tom thinks

date 2001-03-20:11:11
SelfConciousness I've mostly avoided engaging in political polemics here, but Jaffo's recent journal about the kids at Princeton, with its polemic against "the facism of democracy" got me gonig. Sure popular government and popular movements involve dangers. So do unpopular governments and unpopular movements. The popularity or otherwise of anything is completely unrelated to its goodness, and this is something that both populists and elitists fail to understand.
Humans I believe in the genius of the people.

Populism has a bad name amongst the half-educated. The argument usually goes something like this: "I am so smart, I should be running things. Look at the stupid mass of humanity. They are so dumb. How could anyone justify letting such morons run things. They don't even know which fork to use. Some of them don't even use forks. What a bunch of losers."

The argument is rarely quite so blunt--it is usually couched in terms of "people like me" rather than "me", but the point is the same. Some small elite group is supposed to be better suited to hold political power than the average person.

This is pernicious nonsense.

Power is only safe to handle when highly diluted. The more people it is spread across, even potentially, the safer it is. There are real risks associated with populism, because demagogues can concentrate power in their own hands by their power to sway the crowd. But when the crowd is sufficiently singled-minded to be so swayed, it would make its influence felt regardless of the will of the elite--no force has ever been able to oppose the will of the people for very long, at any time, any where.

But we have many, many historical examples of self-proclaimed ruling elites, purportedly suited by nature to the exercise of power, who have shown themselves to be utterly and absolutely incapable of using their power wisely or well. The triumph of the Hamiltonians in the early American republic didn't assure anything like good government. England's long history of aristocratic rule was not notably better and frequently quite a bit worse than anything seen in the modern era.

More tellingly, unanimity of intent during periods of elite rule was almost always lacking. That is, despite the supposed superiority of the ruling elite, there was rarely anything like complete agreement within the elite community regarding policy. This suggests that self-declared "naturally superior" people are no more likely to stumble upon the right thing to do than anyone else.

Nor, let it be said, are the people. There's nothing special about ordinary people. And that's the point.
Reading Almost done with Churchill. As events move closer to the present day, and start to overlap with his own political and military career, the tone of the work changes considerably. One gets the impression less of an elder statesman providing us with his expert evaluation of times past, and more that of an active politician explaining and justifying his views. There's nothing wrong with this--would that more politicians engaged in such lengthy explanatory discourses--but it moves the book out of the sphere of history and into something like current events.

In discussing America Churchill reveals himself to be unreflectively racist, speaking of Indian lands as if they were unpopulated, and passing lightly over the demise of native cultures. His only mention of the women's suffrage movement is to lump it in with other "fanatics" such as people in favor of a single tax.

It has long been my contention that the pace of change in modern life is dramatically slower than any time in the past several hundred years, and this opinion is for the most part borne out by Churchill's account. Modern life is also virtually stress free compared to any time in the past. All we have to worry about is AIDS. Up until a generation or two ago, people died from all sorts of things that we don't give a second thought to, thanks to antibiotics, and while the appearance of mildy-virulent antibiotic resistant bacteria is a matter of some concern, worrying about the possibility that we might one day face a virulent antibiotic resistant bug is quite a bit less stressful than worrying about dying of a minor infection in the days prior to antibiotics.

If you think the pace of change is faster now than ever before, you need to ask yourself some questions.

  1. When was the last time the population of your town doubled?
  2. Name an industry that existed twenty years ago that does not exist now
  3. Name an industry that didn't exist twenty years ago that does now
  4. Name a technology that didn't exist twenty years ago that does now

The odds are good that your town hasn't doubled in size recently. Very few industries have gone out of existence, although many have undergone restructuring that has affected specific localities. One could argue that the micro-computer industry didn't exist twenty years ago, but that would be incorrect. It was small, but it existed and was already taking the shape it has today, albeit under the dominance of Apple rather than Microsoft and Intel.

As for technologies that didn't exist twenty years ago and do exist today, that's a tough one. I can't think of any in the fields I'm familiar with, except in minor niches. Lasers, microchips, fibre-optics... they were all around twenty years ago. We're still mining them for more benefits, but that's involves small, incremental changes, not big earth-shaking ones like those that have dominated the past couple of centuries.

Predicting the cessation of change is always a good way to look stupid, so I need to be clear that I'm not doing that. Change is going on all around us. But compared to what has been the norm in the last few hundred years, the pace of change has been slowing down for most of my lifetime, and I expect it will continue to do so for some time to come.

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