Laws as Symptoms, not Solutions

Laws are Symptoms not SolutionsThis short NPR/TED talk, Is The Law Making Us Less Free, is a sobering account of yet another way  we are shooting ourselves in the foot.

As the speaker, Philip Howard, says, “More laws now mean more chaos. What we have is a combination of anarchy and public paralysis. There’s this fetish with rules that has kind of replaced morality. And it works both in a gotcha sort of way, and it works in an avoidance of responsibility sort of way. And it’s infected our political culture and our broader culture.”

Step One: Understand what is happening

Considering life from a Symptoms Point Of View helps to see current circumstances ‘outside the box’ more than we would tend to otherwise. Frankly, we are predisposed to impulsively view life circumstances as realities in their own right, ignorant of pivotal antecedents. This is one of nature’s primary hoodwinks, which leads us to ‘shoot first and ask questions later’… if at all. Naturally, in the wild this works out in a balanced way. In civilization, it is another story…

History tells us that great civilizations always collapse under the weakening weight of their own bureaucracy. There are striking similarities between the paralysis and stagnation of previous civilizations, and what is occurring here as detailed in this TED talk. How rapidly this seems to be occurring is most curious. I think I know why. First though, I’ll set the stage…

Law and Order

Civilization is a makeshift attempt to enable large numbers of people to live together as a ‘psuedo tribe’. Maintaining this cultural illusion requires law and order and institutions to promulgate them.  A small hunter-gatherer tribe has no such a requirement for civilization’s law and order, or the cultural institutions that prop all this up.

Civilizations require order and stillness to be long-lived. External interference and interactions favor chaos and change, which makes order difficult to sustain. The previous 5,000+ years of history shows that as the means of interaction (civilization’s tools) have developed, civilizations have become shorter lived. Correlations give another way to see this.

chaos    needs
——- = ——-
fears     order

This reads as: chaos needs order; order fears chaos. This packs-in endless insight if you switch out the verbs for other pairs of contrasting verbs, or exchange the adjective / noun pairs for other contrasting pairs. (For more information on this technique, see Using Yin and Yang to Pop Preconceptions.

Now for my theory as to why…

Computers are playing a larger role in all this than we imagine. Over the last few decades, this bureaucratic paralysis problem has mushroomed right along side the mushrooming growth of computer use. Computers speed up life’s activities and they organize information. Information is the lifeblood of any bureaucracy. Computer’s speed up a bureaucracy’s transactions, which increases the ‘efficiency’ of the bureaucracy… not really efficiency in the natural qualitative sense, but more in the quantitative sense. If one thinks that ‘more is better’, I imagine that sounds like a good thing. It looks to me like a ‘benefit’ in sheep’s clothing.

Added to this is the destabilizing effect that ensues from of accelerating life’s overall interactions. It used to be that we only had to worry about people driving too fast, and before that, riding their horses too fast. Now every aspect of life (communication, travel, play, work, commerce, technology, etc.) can move along at light speed… metaphorically speaking of course. Among other things, this allows a culture to more easily drop away from its traditions, and this is freaking out traditionalist the world over.

A straight forward solution?

Certainly, this doesn’t mean we’re going to get rid of computers. We couldn’t, even if we wanted too. The ‘genie is out of the bottle’, so they are here to stay. They are incredibly useful tools for science and education, communication and commerce. The point is, we just need to recognize the unintended consequences of this benefit and learn how to manage it as wisely as possible. It would help to realize that more is not better, at least long-term.

This sounds straightforward enough. Alas, as I look around, I see we have yet to sufficiently face the unintended consequences of civilization’s other ‘benefits’ that the agricultural revolution made possible some 10,000 years ago. We are still attempting to fight fire with fire—the consequences of civilization with ‘better’ civilization. I imagine being able to recognize benefits, and yet come to grips with the downside of that very benefit is not part of our biological makeup. Simply put, we can’t easily see ‘both sides of the coin’. In the wild, such wisdom would not be necessary because nature would keep most every benefit in check.

Ripples of Yin and Yang

In the Taoist scheme of things, every benefit has its cost, just as every ‘yang’ has its shadowy ‘yin’ counterpart. Chapter 19′s, Cut off benevolence, discard justice, And the people resume devout kindness, hints at the causal forces at play, but these are usually more comfortable to overlook. Considering this from the symptoms point of view reveals a chain of causation. Here are just three obvious connections:

  • Justice and benevolence arose to fill the loss in people’s innate kindness.
  • This loss of innate kindness, in turn, is the result of the loss of tribal intimacy.
  • The loss of tribal intimacy is the result of the civilization structures needed to sustain agriculture.

Philip Howard’s proposed fix

The TED speaker, Philip Howard, puts forth four propositions that help ameliorate this. They are all sensible by Taoist standards, which means don’t hold your breath. I mean, these solutions would be a lot more viable if we actually had free will;-) Also, they are a little too weighted on the ‘freedom’ side of the coin. Here again, how do you support freedom and yet support boundaries on freedom? We all know that is essential, except when it comes to setting boundaries on our freedom! Our culture goes overboard in equating freedom with happiness, which makes if difficult to ‘see outside that box’. This is only aggravated by a “fetish with rules that has kind of replaced morality”, as Philip puts it. Anyway, here is his proposal.

1. Judge law mainly by its effect on society, not individual situations.
2. Trust in law is an essential condition of freedom. Distrust skews behavior towards failure.
3. Law must set boundaries protecting an open field of freedom, not intercede in all disputes.
4. To rebuild boundaries of freedom, two changes are essential: (A) Simplify the law (B) Restore authority to judges and officials to apply law.

Chapter 38 offers deeper context to this “fetish with rules that has kind of replaced morality”.

Superior virtue is not virtuous, and so has virtue.
Inferior virtue never deviates from virtue, and so is without virtue.
Superior virtue: without doing, and without believing.
Inferior virtue: without doing, yet believing.
Superior benevolence: doing, yet without believing.
Superior justice: doing and believing.
Superior ritual: doing and when none respond,
Normally roles up sleeves and throws.

Hence, virtue follows loss of way.
Benevolence follows loss of virtue.
Justice follows loss of benevolence.
Ritual follows loss of justice.
Ways of chaos follow loss of loyalty and thinning faith in ritual.
Foreknowledge of the way, magnificent yet a beginning of folly.
The great man dwells in the thick, not in the thin.
Dwells in the true, not in the magnificent.
Hence, he leaves that and takes this.

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1 Responses to “Laws as Symptoms, not Solutions”

  • This may not be directly related to the topic of too many laws, but then maybe it is. It brilliantly shows how The Way – in this case, Divine Providence – cuts through all the egotistical nonsense a leader faces…


    As stated in the Tao, The Way does not instruct our self-centered sense of morality, but fools it as pointed out in section 2 of the above link, SOLOMON’S JOKE. This section addresses the difference between Equity and the fallacy of the political preachings of Equality.

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