more important? Is it about power? We can think of an elephant being a more powerful animal than a squirrel, but does that make her more important?

Maybe importance can be measured by imagining the country, or animal, not existing. If the USA, and all its people, disappeared tomorrow, that would have a much bigger impact than if, say, Fiji and all its people disappeared, and presumably not just because this compares 325 million with less than one million. A better comparison would be between the USA and China or India. Both these countries have more people than the USA but are less important, according to Zacharia. 

I’m guessing that Zacharia’s presumably offhand description of US importance has mostly to do with that country’s impact on the world. This surely gets to the nub of the matter. But this surely has no moral dimension. I’m not sure whether Zacharia meant to suggest a moral dimension to the USA’s importance. 

My view is that nations are like animals. Large animals tend to leave a larger footprint, metaphorically speaking. The main focus of any animal or nation is to sustain itself, and more. Other nations, or animals, are seen as a means to that end. So nations will see other nations as either exploitable (prey), helpful in the exploitation of others, dangerous (predators), or simply irrelevant. True, there are symbiotic relationships, and exploitation is perhaps a loaded word, but the world of the living goes on living by consuming other living beings. At least, that’s how it has gone on so far. 

Important countries consume more. Maybe that’s a negative, but they may do so by being smarter, or by hitting upon some clever and effective ruses before anyone else. So size isn’t everything, though it helps. Also, their cleverness or effectiveness teaches others – their prey as well as interested observers. They make the world wise up, quicken up. Remember the Mongols, an important nation of the past, or Hannibal, an important general. 

But I feel I’m being too male, thinking too much on destruction and aggression. The importance of nations today should be, and generally is, based on a different kind of cleverness, ingenuity, innovation. Yet we find this everywhere, as ideas spread more quickly than ever before. A young African boy generates wind energy for his village through internet-based DIY. This is important, and a great leveller. 

The internet is still largely American, and so on that basis alone, the USA should rightly view itself as the most important nation in the information age. Or is it simply the English language that has become most important? Science and technology are international, of course, but must be translated into English, if required, for best effect. This has been so for some time – think Mendel’s 1865 paper on the laws of segregation and independent assortment. It didn’t appear in English until 1901, years after Mendel’s death, as a result of some pioneers finally lighting upon it. English is surely an important language. 

So what would happen if the USA suddenly disappeared under the waves, with all its people, its weaponry and other technology, its industry? This would be a terrible tragedy, of course, for those loved and loving ones left behind. And yet, in the information age, surprisingly little, if any, of the technology and industry would be lost. The internet would survive, and with it the means for making bombs, multiple examples of beautiful or other people having orgiastic fun for the tutelage of our youth, the Khan Academy’s video lessons on physics, chemistry and assorted other subjects, and an endless variety of examples of dog, cat, bird, elephant, octopus and other cleverness, or silliness. In short, the human world would certainly progress, or continue, more or less unabated, proving that, however important the USA is, it isn’t indispensable.

But surely, if the USA disappeared, another country would take its turn as the most important country in the world. And what then, and which? 

That’s a very interesting question. The USA won’t, of course, disappear below the waves, and many if not most Americans firmly believe that their country must remain the most important for a long long time into the future. As did the British in their heyday, and the Romans, and the Egyptians, and the Sumerians, no doubt. And yet, our human world goes on, and seems to progress, with all its rises and declines.

They say that China will be the next most important country. I don’t see that happening in my lifetime. I’m skeptical of it happening as long as China retains its current political form. The age of major military conquest is over, I believe, so conquest will have to be of a different type, a much more subtle type, perhaps more subtle than I’m capable of foreseeing at present. Too many nations have sampled, for too long, the flavour of freedom, participation and dissent to be guiled by China’s top-down, controlling approach to administration. China will become more and more of an outlier. In any case, I don’t see the USA relinquishing its prominent position ‘any time soon’, as the Americans like to say. Ever the optimist, I’m hoping that the USA will bounce back from the Trump debacle with a much-reformed political system (especially with respect to presidential power and accountability), a renewed commitment to international relations, and a chastened sense of its failings and fragility, and the limits of its democracy.. 

But it’s important, always, to remember that nations are not people, and that people are always more important than nations. 

Written by stewart henderson

October 21, 2018 at 4:46 pm