The Value of Unity

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.

I’m not entirely confident that I fully grasp your thesis, but I think you’re advocating that individuals take a “big picture” view of society, even if that means compromising individual initiative.

Thing is, a reasonably intelligent and educated individual can think both locally and globally as the situation requires - there isn’t really any need to sacrifice one for the other.

This has nothing to do with big or little pictures or how to think about things (or at least, I don’t see how what you are saying relates to what I have said). I’m saying that there is more freedom to be had in larger groups and that the complaint is not with the size of the group, it’s with specific policy.

Then I don’t mind admitting I must have missed the point. Shouldn’t one strive for reasonable government at the local and national level?

Sage Rat:

Are you advocating the abolition of statehood in the USA, and putting all the power that states currently have into the federal government (making it no longer federal, just “the government”)? People in Tennessee are going to be surprised tomorrow morning when California law takes effect. :slight_smile:

Yeah this is really long and a bit of a slog to read. Can you present a cliffs notes version please?

Bigger is better. And we can fix everything by being smarter voters.

The problem is, the larger the group, the more difficult it is to reach common ground. It’s actually amazing that our species has been able to form organizations as large as we have. But I think the key to human success is to be able to work on many different levels of organization. And saying that we need to be smarter voters is nice and all, but it’s like saying we wouldn’t have trolls here if posters just stopped feeding them. Good luck with that.

It’s easy to design a system for perfectly rational actors. But we hyoo-mans are not perfectly rational actors. You can blame people if you want, and say your system would be great if people weren’t so stupid. But people are stupid, and they are irrational and your system isn’t any good if doesn’t take human nature into account. We’re social primates, not social insects.

Yeah, definitely TLDR. I gave up at the point where it started adding up numbers on the happiness scale.

I agree that OP should come up with 3 or 4 short sentences to summarize the 3 or 4 points he wants to make. I’m sure I’d agree with some of them, once I know what they are! :slight_smile:

But there’s one point about which I would disagree:

Finland is a technology leader. Yes, it has higher population than Montenegro, but I don’t think anyone uses raw population counts to explain the difference. Archimedes emerged when Europe’s population was a fraction of what it is today, yet many people still call him “the greatest genius who ever lived.”

And I suspect many would have experiences agreeing with mine: The worst-run company I’ve ever worked for was also the largest one.

:confused: At this point I think you could pick any town in the world and have a fifty-fifty chance that its town council would do a better job in Washington DC than the present Administration.

Or, for example, the current president of The Gambia, who really did have a swamp of corruption to drain after taking over from a hardline religious dictator who refused to give up power after losing the election - and it seems that Adama Barrow IS draining that swamp, while reducing ethnic/tribal disagreements, freeing all political prisoners, abolishing the death penalty, and taking religion out of the country’s name and identity.

Maybe a hiring party from the US ought to go over there and see how much he would charge to consult in his spare time. :slight_smile:

The TL;DR that I got from that was that two heads are better than one, and three better than two, four better than three, and so on…

This is true even in the cases where one or more of the actors is forced to compromise and consider the welfare of the others above that of himself. He is still better off than going it alone.

I think that the OP’s point was not that we need smarter voters or people, but that we need to learn to get along. One can make selfish acts, and personally enrich themselves at the cost of others, but that is negative, or at best zero sum, while cooperation is positive sum.

For instance, on healthcare, one of the big objections that is brought up is that “I don’t want to be forced to pay for someone else’s healthcare.” even though by paying for someone else’s healthcare, you actually end up getting better healthcare yourself.

Same as with taxes. I don’t want to pay taxes either, but the more I pay, the more I get back in terms of services and benefits in my community.

Some who favor a more anarchistic approach to society claim that democracy is two wolves and a sheep, deciding what is for dinner. This is not true, the anarchistic approach is that the wolves decide on their own what is for dinner. It is not until the sheep outnumber the wolves that a democracy is possible. At that time, you may have 20 sheep and one wolf, voting on what is for dinner. The wolf will complain that its freedoms are being curtailed, and that is true, in a completely free society, the wolf would be free to eat the sheep. The complaints of the wolf should not be listened to, it doesn’t care about society, it only cares about its own personal interests that can only be accomplished at the expense of society.

Although I’ve carefully read your arguments and agree with a limited, smaller version of your premise, I disagree with the extreme you’ve taken it to.

Larger is NOT always better. If you’re given a choice, would you rather live for the rest of your life in India, or in Germany? By your logic, India is 16 times better (based on population), but the vast majority of folk here would likely pick Germany.

We can make a similar comparison with China (although I picked India so the issue of a “non-democratic” government wouldn’t confound things) and the UK or some other Western European country.

By your logic, India and China are the two greatest countries in the world - after all, they have the largest populations, and thereby must have the most innovation, the best laws and regulations, the best governance, etc. But in actual fact, that is not what happens.

It is likely that there is an S-curve of network effects and other good things going on with population - more IS better…up to a point. You need some minimum population level and diversity to have a diverse enough employment base to fill the various jobs in modern first world economies, and a big enough tax base to pay for a modern first world government’s services. But once you’re past that, more is NOT necessarily better. It can be at best, neutral, and in many cases, a negative.

If we compare the quality of governance and standard of living across income quartiles in western-European nations to China, India, or even the US, I’m not sure the big boys compare favorably (and remember, we’ve controlled by income quartile). Part of the reason the US is such a divided basket case is BECAUSE of our large population. Size past a certain point begets problems and complexities that smaller nations never have to deal with.

So sure, it’s better to be China than Montenegro. That doesn’t mean it’s better to be China than every other country in the world, all of which are smaller.

There are two ways to provide feedback to government, voice and exit. Voice is voting and activism. It is almost never effective. There is just too many people at just about any level. Especially if you have any non-standard views. Then your views will almost never be important or followed.
Exit is much more effective for not only your happiness but everyone else’s. It allows people to live in places with other people who share their values. If you hate straws you can move to San Francisco and let the sane people live everywhere else. That way you can live your life straw free without bothering other people or having their straws bother you.
Bigger is also harder to govern. More people means more perspectives and to govern correctly means all those perspectives have to be taken into account. For example a minimum wage that has no effect in a high wage city like New York will be absolutely devastating in a low wage place such as American Samoa. Having the same speed limit in a Wyoming as you do in Connecticut makes no sense. Each locality needs laws suited to its circumstances and locals are the ones who know those circumstances best.

Another frequent problem with “why can’t we all just get along” is that it’s too often just a cover for “why don’t you all just do things the way I want”.

(Mitigated by “well, what if he IS right?”)

Here’s what I got from the OP: everyone should shut up and get with the program of following our leaders. The group is always right.

I wondered what kind of bitter pill was hiding in all that syrup. :slight_smile:

So correct me if I’m wrong, but it appears that the core assertion in that word salad of an OP is that we’re all just too dumb to actually know what we want. Color me unconvinced.