Monday, September 01, 2008

The Hard Problem

The main challenge of human society and politics is, in terms of game theory, the problem of defection. That is, how do you prevent free riders, thieves, bandits, and thugs? How do you ensure that those who are able contribute at least as much as they take, if not more? For surely, we do not begrudge the costs of supporting the unfit, those who are, by accident or by birth, incapable of carrying their weight. It is the mark of civilization that we find in the fossil record the presence of people who would not have lived without the care and support of others. To consign those who are unable through no fault of their own to destitution and death is to embrace barbarism.

Those who refuse to contribute by choice are another matter. Ayn Rand foolishly claimed that there can be no conflict of interest between rational actors, but if there is a good chance of escaping detection and of getting away with it, isn't defection a rational act? Isn't it perfectly rational for me to steal from you, if I think I can get away with it? Our disgust with cheaters is emotional, and in some circles, this disgust is barely present--if someone is clever enough to rob others blind and get away with it, there are people who will applaud his actions and even emulate them. I have no use for this sentiment, but the fact that some do demonstrates that our distaste for it is not entirely rational. It is a sentiment born of empathy, the basis for ethics.

In my recent ruminations on libertarianism, I have been struck by the fact that it is the new opiate of the intellectuals, a status formerly occupied by communism. So what is it, then, that communism and libertarianism--indeed, all the isms, including the religions, have in common that makes them attractive? What makes them all appear to be the ideal solution to all of society's problems?

The answer, I now believe, is that they ignore the hard problem of defection. A hard problem is not merely technically hard, to be solved by the application of current knowledge; it is theoretically hard, meaning that we don't even have the theoretical framework to address it. But the hard problem of defection is viewed by ideologies as a temporary and unnatural condition imposed by some social or political blight--call it X; once X is removed, through the mechanism or intervention of Y (the One True Way) the natural balance will be restored and the new utopia will result. X can be evil spirits, civilization, industry, marketing, atheism, secularism, capitalism, government, liberalism, conservatism, etc. Y can be any religion, communism, history, naturalism, spiritualism, environmentalism, libertarianism, central planning, anarchism, the market, etc.

Inherent in this view of the world is the idea of the noble savage, the marvelous creature that we would be if only we could conquer the worm that has turned us, the malevolent force that has corrupted us and defiled our true nature, But the truth is that we in the West live in a condition of unprecendented peace, prosperity, order, competence, and freedom. There was no golden age. The historical record has progress written all over it, and so far, so good. This is not to say that we have it all right, but we have it better than any of our ancestors. The fact is that we are it; we are what everyone, past and present, want to be. We have what they want and wanted. The average middle class westerner enjoys a standard of living, freedom, culture (if they so desire) and health that the kings of a century or more ago could only have prayed for.

The premise of the noble savage is nonsense, and the avoidance of the hard problem is nonsense on stilts. Implicit in the myth of the noble savage is the myth of Utopia, that magical world which we would achieve if only we defeated the unnatural circumstances which prevent us from reverting to our natural state. Ideologies sweep the hard problem under the carpet. Communists thought that if they got rid of capitalism, everyone would simply enthusiastically work for the common good. We all know how that worked out. Libertarians think that if they get rid of government restraints, everyone will suddenly be possessed of a sterling character. Do we really need to go down this road again? For once, can we not just take the lesson as a given and move on?

Ideology, and its bastard child partisanship, are of absolutely no use to addressing the hard problem. In fact, they are an impediment. Consider this conundrum: a government agency makes a mistake. The opposition party plays up this mistake to the press, blaming it upon the governing party. The press takes up the cause, and at length the governing party appoints an investigative committee. The committee performs its enquiry and makes recommendations, which almost invariably include a regulative body to ensure that such mistakes are not made in the future. The committee, and the new regulative body, are additional layers of bureaucracy. In Canada, the Gomery inquiry into the sponsorship scandal cost far more than the original scandal. The inquiry was demanded by the Conservatives, the same party who initiated the sponsorship program, and who spent most of the money. But when Gomery made his recommendations, the same party folded them into paper airplanes and tossed them out the window. And this was the party supposedly in favor of fiscal responsibility. But it could have gone the other way, with the positions of the parties reversed. Partisanship costs us a fortune.

There is no theoretical or ideological solution to the hard problem of defection. Religion specializes, not in spirituality, but in communitarian solidarity and conformity. I recently heard an interview on the CBC with a man who stated that people who go to churches do so not to seek spirituality, but to avoid it; those who go to church have far fewer spiritual experiences than those who don't. But you would think that community would solve the problem of defection. It doesn't. If it did, there were be no priestly pedophiles. Religious authority provides the ideal cover for the defector; if there is an interventionist God, he certainly would not allow such and egregious abuse of power in his name. But there is no such God, and the belief that he will intervene to prevent such offenses provides superb cover for those intending to commit them. The history of Christianity is a story of the abuse of power, and splinter groups formed to avoid such abuses only to be infected themselves. Islam is riddled with similar blights, but far worse. And because religions are mutually antagonistic, they disrupt attempts at cooperation across religious lines. Religion does not work.

The problem runs far deeper. The solution to it is something called Intangible Wealth--a happy coincidence of faith in government and judicial systems, police, and other people--a conviction that one's society is a meritocracy that will recognize and reward effort and excellence, and will not silence the truth, no matter how uncomfortable. This, in a nutshell, is the American Dream--though not necessarily the American reality. Freedom works. My argument with libertarianism is not with that; freedom is strength, knowledge is power, trade is peace. My argument with libertarianism is that it is too simplistic. Hard core Libertarians are anarchist loons, and it is worth remembering that anarchism is a primitive state of social organization to which, by comparison, feudalism is considered a significant advance. Capitalism exists through a steady partnership with government. Intangible Wealth is, in large part, a trust in the system of government. Doctrinaire Libertarianism is a part of the problem, not a part of the solution.

I find survivalists an endless source of mirth. These are people poised to bolt at the first sign of trouble, defectors in waiting. Yet there are perhaps ten thousand people in Canada who know how to survive and forage in the wilderness. That is extraordinary percentage for any population. Most survivalists will have their bones discovered in the mud fifty or a hundred years later. The proper response, in any time of crisis is to go to a densely populated area and say "Hi, I'm here to help. What can I do?" Fortunately, this is precisely what most people will do. Crises pull people together--the cowardly thoughtless sheeple who populate disaster movies and episodes of 24 are revealed for the lie they are by the thousands of feats of civilian heroism on 9/11. On that day it was the civilians who demonstrated their mettle, while the officials were notably absent. Civilization will not collapse--and there is no survival without it anyway. Civilization is precisely a system of solutions to the task of keeping large numbers of human beings alive. Isolation from society, for the vast majority of human beings, is death.

And therein lies the hope; most people are actually good. The problem with ideologies is not so much that they make good people bad, but that they can make bad people and evil acts appear to be good. They jam our moral compass. Fortunately, most people interpret them according to their own mores, but that still leaves room for the demagogues, who attempt to enforce one-size-fits-all solutions to extremely hard and complex problems.

It's never that simple.