Political systems are about problem solving. Inherited rule, for example, solves the problem of selecting the next ruler. Blood also provides legitimacy, which is an essential element for any ruler. One of the problems a political system must solve is the problem of trade-offs. Public policy, regardless of the system, is about trade-offs. A political system has to have a mechanism for selecting between competing options, by weighing the trade-offs and determining the best choice.
A great story from the ancient world about trade-offs is the story of the emperor Tiberius and flexible glass. A craftsman was presented to the emperor claiming that he could make flexible glass. That is, a substance that looked and functioned like glass, but did not break like glass. He produced a bowl that the emperor tried to smash, but it only suffered some dents. The craftsman then repaired it with a small hammer, knocking out the dents made by the emperor.
Once the emperor was assured that no one else knew how to make this new material, he had the craftsman beheaded. The reason was that Tiberius saw right away that this material was revolutionary. Innovation always comes with trade-offs, as the new thing replaces an old thing. In the case of flexible glass, the trade-offs were incalculable, so the proper course was to make sure this new material never got loose. Tiberius chose the well understood over the completely unknown.
This story is useful to us today, because we have lived through what could be described as a series of flexible bowl incidents. The technological revolution that was set in motion by the microprocessor has swept through the West. As Tiberius anticipated with flexible glass, the silicon chip has set off changes that no one anticipated. In the material sense, our world is quite different from 70 years ago. In a cultural and political sense, we now live at the other end of a perpetual revolution.
In theory, democratic systems of government are about solving the problem of the general will. Through the ballot, the people tell the office holders what they want from their government. In turn, the people in office try to guide the general will through public debate and public advocacy for their ideas. The trade-offs involved in the options being debated are fleshed out and the public, directly, or indirectly, makes their choice and that becomes public policy.
The trouble is the system always selects for innovation over continuity. When the microprocessor came along, there could be no debate about whether this was a dangerous new innovation or how best to prevent this radical new thing from overthrowing the old rules. Democracy always comes down on the side of the new thing over the old thing. Every innovation, no matter how pointless, is celebrated as another step in human progress. Democracy is a perpetual revolution.
As a result, there could be no Tiberius moment with the microchip. There was not one to examine the new thing and contemplate its ramifications. Instead, it was quickly adopted setting off the technological age. Not only did no one think about the trade-offs before unleashing this new thing, not one thought about them afterwards. New is always good in a democratic society. The only thing better than innovation is more and faster innovation. Constant change is the ethos of liberal democracy.
The technological revolution was expected to solve lots of problems that plagued the industrial age. Society was supposed to become more democratic, for example, as improvements in communication made it easier for people to express their preferences in the public square. The distribution of goods would become more equitable, as innovation would smash the old bottlenecks. The technological revolution would make the world flatter, more egalitarian and more peaceful.
Some of the promised benefits have happened, but the trade-offs have been enormous and could very well be the end of us. For example, the cost of being able to call anyone anywhere from a device that fits in your pocket is having millions of people experiencing the lives through their phone. All the benefits of the mobile phone were realized with the first car phone. Everything that has came after that point has been the trade-off that no one could imagine. Most of them negative.
Similarly, the cost of instant communication across time and place is millions of people standing in front of a firehose of information. Humans are not made to experience the world this way. One result is everyone is dumber and less informed. Another result is the number of rage heads screaming in the face of their fellow citizens is growing exponentially. The cost of knowing what is on everyone’s mind is knowing what is on everyone’s mind whether you like it or not.
Again, this is not to say the technological revolution is a mistake. E-mail is better than the postal service. Modern automobiles are better and safer than their analog variants from the old days. Having the sum of human information at your fingertips is an amazing leap forward for humanity. There has been great material progress that has come with the technological revolution, but it came with a price. The question the West is slamming into is whether that price is warranted.
The trouble is democracy is incapable of evaluating trade-offs. This may be why our systems are becoming increasingly authoritarian. The only way to tone down the rhetoric in public forums is for the heavy hand of the ruling class to limit what can be said in public forums. The only way to break people from being constantly on-line is to make on-line less rewarding. There is no democratic way to get rid of Twitter and Facebook, so we get an authoritarian approach.
The trouble, of course, is that the current ruling class is the product of the democratic system that created this mess. These are people bred to overturn the tried and true in favor of the novel. That instinct is seen in their fetish for men in dresses. They are attracted to it because it is disruptive. Our ruling class is was selected by a system that rewards pointless novelty over sober mindedness. A ruling class of such people means we are ruled by a class of powerful toddlers.
That may be the next turn of the wheel. Democratic dictatorship gives way to some form of personal rule, where stability and continuity are prized over innovation. The ruling class is symbolically and physically walling itself off from us, but what comes next is a culling inside those walls. The feckless and stupid will be pushed out as a matter of survival, by those actually capable of wielding power. That will be a trade-off that everyone can accept, because it brings stability.
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