Progress in Politics

The longer I live, the more skeptical I become that the history of man has seen any real, unambiguous advances in the understanding of how to organize public life.

In science, we see a definite kind of progress.  About a century ago, we were barely able to demonstrate the existence of atoms and of other galaxies.  Today, we know a great deal about the constituent parts of atoms and other galaxies.  Our proofs of the existence of these things are so extensive and unambiguous that we don’t even bother noting when another confirmation of these known facts comes along.  Scientific knowledge has continued to advance, and as the frontier has moved, those things no longer on the frontier have grown in certaintly.  On the other hand, nobody would say that the existence of atoms or galaxies should be obvious to anyone who didn’t have access to the observations and measurements carried out by modern science.  We can understand perfectly well how our ancestors didn’t know these things.

Then there’s the case of philosophy, which notoriously doesn’t advance in this way.  Thousands of years ago, people argued about the problem of universals, and thousands of years hence, they will probably continue to do so.  Such problems are difficult and perhaps unsolvable.  On the other hand, philosophy does advance in the sense that problems do get clarified.  Finer and finer distinctions are made, so that related but distinct meanings of words like “free will”, “natural”, and “innate idea” are explicitly separated; more sophisticated arguments for both sides of an issue are developed and responded to.  Despite clarifiations of this type, we would never despise earlier generations who shared our intuitions but didn’t state them as precisely.

In politics, there are are also big questions.  Some of the main ones are

  1. Tribalism vs civilization:  should authority be attached to a coalition of extended families, or a definite piece of territory?
  2. Inheritance:  should property belong primarily to families or to individuals?
  3. Monarchy vs democracy:  which is better?
  4. Religion:  should there be an established church or not?

Now, these problems do get settled.  In the contemporary West, there’s not one man in a thousand who wouldn’t take the second position over the first in each case.  Why is this, though?  Is it because, like in the case of science, we know so much more now that we can see where our ancestors went wrong?  We most certainly can’t see how they went wrong, because not one man in a thousand today even knows any of the arguments that were once made in favor of tribalism, trusteeship, monarchy, or established religion.  Everyone just has it in their heads that these positions are obviously wrong, and mankind just happened to go ten thousand years or so without ever noticing the obvious.  That this claim is manifestly implausible and ignorance-based causes people not a moment of doubt.

Let’s start with the what one would expect to be the most obvious of these obvious positions, that civilization is superior to tribalism (“barbarism”).  Ask anyone why he thinks this, and his mind will fill with images of naked savages eating raw bugs and sacrificing virgins to imaginary gods.  This is not thinking; this is just prejudice.  Civil vs. tribal authority has nothing to do with clothing, diet, technology, or human sacrifice.  Any type or level of these could be found in either.  “But we can’t just have tribes murdering each other, right?”  Well, why is that worse than nations murdering each other?  “But what’s to stop the chief from abusing his authority?”  Tradition, religion, and family heads, to name just three.  What’s to stop civil governments from abusing their authority?  You see, the issue is not obvious.  Now, just like most Westerners, I’m pretty sure I prefer living in civilization.  What I’m not sure, though, is that my preference is any more rational than that of the aborigine who prefers the tribe he’s lived in all his life.

Similarly, everyone today just knows that primogeniture is stupid.  What makes this obvious to them, though, is that they don’t know how their ancestors regarded property, that for them it was a family trust rather than a private possession.  Is it obvious that the new understanding is better?  It may be, but I’ve never heard the argument made.

Arguing with people in favor of monarchy, as I have, seems to be a futile exercise.  People today are entirely convinced that monarchy means having an unchecked tyrant, always deranged and sadistic, murdering his subjects with impunity.  Of course, this image bears no resemblance to monarchy as it has actually existed.  More importantly, one must ask that, if a political system is to be judged by its worst possible abuse, does democracy come off any better?  Is a mad tyrant unchecked by a magistracy any worse than a mad mob stirred up by a vicious demagogue unchecked by a civil service?

The opposition to religious establishment is also based entirely on bigotry rather than reason.  In this case, people are motivated entirely by a belief in the wickedness of the Catholic episcopacy.  “We can’t let those people have power!”  Well, what makes you think that “those people” are any worse than any other group of people, aside from the images put into your head by silly anticlerical literary stereotypes?  Why is it worse to organize a country according to Christianity than to organize it according to utilitarianism?

It’s not that people have bad reasons for their beliefs.  They don’t have reasons at all, just mental pictures and associations.  Transport a monarchist from the past to debate with them, and they’d have no idea how to answer his arguments.  The monarchist’s arguments haven’t been refuted; they’ve just been ignored and forgotten.

It’s depressing to think that all the certainty we have in politics comes from substituting arguments with prejudices.  What’s worse is knowing that this will be the fate of my beliefs (i.e. those that haven’t suffered it already).  Ask someone two hundred years in the future why he’s so sure abortion should be legal, and you’ll probably hear something like, “People who thought otherwise used to eat raw maggots and burn people at the stake!  I’m not like that!”  That’s the extent of our reasoning powers today, and it’s not getting any better.

5 Responses

  1. Sacrifice or Murder?…

    I found your entry interesting thus I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  2. This is a good point. Distressingly, I’m not sure how many of my beliefs would withstand this scrutiny. I think it’s natural to form worldviews based on prejudice. It’s basically shortcutting the examination and reasoning process so you have more time to worry about other things. Maybe our problem is that we insist that we don’t do that, so our prejudices aren’t seen for what they are.

  3. Hello Mr. Weber,

    Thanks for commenting. I think you’re absolutely right: prejudices are unavoidable (and often beneficial), but we owe it to ourselves and others to recognize them as such.

  4. I agree with you that too many people fail to even try to understand the beliefs of others, let alone their own, and instead resort to prejudice and lazy stereotypes.

    But I’d argue that in the system of governance that you propose, critical thought would be discouraged and prejudice encouraged, so as not to undermine the authority of the monarchy and church. Would educators really allow alternate political philosophies to be discussed in educational institutions? Do you really think that the free discussion of ideas using principles of reason would result in the unanimous acceptance of monarchism and church rule, or even acceptance by the majority? I doubt it. If the past few hundred years have taught us anything its that people tend to disagree, and that people are often keen to turn their abstract ideals into political realities.

    If we look at the history of monarchies and church dominated political systems we see a history of the suppression of alternate ideas, and the often violent measures taken against ideological opponents. I would argue that this action was necessary for the survival of these regimes.

    In our current system of government you enjoy free speech. The depression you feel at your views not being taken seriously would surely be dwarfed by the depression felt by a subject who cannot express their views at all. Would this not be an inexcusable double standard?

  5. Hi Tom,

    Thanks for reading my post and taking the time to comment. You raise the issue of free speech, which is important enough to be worth discussing. It’s not clear to me that there’s any intrinsic connection between democracy and the lack of explicit speach restrictions. (European and Canadian hate speech laws would be counter-examples. You are, I suppose, right to think I should be grateful that I’m not subjected to these.) Another interesting disagreement between us is that you think disagreement is the natural state of things, while my post was a long lament that people tend to establish consensus even when they haven’t earned it. According to Tocqueville, by the way, this sort of conformism is particularly prevalent in democracies.

    In any case, as I explain in my Defense of Censorship, I’m not in principle opposed to restrictions on speech that demoralize or delegitimize the community. It wouldn’t bother me a bit if people who want to sell pornography, blaspheme, or promote revolution felt bad because they weren’t allowed to do it. My problem with the Whig version of history is not that it is established, but that it is wrong, insulting, superficial, and stupid.

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