Saturday, October 15, 2022

Negative and Positive Visions

If we do not have one meritocracy we will have another, only changing the definition of "merit." You will get ahead because you belong to the Party or a favored group, or because you come from the right family or school. Someone will lose in every system, so getting rid of one set of winners is (at best) naive or (at worst) mere revenge. We still see this in what is loosely called socialism, though that word has been emptied of most meaning at this point and seems to vaguely mean "making people share."

All of this is long-known and has been said thousands of times. There are always things we can improve in society, but the idea of fixing it is not aspirational and idealistic, however it feels.  Nor is it just somewhat unrealistic but good-hearted. It is ultimately evil, as it misunderstands both individual and social behavior. Communism was called The God That Failed, not The Idea That Was Basically Good and Improved Things but Was Taken Over By Powerseekers Who Look Suspiciously Like Our Political Opponents Today. Someone is going to lose, however you design it. Build in ways to limit the damage and encourage generosity.  

When you try to fix things you very quickly move to tearing down bad things.  It is the myth that everything would be fine if we could just stop a small group from ruining it for the rest of us.  It is an essentially negative vision. "Imagine there's no countries..." no anything, it seems. It misses entirely the idea that stuff is hard to build. 

There is a common belief now that New England writ large, to include the Upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest that were settled by New Englanders, still has a puritanical idea to run everyone else's life, places that would do just fine if left alone. It is based largely on resentful feelings, a misunderstanding of the history of puritans (and also every other region), and convenient stereotypes. (Yes, I can defend all those easily, I'm not bothering.) But it does capture one important change in New England over the centuries, the change from the positive to the negative vision. It can be drawn too starkly, as negative vision was presnt in 1620 and positive vision can be found now. But in the main, it is true. The idea of A City on The Hill, that would inspire and illuminate others was very much the dominant idea in Massachusetts. Elected ministers, highly localised power, strong egalitarianism that destroyed rank - American got those (mostly (Take a breath here)) from New England. More important, the rest of the country wanted the institutions of Massachusetts. As they increasingly governed themselves they consciously copied what had been developed here, such as town meetings and meeting houses, expressly designed for the purpose. Massachusetts was determined to build education and commerce that would compete directly with Europe, so that the New World would not be dependent on the Old in any way. The sentiment that these societies should be built to last is echoed not only in official documents, but in diaries and letters of the time. By 1800 this was still strong, but what had come in was a newer "leave me alone" sentiment, stronger in Northern New England.  (Guess why!)

But the vision has indeed turned negative now, geared toward finding injustices and attacking the Baddies rather than building things new. Because it is still hard to build stuff, and those who successfully bring down a Baddie are lauded as having done a great thing. And this is not entirely untrue. Many things need to be taken down. Gardens nedd to be weeded. But there is no point in weeding a garden that has no growing plants.  It is just wrongly-focused. 


james said...

It's hard to build, and sometimes simplifying, or simple neglect, has unintended consequences.

G. Poulin said...

When G.K. Chesterton was asked what's wrong with the world, his answer was "I am." Why do we suppose that we can fix the world, when we are hardly able to fix ourselves? It is almost inevitable that the City on the Hill will become not so much an inspiration to others as a fortified height from which to rain down destruction on the less enlightened. Story of our country in a nutshell.

Zachriel said...

Assistant Village Idiot: "Imagine there's no countries..." no anything, it seems.

Lennon didn't advocate tearing everything down.

You tell me it's the institution
Well, you know
You better free your mind instead

The song is a thought-experiment, a Zen vision of the world. Lennon saw the mind as where real change occurs.

Assistant Village Idiot: There are always things we can improve in society, but the idea of fixing it is not aspirational and idealistic, however it feels. Nor is it just somewhat unrealistic but good-hearted. It is ultimately evil, as it misunderstands both individual and social behavior.

You italicized "fixing", from context presumably to mean tearing down everything and starting over. If so, then you are correct. Evolutionary change is almost always preferable, revolution often results in worse conditions, and "all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."

When observing changes in complex systems under stress, most changes will be small and incremental, a few changes will be significant but cause dislocations, and rarely (yet sometimes) vast changes will occur.

Keep in mind, though, that institutions do change and these changes can have real effects on human behavior. So, when a visionary envisions a better future, "We'd all love to see the plan." But the path may not be plain to see. The danger isn't utopianism, but extremism.

Zachriel said...

james: It's hard to build, and sometimes simplifying, or simple neglect, has unintended consequences.

Good example of a vast and sudden change in a complex system. When the "Nebraska" support is removed, the system will crash. However, many sections will still be intact and can be recovered. Some changes will be worse, as there will be a rush to put the system back together again. In other ways, the system will be improved with changes that were never implemented so as to avoid disrupting the system or with improvements that were never previously contemplated. Regardless, something new will arise from the rubble. (xkcd is a genius.)

Donna B. said...

oh dear Zach. Both "Revolution" and "Imagine" are shallow thought exercises which completely ignore human nature. Zen is an acceptance of human nature.

Zachriel said...

Donna B: Both "Revolution" and "Imagine" are shallow thought exercises which completely ignore human nature.

Perhaps, but that doesn't address the point about Lennon's position on tearing everything down.

But when you talk about destruction
Don't you know that you can count me out
(Oh, shooby-doo-wah, oh, shooby-doo-wah)

Donna B: Zen is an acceptance of human nature.

Zen accepts human nature, but that is not what Zen is.

dmoelling said...

The idea that each citizen (Freemen still meant something even for white people then) had a serious responsibility to the self governing towns. We lost that sense of obligation. I took a voter's oath in the 1980's in CT but it's gone now. Vermont still has one. I think people should do this before voting in every state of the union. Repetition is important.

“You solemnly swear (or affirm) that whenever you give your vote or suffrage, touching any matter that concerns the State of Vermont, you will do it so as in your conscience you shall judge will most conduce to the best good of the same, as established by the Constitution, without fear or favor of any person.” –Vermont Constitution, Chapter II, Section 42

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That is an f-ing brilliant point. Rest assured I will keep that and club people with it for the rest on my days. Which may admittedly, may not be extensive. It covers the contrast in (especially northern) New England to the other three British colonial regions gloriously.

I am embarrassed as a New Englander, and especially as a Newhampshireman, not to have seen that and jumped on it.

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

@James & Zachriel - There is a little bit of DOS behind every Windows version.

james said...

I think Munroe was thinking of ntpd in that cartoon, but there was a more recent touch of chaos when a trivial library (perl or php? IIRC it had to do with translating IP addresses) suddenly went missing. Anybody could roll his own, but the pros frown on that.

Cranberry said...

Would you call "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" (1741) a positive vision?

The voters' oath is intriguing, but I doubt that most voters would understand the words these days.

I am also concerned that an oath promising to prioritize one's home state is not always appropriate. For example, there may be a measure which could harm a state's interest--the ability to erect tollways on access points to commercial ports, for example--which would harm the interests of the nation as a whole.