==The Context of History==
After fifty years of anomolously egalitarian civilization, there are signs that the United States may be returning to more classic social patterns. Patterns that did not work well in other cultures, but that nevertheless may draw us back in.
Take one example. The notion of inherent conflict between social classes.
Ideological polarization used to be secondary in American political life, pushed aside by a singular attitude of modernist pragmatism. This pragmatic attitude - essentially rooted in the Enlightenment - recognized several facts about history that are inconvenient to ideologues.
1) Despite willful efforts by conservatives and libertarians to distract from the historical record, socialism is not the primary enemy of free market systems. True, we all grew up faced with a malignant Soviet Imperium that was surficially socialist (though actually a cabal-aristocracy of nomenklatura families). But looking across 4,000 years of recorded civilization, the story is brutally clear; by far a majority of opportunity and innovation markets were ruined by conniving alliances of clergy and inherited wealth.
2) There are no recorded examples of socialistic “leveling” doing any better at providing human happiness and opportunity. While based on somewhat nicer moral grounds than aristocratism, the socialist notion of enforcing cooperation as an alternative to competition (e.g. in regulated markets) simply does not work. It may be effective on some other planet. But not here. Not with human beings.
The verdict of history is blatant and clear. So why do the same hoary cliches keep arising, over and over again?
This quandary dates back to the origins of the Enlightenment. The platonist essentialists, Hobbes and Rousseau, presented us with twin views of human nature - that we are devils in need of hierarchical social control... or else innately angelic, needing only a toppling of all hierarchies in order to slip into our natural condition of beneficent bliss. Locke responded to both of these models as any reasonable person should, by saying “you are both right... and you are both crazy.”
What Locke emphasized -- and his followers gradually implemented -- were systems designed to take into account the devils within us, the ever-present temptations to oppress, cheat and exploit our neighbors, while creating new opportunities for the angels within to act and to grow. Such systems simply cannot arise out of ideological prescription, since they have to adapt and learn from every generation’s capabilities and problems. Indeed, some of the “angels” are highly competitive, while the worst devil - the one most responsible for human suffering - is the impulse of oppressive elites to cooperate with each other.
Elsewhere I talk about the incredible sophistication that Lockean pragmatic systems have achieved after close to three centuries. (For a rather intense look at how "truth" is determined in science, democracy, courts and markets, see the lead article in the American Bar Association's Journal on Dispute Resolution (Ohio State University), v.15, N.3, pp 597-618, Aug. 2000, "Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition for Society's Benefit.")
All of our synergistic systems appear to depend upon the one core element of every pragmatic solution to human problems -- reciprocal accountability.
So, how does any of this apply to the modern era?
If any lesson should be blatant from the last six decades, it is that the reforms spurring progress in civil rights and social justice were supported in large part by a market-based system of incentivized innovation that paid for many productive social endeavors, like a university system that is still the envy of the world. In the decades following the Second World War, uniquely clever approaches to social engineering -- typified by the GI Bill -- resulted in a blended miracle that no ideologue would ever have predicted or even called possible. The typical human cultural pattern of a privilege-pyramid, dominated by a narrow aristocracy, was reshaped into a diamond, in which the well-off actually outnumbered the poor.
While disparities of wealth between the rich and middle class -- and even vs. the poor -- plummeted to their lowest levels in human history, total or median levels of wealth and well-being skyrocketed, all without employing the kind of draconian confiscation that has long been prescribed by social-levellers. Indeed, this flattened social order accompanied the healthiest phase of market capitalism in history, with small businesses routinely taking on established powers in open competition (the truest test of a free market).
One litmus of social health that has been touted by moderate conservative thinkers: look at the fraction of a nation’s monied aristocracy who derived their status from inherited position, as opposed to having earned their place by delivering competitive goods and/or services in a truly open marketplace. These conservatives point with pride at the fact that a majority of European elites appear to attain their rank as birthright, while most of those with high status in the US climbed there by merit and hard work, without much help from family connections.
It is a matter of faith among conservatives that Americans disdain the notion of “class warfare” because, individually, they like to imagine that each person has a shot at getting rich. But this was not always true, even in the days of the open Frontier. Certainly during the Gilded Era and then during the Great Depression, social rancor increased as wealth appeared to grow more dependent upon inheritance... then declined sharply in wake of the post-WWII blended miracle.
Americans, for all of their uncommon traits, are human beings. The recent severe rise in social and economic disparity is not simply a matter of left-right rhetoric. It will reliably and predictably seed and then nourish the kind of resentment that has been seen in every other culture. Possibly to the severe long-range detriment of those who are now benefiting most from self-interested manipulation of the system.
Let’s step back for a moment. Is it possible to summarize the problem in a nutshell?
We are genetically little different than our ancestors who dwelled in caves; and yet, equipped with neolithic brains, we seek to design and operate an increasingly complex human civilization, while plunging headlong into a century of rapid change. Nor does our arrogant ambition stop there! Not only do we want the machine to continue functioning, we demand that it achieve a series of new miracles that our ancestors would have considered next-to impossible.
Together -- utilizing tools of both competition and cooperation -- we are supposed to maximize human happiness, achieve sustainability on a limited planet, maintain individual liberty, and continue to open new levels of opportunity for everyone on the planet. Moreover, we must do this while treating the future like the dangerous territory that it surely is, avoiding pitfalls and grievous errors that might lead us to destroy ourselves with powerful new tools. Does that about sum it up?
In this paper I do not hope to resolve every aspect of the problem. Like blind philosophers stroking an elephant, we are limited by our assumptions and by our limited ability to conceive many dimensions at once. (Hence our over-reliance on an insipid and misleading “left-right political axis” -- applying that moronic yardstick to a myriad multi-dimensional problems.)
At best, I can hope to shine light from a few unusual angles and hope that some of them make a little sense. These topic areas will be:
The context of History
The context of Human Nature
The context of Technological Change
The context of a Shift from Professionalism to Citizenship