Under The Sun

Friday, April 25, 2003

Democracy in the very long term. Is the "open society" sufficiently adaptable and sufficiently robust to compete and survive in the ages (post-Industrial, post-Information, etc.) to come?

Painting with a broad brush, I see three major flaws from which the open society is at risk:

(1) Capitalism. Both Marx and Schumpeter have argued that capitalism is not viable in the very long term. I'm not very familiar with Schumpeter's argument, but Marx's can be paraphrased thus: the natural tendency toward power-law distribtion (few with most, many with little) means that capitalism will always be barely staving off a proletarian revolution. Can the small compromises of the welfare state keep the proletariat pacified indefinitely? Will the overall real standard of living (bang-for-buck) rise fast enough to solve the problem of scarcity in time to prevent the big crunch? Is there room on this planet--are there enough resources--for a worldwide profusion of consumerist capitalist states?--or will we get our act together and find other planets to spread out to? Or--gasp!--will Marx eventually be proved correct?

(2) Idiotocracy. The quality of democratic government is steadily getting worse. Bureaucracy proliferates; the political process seems to preclude candidates with ideas. So far the open society has proved quite good at running itself despite its nominal leaders, but have we really transcended the need for leadership? Ancient Athens hadn't: when the going got tough, the tough got ostracized, and Sparta won the war. If we want to win our current war--the overall war, not merely the small wars--we will have to escape the trap that closed on Athens. So far we have made no obvious moves in that direction.

(3) Equality. Political equality is an enforced lie--well-intentioned, but still a lie--and because it does not correspond to reality, it creates inefficiency. This is related to idiotocracy, of course, but is broader and deeper. The open society in general does not reward merit and does not reward vitality: the weaker are supported, at the cost of a disproportionate share of our total resources, while the strongest are left to fend for themselves. Again: there is a strong moral case for this, but it does have consequences. One consequence is that a less equal society--a meritocracy, perhaps, or even a social-darwinist machine state--would in theory be able to out-think or out-work ours. Will the unfreedom of such societies cost more efficiency than their advantages gain? Or will their willingness to embrace "immoral" new technologies--genetic engineering, perhaps, or nanotechnology, or cybernetics, or whatever else moves from science-fiction into reality--give them an insurmountable advantage?

It's an old truth that winners don't adapt. The open society won the race from agriculture through industry to information. Now we're pausing for breath, and letting--helping--the rest of the world catch up. (This is a good thing, of course.) Will we be able to shift back into high gear in time to take the lead in the next race? Will we care to try? Should we care to try? One thing is clear: as ever, we--humanity--are too tangled in the present to take proper account of the future. The future, of course, will happen regardless. But, as ever, some us hope that trying to predict it, or at least understand it, might ease some of the growing pains.

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