Monday, January 16, 2006


First a warning: This is yet another of my infrequent, extravagantly speculative appraisals, guaranteed to poke-in-the-eye assumptions that are held dear by partisans along the entire length of the hoary old Left Right political axis. That axis, inherited from the French Assembly of 1789, is unworthy of 21st Century minds. It is an impediment to clear thinking... and especially about the current topic at hand.

Or How World Governance May Come About by Surprise

­ by David Brin


Americans tend to feel uncomfortable when they are asked to look at the vast sweep of world history.

Part of this discomfort may arise from a sense -- nurtured ever since the Revolution -- that everything was supposed to change with the establishment of our "city on a hill." All those tedious cycles of imperial conquest and oppression... of civilizations rising only to collapse, a sullen litany stretching from Gilgamesh to Napoleon... had been rendered obsolete. Right?

Generally following the tradition of the Enlightenment philosopher, Rousseau, many utopian idealists -- both liberal and libertarian -- have nursed a firm belief that just the right social tweaking might release inherent human creativity and goodness, ending all types of oppression forever. The exact nature of this tweaking can be a matter of great dissension; for example, liberals and libertarians wrangle over the role of government in achieving this grand transformation. Caught up in disputed details, they tend to ignore a deeper, shared assumption... that social transformation possible at all! That simple prescriptions and straightforward measures might help propel everybody into a new and better civilization.

No wonder most branches of American idealism share a common distaste for history's primary lesson -- that human nature is inherently a tough and resisting nut to crack. Obdurate tendencies toward dogmatism, cheating, and rationalization-of-force are not only features of Western Civilization, but of every people and era.

Persistent and relentless patterns of imperial, feudal or tribal abuse has worked against individual freedom everywhere, in a trend that spanned all continents and centuries. This inconvenient historical fact frustrates and confuses the central liberal -- and libertarian -- notion, that society can be quickly reformed, by following a simple road map. (If it were that simple, would not somebody have done it, by now?)

Hence, the past must either be romanticized or ignored. Interestingly, history gets no friendlier a reception on the other, grouchier side of the personality aisle.

American cynics generally ascribe to Rousseau's competitor, Hobbes, who maintained that traditional values and hierarchy-imposed order are essential, in order to prevent inherent human nastiness from running riot. In other words, devilish human nature does not need to be unleached. Civilized life depends utterly upon proper supervision and control.

Traditionally, America's homegrown variety of conservative cynics have tended to push isolationism, disengagement, and distrust of foreigners. This central theme was most recently expressed in the nineties by critics of the Clinton Administration who decried the "...naive, discredited and utopian fantasy of so-called nation building."

(A position that soon became bitterly ironic, as the Bush Administration suddenly veered into its own set of quasi-utopian rationalizations, pouring more time, blood and treasure into "nation building"... attempting to plant democracy, in Iraq's rocky soil... than all previous efforts combined. A flip into almost transcendentalist, missionary zeal that seems to have much more in common with Trotsky than Taft.)

And still, history gets ignored, except as a source of isolated anecdotes. Because, if you take in its vast sweep, there is plenty of evidence to support both cynical and idealistic interpretations of America's role in the world, during the last 200 years.

Can the monumental national sacrifice of the Civil War -- when tens of thousands died to make others free -- help to balance sins committed against Native Americans? Was the Monroe Doctrine a utopian endeavor to keep European powers from dominating the Western Hemisphere, or a realpolitik grab, to preserve a US sphere of influence? After the Spanish American War, public hand-wringing kept Cuba and the Philippines from becoming "colonies," though the practical difference in outcome was hardly black-and-white.

History may be murky, but it is not ambivalent about the basic lesson.

What it boils down to is not a disagreement between cynicism and idealism, at all. Both the far right and far-left are rife with dour and grouchy folks who -- at the same time -- lay claim to the purest mores and scruples. Indeed, that very purity of goal and spirit is their common, underlying theme.

Both extremes share an especially bitter spite toward their true opposite -- a pragmatic temperament that found its greatest incubator in the American experience.

The pragmatic wing of the Enlightenment was originally inspired by John Locke, who (in effect) told both Hobbes and Rousseau that they were romantic, oversimplifying fools! Human nature is not inherently devilish or angelic, but a complex mixture of the two.

Any reasonable person, who has not become a slave of ideology, will tell you this. Just have a look at your neighbors. Or in a mirror. Some traits we inherit from dismal caves or rapacious kings. Others aim for what would be the most noble aspirations. Both themes come woven together, in such a complex way that no simplistic dogma can adequately describe or separate the threads. At least, not without killing all the good parts.

According to Locke, it does not matter if you are a follower of Karl Marx or Ayn Rand, or any other would-be social programmer. No purist dogma can ever chart a course through the morass of human nature. Rather, dealing with this muddle requires a step-by-step process of incremental discovery. Learning -- by hard experience -- what methods work and which ones do not. These methods include everything from higher levels of education to institutional compromises that blend market regulation with citizen empowerment. Moreover, because would-be cheaters will adapt to any environment, only constant innovation will continue to thwart our inner devils -- the parts that eagerly find any excuse to exploit others -- while leaving our creative angels free to thrive, in both cooperative efforts and zestful competition.

This process -- experimenting and gradually finding out what works -- has involved thinkers and doers, as diverse as Adam Smith and James Madison, Roosevelt and Hayek, Marshall and King. A melange, as diverse as their methodologies. But all of them displaying the same trait that makes for successful science. A willingness to doubt and test your own theories.

Does history support the incrementalist approach of Locke and the pragmatic modernists? One that takes a little truth from idealists, and some from cynics?

The notion that human betterment is achievable…

...but the road will not be simple or easy.

Despite the murkiness of history, the distilled pattern seems to support Locke and the pragmatists. Indeed, when you focus close to home, measuring the American Experiment against the dour litany of four millennia, the glass appears to be at least half-full. Especially comparing it to Rome or Babylon, or any other empire of the bloody human past.

It is also half-empty, when you contrast the progress so-far against our vague dreams of how-things-ought-to be.

Of course, all of this relates to the over-arching topic of how best to defend the pragmatic-modernist enlightenment, at a time when it is under attack from every end of the so-called- political "spectrum"... from every style of dogmatic romanticism. But it has to do with much more than the study (or ignoring) of history.

It also has great bearing on where we go next. Specifically, how will this current cycle of history come to an end?

All eras, cycles and historical epochs do end, after all. Even if the United States manages to cling to its position of world leadership -- bringing about a second "American Century" -- is there even a remote possibility that this will happen using old methods and old ways? Can Pax Americana (or the "American Peace") truly do a better job of error avoidance than the great powers that came before?

After all, Pax Brittanica and Pax Romana seemed all-enduring and most brilliant just before they fell.
In the next section, we will talk about the new mania for an "American Empire" and the psychological trap this represents. And yet, I am not totally opposed to all versions of "Pax Americana." Unlike all others, this imperium has earned substantial credits, on the plus side of its historical ledger. Not enough to merit endless world domination... but perhaps enough to deserve some residual leadership and respect during the coming age of transition.

As transition to Whatever Comes Next.



Rob Perkins said...

Oy... I'll have to remember my comment, since I don't save them on my own machine once posted...

OK... second draft...

We see at least two civilization-spanning empires in history which could give us examples of what happens when the Center Nation of an empire loses its hold on its territories.

In the case of Rome, the Empire died, and the possessions went their political way, but the Church of Rome remained (and remains to this day) as a remnant which tied the nations of Europe together under a set of common memes which lasted an extra thousand years after Rome's fall, and reverberated through the Russian and other Slavic nations right up to the beginning of Red Communism. (He was a tsar by the grace of God etc etc)

In the case of Britain, the departing nations chose a Commonwealth, keeping some ties with the now-weak Center Nation, but otherwise going their way politically. They all still recognize Elizabeth as Queen.

I wondered in that context if there is anything like Church or Commonwealth which would persist after Pax Americana dies, and what that might be. Without it, I suppose that the fall of American peace, all other things being equal, would result in more chaos than even in the aftermath of Alexander's death.

The other thought had to do with the geopolitical state of the world, with not one Pax Empire but three: America, China, and a rising India (with the confidence that India as it is today will certainly soon invade Pakistan). We also discussed why or whether the Europeans have any hope of a Pax Imperium (leaving aside for a moment the etymology of the word "Imperium"), in the form of the EU.

Tony Fisk said...

Generally following the tradition...that social transformation is possible at all!

(I feel that there's too much waffle when you're talking about the murky lessons of history that are ignored but, apart from the missing spaces that have been retrieved, that appears to be it.)


Axes (dichotomous and otherwise) seem to be a recurring theme in history. Are they part of human nature? (My take is that they arise from mental laziness: not one of us? Put in the 'them' basket for use as a 'papingo'. No appeal. Next problem...)

This habit of thought is laid down in childhood. The immature brain really does think in terms of black and white. The contrast knob is usually only discovered at puberty. Uncertainty is frightening; doubly so if your 'elders and betters' don't exhibit it. So the habit is enforced.

As to why extremists really don't like the pragmatist? It's possibly because they use elements of each camp. Being flagged as a threat to good order, those elements of dissent will be more noticeable than those of accord, and *both* sides will condemn the pragmatist to the papingo basket with the rest of 'them' (no appeal, next problem).

This is a little different to the 'common mugwamp' fencesitter, who will cop whacks from both sides since they are in the line of fire but, since they're neutral (and don't exhibit elements of dissent) may get an appeal (when they come off the fence and join 'us')


@Rob: Pax Brittania also left the principle of the rule of law behind in its member states. I'd guess that the vestige of a PA would do somewhat similar. And coke.

Anonymous said...


I wondered in that context if there is anything like Church or Commonwealth which would persist after Pax Americana dies, and what that might be.


Also, this is more related to the "Preventing Tyrrany" essays than this one, but most people stop reading the old ones fairly quickly, so here's a link to the text of Al Gore's speech today.

Al Gore said:
"The principle alternative to democracy throughout history has been the consolidation of virtually all state power in the hands of a single strongman or small group who together exercise that power without the informed consent of the governed.

It was in revolt against just such a regime, after all, that America was founded. When Lincoln declared at the time of our greatest crisis that the ultimate question being decided in the Civil War was "whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure," he was not only saving our union but also was recognizing the fact that democracies are rare in history. And when they fail, as did Athens and the Roman Republic upon whose designs our founders drew heavily, what emerges in their place is another strongman regime."

Anonymous said...

And somebody already beat me to the link in the other thread! Sorry, Stefan.

Rob Perkins said...

I think Al Gore is pointing up only half of what happens at the end of an Empire. European history is rife with strong-men ruling in the feudal system after the fall of Rome. But, they by-and-large offered safe passage and at least lip service to the Church, which served as a repository for human knowledge, such as it was, until the Reformation and subsequent Enlightenment.

(This is speaking of Christendom's internal affairs, not their external ones, such as the Crusades they started which invaded Islamic territory. But even that served a realpolitik service... of getting the would-be thugs out of the way!)

It might be the idea Asimov used for his Foundation. The notion also appears in his collaboration with Silverberg in Nightfall

In any case, though, I see the Church of Rome as a preserving institution in that sense; we're still using the writing system and rules of reason which they used in order to contemplate various things like the count of angels on the heads of a pin.

Without it, we probably would not have had the basis for the Enlightenment quite nearly as soon as we did. Perhaps not even at all.

(And I say this as not even a particular fan of any Catholic dogmas. They simply saved the enabling tools and didn't anticipate their use in other contexts.)

Whether or not Commonwealth is a lasting replacement for Pax Brittania is difficult to suss out; Pax Americana overlaps it by a decade or two. One might even suppose that both are expressions of the same Empire, that Pax Americana is simply another expression of Pax Britannia. (Pax Occidentia? ahem... never took Latin in school...)

So we're certain to fall into strongman regimes if or when PA/PO wanes. My question is whether we will leave behind any institutions capable of preserving the tools of modernism for after the interregnum. Brittania retained her King in Commonwealth. Rome retained her Church.

What on earth would *we* leave behind? The IRS? Movie studios? Somehow neither seems likely.

Anonymous said...

Wow You guys are really doom and gloom this new year.
A couple of thoughts on what has been said so far.

1. Democracy is flourishing: In 1900 there were a hand full of democratic countries, now the number is somewhere like 150+ that means at least once a year for the last hundred years a country has become democratic. Countries like Indonesia (one of the largest Muslim countries in the world) has thrown off a dictatorship and become democratic. Ukraine, Latvia, etc…..

2. Pax India, Pax China: I never see Pax India happening as the way Rob has described, they both have the H-bomb and if India did invade Pakistan and managed to win all they would have done is set them selves back 20 years economically and in world politics and left themselves open to terrorism for generations. As for Pax China, is they do manage to make it through the upcoming years of revolts and social upheaval they are also a very consensus building people. In fact in Asia and the rest of the world too, more and more countries are looking towards large blocs for various reasons (APEC, ASEAN, ASEAN +3, ) {I have forgotten the name of the South American one} These various council are based on the UN model and are sustainable and generally benevolent.

3. Pax Americana: personally this whole pax thing is what is getting the US in trouble in the first place. They idea that they have to police the world and they best way to do that is the lone ranger mind set. America really come off as the brooding troubled Town Marshal, to proud to ask for help and to stubborn to listen to advice. In an age where almost every other countries is looking towards and joining councils and regional groups and listening to their neighbors when they have something to say. America is going it alone, shunning world groups, refusing to sign world treaties (the land mine being the most absurd case) If it went back to being good ole U.S. of A. and started being part of committees, things would look a lot brighter than it does in Pax Americana.

On a side note: It would be interesting to see which countries have fought the most foreign wars in the last say 40 years. I tried looking for that stat couldn’t find it. This would be putting troops on foreign soil without permission of that government. US would be right up there, if not first place. I can think of 4, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan….. any else

Simon Neville

Tony Fisk said...

Gore is certainly on fire.

Just one of his suggestions for reigning in the executive: whistleblower protections should immediately be established for members of the Executive Branch who report evidence of wrongdoing -- especially where it involves the abuse of Executive Branch authority in the sensitive areas of national security.

(Have you been doing some speech writing on the side, David?;-)

Expect some acts of desparation, folk.

@Simon: No, I'm not too taken with paxes either, but that's the way it is. (and Pax Pakistan!!?? Hardly 'pax'!). You can add Argentina and/or the UK to your list, depending on whether you call those islands the Falklands or Las Malvinas.

I, for one, am not actually that downbeat about the 'forthcoming demise of democracy': what you're seeing in this blog and others (as well as in the spine inspiring speeches of Al Gore and Malcolm Fraser) are the antibodies cranking up, and they are often the cause of the symptoms of an illness.

...and occasionally the cause of death! So I think it timely to refer y'all to go read 'A Force More Powerful' and suggest that, if you're going to go wage a war on tyranny, do it peacefully.
(...and play the game first!)

Anonymous said...

Something I bet DB already has slated for another chapter:

A distingishing characteristic of "Pax Americana" was the use of soft power.

Specifically, commerce and culture.

American culture was, and still largely is, widely appealing. Not universally appealing, but awfully intriguing and useful to many people in many nations.

Now, there's always been two sides to American culture: A joyful, vigorous, energetic side, and a dour, intolerant, scoffing side.

Culturally, the neocon's attempt at American empire-building is informed by the latter side of our culture. It adds arrogance and hubris to the mix.

Witness the stunningly inept attempts to win the hearts and minds of the Arab street!

Argh, dog walking time. In the cold and rain.


Anonymous said...

"According to Locke, it does not matter if you are a follower of Karl Marx or Ayn Rand, or any other would-be social programmer. "

Followers of one lead to over 200 million murders, the followers of the other lead to a few dorm room arguments and what? good monetary policy? I think that matters.

It's like saying that the difference between Joseph Goebbels and Thomas Paine does not matter. But I prefer getting George Washington verses the alternative. I think that matters.

It hardly seems pragmatic to suggest otherwise.

Alan Manuel said...

@simon neville:

re: 1 Democracy is flourishing...

The Philippines (the country I live in) is nominally a democracy, but in the general case only a very elite few actually have a say in how affairs are run - we currently have a scandal where the current president is accused of having faked the election results. I think that some democratic countries are only nominally democratic - their form is democratic, but other ways of controlling power exist to subvert the democratic form.

@rob perkins:

re: what on earth will *we*...

The U.N.?

Rob Perkins said...

I can always hope for and work toward saving what I love about living in a free world. To do otherwise would be simple apocalyptic madness, and I'm not one of those people.

At the same time, I really *do* see us as a civilization in decline, and I think that can be articulated without resorting to religious language. The language of historians ought to suffice; no technology has saved us in the past, since all technology can be bent to any ideological purpose.

But even so, my ideas aren't really targeted at getting y'all to *give up* on civilization, rather, I wonder about institutions which could preserve its fundamentals against a time when demagogues and thugs regain primacy.

I wonder simply what America will contribute to WCN. Perhaps (just off the cuff) the idea of a checked-and-balanced Congress is the thing we'll be most remembered for. Or our deference to a limited-power judicial branch.

(You think in terms of what happened in Nov-Dec 2000 in Florida, as the election controversy there made its way through the courts. When a judge said "stop" everyone stopped. When another higher judge said "start" everyone started again. That kind of power and respect for power is relatively rare in the rest of the world, I think, and almost entirely unheard-of throughout past history. In that sense the very idea that we Americans resolved our succession crisis without any guns at all was a really heartening thing.

Perhaps it even formed a popular precedent for the Ukranian election crises a few years later, also resolved relatively peacefully. *That* is one form of Pax Americana: The application of really compelling policy ideas.)

@rws1st -- Ayn Rand's ideologies have never really been tried, I don't think, and that's perhaps because she oversimplified so many things.

Rob Perkins said...

@alan -- Maybe the idea of the U.N. will be the thing that comes next, I dunno. It's a pretty weakly organized assembly of ambassadors, which hasn't been capable of keeping peace or overturning tyrants. At best, it can merely contain them.

But maybe that's because of its focus on nation-states instead of proportionally representing people. We should watch the EU for ideas on how a more directly elected U.N. might function.

Anonymous said...

I would say that Rand's ideas have been tried thousands of times but on an individual level, which is valid because she is not primarily a political philosopher. It is important to note that not all the individual experiments that I have observed have gone charmingly well though I would say several have. While Rands followers have continued the internal bickering, splits and denunciation's that occurred during her life in a way that i find distasteful they haven't gone out and committed mass murder and hence I think for that they should get better treatment than those of Karl Marx.

Rand simplified but so did Newton. Suggesting that simplifying is bad seems badly oversimplified.

Rand ignored and was ignorant of evolution and its impact on the mind. She was ignorant of cognitivescience (it didn't help that she died before most of it was done). But what I think she got right was the foundational importance of concepts and principles in trying to understand the world. Early AI failed because they though symbol manipulation was the key, where as I believe it will turn out to be concept formation that is the big hurdle to jump.

Bringing this back to Brin's essay... which I am criticizing because I truly do think he has tremendously important things to say and the great potential of someone who is fantastic at saying them)

Exalting the pragmatic over the idealistic is one thing. But its another to directly take on pragmatisms other alternative which is thinking in principles. Maybe its overly simplified to suggest that a complex system will conserver momentum, but it seems like a very handy rule that can get us past trying to work out all the forces involved and lead to some excellent results. True reality is not bunch of point masses, distributions and long tails matter, but those are principles too.

Pragmatism at root is doing what works. But what works? Thinking in principles combined with the experimental method. It's not one or the other, both are needed to do science. Our models and principles will always be “idealized” from the reality they are trying to represent, that is not a bug its a feature, otherwise we would just have to wait for reality to unfold before and prediction would be impossible. The argument needs to be about what the correct models are and what experiments should be done to find out.

Further the thing that will dominate the future is not cycles, but exponential growth. Perhaps the next thing to take over after America will be a mmorg/fab lab consortium populated by uploads who occasionally want to in-corporal-ate themselves. Or to put another way, its probably not some existing big group that we can all point at anymore than people in the 1600's would have looked at James town and said, “man some days those guys will rule the world!” Because even pessimist must admit that it looks like America will stay on top for at least 20-30 years and by that time things can get really strange if Ray's Accelerating returns pay dividends.

skribe said...

In the case of Britain, the departing nations chose a Commonwealth, keeping some ties with the now-weak Center Nation, but otherwise going their way politically. They all still recognize Elizabeth as Queen.

Sorry Rob but this is wrong. Many of the members of the Commonwealth are in fact Republics (Singapore, India), or have their own monarchies (Malaysia). While Elizabeth is Head of the Commonwealth the title isn't hereditary. Her successor has to be okayed by the members of the Commonwealth and they could at least in theory choose someone else.

reason said...

... What on earth are you talking about?

Yes if exponential growth continues indefinitely it will dominate. But what makes you think that is possible (at least within a finite environment such as earth). Exponential growth in closed systems inevitably leads to a crash. I tend to think history moves in a helix, it rhymes not repeats. But none-the-less growth in any direction will inevitably come against limits and be balanced by something else. That is also a lesson of history.

Anonymous said...

History does NOT repeat itself. Historians repeat each other.

Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.
Those of us wh do learn history are doomed to say "I told you so!".

(No, niether of these are original with me)

Anonymous said...

Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. Those who ignore history are fated to rewrite it.

I just wanted to put my $.02 in real quick about Brin's comment on the U.S. Civil War. Contrary to popular belief, the original rallying cry of the North was not "Free the slaves!" but instead was "Preserve the Union! (And bring on my war profits!)" The Gettysburg address, in which Lincoln proclaimed that slaves should be freed, was made two years into the war in an attempt to revive failing northern passion to continue the war; in addition, the sponsored legislation only initially freed all the slaves in the rebelling states. States still in the Union had the right to keep slaves if slavery were allowed.

(I spent a few afternoons in the principal's office in 2nd grade for pointing this out!)

The main reason that the U.S. civil war started was economic, not moral. It ended with some level of justice being found, but much of it was immediately traded away in exchange for the economic benefit of the northern states.

(Don't get me wrong - the south disgusts me. Just I don't think the north was much better in their behavior as the victors.)

Rob Perkins said...

@skribe -- Wrong, but fundamentally wrong? Malaysia still recognizes Elizabeth as their titular head.

And, of course they're Republics. So are Canada, India, Pakistan, and Australia, after slightly different fashions. I don't see how that changes the point I was trying (unsuccessfully?) to make.

Rand's methods were, in fact, tried. In the 19th Century, in the U.S. In a few respects, they're being attempted in Mexico and parts of China. But it remains that I think her wrong about human nature on too many points for the philosophy to have staying power. She decries altruism, for example. And her followers can't get along with one another. Not a good precedent for allowing those ideas primacy.

A comparison to Newton, who didn't postulate about human nature, is inappropriate.

History doesn't ever repeat itself in the details, but there is a sweep of cycles which historians can easily identify. All couplets aside (please!) we ought to be studying what happened Back Then a lot more than we currently do. Ignoring the past is just as perilous as living only in it.

Anonymous said...

@Rob Perkins:
"Rand [...] She decries altruism"

There is such a thing as calculated altruism (directly or by proxy). I doubt she ever rejected that.

Anonymous said...

I am amazed at the fact that no one mentioned internet as the possible heritage of Pax Americana.

I do not know about the rest of you, but if I were American, i would most likely be most proud of the internet and the freedom of information it has given to the world. I can see no way in which any information can be censored and contained on the internet, despite the best efforts of any government or association.

And concerning the American Civil War, I admit my ignorance on the finer subtleties of the matter, but it somehow always occured to me that, under a democracy, if the majority of the people of any state/s wanted to secede, they should have the legal right to do so. An although I was happy with the end outcome, I always saw the civil war as an attack on the people's freedom to choose.

If I offended anyone with my opinion, I apologise, as the matter is purely academic to me, and it might be personal and emotional to some. And if I did not, I do not.

Tony Fisk said...

Quoth Rob:
I wonder simply what America will contribute to WCN. Perhaps (just off the cuff) the idea of a checked-and-balanced Congress is the thing we'll be most remembered for. Or our deference to a limited-power judicial branch.

I think the Australian Constitution has more checks and balances in place than does the American (Howard hasn't made nearly the headway in assuming dominance that Bush has done with only half the time in office).

However, it was drafted over a century after the US constitution, and so had the benefits of hindsight.

And both had the rule of law.

Something in Gore's speech disturbs me: he refers to the moribund state of congress as if it has been an empty shell for quite some time. Has it only become moribund post Bush (in which case the checks and balances must have been pretty weak), or has the malaise been apparent for longer (in which case, you have a systemic problem, which has, inevitably, been taken advantage of by an opportunist )

@Thane: maybe you should have shown your teacher Ken Burns' series on the American Civil War (assuming it was available!)... then again, maybe you'd have ended up with even more afternoon detentions watching it!!

For the record, slavery was made illegal in the British Empire in 1833 (the Slavery Abolition Act).

@ivan: the internet isn't necessarily american. Oh the *infrastructure* is american (being set up by DARPA to provide nuke proof communications), but the application (ie the 'web') was initiated at CERN by Tim Berners-Lee.

David Brin said...

Rob, about the CANTICLE FOR LIEBOWITZ thing... churches preserving knowledge through dark ages. I concede this partly... though a Catholic bishop gathered every Mayan manuscript known to exist, and put them in one big bonfire. Today’s Church has been pro-science for a generation. But that’s a generation.

But that’s beside the point. You believe that planting seeds will preserve the core elements of modernism for another age, after an interregnum of return to hierarchical despotism. I don’t see that at all.

The despots of the Hellenistic and Roman era knew very well what had happened in Periclean Athens. They could not destroy the resonance of that renaissance in peoples’ minds, so they used Plato and his followers to veer the emphasis of the Athenian legend, from democracy over to philosophy and the arts. It was a relentless propaganda campaign, state-supported, with the intent of keeping the Periclean experiment from ever getting tried again. And it worked for two thousand years.

Look at how terrifying the current modernist enlightenment is, to every style of old-fashioned hierarchalist! They are joining forces in desperate war against it. They know precisely what’s at stake. If modernism wins, all future elites will be kept naked. Rich, influential, but naked. And perpetually recycled, in a society where inheritance matters least, instead of most of all. And individualists will try to upset every apple cart, limited only by the criterion of harm, never by the criterion of tradition.

No, if the hierarchists prevail, you can be sure they will know exactly how to exploit their victory. Using fear, they will get public approval for turning democracy into a sacred farce. (This much, George Lucas foresaw clearly.) And then, they will set up situations that ensure Pericles stays buried. For good.

Simon, I agree “Pax” is an offensive image. I do it deliberately in order to provoke sober thinking. You may not like the image of USA as self-appointed policemen. But we all deeply benefitted, and will continue to benefit, from having such a cop around... even one who lapses into occasional hysteria or drunken vigilantism... until he can be replaced with genuine law. Because EVERY other time in world history featured worse bullies... or mobs. This cop may be highly temperamental and weird and almost bipolar in personality. But he means well, most of the time. And he saved the town more times than anyone can count.

Moreover... despite being wrong a lot... he has also been RIGHT more often than anyone else in town can claim to be.

Your list of foreign interventions made me chuckle. Compare it to any other empire.

Alas, Tony, I keep finding my ideas percolating in high places... and never get any phone calls or credit. Ah well. Gore can use anything he wants, any time. He may not have been presidential. But he’s a very very fine example of a man.

rws... your comparisons aren’t right. Just because randroids never had any power, that doesn’t make them any less directly comparable to Marxists in their utopian zeal, their dedication to simplistic models of human nature, their callous willingness, in theory, to sacrifice people on an altar of a theory. The fact that Ayn Rand never got her image on an empire’s billboards and rockets and postage stamps is GOOD news for humanity. I wish Marx had remained a dorm room argument theorist, too.

You further said: “Rand ignored and was ignorant of evolution and its impact on the mind. She was ignorant of cognitivescience (it didn't help that she died before most of it was done). But what I think she got right was the foundational importance of concepts and principles in trying to understand the world.”

Actually, that is Rand’s WORST trait. Her so called “objectivism” almost defines how modern lingo can be used to create old fashioned religious mantras that offer no falsifiable statements or opportunities for popperian disproof. Like Marx & Freud, she fell for the simplest guru-trap... wallowing in hero-adulation and dogma-building... instead of staying out there in science where the mature people play. But where the drug addiction of dogmatic sanctimony is harder to come by.

Getting more general, I deeply worry when people talk about principles and essences. These have been the tools of tyrants... or rather, the geeks in pointed hats who always cater to tyrants, by coming up with justifications for their tyranny. Plato was one archetype. Alas, many churches/priests did likewise.

Look, I don’t hate all logic/reason/faith/principles. Indeed, I hold to plenty of all four! Indeed, some principles are eminently PRAGMATIC! Take Freedom Of Speech. It is the core element of the Lockean Enlightenment -- along with Freedom to Know.

Together, these two things can make modernist civilization work. They are the main tools... and we cannot allow hierarchists to winnow them down.

They WILL winnow them, finding excuse after excuse...

...unless we elevate those two tools onto a higher plane. We must treat them AS IF they were “inalienable” and “self-evident”.

Even though the testimony of history tells another story. That they are among the LEAST natural of all human social innovations!

So? As a pragmatic measure we must treat them as if they were holy, sacred, fundamental. Only then will we defend them with sufficient ferocity.

See how it works? I agree with you that a back-forth between ideas and experimentation works. But I cannot afford an experiment in suppressing free speech. so that is the exception I insist upon.

Thane, I know the history of rationales for the Civil War. Nevertheless, my statement was clear. The moral effect of that campaign weighs heavily on the plus side for the Union. And against the credibility of Gray State claims of moral superiority.

Ouranosaurus said...

And, of course they're Republics. So are Canada, India, Pakistan, and Australia, after slightly different fashions. I don't see how that changes the point I was trying (unsuccessfully?) to make.

Canada isn't a republic, technically. We're a dominion. Which means nothing, except that Queen Elizabeth is technically our head of state, represented by a Governor General, who is appointed by our Prime Minister. Functionally, Canada is a fully independent country.

But it wasn't always that way. Canada was officially formed (Confederation) in 1867, and Britain controlled our external affairs until just after WWI. Because of the hideous losses by Canadian soldiers, there was brief political staredown, and Canada got the right to sign treaties, including the Versailles Treay, on its own.

The process of disengagement from Britain didn't end until we got our own constitution, under PM Pierre Trudeau. That was in my lifetime; I'm 27.

And we still have to pay for the Queen's bloody travel expenses when she visits.

jomama said...

One thing Rand said that I'm convinced of:

"Civilization is the progress toward a society of
privacy. The savage's whole existence is public,
ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is
the process of setting man free from men."
Ayn Rand (1905 - 1982), The Fountainhead

Rob Perkins said...

I'd forgotten about A Canticle for Liebowitz, though I shouldn't have. "Nightfall" told the same story. And the Foundation stories.

(Both by Asimov. Whattaguy...)

And I didn't say I believed in it! The preservation of Greek philosophies, even deflected into the arts, was simply a historical fact. And they couldn't keep the unintended consequences of that preservation.

And they couldn't, once Luther gave a prince or two tacit permission to deny the Pope's authority, appropriate the Church's learned men, and cut the products of a printing press loose for all to see.

My point of wonder is whether American or Western society has such potential, or whether we'll destroy ourselves so completely (*if*, not *when* such a thing comes to pass) that nothing of civilization remains.

That's *if*. Not *when*. I'll hopefully still be working what you call modernism until I die. Hopefully not violently or in a prison. Both would be an inconvenience to me. :-)

@Matthew, I fear y'all are entirely missing my point, dwelling on word choice instead of the sentences themselves. I know Canada isn't a "Republic" in the sense of the United States. That's beside my point. I think Britain left behind something fine in Commonwealth (which arose well after 1867).

It's still around today, and I think it's kept an otherwise very disparate set of nations from entirely repudiating what was positive about the British Empire.

Finally, none of those ideas are well-formed things. They're off the cuff comments in a blog, fer cryin' out loud... -)

David Brin said...

Thanks for the excellent Rand quotation. It beautifully illustrates how a great idea can get twisted.

Her fundamental premise is -- right there -- exposed as a strangely reversed hybrid of BOTH Hobbes and Rousseau, beautifully illustrating how both extremes are simply different takes on romanticism.

She appears to say that mankind's original state is brutish and nasty, like Hobbes. Only her variation is that individuals are inherently worthy of freedom, and limited only by oppressive society -- which hearkens to Rousseau!

This mix-match is not contradictory in itself. But it is universally diagnostic (claims a perfect diagnosis of human ills) and universally prescriptive. A surefire sign of romantic idealism.

Not a hint of recognition that human beings have a perfectly wonderful record of acting in predatory ways AS INDIVIDUALS. Indeed, Hobbes is quite right that this modus (individual predation) prevails if all social restraints vanish.

Of course, Rand would go on to accept some social constraints, e.g. a slimmed state that suppresses outright bullying and that enforces contracts. Only now, the pure statement is gone!

Let me avow that, as a kind of libertarian, I am drawn by the DEEP meaning of her statement. Only I would reword it entirely.

What we want is for individuals to be empowered to maximally pursue and achieve those goals that do not interfere unduly with the goals of other people. A decent state helps people negotiate the best arrangements that empowered citizens can make with the largest number of other citizens, in order to interpret "unduly" in the most satisfying way achievable by all. Ideally, in a way utilizing a minimum of coercion.

I would add that the state, being immortal, is also well suited to enter such negotiations on behalf of those who cannot negotiate for themselves. For example, the utterly powerless. Also, preserving the later empowerment of generations yet to come.

If you emphasize empowerment, then you realize that "privacy" is a red herring. What is needed is the open sharing of knowledge that is the fundamental material out of which reciprocal accountability arises.

The key to the society of freedom is not an ability to hide from others. It is the power even for the poor to hold the mighty accountable. That does not come about from hiding.

It comes from ensuring that people do not profit from bullying and cheating, anywhere near as readily as they do by either cooperating or competing fairly.

You cannot prescribe such a system. You can only build one.

skribe said...

Malaysia still recognizes Elizabeth as their titular head.

No they don't. The head of state is the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. The reigning monarch of England has no role in the government of Malaysia.

And, of course they're Republics. So are Canada, India, Pakistan, and Australia

Canada and Australia are both currently constitutional monarchies. The monarch of England is their head of state, although here we call her the Queen of Australia to pretend we're not under the province of a foreign power. All laws passed by the parliament have to be ratified/signed by her, although it is done via proxy by the respective Governors-General.

I guess my comments challenge your argument by diminishing the role of the Commonwealth from a commonwealth of many states with a single titular leader to a powerless private club, where each of the members are independent but they occasionally meet up to have drinks and chat about old times. The true legacies of the British Empire are cricket and football (soccer).

skribe said...

The process of disengagement from Britain didn't end until we got our own constitution

Oz has had its own constitution since federation in 1901 and technically it was an independent nation from then as well. However IIRC in 1933 the Privy Council (the monarch's advisers) rejected a referendum by Western Australia to secede.

Tony Fisk said...

@jomama: DB got in first, but I will refer you to chapter 3 of 'The Transparent Society' ('Privacy Under Siege'). DB offers a number of examples whereby the tools allowed by civilisation are systematically used to *reduce* privacy.

(David, that book is six years old now, and written pre 9/11. Has any of your thinking changed since?)

Quoth Rob:
(Both by Asimov. Whattaguy...)

I presume you mean 'Nightfall' and 'Foundation'? 'A Canticle For Leibowitsz' was written by Walter M. Miller Jr.

(As you say: off the cuff)

Quoth Skribe:
The true legacies of the British Empire are cricket and football (soccer).
Not as silly as it sounds. (ties that bind societies). I wasn't sure about soccer being British, but it appears to be so (and wikipedia never lies...for long! Marn Grook, anyone?;-)

Tony Fisk said...

Off topic:

More on the Al-Jazeera memo:

It appears that Liverpool MP Peter Kilfoyle sent the memo to the democrats. Apparently, they didn't use it for fear it would *boost* Bush's chances of victory (??? if that notion is true, can I register to join another species, please?)

skribe said...

I wasn't sure about soccer being British

While the Poms didn't invent the game they certainly formulated the rules and took it to the world. In fact many of today's most famous international football clubs began as ex-pat tennis and athletics clubs that took up football during the wet months. Football's spread was surprisingly quick. The Italians have a term for football crowd called tifosi, which takes its name from Typhoid. Football spread through Italy like Typhoid.

Anonymous said...

reason said “What on earth are you talking about? Yes if exponential growth continues indefinitely it will dominate.”

Forever is a long time from now, if the current trends continue for even 25 more years it could put us in a place both dreams and nightmares are made of.

The key attribute is intelligence, what are the bounds on intelligence?

Investigations on the upper bounds of computation suggest that we are 40 orders of magnitude away from known physical limits or about 250 years of moores law doublings.

Semiconductor industry road maps have plans going out 10 years. After that maybe there will be a pause, or maybe three of the two dozen alternatives to silicon will pan out or we will finally go vertical!

AIXI theory and other mathematical investigations into the foundations of intelligence strongly suggest that an intelligence orders of magnitude beyond that found in humans is possible, though they are still working on getting it to be computable :)

For a universal definition of intelligence that scales as needed see:

For speculation as to where this can lead, a non-fiction voice can be found in “The Singularity is Near” by Ray Kurzwiel. Or if you want to make 40 trillion dollars see

For fiction fans there is Charles Stross's Accelerando ( He even takes some mean (and bazaar) jabs at Objectivists.

For a historical view nothing beats the good old “Ultimate Resource II” by Julian Simon.

At this point the future is at best a set of probability distributions that we can only guess at. But I think if these exponential models are not in your idea space, then you arn't playing with a full eigenvector :)

Anonymous said...

Only time for snipits of ideas...

“to sacrifice people on an altar of a theory...” What is strange about this claim is that Rand central political and moral claim is that we should not sacrifice ourself or *others*. As she put it “I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine”

Second she makes all kinds of falsifiable (and many I think false) claims. No she was not a scientist. In some strange fantasies I have had Richard Feynman would have met her before she became famous and talked some sense into her on a number of issues.

“Only her variation is that individuals are inherently worthy of freedom, and limited only by oppressive society” That may be somewhere in her quote, but its 90 degress from her actual thinking. She regards people as being primarily limited by themselves, and their ideas. If anything abstract its bad philosophy that is her bogey man. The main villains in her two major books are a news paper columnist and a man who inherits a railroad, not society, not government. In one of her essays (philosophy who needs it) she makes a lot about the importance of philosophy and morality to a man stranded on an island.

What strikes me as very strange about this discussion is that it seems like you are against these people on the principle that they over simplify and use principles and in the process are simplifying past the content of their ideas and the notion that this might at times trump their form which you dislike. Ideas, principles, and knives are tools and you can use them to cut both ways.

reason said...

To come back to your comment - what on earth IS balanced growth (Balanced against what?)? Can it be exponential? Anything that is exponential (especially with increasing returns) will end up with so large a number that it will end up breaking some important limit.
I think with increasing knowledge, sophistication and technology it is possible that we can (and have) shift(ed) the limits a bit. But to pretend that indefinite exponential growth is possible is simply naive. A mature society should be content to grow marginally. Quality not quantity. Does anyone out there think for instance that the Chinese economy will continue for the next 50 years to grow at 9%? Just do the maths.

reason said...


Forever is a long time from now, if the current trends continue for even 25 more years it could put us in a place both dreams and nightmares are made of.

Don't worry they won't. You can bet on it.-)

Anonymous said...

I guess all my links were overwhelming so let me simplify.

Yes there are limits. We are really really really far away from the limits. We don't need an indefinite amount of time, just 25 years.

P.S China can grow at 9% for 25 years and not even reach parity with current US/EU standards of living. Starting at 871 $ per person GNP/person can grow for 50 years, and be a reasonable 2-3x current US standards.

Source of china GNP figure:

Rob Perkins said...

Tony, I know who wrote Canticle. Read my comment again.

I've read enough of Rand to suppose that as a borgois victim of rising Soviet communism (see We the Living) Her philosophy is very nearly a complete polar knee-jerk to Marx's... except that she believes in the mass opiate nature of religions just as completely as Marx did.

If the idea of Commonwealth isn't actually compelling enough to either its member states or its people to want to keep it alive, well, I'm not married to it either. I guess it isn't an idea with any staying power at all.

Perhaps the idea that will stick to WCN is "democracy" itself. Perhaps "freedom of speech and of the press." I dunno; I'm throwing stuff out to see what sticks.

skribe said...

If the idea of Commonwealth isn't actually compelling enough to either its member states or its people to want to keep it alive, well, I'm not married to it either. I guess it isn't an idea with any staying power at all.

I'd be surprised if it survives into the middle of this century. It really lost any relevance when the UK decided to divert its attentions away from its former colonies and join the EEC (subsequently the EU).

reason said...


Starting at 871 $ per person GNP/person can grow for 50 years, and be a reasonable 2-3x current US standards.

And so require about 8-12x as much resources. (Well allowing for a bit of efficiency improvement - maybe only 5x as much). Maybe there will be a technological miracle in the next 50 years, its just that I wouldn't count on it. People who were born 80 years ago still feel they are living in the same world. Whatever happened to Jet Jackson dreams?