I feel that there is a fundamental issue that most of us have forgotten how the current beliefs and assumptions that created the modern world came into being. And let me talk about that for a moment before jumping into my main discussion, since I want to write a few more posts following this one on different topics.
I’ve seen mention that the US has fallen prey to “decadence”, but I haven’t seen any good explanation for exactly what that means in concrete terms.
An example that I’ll give is the anti-vaccine controversy. We live in a world where pestilence is not a daily concern. Even just the word, pestilence, is foreign and old-timey to our ears. It’s Biblical - a person on a horse - not a meaningful topic for the modern day. But that wasn’t true just a century or two ago.
When syphilis was introduced to Europe from North America, it would cause mens’ genitals to rot off and ultimately kill them.
Smallpox would leave horrible lesions all over your body, if you survived it, leading women to smooth out their skin again with white powder, made of lead, which would proceed to kill them through heavy metal poisoning.
These ravages were right in the middle of town. You would see people suffering from the diseases or see the harm it had done to their bodies. It was part of your world, and the implications of what would change if you had a cure was obvious and apparent to anyone.
But now we don’t have that. Our idea of a major illness is a bit of coughing and a rash. When we think about smallpox, it’s not tangible to our minds what that means, because we have no experience of it. There’s no real harm in dismissing it in favor of a disease which we do have experience with.
That lack of exposure and ability to take serious the lessons of history, of experts, of basic logic is what I will term decadence. It’s a state where you can simply discount reality, because reality doesn’t seem to have any bearing on you, your life, or those around you.
But that doesn’t mean that it can’t start to effect you.
There was no harm, for example, to your average American if the President offered to hand Ukraine over to Russia. If he says such a thing, that’s all fine because, eh. Who the hell knows what a Ukraine is? What does it matter if they’re part of the EU or Russia? We don’t have an experience of the difference in good and malevolent rule. Whereas a Ukrainian does. They have experience under the rule of the USSR that is still in living memory. To them, that question is of great import. To a modern day American it is not. It’s a trifle.
But poor governance is very easy for us to have here. In a decadent country that allows a person who would make such a suggestion come into power, there’s really no protection against descending into a state where we allow anti-vaccine fear to overrule basic science, we can lower the standards for nominating our supreme court justices so that they are partisan hacks rather than reasonable, rational minds, we can remove ourselves from having the influence to see to our own destiny on the face of the planet, and we can ignore the potential catastrophic results of mucking around with the global climate. Some of this may already be happening.
You can’t safely stay decadent. Either you need to find a system to prevent it from affecting your decisions, that can be relied on to continue functioning appropriately, or you will be forced to start working with reality-based solutions again, because reality starts to force it on you again. And that second option will not be pleasant.
So now let’s talk about unity. (And please, no comments about the game engine.)
Right now, one side has an argument against unity. I’m not going to bother to make a strong and convincing-sounding argument to describe that position, but I’ll summarize:
We are all free actors with the right to self-determination. Joining into larger groups requires compromise, it requires shrinking our ability to affect self-determination, because we are but one vote against many many many others. And, minus self-determination, how are we supposed to achieve our personal idea of happiness? We are constrained to living the life of averages and/or the lowest common denominator.
Now, personally, I strongly believe in the concept that happiness follows from the ability to make free choices about my own life. My summary of this movement is, possibly, predicated on that argument since it’s my own view of the world. Possibly others would make the argument in a slightly different way, but hopefully it equates to about the same thing. If you disbelieve in unity and have a different reasoning, I’m happy to point out why you’re wrong if the following doesn’t quite scratch your itch.
At the simplest level, let’s look at the iterated prisoners dilemma.
The idea is that we have two actors (i.e. people) who have a choice of acting in a selfish way or in a cooperative way. They’re bank robbers, and they’re being kept in separate rooms - unable to communicate with one another - and they have to decide whether to rat out their partner.
If one of them rats the other out, then that one goes free, while the other goes to jail. There’s a strong incentive for selfishness. But if they both rat each other out, then they still both end up going to jail, and if they both keep quiet, then the cops will just hit them both with a smaller charge, to penalize them.
In that case, sure, there’s some argument to be made for almost any option. It all kind of balances out, and it comes down to the actors’ personalities which decision is best.
But let’s say that these guys aren’t thinking in terms of the here and now. They’re smarter than that.
We’ve already robbed the one bank. We got one million dollars. On the Sadness/Happiness scale (sad = -5, happy = 5) , we’ll say that a million dollars ranks a pretty solid 5. Going to jail on a small sentence is a -2. Going to jail on a large sentence is a -5. Skipping out on jail, maybe a 1? (It’s sort of a non-event so it’s hard to class.)
If we’re just looking at the once instance, then we already have the 5. We robbed the bank and have the money. So it’s a question of what to add to that, a positive number or a negative.
But once we think, oh yeah, I want to rob more banks and I need a partner for that who I can trust, then we’re looking at the set of numbers over time. Sure, we’ll get caught every once in a while, but so long as we stay quiet, that’s just the occasional -2 mixed in. The math isn’t just what’s the best result between 5 and X, it’s how many 5’s can I get? It’s like the question about the best way is to split up a pie? Well, obviously, to just make more pies.
5 + 1 is less than 5 + -2 + 5 + -2 + 5 + -2.
Obviously, I’m not endorsing bank robbing, but the math stays the same for life in general. What we can accomplish as individuals is strongly limited. If my idea of happiness is to sit on the computer and argue every day, well put me in the middle of a jungle, on a deserted island, with a no clothes and no tools and let’s see if I can recreate the computer and run a cable to the nearest land-mass before I die of starvation or old age. I’m betting on starvation or old age.
Happiness is achieved, mostly, by cooperating with others. We find something that we all want - maybe not favorite thing, but at least something that will make me happier than I am sitting on the forest floor, bare-assed - and we collaborate to make it. If I had to work alone, then I’d run up against issues of time to build up skills, time allocation between working on the one project versus doing things that are necessary just to stay alive, etc. If it takes 6 skills to make something and a few years to learn a skill, then that’s years and years of my life to learn a bunch of stuff just so I can make one thing and not have to rely on others to help me. Far easier to just let them do most of the work and take the easy win, even though - as said - maybe we’re not working on my #1 priority.
And here you might say, okay well so, we should keep our clumpings as small as possible to ensure that I still have some power to decide what we work on. As a group of six, I have more influence to make sure that we’re working on the #1 thing or #2 thing. If we have a million, my priorities are right out the window.
I have two points to make about that.
Firstly, your #1 priority is probably not your #1 priority. See again, the definition of decadence. You may believe that your #1 priority is to have the ability to live your days, arguing on the internet. But the instant there’s a famine, you’re quickly going to discover that your #1 priority is actually food, you were just discounting that.
There’s some basic things that have to be within your top few slots, which basically amount to survival and basic security. And these are helped by being a larger team. The larger your group, the more safe you are against localized supply shortages, against invasion, etc. Montenegro is far more likely to be invaded than Germany, and an individual in Montenegro is far more likely to suffer a power shortage than an individual in Germany.
If you play DICEWARS, you’ll quickly learn to value of not being divided, and the value of a hostile actor to dividing.
Secondly, some skills are rare. By definition, only 2% of anyone is a genius and there’s really not a limit to the division of specialties that can exist in the world. If you are China, you can assemble a team of experts on robotics, AI, civil engineering, etc. to create the world’s most amazing thing, at the drop of a hat, because all of those skills are liable to exist there by simple virtue of numbers.
Montenegro can’t do diddly-squat.
Today we get the benefits of the greater cooperative entities because the world, generally, believes in unity. People in Montenegro have computers despite having never once built one, and having no one who could.
Minus that unity and unless you were an American or one of a handful of countries, you would just be out of luck. The same math as the 6 individuals with unique skills comes in. Montegro just, feasibly, can’t recreate the factories and information to develop computers and cars and nuclear energy and everything else. They’re reliant on others to do it. And of those other entities refused, then Montenegrins would be stuck eating bark.
One person can barely survive. A few dozen people can do very little more than build a round house and make some tools that keep themselves able to mostly survive through most winters. A few million people can build the sort of stuff that would seem like magic to the ancients.
And now the person seeking for divisions might say, “Well, I don’t mean physical things when I talk about the value of small groups, I mean laws and regulations. I don’t get to have a meaningful vote on those.”
Okay, so let’s look at that.
Firstly, are you sure that laws and regulations limit your freedom?
There are the rules of the road, for example. I have to stop at lights, drive on a certain side of the street, etc. If I don’t do this, I may be fined or even jailed - depending on how egregious the violation was. And, despite that, I had no part to play in the decision to impose these rules. Heck, it’s likely that there isn’t even anyone alive in the US who did, for the most part. And yet, I am constrained by them and my decision making has been impinged upon.
That’s true, but are you really less free because of that? We could all spend four times as long in traffic and have a significantly higher death rate - an unchosen death in all instances - just to have the freedom to drive our vehicles however the hell we want to. Maybe there is one guy out there who thinks that he’d rather spend four times as long in traffic than have to obey the rules of the road, but it’s reasonable to say that for most of us there are likely to be more important things in the world that we’d like to do. I’d rather spend that time with my family, on the computer, out with friends, making something, having sex, whatever. The time savings offset that can go to other freedoms offsets the reduction in freedom that has been imposed.
And, of course, you can always just buy some time on one of those physical things known as a race track, if that’s what you’re looking for.
If I give a business the right to dump toxic waste into the water, is that really making the world more free? Maybe there’s things that most of us would rather do in life than die of strange and horrible cancers.
Laws and regulations are not antithetical to freedom. They can, if judiciously made and applied, instead promote and enable greater freedom than if we lived without them.
Really, the argument isn’t that we need smaller groupings, it’s that we haven’t hired our legislators very well or don’t trust that we hired them very well. But let me tell you, small governance is worse for the same reason that large groups have better inventions. You have a larger hiring pool to select from.
If you think the Federal government is bad, just imagine if the country was being run by your local home owner’s association or town commerce committee.
If you want laws that are less stupid and onerous, you want to be part of a larger entity, because the key to getting good laws and regulations that balance personal freedom with the greater ability for freedom, security, and health on the part of everyone is to have a large pool from which to select candidates from, so that you can hire the wisest and most reasonable sort who will consider those options deeply, and ensure that there is strong protection of rights as they go about making decisions that will impact everyone.
If you are not happy with the laws that we have, the answer is not to form smaller entities, it’s to form larger entities and establish a better hiring system.