The Extinction of Politics
A speculation on the relationship between Ecology, Politics and Government
Dedicated to John Adams
When The Origin of the Species appeared in 1859 the first people to appropriate Darwin’s ideas were the wealthy, who quickly promoted pseudo-scientific arguments using “natural selection” to rationalize their domination of society. At the time, Anarchism, Communism and Socialism were all taken as serious threats to the existing social order. Evolution seemed to offer a solid scientific rebuttal. This line of defense was eventually discredited, however, and today the phrase “social Darwinism” is universally recognized as a negative comment on half-truths that use “science” to excuse oppression and racism. The very mention of Darwin’s name in a political context is now likely to raise eyebrows. Nevertheless, in the following essay I have chosen to revisit social Darwinism. I justify this by examining the same subject and drawing wholly different conclusions.
In the 19th Century Darwin was exploited to justify the status quo. Fetid slums, child labor, eighteen hour workdays and global imperialism were all justified as necessary manifestations of a pre-ordained natural process. Today, I would use Darwin to discredit, once and for all, the notion that such that such things are unavoidable; arguing that contemporary class divisions and the Nationalistic sparring of global geopolitics are an anachronistic evolutionary inheritance from the pre-industrial era - prehistoric baggage. In the ecological dynamic governing our species biological existence during that former period class structure provided a vital advantage to human populations competing (militarily) over limited habitat (agricultural land). Class oppression and warfare were as inevitable as famine and pestilence; all necessary parts of a self-regulating natural system (much as the original social-Darwinists had in fact argued). However, in the post-agrarian, industrial world which emerged during the 19th Century that ancient natural system was upended. Hunger and plague are largely gone now. Social violence should be also. Oppression and warfare are no longer unavoidable parts of a balanced natural system, they exist primarily because human social institutions which evolved under the former dynamic actively perpetuate them. As a species, our means of existence changed practically overnight, but social structures which evolved over the course of millennia are not easily replaced. To end oppression, warfare and environmental insanity we must modify the institutional mechanisms which facilitate them.
It is my position (contrary to popular belief) that our Constitutional system of Government is foremost among those anachronistic institutions upholding class divisions and perpetuating military aggression. The framers were not true revolutionaries. They made modest adjustments to the traditional English governing institutions that they were familiar with. The resultant system was appropriate to the 18th Century but failed to anticipate the stunning changes that would inevitably be wrought by industrialism in the following centuries.
From the 19th Century onward there have been countless demands for an end to the economic oppression and interminable warfare perpetuated by traditional governing institutions, but the arguments used, on both sides of the debate, have generally lacked coherence. Supporters of the established order jettisoned Darwin in favor of Adam Smith but their arguments remain pseudo-scientific; with “market forces” replacing “natural selection” as the technical excuse for a wide range of destructive practices. Proponents of change have shown even less creativity, making little effort to supplant the doctrine of Karl Marx even though his thesis could equally be described as pseudoscience. Both sides regularly resort to couching their arguments in the language of Judeo-Christian morality, implying that more scientific arguments have clearly fallen short of the objective. Neither side has ever seriously questioned the fundamental primacy of Republican political institutions. In this environment of intellectual stagnation nationalist and capitalist propaganda either goes unchallenged or receives ineffectual moral rebukes. Two centuries after the birth of Marx, oppression and warfare are as pronounced as ever, while the consequences of the industrial revolution threaten to overwhelm human society. If social justice and environmental sanity are indeed possible, they will surely require an advancement of the intellectual position supporting them.
The struggle between progressive and conservative forces hinges on ideas. The success of progressive goals depends (at least partially) on the quality of progressive concepts. There is as much orthodoxy on the Left as the Right. To move forward we must first confront our preconceptions. The views which I express in the following pages are unconventional, but I take comfort from the example of John Adams, who always possessed the courage of his convictions even when those convictions were universally unpopular. I dedicate this essay to Adams and quote him freely throughout because I believe that any argument against our Constitution should answer directly to the minds which created it. His thinking was central to the design of our Constitution but he was also a tremendous critic, especially in later years. Perhaps after two centuries we may yet wish to consider those criticisms.
The Theological Interpretation of the Constitution
"Study government as you do astronomy, by facts, observations and experiments; not by the dogmas of lying priest or knavish politicians"
"Whatever is not built on the broad basis of public utility must be thrown to the ground"
"Theoretical books upon government will not sell. Booksellers and printers, far from purchasing the manuscript, will not accept it as a gift"
"Experience and philosophy are lost upon mankind…"
John Adams was eminently qualified to lead our Country; a Harvard trained lawyer and polyglot with an encyclopedic knowledge of Western history, he was well equipped to judge on the important issues facing a young nation. As part of this broad wisdom, he had a firm grasp of two fundamental truths:
Government is (or should be) a science, not a superstition.
Dogma and misunderstanding (which permeated the subject even then) are an insurmountable obstacle to its progress.
If these obstacles held sway in Adam’s day, during the enlightenment, how much more so now, in an age when U. S. Lawmakers openly reject the virtues of liberal education and scientific knowledge; publicly disavowing the theories of Evolution and human induced climate change? Most contemporary Americans would endure a root canal before reading Locke, Rousseau or Montesquieu. Our elected representatives are no exception to this sentiment. In a more thoughtful age, Adams made a sincere contribution to the political literature and suffered the rest of his life as a target for every sort of libel and slander; all because he dared to suggest (on the basis of voluminous historic evidence) that an overly democratic Republic might have some serious unanticipated consequences. Today, no establishment intellectual would dare to question the divine perfection of our Constitution’s general plan. It would be an act of social heresy and professional suicide, contradicting the revered maxims of modern political science. But what kind of “science” enforces a rigid doctrinal orthodoxy?
In natural science we've abandoned leeches and kite flying for genetic engineering and quantum computing, but the science of government stands motionless. After two centuries we still argue over the precise intention of the framers, as though unable to think for ourselves. If computer scientists at MIT spent their days scrutinizing Benjamin Franklin's lab notes would we take them seriously? If your doctor discounted the existence of microbes would you continue visiting her? This isn't political “science”, it's theology! The Constitution has become a sacred tablet which the patriarchal pretenders of our society use to uphold a status quo from the pre-industrial era.
Grand Ayatollahs and Supreme Court Justices both wear black robes while enforcing conformity in the name of an ancient document, but there is a critical difference. The will of Allah is inscrutable whereas the earthly intentions of the framers were clearly stated in plain English at the beginning of their document. Secular ends demand secular means. When government becomes destructive of those ends it is the right of the people to change their means. This is the province of science, not religion. But the theological interpretation of the Constitution is so ingrained we are mostly unable to see beyond it. Instead of doubting the institutions of government we largely accept their suitability as a given, even when the actions of that government are frequently repulsive to us.
Medieval peasants accepted the Catholic church as we accept the institutions of our Republic. On faith. Even the Inquisition was accepted as god's work, just as Guantanamo is considered defensible by many today. There are many who disagree with such atrocities but few who blame the institution itself: a wicked Cardinal? - yes certainly; a corrupt politician? - what else; But a failed institution? - no absolutely not, the Church and Republic are both beyond reproach no matter what evil is perpetrated in their names. We must pray harder and campaign more vigorously. In the end virtue will prevail, both in heaven and on earth.
For the faithful, living in a religious age, this attitude was understandable. Gods will is mysterious and we mortals must submit. For the modern followers of a “scientific” political ideology, however, this attitude is inexplicable. The ideology is simply a tool established by mortals for an earthly goal; social harmony. When the tool fails to serve we must examine it to understand the problem. When we identify the problem then we may seek to repair it.
Our Republic is often described as an experiment. If the framers were scientists, the trial appears to have gone astray. It would seem wise then, under the circumstances, to review their thinking so that we may analyze the situation intelligently. We should examine their words not as a sacred text but as laboratory notes, seeking clues, not religious instruction. Our world has changed almost beyond recognition since the 18th Century. What scientist imagines their experiment will be duplicated when virtually all of the original conditions are altered? Instead of expecting something so improbable we should study the problem, like Adam’s “astronomer”, with an eye for “facts”, not “dogma”
Abuses and Usurpations
"I know but one principle or element of government….a constant and perpetual disposition and determination to do to others as we would have others do to us"
"Justice is the only moral principle of government"
Not to belabor the obvious but rather in the interest of establishing our premises on a sound foundation, we should start at the beginning and renew our understanding of the framer’s purposes. What postulates did the framers accept? What durable wisdom did they derive from three thousand years of European and Mediterranean history? On what solid footings did they erect their work? Do these premises still work for us today?
They concurred with Socrates and nearly every other philosopher (except perhaps Machiavelli) by stating unequivocally that Governments are created for the benefit of those to be governed. “Freedom”, “happiness“ , “safety“, “justice“, “domestic tranquility” and “general welfare”; these are the goals of Government. Government is expected to provide these goods, and ultimately derive its legitimacy through the “consent of the governed” who believe that these functions have been fulfilled. This position isn't science, it’s philosophy, but surely this is one article of faith which even today we may all accept. In fact, it seems so incontrovertible as to be scarcely worth mentioning, except for a glaring inconsistency: the elephant in the room which is so painfully illuminated by these words. If government is an institution that provides for the general welfare of a consenting populace, why is our society so unwell, and why is it that our consent is so clearly forced?
What are we to do with this information? Is this not an enormous problem? The Republic was instituted to support our health and happiness, and yet:
What justice when a small fraction of the population holds most of the wealth and, by virtue of this wealth, enjoys an unlimited power to manipulate the political system?
What freedom, happiness and tranquility when the overwhelming majority, having little or no wealth, are de facto slaves to these wealthy overlords?
What welfare when our use of the earth’s resources threatens to render the earth uninhabitable?
What safety when the common defense threatens to annihilate us?
What consent when fewer than one citizen in ten approves of his elected representatives?
What person would seriously contend this is “a more perfect union”? Are these “the blessings of liberty”? If “Justice is the only moral principle of Government” then how may we call this state of affairs anything other than a failure?
If we truly revere the framers, as so many claim to, then we must acknowledge this glaring and horrific discrepancy between the stated purpose of our government and the reality of the actual existence which we now lead. And if we will admit the obvious, and concede that our Government has become counterproductive to the desired ends, then we must look for some flaw in our Government. It is pointless resorting to the theological interpretation of the Constitution. Adopting a moral tone and blaming plutocrats, political parties, lobbyists, corporations or any other group, is futile. Of course these parties are flawed, we are all flawed, but it is the function of Government to protect us; from each other and also from ourselves. Remember Madison, the “father” or our Constitution:
If men were angels no government would be necessary
When government fails to achieve the desired ends it is absurd to blame that failure on the citizens. Government exists because humans are imperfect. When the citizens run amuck we must look to the Constitution, not the people. The other view is backwards.
If the framer’s experiment has gone awry there is no shortage of material to examine in our search for answers. The conditions of their experiment were the total reality of human existence in the 18th Century; the sum of our social, spiritual, intellectual, economic and technological life. Not only has our physical existence changed virtually beyond recognition but so also have our attitudes. One might advance scores of theories on the unsuitability of an 18th Century document to serve as the ultimate authority guiding humankind in the 21st Century. In the following pages I advance just one.
“Checks and Balances” revisited
"Food. Raiment, and habitations, the indispensable wants of all, are not to be achieved without the continual toil of ninety-nine in a hundred of mankind….The controversy between the rich and the poor, the laborious and the idle, the learned and the ignorant, distinctions as old as the creation, and as extensive as the globe, distinctions which no art or policy, no degree of virtue or philosophy can ever wholly destroy, will continue, and rivalries will spring out of them. These parties will be represented in the legislature, and must be balanced, or one will oppress the other. There will never probably be found any other mode of establishing such an equilibrium , than by constituting the representation of each an independent branch of the legislature, and an independent executive authority, such as that in our government, to be a third branch and a mediator or an arbitrator between them. Property must be secured, or liberty cannot exist."
"The great art of lawgiving consists in balancing the poor against the rich in the legislature."
The above statements by Adams may provide a clue as to where the framers’ experiment went wrong. Proponents of our political system rarely tire of extolling the great virtue of its “checks and balances”, but as Adams states quite clearly here, the elaborate mechanism of our government was created solely for the purpose of maintaining a social order in which the "rich" are supported by "the continual toil of ninety nine in a hundred". Two centuries before the Occupy Wall Street protests, the most thoughtful of the framers makes it clear that the Occupiers are absolutely correct in their assessment of American society. Similar explanations of our Constitutional system appear throughout The Federalist. What Adams says here, was once common knowledge among all educated people. America was founded on solid principles of inequality.
It would be unfair to condemn Adams and his peers. Class divisions are as old as civilization and the framers were both wealthy and pragmatic. We cannot reasonably imagine they would have attempted to create a Utopia. They simply wished to design a Republic which tempered the excesses of grinding despotism and revolutionary anarchy. Set in the context of the 18th Century, their thinking was progressive and humane. But is this thinking still appropriate today?
Nominally, the virtue of this class balancing act was that each party would be protected. The one percent would be limited in its oppression of the ninety nine; the ninety nine would not overthrow the one. Order would be maintained and property would be secure. Well, we have had order and property has been tremendously secure, but the benefits derived by the ninety nine are surely overstated. Perhaps the 99% did benefit from this system in the 18th Century but who seriously believes in those benefits today?
The essence of checks and balances was to maintain the status quo. Neither the rich nor the poor could fundamentally alter the system by themselves. But the status quo was not static, it was a dynamic system called Capitalism, and two centuries of buying, selling, research, investment and consolidation have generated an entirely new status quo based on technology the framers never even dreamed of, like automated mass production, nuclear power, artificial intelligence and genetic engineering. Surely this is a transformation worth contemplating. If the entire “art of lawgiving” consists in maintaining an economic system based on manual labor, what happens to Government when manual labor becomes virtually irrelevant? Did this transformation not remove much of the bargaining power once held by those laborers?…… Perhaps it’s time to reexamine those social and economic assumptions which the framers accepted as bedrock.
The “Class System” is not just a worn out Marxist cliché. It is a recognizable feature of the social landscape in every civilization which has ever existed. Adams describes its perpetuation as the central problem in Government. That being the case, is it unreasonable to examine this system in detail? Would it not be scientific to examine the history behind the central feature of our political system? Is it not at least conceivable that an understanding of the class system may shed light on the self evident failures of our Constitutional government? Can we do this without simply being derided as “Socialists” or, god forbid, “Communists”!?
To accomplish this examination, it may be desirable to frame the subject differently and shift from “politics” into “ecology”. Not that these two subject are necessarily so different, but it does fall outside of our habitual ways of treating the subject.
An Ecological theory of Class
"How is the nature of man, and of society, and of government, to be studied or known, but in the history and by the experience of human nature in its terrestrial existence?"
History (or her-story if you prefer) is not just a collection of facts, it’s a narrative. We use selected facts to tell a story that suits our taste. It’s a version of the old tale about three blind men describing an elephant. Each “sees” an entirely different creature. Similarly, there have been a variety of themes used in historical storytelling:
Traditionally there was the great man approach, which concentrated on the one percent; major actors like Alexander, Caesar and Charlemagne.
There is a Cyclical theory which suggests empires and civilizations rise and fall, as if driven by some sort of cosmic pendulum.
The notion of Progress represents a linear historical theme in which humanity is constantly improving. This is really just a warmed over version of Christianity in which a futuristic Utopia has been substituted for the second coming.
Some historians concentrate on technology. This is surely relevant but is it the driving force?
The Marxists concentrated on social class and technology both, which seems a more balanced approach. But they also accepted the notion of progress and this was problematic
Economic historians follow the money. Charles Beard made this school famous.
Popular historians (like Howard Zinn) concentrate on regular people, the ninety-nine percent, which is a nice change from the great man school, but does it explain history?
But has there ever been an Ecological school of history which explains the evolution of our political institutions primarily as a social adaptation allowing some human populations to compete more effectively in the eternal struggle over habitat? Not so far as I know, but I don’t understand why not. We are terrestrial creatures after all; we exist within the context of the earth’s biosphere and are a part of the complex web of ecological relationships which describe it. We are born, we grow, we reproduce and we die. Our populations compete for habitat and are limited by the available resources like all other creatures. Surely these facts have a bearing on our history. No theory of history is complete. Each is a model, a simplification, an effort to extract the most important elements from the full complexity of available information. An ecological interpretation of the class system may also be a gross simplification, but doesn’t it make sense to at least consider this perspective?
Whether we wish to admit it or not, humans are primates. As Jared Diamond has noted, to any impartial observer “humans” are clearly a variety of Chimpanzee. If you go back far enough our ancestors were naked, inarticulate scavengers with little of note to distinguish them from countless other species. Somehow, in the space of a hundred thousand years or so, we elevated ourselves to our current grandeur. This is the “history” of our “terrestrial existence”. Adams died before Darwin published but surely he would have appreciated the implications of Evolution. Human social institutions, like government, did not arise out of a vacuum, nor were they invented by philosophers. Our ecological history created them. Surely this history is relevant to our understanding of these institutions.
Today, in the 21st Century, most people seem to feel that the usual rules don’t apply to humans; that whatever our problems may be, they defy analysis in the same terms that we would apply to other species. Well perhaps there is truth in this, a species which manipulates nature on the scale that we do does seem to play by different rules. But it wasn't always like this for us, and if we consider human history from an ecological perspective this may offer us some novel insights. Like every other creature, we adopted social behaviors which suited our means of existence; once useful, now these behaviors have become harmful. Understanding how these social habits arose may be the first step towards controlling them.
Like most other species, humans are competitive, territorial and violent. Modern humans may sometimes belie this statement, but only on a good day. We justify this behavior with customs, codes and legal finery, but in the final analysis we are as primitive as two hyenas fighting over the same carcass. Unsurprisingly, our primate forebears are the same way. Jane Goodall had to wait a few years before witnessing her first full-on Chimp “genocide”, but now, after decades of close observation, we know that Chimps are no nicer than humans. They lack weapons but they’re hardly pacifists. And those distant human ancestors who followed the Chimps weren't so different either. Jared Diamond, who has spent decades observing the modern remnants of Paleolithic hunter/gatherer populations, has also noted a violent streak. To paraphrase loosely, he suggests that it was a major event in human history when people first learned not to kill strangers on sight! These indigenous cultures are already far removed from Goodall’s Chimps, but there is certainly an undeniable family resemblance.
The Earths resources are finite and life is a violent affair. Each species struggles for its niche in the total environment, specific populations compete with neighboring groups for a domain within that hard-won niche and individual creatures fight for place within their respective populations. These considerations apply to Chimpanzees, they applied to Paleolithic primates (whom we arbitrarily choose to call “human”) and they applied equally to those Neolithic populations which stumbled upon agriculture. Today, we manipulate our environment with godlike powers, but our social forms remain the product of an earlier time when humanity was still weak, and daily violence was an unavoidable fact of life. If we wish to be less violent today we should consider how we got that way in the first place.
Following the last ice age, our ancestors learned of a new way to acquire food. Agriculture allowed humans to extract sustenance from the earth more efficiently than hunting and gathering; it was a highly successful adaptation for our species, giving us a huge advantage over every other creature. We are told this shift to agriculture was the beginning of “Civilization” , and clearly it was the beginning of something enormous (whatever we choose to call it) but it was not the end of our subservience to the fundamental requirements of ecology.
Every population (of any species) will breed and multiply until it reaches a limit where the birth rate and death rate balance each other out. There are fluctuations of course, but behind these fluctuations there is a fundamental ecological relationship based on the full complexity of the earths organic and inorganic systems (in essence, everything from variations in the jet stream to the latest mutation of some microbe). For humans, agriculture altered these relationships enormously, but our species was still subject to the eternal necessity of balancing its population.
Many of the factors limiting population growth can be labeled as environmental - like weather, predation and topography - but in addition to these externally imposed limits there are also self imposed limits. Some creatures will eat the offspring of their rivals, some will eat their own offspring, and “war” is known even to ants. Consciously or not, each species understands the nature of limits and will use violence against its own kind in the service of necessity; either to limit competing groups inhabiting a contiguous domain or to eliminate competing individuals within a population. Jane Goodall witnessed this behavior among chimps, Jared Diamond has noted it among Paleolithic humans, and all of the same forces continued to apply even after humans gained agriculture.
If anything, agriculture would only have served to intensify our violent tendencies. Hunter/gatherers don’t achieve the population density of agricultural humans so there are fewer opportunities for conflict between groups, and when hunter/gatherers do experience conflict there is presumably a good chance that one group may move, rather than fight. But agricultural humans are tied to a specific geographic domain along with their crops, and agricultural humans achieve far greater population densities than their hunter/gatherer relatives, so serious conflict between groups seems much more likely.
In conflicts between hunter/gatherers and farmers, the farmers will normally have the advantage because of their greater population density and organizational skills. The hunter/gatherers are outnumbered and presumably retreat into the wild. But when the hunter/gatherers have all been displaced and a regions agricultural potential has been fully exploited by various populations of farmers, then the neighboring agricultural populations will eventually come into conflict when all of the good land has been occupied. It’s inevitable; oftentimes disease or famine may control the population, precluding the necessity for inter-group conflict, but at some point two agricultural societies expanded into one another. The resolution of this conflict had to be violent.
There is an account in one of the classic histories describing an armed incursion by Gaullist settlers into territory claimed by the Romans. When confronted by an envoy over this breach of Roman sovereignty the Gaul leader scoffs at their contrived legalistic reasoning: "We take this land by right of the ancient law which says that men who are hungry will cultivate land which is empty. Evict us if you dare, but you may expect to pay dearly for this earth." These Northern “barbarians” had a much clearer grasp of reality than the “civilized” Romans.
Form follows function. In obedience to ecological necessity human agricultural societies were designed to do two things:
extract sustenance from the earth
defend (or extend) the domain of a given population from competing groups
The specific behavioral features which maximize these functions are universal to all agricultural societies across the globe and they are as fundamental to civilization as the wheel and fire. Job specialization and regimentation; every society has them, and they were (for most of human history) absolutely essential. The efficient production of agricultural commodities and the maximization of military power both required these unique social adaptations.
The peasantry, comprising the bulk of society, worked diligently to produce as much food as possible, but despite their superior numbers, this group was always controlled by an aristocracy of professional warriors who protected the domain (or realm) from competing groups. This aristocracy relieved the peasants of their agricultural surplus and also pressed them into service as rank and file soldiers when needed. A class of lawyers, priests, traders and artisans supplemented this arrangement, but most people were peasants, while a relative few concentrated their full energies on warfare and government.
Human society was organized in conformance with the principles of ecology. Population levels would be regulated either by famine, disease or violence. Famine and disease may have been equally important from a quantitative perspective, but violence provided the organizing principle for our social structure. The exploitation of the peasantry was the foundation of all military power, and military competition has been the backdrop for all of human history. Right or wrong, good and evil; these concepts were irrelevant. Violence was essential to the operation and maintenance of this social organism. The military aristocracy pressed the peasantry as hard as possible because their surplus supported the army. If they failed to do this, some stronger neighbor would invade and do it for them. In fact, there is archaeological evidence (cited by Diamond) suggesting that humans were actually much healthier, on average, before the advent of “civilization”; in other words, the aristocracy often pushed the peasantry to the brink of starvation. Progress and Civilization, if such things truly exist, came with a very heavy price tag.
By now, this arrangement undoubtedly looks familiar, and the political overtones are inescapable. Yes, it is the same class system alluded to by Adams and Marx and numerous other observers. It’s not just a cliché, the class system is as real as death and taxes and gravity. The bulk of humanity have been exploited and slaughtered in the service of this social adaptation since the beginning of history. Once agriculture was discovered, this behavior became a necessity. Farming allowed humans to expropriate a much greater share of the earth's resources, but the price for this success was a grinding mechanistic social system which reduces most people to the level of interchangeable parts. It is a machine designed for conquest and subjection, without conscience or remorse.
Is this the system that the framers were so intent of protecting? Is the maintenance of this brutalizing social machine the “central problem of government”? If there is even a shadow of truth in this supposition then surely we must acknowledge that the perpetuation of this social automaton in the 21st Century represents a dire threat to our health and happiness. In the framers (pre-industrial) era, this class system remained the essential basis for all society; they sought to make the system run as smoothly as possible and we may admire them for their effort. But contemplate for a moment the manifest insanity of allowing such a mechanism to continue running in a world where all of the original ecologic parameters have been radically transformed and humanity now holds the power to mold its environment and manage its population with science, not violence. What purpose is served by war today? Why must there be oppression in the midst of plenty? Regard the modern world and ask yourself; does this not look like the work of a machine run amuck?
Despite the uncomplicated logic of this argument for a an ecological theory of class and notwithstanding the framers own documented assertions regarding the class-oriented function of checks and balances, most people will probably find it very difficult to reconcile this view of the U.S., as a conservative bastion of ancient class divisions, with the more accepted perception of our Republic as a progressive product of the Enlightenment; a modern bulwark of individual liberty. But regardless of the stirring language in the Declaration of Independence, was the Republic created by the Constitution really so very different from the Feudal forms of government which still prevailed in Europe at that time?
The French peasantry which revolted just after the Convention clearly fit the description of an oppressed agricultural class, but were the Pennsylvania farmers of our American Whiskey Rebellion really so different from their peers on the opposite side of the Atlantic? No doubt the Revolution was a watershed moment in American history and certainly life in North America was tremendously different from life in Europe, but were these differences of degree and detail or did they signify an actual fundamental divide between two wholly different systems?
Yes, the colonists enjoyed a larger degree of personal freedom and better economic prospects than most European peasants. The lightly populated habitat of North America offered a vast range for agricultural expansion with little of the population pressure experienced by Europeans living on a continent that had been filled up for centuries. Also, the colonists were, in the early years, largely absolved from much of the Royal taxation burdening their peers on the other side of the Atlantic, And in addition to these advantages, the oppressive Catholic and Anglican churches were largely excluded from the Colonies. But still, in the final analysis the U.S. was an economic and military enterprise, like any fief or kingdom
The several states agreed to joint taxation for the purposes of a common defense; reasonably assuming they might have to defend their territory from various European powers, or put down a rising of the peasantry (like the Whiskey Rebellion). It was a compact created in secrecy by a group of the most powerful men in the Confederacy and the results were obnoxious to many of the farmers who bore the brunt of the burden for supporting this venture. Some, like the irate farmers in Pennsylvania, even resorted to violence, but the military aristocracy defeated them easily. No, it wasn’t the French Revolution, but the fact that wealthy individuals on this side of the Atlantic feared an American version of the French Terror suggests that there were deep class divisions here as well.
It really seems as though the main differences between the east and west shores of the Atlantic were simply a matter of degree. A new population in a previously unexploited habitat enjoyed possibilities not open to the rival population remaining in the ancient environs, but the fundamental nature of social organization was essentially the same. The most substantial difference between the two populations appears to have been the means by which they chose their rulers. In continental Europe, inherited titles were the norm and elective positions the exception; in the U.S. there were to be no inherited titles, the very idea was outlawed. All rulers would be elected.
This final difference, on which so much blood and ink have been expended, is universally regarded as something more than a mere detail. Americans across the political spectrum regard their voting rights as a sacred privilege marking them a free people; the keystone of their Civil Liberties and a great gift from the Enlightenment. But this hallowed institution seems to co-exist very easily with obscene extremes of wealth and poverty. It has been no obstacle to slavery, conquest or oppression. Why, even Adolf Hitler was elected once, and in its original usage, the word “dictator” referred to an elective office in Rome
From the Revolution to the present, Americans have elected more than a hundred Congresses and dozens of Presidents. Through all of this we have consistently maintained a class structure with an astronomical gulf between rich and poor, and we have rarely gone more than a few years without engaging in a war somewhere. Superficially, it does not seem that our society is so exceptional or our institutions so novel. Yes our middle-class was perhaps larger and more prominent than any previous society and we can probably thank the framers for this fact. Checks and balances may indeed have afforded some protection to the 99%. But if we’re looking at the big picture, the rudiments of the class system are clearly present. Based on results, it’s not obvious that voting is such a revolutionary act or that our society is so unique as many would believe.
Is it possible that most of the advantages enjoyed by Americans are largely a product of our unique geographical situation and that these advantages have relatively little to do with our political institutions? Is it possible that our society is much more traditional than generally acknowledged? Is it conceivable that Voting, the heart of our political process, is not actually a progressive practice? Perhaps we may even describe voting as an ancient practice; an evolutionary adaptation at the very heart of the class system. Certainly this might go a long ways toward explaining some of our more intractable problems.
"Democracy…I have always been grieved by the gross abuse of this respectable word. One party speaks of it as the most amiable, venerable, indeed, as the sole object of its adoration; the other as the sole object of its scorn, abhorrence, and execration. Neither party, in my opinion, know what they say."
"Is not representation an essential and fundamental departure from democracy? Is not every representative government in the world an aristocracy?"
"Permit me to ask whether the descent of lands and goods and chattels does not constitute a hereditary order as decidedly as the descent of stars and garters?"
"There is a natural and unchangeable inconvenience in all popular elections…he who has the deepest purse or the fewest scruples will generally prevail"
"The multitude have always been credulous, and the few are always artful."
Consider (hypothetically) the origins of the class system in the first agricultural society. Farming had swelled the population until warfare between two neighboring groups was inevitable. Bloodshed was imminent. This prospect raises an interesting question; who created and led the first army? We may not know his name or what he looked like but we can certainly make a respectable guess about his character, personality and m. o.. He was the shrewdest, toughest son of a bitch in the group; able to prod, con, intimidate, inspire or simply pummel his peers into battle.
He had the foresight and calculation to understand that conflict was inevitable and he may actually have used this solid rational argument to persuade a few people, but others required a more creative approach. For those ruled by fear, he painted a horrific picture of the devastation they would experience by waiting for the enemy to attack first. For the greedy and hungry, he held out the promise of new lands to till. For the lustful he described the women they would enslave. The weak, he simply had to intimidate. And for those who were truly ambitious, his peers in violence and cunning, he held out the prospect of shared rule over this new dominion (some of these individuals died mysteriously in the days following the great battle, but others went on to become his trusted lieutenants). And with every audience he emphasized the ugliness and the backwardness of the “barbarians” on the other side of the river/hill/forest etc…As superior and virtuous beings, they would easily prevail over those savages.
Was this individual not a politician?…Was this process not a political campaign?…Was he not “elected” by his peers to be their commander and chief?….. Has this process really changed so much in ten thousand years?
Form follows function. Behavior is a product of evolution just as much as physiology. Each species adopts social conventions which improve the odds in their favor. Jaguars live in the dense jungle and hunt alone; they are solitary creatures. Lions live in the wide open veld and find it more profitable to hunt in packs; as a result they have a complex social structure. Human society has an evolutionary logic as well. For agricultural humans the problem was to acquire and hold good farm land. Our only serious competitors for this resource were other humans. Chimpanzees will compete for real-estate, but their efforts are clumsy and crude. With language, tools and organization we turned this competition into a science; the science of war.
We split our society into different parts, each specialized for a unique function. Most concentrated on producing food while a smaller number devoted their energies exclusively to warfare and government. There were other divisions as well. The rough outline of this social machine was universal but the precise makeup varied and the transient human atoms that composed it were always in flux. The management of this flux so that the social machine runs smoothly is a process known as politics. It was not invented recently and the fundamentals of political behavior have never changed, we have only tinkered with it a little in the past thousands of years.
We are mesmerized by the trappings of modern democracy. The campaigning, polling, balloting and perpetual intrigue of the legislative process are a constant distraction. But the fundamental act of choosing a leader or making a deal really hasn't changed since our ancestors left the jungle. Of course, a hundred thousand years ago in a hunter/gatherer tribe, the replacement of a chief (perhaps trampled by a Mammoth) would not require campaigning or balloting as such. There would be, perhaps, two or three obvious leaders among this group, and a natural process of factional formation would quickly determine who the next chief was. If the contest was close there may have been a scuffle to determine the issue, but is that so different from modern politics? Even today, political violence is common in many cultures. The U.S. has had its share of assassinations, violent protests and voter intimidation as well. We even had the duel of Burr vs. Hamilton; do fine clothing and oil paintings really make the incident any less primitive? If they had worn animal skins and fought with stone knives would this be so different?
Formal “Politics” is simply the process of organizing this perpetual power struggle, minimizing the violence and scaling up the methods to meet the needs of a much larger group; like a city-state or even a modern nation. But the fundamental process is universal and eternal. Call it politics, or Democracy, or majority rule or mob rule; this last is probably the most accurate. But call it what you will, every group of social animals (of any species) is forever in a state of movement, and that movement always looks about the same. Stronger creatures dominate (in general, politicians are still larger than average) but strength is transient and may be thwarted by new blood or new alliances or superior guile or luck. “Politics” is simply a primate variation of this process. We homo sapiens have refined the process of jockeying for position, making it more complex, more nuanced and usually less violent.
Most social animals, other chimps included, establish relationships of dominance and submission purely through aggression, but we articulate primates have a greater range of options at our disposal. Violence serves a purpose but it has limitations. No individual could hope to rule a large group purely on the basis of continual, overt displays of force. The trick is to form a coalition of individuals who agree to fight with you, then you have a convincing threat to support your edicts. If people fear your coalition then they will fear you. A majority is the ideal coalition because the math is irrefutable; obedience is virtually assured. This is the real foundation of our much vaunted faith in majority rule. Morality and ethics have little to do with it, it’s an unconscious acknowledgment that if 51% of the group favors something the other 49% would be wise to go along.
Majority rule is the foundation of all prior and existing governments. Even in cases of Monarchy, the progenitor, no matter how great a warrior he was, acquired power through the political process, and every heir must constantly remain aware of the shifting political sands. There is always a usurper waiting in the wings. A politician sensing opportunity. A new coalition ready to coalesce.
And how do you form a coalition? Violence and intimidation certainly can play a role, but it’s much more efficient to use the full arsenal of tools described by Adams:
artifice, dissimulation, hypocrisy, flattery, imposture, quackery and bribery
The 18th Century language is quaint, but the concepts are timeless. You can be certain all of these activities were well known long before anyone was writing things down. In fact, the ability to lie, consciously and convincingly (a skill underwriting all of these pursuits), is so basic to our species that it has even been observed in other primates. Jared Diamond describes a variety of monkey, illiterate creatures whose “language” consists of a small number of “calls”. These creatures have been observed to fool their enemies by pretending that a non-existent predator is at hand. In essence they cry “Wolf!”, to distract their competitors. And we think we’re so unique.
To say that lying is synonymous with politics may be a slight exaggeration but it’s surely not far off. More accurately, perhaps, we might say that lying and politics are Siamese twins; connected at birth and virtually inseparable. Viewed in this light, Political Reform is clearly an oxymoron. Political leaders are the human embodiment of natural selection in action. They do (and say) whatever is necessary to acquire and hold power. This rarely corresponds with anyone’s idea of morality. Most voters will recognize the truth in this observation, but still we continue voting, always hoping for a morally desirable outcome in the next election. But our disappointment is eternal, and after the election it only gets worse.
There is an episode mentioned by Herodotus. The Spartan auxiliary force, a peasant militia known as Helots, had served their masters exceptionally well in a particular campaign. They had really distinguished themselves, so the Spartan masters invited the Helot leaders to a feast. Mysteriously, these individuals were never seen again… When the slave becomes too powerful he constitutes a threat. The Helot leaders had to be eliminated, a feast was the perfect ruse. One wonders; did they ever get desert? Point being, even the noble Spartans, eternally famous for their valor and virtue!, even they were quite capable of cold blooded treachery it seems. When the dynamic of the political situation called for it. A rival faction had become too powerful and needed either to be assimilated or hobbled. The latter option won out. Multiply this incident by a factor of millions and you’ll have a firm grasp on human history. Directly or indirectly, all of this carnage was “democratic”.
Whether you choose to call your faction leader chief, king, president, emperor or dictator, the title matters little. Once the victor has assumed power they must do whatever is expedient. In a world of shifting alliances, secret agreements, double crosses and continuous warfare, the leader cannot blink. If an enemy is advancing on the castle, he may wish to pillage his villages and burn the crops to deprive the invaders of sustenance (if the peasants starve as a result this is the cost of doing business). If he’s the invader, it may be desirable to take a city and then slaughter every last resident. If the peasants are rebellious he must periodically make an example out of some, impaling their heads by the castle gate. And don’t forget his intimates; family and friends are all potential competitors so he can’t afford to be squeamish here either. Duels, assassinations and hunting accidents are all part of the program. It’s a nasty business but absolutely unavoidable, and since it’s unavoidable he may as well try to enjoy it. There may even be an evolutionary basis for sadism here. The deep seated connection between sex and violence may be labeled as a “perversion”, but both of these behaviors are essential to our being and they probably inhabit the same neighborhood in our neurological circuitry. As previously mentioned, the practical exercise of power rarely corresponds with anyone’s idea of morality.
In fact, if Evolutionary theory holds that we’re only concerned with our progeny and blood relations, then what happens when the ruling class segregates itself from the subject class? If royals only procreate with other royals and millionaires only procreate with other millionaires, then the health of the subject class is a matter of the greatest indifference to these leaders. As long as tax payments are made and the army is strong, then nothing else matters. Viewed from this perspective, peasants, factory workers and office drones may as well be a different species from their leaders, akin to domesticated animals. How much compassion have we ever shown to farm animals? All of this and more are the fruit of "Democracy".
Let us pause, briefly, to summarize and reflect. I have speculated at length on something which I describe as an ecological theory of the class system. Probably none of this thinking is new, but these sorts of subversive ideas are usually relegated to the purgatory of library book-sales, dusty attics and (nowadays) the black holes of cyberspace. Having just now been resurrected, these ideas have the appearance of being novel, and so we must look two or three times, preferably from different angles, so that the whole thing doesn't simply vanish again.
I have suggested that class divisions, which are universal, arose not by accident but because they served a real evolutionary purpose. Those groups which adopted them were better able to compete (militarily) in the eternal struggle over habitat (agricultural land). I have pointed to the definite fact that the Framers were very conscious of these class divisions, describing their perpetuation as the central purpose of government. I have described class based society as a “machine” designed by the evolutionary process for the express purpose of exploiting the bulk of humanity in the service of perpetual warfare between myriad populations all competing for the same resources.
And I have described the social behavior which perpetuates this class system as being identical to what is commonly described as Democratic politics or Majority rule. Far from being modern, enlightened or progressive, these institutions (in my view) are nothing more than a human refinement of the sort of power struggle which creates hierarchies in the society of chimpanzees and wolves and many other creatures. Language and literacy made the process more efficient and less violent but the fundamentals remain the same. Human political operators lie, cheat and maneuver their way into positions of leadership just as wolves fight their way to the head of the pack. Is our process more moral because it is less violent? I even suggested that in a large society where the political operators are typically segregated from the general population, we may consider them as parasites. If the political operators only procreate with others of their kind, then (from an evolutionary standpoint) the rest of humanity may almost be considered as a “host” species.
These are harsh observations, entirely at odds with most conventional wisdom. Taking courage from the intellectual independence of our second president, I chose to follow my thinking to its logical conclusion. And despite the unusual nature of my argument, is it so unreasonable to describe exploitation and warfare as defining features of our social system? What better explanation has been offered for the sad state of our world? So far as I am aware, most analysis still concentrates on the moral character of the various participants, completely ignoring the institutional and evolutionary components. Does anyone seriously believe that moral outrage will solve our problems?
Still, very few (if any) will credit these speculations. Most remain infatuated with Democracy and with voting. The electoral reforms of the past two centuries brought politics and voting to masses of humanity who had previously been excluded, and imperfect as the process may be, it’s better to have a voice in the mob than to be shunned entirely, like a medieval peasant. We newcomers have been told since childhood that voting is the only proper way to select leaders. The imperfections are acknowledged but we’re told they’re unavoidable. We must accept them, like a crippled spouse or retarded children. We must love this process for better or worse, because underneath all the flaws lies the noble perfection of “Deliberative Democracy”; a thing akin to romantic love or divine providence. Or Santa Claus.
Deliberative Democracy is a myth, which, like most myths contains a grain of truth. Yes, it probably happened once or twice or even three times during the first few congresses. In all probability there was once a rational debate which examined all viewpoints on an issue and then proceeded to a reasonable compromise, but this is the exception which proves the rule. The rule which wins out nine times in ten is exactly the opposite of deliberative democracy. Let’s call this process “Actual Democracy“. In actual democracy a lying primate with a lust for power tells a fable which is believable to six out ten voters, while another lying primate, whose fable isn't quite as good, concedes the match. Then they arrive at an understanding whereby primate A makes a great deal of money, primate B makes a little less, and the rest of us all wonder where our money went. Most voters recognize the existence of actual democracy but persist also in accepting the myth of deliberative democracy . Every couple of years, displaying a faith once reserved only for gods, they chase this myth to the polls.
But this faith flies in the face of all reason. At the dawn of history when life was brutal and our ignorance bottomless, we were undoubtedly right to place our faith in the biggest, baddest, sneakiest bastard around. A great deal has changed since then. We’re more knowledgeable now and life is usually kinder and more predictable. Also we have acquired morals, an unknown commodity when kings first appeared. Most of us claim to take these morals quite seriously, but evolution ensures that whoever we elect will almost certainly treat them as a joke. They will commit atrocious crimes while simultaneously quoting scripture, all the while laughing up their sleeve. We cannot expect moral behavior from politicians. They are creatures of evolution, selected for their amoral devotion to power (in all its forms).
To expect moral behavior from politicians is like inviting a wolf pack to your local dog run and expecting them to play nicely with your Poodle. The wolves will take one look at your poodle and then eat it. If we want different behavior we must create different institutions. Amazingly, our nicely mannered pooches do indeed have wolf DNA, but several thousand years of human companionship has (surprisingly) made them easier to cohabit with. The alpha males who create governments have usually endorsed some version of the golden rule, but this was either a ruse or they were simply confused. The fact that none of these governments has achieved its exalted goals should tell us something. A wolf in sheep’s clothing is still a wolf. Unless perhaps it is a politician.
How many times must we fall prey to the same tricks?
"I do not believe it possible that men should ever be greatly improved in knowledge or benevolence without assistance from the principles and systems of government."
Politics and Religion are the two subjects we avoid in polite conversation. In both areas, emotion takes precedence and rational dialogue becomes impossible. One respected thinker even connected the two, describing the great 20th Century conflict between Capitalism and Communism as a “religious war”. These subjects do seem at times as though they are one in the same. Yet there is no subject where rationality could be more important than politics. If humans cannot learn to govern themselves with less violence, oppression and destruction then the future seems certain to be a nightmare. We must , as Adams said, rely on “facts, observations and experiments”. “Public utility” should be our only concern. If we continue treating politics as a religion we shall get nowhere.
I suspect that a big part of the problem is the result of a misunderstanding. I think many people have difficulty distinguishing between the moral ends of government (justice, equality, happiness etc…) and the institutional means that we have used in our efforts to achieve these ends (voting, legislatures, presidents etc). They feel so strongly about the moral ends (which are basically synonymous with religion) that they can scarcely see beyond these. And the institutional process itself is, of course, considered sacrosanct. This leaves very little room for rational dialogue.
But it is absurd to deify the institutions of the democratic process if the results of that process lead to ends which virtually everyone feels are wrong. We may not be able to speak about morals with those of opposing viewpoints but we ought to be able to discuss the mechanics of government. In fact, if we clearly distinguish between means and ends we may come to the conclusion that our means and our ends are utterly opposed. This might explain why almost all of us are unhappy.
Most people regard politics and government as synonyms, but I would like to make a distinction between these terms. Government, I would say, is that body of institutions which are pledged to maintains the health of society. These institutions represent a moral ideal; the belief that justice, order and security are the foundation of society and their maintenance is too important to be entrusted to any individual. Politics is an organized power struggle for the control of these institutions. It is an utterly amoral, selfish pursuit in which all things are permissible, so long as you don’t get caught. In my opinion, politics and government should be considered antonyms. As I see it, they are opposing forces, the Yin and Yang of civilization if you will. There would be no civilization without government, but politics perpetually threatens to tear government apart. Government is the ideal to which we aspire, and politics is the reality from which we came; the behavior created by “the history of our terrestrial existence”.
That evolutionary history created political society. It is a form of social organization designed for warfare and subjection; functions optimized when the most aggressive, calculating and amoral members of society take control. The institutions of Government which grew in this environment (Councils and Assemblies, Courts and Constables and Sheriffs) were all initially created to facilitate the efficient projection of power, not justice. But as religion and literacy and commerce created both a demand and a need for a more equitable society these institutions evolved. Justice and the common welfare became real concerns for rulers, but their first priority was always power and control. Political figures came and went but the institutions of government endured, primarily serving the master of the moment but also, at times, serving the people. This is the origin of the hypocrisy at the heart of every State. The Government wants what’s best for you, but only when it profits political power as well. When there is a conflict between these two goals we all know who wins. The only way to end this lie is by a complete separation of Government and Politics.
There is no paradox in this. The separation of moral Government from amoral Politics is something that humans have been experimenting with for thousands of years. The disconnection of Governmental authority from the power struggle of Politics simply requires that we replace the amoral selective mechanism of politics with an alternative mechanism which does not favor amoral behavior. There are two such mechanisms in existence and they are both well known to all of us. The first mechanism is lottery selection; the process we use for selecting jurors and (sometimes) soldiers. The second mechanism is the civil service approach; a well known improvement on the basic lottery. Aptitude and luck rather than aggression and deceit, are the deciding factors in these selection processes.
Humans have selectively employed these non-political forms of power for a very long time. Confucius instituted a civil service tradition which endured from BCE to the 19th Century, the Athenian Greeks used lottery selection for most Government posts in the fifth century BCE and from the 19th Century onward virtually every government has operated primarily through the instrument of civil service. But no society has ever dispensed with politics entirely. There has always been, at the very least, a monarch or an elective general or executive, if not an entire legislature. Non-political authority has almost always been subservient to political power. To some degree the experiment was compromised. This hedging was understandable though. Political leaders rarely surrender power voluntarily and the masses, living in a violent and unpredictable world, were usually quite willing to sacrifice their independence for the perceived security of a patriarchal protector. Very possibly they were wise to do this.
In a world of myriad independent competing populations a political leader offers a service of real importance. In the 18th Century they called it “Secrecy and Dispatch”; the ability to act quickly, decisively and secretly. As long as warfare was an unavoidable necessity, a political head (i.e. - “commander in chief”) was also required. Shifting alliances, secret agreements, seditious uprisings, surprise attack, assassination, espionage and political subterfuge; all these sorts of things require one person, or at most a handful, who can keep a secret and made a quick well calculated decision. A political leader, by definition, is a shrewd morally unencumbered individual; ideally qualified for this challenge. But what happens now that warfare is no longer an ecologically mandated necessity? In this new situation the political leader/commander in chief becomes a dangerous liability, perpetuating a function which is no longer required.
For 99% of human history, famine, pestilence and war kept our population in check. Like all biological organisms we lived in a balanced relationship, sharing the planet with millions of other species. We answered to the same forces as every other creature. Famine and pestilence may have been equally important from an ecological perspective, but war shaped our social behavior. This explains why, in the modern world, starvation and disease are largely abolished but warfare continues unabated. Famine and pestilence are largely forces of nature, which we manipulate masterfully today, but warfare and oppression are a permanent human institution that we have built into our society. Politics is the mechanism which perpetuates this, by ensuring that the most aggressive, calculating, amoral members of society are placed in positions of high authority. In the past, we actually needed these predators, but in the modern world they are a needless threat to our very existence.
“The many are always credulous and the few are always artful”
We have been fooled into believing that politics is necessary and desirable, but that necessity ended when we learned how to manipulate virtually every aspect of our natural environment. War is no longer an ecological requirement, it is merely an institutional requirement. Political society creates warfare and oppression while simultaneously serving the needs of wealth and power. We have accepted this situation because we are blinded by our misperceptions. Republican government gives us the illusion of control because we are active participants in the process, but evolution ensures that the results of that process will always be about the same; the wolves will be in charge.
If we want things to be different we must learn to distinguish between political power and non-political power. Evolution clearly created political society, it is only a refinement of behavior exhibited by many species. Non political society is still relatively new and has always been subservient to the political, but could this trend not also be described as “evolutionary”. Perhaps the ascendance of non-political power is simply the next step in our journey.
It is my opinion that the rise and pre-eminence of non-political power represents the future of human social evolution just as surely as large brains and an upright gait describe the history of our physiological evolution. If we intend to survive in a world of awe inspiring technological and scientific powers then we must make a conscious decision to face certain “stubborn facts”. We must accept that humans are not (at least in a political setting) moral, rational actors and we must also sacrifice the illusion of control that comes from politics and voting. We must trade the illusion of control for the impartial certainty of non-political power. This could finally allow sanity to finally take precedence over violence.
As a culture, our final political act should be the step of amending politics into extinction, eliminating politicians with the same passion that we once directed against monarchs, replacing them with the impartial sanity of a professional civil service meritocracy. We were right to hate monarchs but the difference between a monarch and a politician is very slight; they are different varieties of the same species. Both must go.
I have just called for the introduction of a professional civil service meritocracy (an examination and lottery system for lawmakers), to replace our existing electoral political structures. This is a statement which raises more questions than it answers. Clarification and elaboration are necessary:
I believe these concerns may be answered, not definitively perhaps but surely enough to give critics pause.
The pure, unmodified, examination and lottery system represents a theoretical ideal, like an imaginary number or a line without width. These things are useful in equations but have no place in the real world. Many people hate the idea of random selection for lawmakers. Whether they are right or wrong is immaterial. The citizens expect to choose their leaders. Political reality dictates that any government reform must accede to their wishes. But this is not really a problem. Compromise is possible. Instead of using a civil service approach to select lawmakers, I propose that we use this mechanism to select candidates for the office of lawmaker. Accordingly, the authority to select candidates for public office should be rescinded from private political parties and vested exclusively in the Federal Office of Personnel Management (created by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978). Every other aspect of government and politics may remain exactly as it is; even the existing political parties may remain, agitating from the sidelines. With a slate of randomly selected, high scoring, test takers we may be certain that whichever citizen-candidate the people choose they will be better qualified than most sitting lawmakers. The people are very much attached to voting. It would be political suicide to threaten that attachment. But they must be allowed only good choices.
Theoretically, it would be wonderful to convene a Constitutional Convention and redesign our government from the ground up. But this seems pretty unlikely. The subject is too complex and the public attention span too short. Obstacles and pitfalls abound. Candidate Selection however, is a relatively small easily understood detail of our political system; but it is an aspect comparable to that single chromosome which distinguishes between a downs syndrome kid and a child prodigy. In other words, Civil Service Candidate Selection may be a catalyst for innumerable other changes. Without even touching the structure of our government we may still justifiably hope for a substantial transformation if we alter the character of those who inhabit it.
The majority of voters are deeply dissatisfied with the major party candidates and should be quite prepared to see them replaced by civil service candidates. It has, after all, long been said that Americans want to elect someone they could have a beer with. The civil service lottery will offer them exactly that; a regular, albeit smarter than average, American citizen. Someone who could actually be their neighbor. The trick of course is to select a neighbor who not only drinks beer but also reads books.
Selection criteria are everything, obviously, and should not be left to chance. They must be carefully specified in legislation and not left to the discretion of an existing political appointee. If the criteria are too rigid, too demanding, then the howls of “Elitism!” will be deafening and the project will falter immediately. On the other hand if the standards are too loose we might actually be worse off than we are now, stuck with a bunch of foolish, ignorant K Street patsies. Careful compromise is essential. A likely criteria might include two standard college entrance exams, the LSAT and History Achievement, with a minimum score equal to the average posted by freshman law and history students. Certainly there are many other standards which might be used but the intention is clear; we’re looking for someone who’s smart enough to be a lawyer (without the malignant taint of a bar certificate) and who knows enough American history to have some understanding of the mistakes made over the last two centuries. This person is smart but not a rocket scientist. Still they would probably have an IQ greater than Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann combined!
Nevertheless, most people in DC aren’t actually idiots. They just act like idiots because it’s required by their environment. Selecting a bunch of smarter than average, regular Americans is a good start but this alone will probably not be enough to transform our government. This is where civil service professionalism comes in. Human behavior is a product of nature and nurture; we may people our government with citizens of meritorious nature, but we must also nurture professionalism. Traditional politics, both external and internal to the legislative institutions, selects for a nature which is anything but meritorious! Addressing candidacy does little to alter institutional politics, but there are steps which may be taken to greatly minimize the dangers of faction and corruption within the law making body. We must simply do something unheard of, we must treat our law-makers much like any other group of government employees.
The primary intention of the Civil Service Act of 1883 was to end patronage politics. Americans had grown weary of the graft and incompetence which accompanied the spoils system. The Act was successful but didn’t go far enough, because it didn’t include the people who drafted the act, the legislators. Today, you can call the EPA if you see something nasty draining into your local stream and the field agents will show up immediately to enforce the clean water act; they’re professionals. But if you find the clean water act has been gutted and the vile substance fouling your waterway no longer meets the legal definition of a “pollutant“, then you may have a beef with your Senator, who receives contributions from every major chemical company. Your Senator isn’t a professional, he’s a prostitute. If the field agent gets caught taking bribes he’ll be fired; if your senator takes contributions it’s called standard practice. The intention in promoting civil service candidacy is to ensure that lawmakers become more like EPA field agents and less like hookers. Instead of trying to regulate the flow of campaign money, which is an exercise in futility, the money is cut off totally. Yes, this will require full Federal financing of campaigns and it will require full Federal funding of lifetime salaries for every lawmaker and even every candidate, but this is a small price to pay for honest government and vastly cheaper than the alternative.
Money isn’t the root of all evil; greed is only a symptom of the lustful, lying primate lurking in each of us. But just as medicine often treats symptoms, so must our reforms. Half measures in this area have been the undoing of all prior efforts. Removing all money from the process of candidate selection is a good start, but even this is still not enough. Even the finest citizens will be vulnerable to temptation, so we must remove all potential enticements. This means that government, like the priesthood or the judiciary, must be a calling and not simply a career. Government officers, and candidates for those offices, must be hermetically isolated from all financial lures. Lawmakers must serve their term and retire for life with their pension. There cannot be even the slightest possibility of ex-legislators profiting from their special status. And individuals who violate this code should expect draconian punishment. Only persons willing to accept these conditions should put their names in the hat for candidate selection.
A government officer should receive a salary which is comfortable but not obscene. If their primary motivation is money they shouldn’t be in government. And if Michael Bloomberg, or any other plutocrat, wishes to become a candidate, first they will have to renounce their fortune. Lifetime security, but not opulence should be the rightful reward of all public servants, including government officers. They should be secure but separate, fully divorced from the sphere of Capitalism. If you think that Americans are too greedy and cynical for such self sacrifice I say look at Teach America, the Peace Corps, Doctors Without Borders or even the U.S. Army. There have always and will always be intelligent and idealistic citizens. Even more than money, people seek the recognition and esteem of their fellow citizens. The life of a lawmaker offers this honor. Good people will leap at the opportunity to serve. If a lawmaker’s pay was equal to a police detective or a tenured professor then those idealistic American would be lining up around the block to take the Candidate’s Examination.
The foregoing measures may seem extreme and unrealistic but they’re intended as a pragmatic compromise. Civil Service Candidacy represents only a partial solution to the problem of our dangerous, anachronistic government. An incomplete repair which just might be enough to help us limp into the future without killing ourselves. The full overhaul which our system so richly deserves is probably not possible, but a revamping of our candidate selection might just be enough for now.
The whole outdated concept of checks and balances remains untouched. Also the archaic house and senate rules go unchanged. Not to mention the very basis of our system, geographic representation, also a concept from the Middle Ages. In our mobile age, the era of fluid capital and nomadic workers, representation in the workplace (otherwise know as Unionism) makes far more sense than the grotesque gerrymandered pieces of real estate which purport to hold continuing relevance. All of these issues go unaddressed by civil service candidacy, but hopefully by setting higher standards of merit and removing inducements to prostitution we may assemble a body of lawmakers who can save us from ourselves despite the anachronistic nature of the institution they inhabit.
That’s my prescription. Complete a trend begun several thousand years ago. Initially, political rulers sought to manage their domains professionally, but none wished to include themselves in this equation. Professionalism was for the underlings, the servants. In a world full of necessary violence they were right to adopt this attitude. Violence and deception were their profession, and there was no better examination than the daily gantlet of leadership. But in a world where violence has finally become obsolete, these predators must be replaced. Civil Service Candidacy is the vehicle for that task. The leaders selected will still possess all of the original primitive traits, but the proportions will be different. Instead of a ruler that’s 70% predator and 30% technocrat we must reverse the equation and trust our affairs to a 70% technocrat. All humans are dangerous, deceptive and self serving but some are more dangerous than others. Should we choose the most dangerous predators or should we prefer those individuals more practical, more average and less prone to murder? Surely our chances are better with this latter group.
And why not? What makes this solution so unrealistic? Good government is hardly a partisan issue. Politicians are universally reviled by Americans across the ideological spectrum. Most hold them only slightly above pedophiles and car salesmen. A real alternative involving honesty, competence and authentic populism should hold enormous appeal for all Americans, on the left and the right; from the inner city to the most isolated rural areas; from the poorest to wealthiest. Yes, even the wealthiest, because those wealthy individuals, like Warren Buffet, able to see beyond next year’s income tax and profit statements, realize that a healthy country is a profitable country and that when ninety-nine in a hundred citizens are desperate and angry the hundredth citizen is in danger of joining them. Surely any sensible person, and certainly any professing to be “Democrats” must acknowledge the inherent logic of the preceding arguments. So why should it be “pie in the sky” to imagine that a majority of American, given sufficient time, might eventually rally behind an idea which promises a better future for each of them?
Many have observed that our difficulties as a species seem to be institutional; that homo sapiens problems are literally built into our social systems. And yet relatively few have implicated the structures of Republicanism. Instead, the overwhelming majority erroneously conflate Electoral Representation with “Democracy”, insisting that elections are the gold standard of a “Free” government. They pay lip service to “Democracy” while upholding a Plutocracy with religious fervor. When elections repeatedly fail to bring social justice they still defend them with zeal, blaming all disappointments on the corrupting influence of money; as if money were a recent invention, as though money and politics could ever truly be separated. This second error compounds the first and ensures they never investigate the true root cause of social injustice; politics.
Long before the invention of money, politics was already ancient, but with or without money, politics and social justice have always been mutually exclusive. Politics isn’t about justice, it’s about power. Any social justice which accompanies the political process is purely accidental. Politics is a sorting process which separates wolves from sheep. Sometimes the wolf may masquerade as a grandmother, reading bedtime stories to the children. But when the lights go out, beware!
The idea that money and politics can be separated is absurd. The Supreme Court was right to equate money with speech. There is a direct connection between these two commodities which can never be severed. He who possesses more money speaks louder. It has always been so and always will. Surely the campaign finance contortions of recent years should have driven this fact home once and for all. Money, like water, will seek its level. Despite miles of dikes, hurricane Katrina drowned the poor of New Orleans in their homes while the rich sat high and dry. And regardless of any “reform” legislation, the Koch brothers will inevitably use their fortune to sway elections. And even if it were possible to separate money from politics, I repeat, this still would not change who we are. With or without money we remain a society of lying lustful Chimpanzees. In the eternal contest for power nice Chimps finish last, while the shrewd and devious dance atop them in hobnail boots. Or, to repeat the wisdom of Adams;
There is a natural and unchangeable inconvenience in all popular elections…he who has the deepest purse or the fewest scruples will generally prevail
In the absence of a purse, scruples alone will dictate. The only way to change this is to look at ourselves honestly in the mirror, and then, by popular assent, call off the contest. Replacing it instead with a different tool, a different institution; the impartial mercy of a lottery.
The lottery is the heart of true Democracy. The Greeks knew this, and Montesquieu said so plainly. To say otherwise betrays ignorance. To reject the lottery while professing oneself a democrat is an act of hypocrisy. But fortunately (for all those who love elections), it’s possible to be a Democrat while still enjoying a taste of aristocracy. Perhaps it would even be wrong to separate the two completely. Maybe we really do need both. Perhaps it’s only a matter of proportion; a question of balance. But whatever the precise mix we must have the lottery. Elections may be optional but random selection isn’t. Not if we wish to call ourselves a “Democracy”
And surely Democracy is the future. True Democracy I mean, in which all humans really do have equal opportunity and receive equal treatment. Not the brazen faux-Democracy we were raised on, which leaves some gasping in the gutter while others wallow in the Penthouse suite. That kind of democracy, more accurately labeled Plutocracy, is a creature from the past. It should be filed away in museums and history books along with other anachronistic human institutions that no longer trouble us: like castration, trial by ordeal and human sacrifice. All of these are from a violent and ignorant past that must be shaken off completely, like a heavy winter coat smothering us on a fine spring day. We may enjoy the beauty of the new season or we may obstinately die of heat stroke, joining all the other species known today only through their bleached and silent fossils. And that would be a terrible shame, because homo sapiens really showed such promise.
If only they could have evolved….
 Adams and Montesquieu both say otherwise, clearly identifying elections as an “aristocratic” device.