Toward Defining Our Society’s Fundamental Problem


For a quick post of a Friday morning, it may be fruitful to consider a few points that Sarah Hoyt makes in a post from yesterday.  The ideas aren’t entirely unique, and she doesn’t claim to be presenting evidence.  She’s just musing, and in musing along, perhaps we can start to give some shape to an understanding of what’s fundamentally broken in American society.

First a point that I think serves as a direct response to Rhode Island’s Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo and her strategy for beating innovation out of the economy with the blunt force of government:

…  we’re creating a technology that is eliminating the “mass” element from a lot of intellectual property/communication: news, books, music.  Because producers can sell directly to customers, we can have a small fan base and still make a great deal of money.

And that change is coming for other things too, from education to movies.  It’s already to some extent in manufacturing, and it will get more so.

To an extent socialism grew as “Mass” industrialization grew.  It was a response to a world in which anything worth doing was worth doing in vast, organized enterprises.

Technology is bringing back individual effort, individual taste, individual opportunity.

This is a good articulation of the argument against regulations and taxes — a whole economic culture, if we’re being honest — that prevent Rhode Islanders from experimenting with their lives and their economic activity.  From tinkering.  Maybe the stars will align for the technocrats at the State House, with their regulatory powers and their economic development slush funds, and they’ll net a giant company or two that draw Rhode Islanders back into the top-down factory-town mode of life.  But a better approach would be to make Rhode Island the type of place where individuals can experiment with the latest technology and see how many middlemen they can cut out of the cost of products and how many new things they can invent.

This brings us to the regressive mindset of the big-government “progressives”:

In a way the choices we’re being presented this election are the result of people not wanting their world to change too much, and wanting to take us back to some imaginary safe place.

For a lot of powerful people, the insider system has seemed to work, in Rhode Island.  Sure, we’ve floated along on the currents of innovation flowing from other places, but Rhode Island has been a state in which you didn’t have to be a slick player to slip your proboscis under the skin and draw off of the world’s prosperity.  If you’ve played along with the basic desires of the folks at the top of the hierarchy, you could live very well.  Perhaps that would mean an actual working job for some branch of government, with stability, generous pay and benefits, and an early retirement.  Or maybe it would mean a more-lucrative, but less secure, life drifting between government offices, nonprofits, and political groups.

If the number of people willing to play ball has exceeded the number of positions, the system has just created more make-work for people to do, using taxpayer dollars one way or another.  But we’ve reached the tipping point.  As much as people may want to go back to a time when the host body was healthy and hardly noticed the pricks (partly because the real bite would come years later), that’s an “imaginary safe place.”  Drained and covered in parasites, the body can hardly function, and what it does manage to do depends on infusions from the federal government and debt.  Those lines are running dry, too.

But why have we let things get this far?  Hoyt may strike closer to the heart than she knows with this:

We’ve lived very well, very long.  Yeah, that means we’ve bred a whole lot of morons who think the ceiling will stay up when you remove the walls.  But those same morons are very sensitive to discomfort and hardship.  And will tantrum like nobody’s business and demand their metaphorical MTV the minute we’re dragged even slightly away from the technological forefront.

The element of unprecedented comfort is central, but insufficient as an explanation.  As Hoyt implies, if comfort were all, then we’d swat away those who were threatening it even at minor evidence of a threat.  The other piece of the fatal concoction, I think, is that a lot of people simply don’t know how stuff works, from the products that they use to the operation of government to society as a whole.  Moreover, they are comfortable with that fact and expect things just to go on working.

The existence of ignorance (neutrally intended) is not new.  What’s new is people’s sense of entitlement, growing out of a belief that ignorance about ignorance is acceptable.

Life in the digital age has a sort of intrinsic magic.  Before digital technology, we could more or less see things working.  The automobile, for example, had tangible moving parts.  Either you knew what they did or you knew that you didn’t know and that somebody else did — somebody nearby and accessible.  The mechanic can find the problem with your car and, if asked, could give you a general explanation of what broke and what that means for the operation of the machine.

Computers and other tools of information technology are different.  They consist of tiny parts that don’t move, visibly.  Open up an old working computer and it’s full of dust, not caked in grease and visibly worn.  When the computer breaks, the solution is often just to go get a new one.  When software becomes corrupted, we reinstall it.  Some people still know how it operates from front to back, of course, but for most of us, the technology just… works.

Even to the extent that we bring our technology to be fixed, the explanations are often different.  Something happened that made the device just… not work.  Plug in a replacement, and all’s well (with some work to reorder everything, unfortunately).  Another way of saying that would be that much of the tangible assembly happens outside of our view.  The replacement parts exist in a sort of economic ether, just as the Internet operates not in some physical location you could point to on a map, but in a vast network of redundant machines.

All of this gives society an illusion of indestructibility.  You can smash your computer in a fit of anger, an entire server farm could explode, and the Internet will go on.  Even if our power grid were to fail, it’s not like that eliminates electricity from the universe or wipes away our knowledge about how to generate it.  (Here we could branch into another area of folks’ magical thinking when it comes to economics.)

Just so, we can elect a phony light-bringer, a corrupt criminal, or a celebrity con artist to run the country, and everything will go on, because that’s what everything does… until it doesn’t.  A better approach would be to build a society and a culture that doesn’t rely so heavily on central forces and in which we’re free to experiment with those parts of society that are closest to us and with which we’ll take the most care.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    It is easy to see why there is some disconnect. The average voter has only slight knowledge of how the government works and therefore only looks to results. They have slight knowledge of how rules are made. For instance do a man on the street poll on how Building Code requirements come into effect. Consequently, when something goes wrong, they attach blame to names that they know, as opposed to truly responsible administrators. Perhaps this is how it should be, elected officials are charged with keeping an eye out for the governed, that is supposed to be their job.Unfortunately, politicians are probably more concerned with advancement. Voters should easily grasp that situation and ignore excuses.