Google [TED Is The Law Making Us Less Free] for how law affects society. Briefly, the speaker, Philip Howard, says, “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.” In reality, I view law as more a symptom of societal disconnection and distrust.
Step One: Understand what is happening
Considering life from a Symptoms Point Of View (p.141) allows us to see current circumstances deeper than we naturally do. Frankly, we are predisposed to view life’s circumstances as realities in their own right, ignorant of pivotal antecedents. This is one of nature’s primary hoodwinks (p.11. 100), which kindles an innate urge to act first rather than ask why. Naturally, in the wild this works out in a balanced way. In civilization, it is another story.
History tells us that great civilizations tend to collapse, probably due to the growing weight of their own bureaucracy. There are conspicuous similarities between the paralysis and stagnation of previous civilizations and what is occurring here as detailed in this TED talk. It is striking how rapidly this is occurring now, and I think I know why. First, I’ll set the stage…
The origin of law and order
Civilization is a makeshift attempt to enable large numbers of people to live together as a pseudo tribe. Maintaining this cultural illusion requires law and order, along with institutions that promulgate these. Conversely, small hunter-gatherer tribes had no need for such contrived ‘law and order’, nor the cultural institutions that prop these up. Their intimate sense of belonging—connection—was sufficient.
Civilizations require order and stability to be long-lived. Any external forces that instigate change invariably create some chaos. The previous 5,000+ years of history show us that as a civilization’s capacity for external interaction increases due to technological progress, the civilization life spans decrease. This threat to stability boosts a society’s push for more law and order — more bureaucracy. At some point, the house of cards comes tumbling down. Correlations give another way to see how this plays out…
——- = ——-
This formula reads as: chaos needs order; order fears chaos. This technique allows the mind to ponder issues in an utterly concise, albeit subtle way (see Using Yin and Yang to Pop Preconceptions, p.572.).
Benefits can be detriments in sheep’s clothing
Probably no single human event since the harnessing of fire has instigated as much change as the harnessing of electricity and then computers. This technology has a very destabilizing effect that ensues from accelerating life’s overall interactions, and this rate of change is increasing exponentially. It used to be that we only had to worry about people riding their horses too fast. Now every aspect of life (communication, travel, play, work, commerce, technology, etc.) can race along at light speed… metaphorically if not literally. Among other things, this induces a culture to abandon its traditions. This results in accelerating change, which then freaks out traditionalists the world over.
As expected, computers speed up all life’s activities as they organize information, and information is the lifeblood of any bureaucracy. Computers speed up a bureaucracy’s transactions, which increases bureaucratic efficiency. This is not true efficiency in the natural qualitative sense, but more in the quantitative sense. If one feels that more is better, I imagine this sounds beneficial. On the other hand, perhaps the benefits are often detriments in sheep’s clothing.
Now for a “straightforward” solution
We’re not going to get rid of electricity or computers. We couldn’t, even if we wanted to. The genie is out of the bottle and it is here to stay. Both are incredibly useful tools for science and education, communication and commerce. The point is, we just need to recognize the unintended consequences of such benefits and learn how to manage them as wisely as possible. It would help to realize that more is not better, at least long-term.
Naturally, this solution is not as straightforward as it sounds. We can’t even sufficiently face the unintended consequences of civilization’s other benefits made possible by the Neolithic Revolution (Agricultural Revolution). We are fighting fire with fire by expecting to fix civilization’s problems with “better” civilization. Being able to recognize benefits, and yet come to grips with the downside of those very benefits is not an innate biological characteristic. We can’t easily see both sides of the coin. In the wild, such wisdom wouldn’t be necessary because nature would keep every benefit counterbalanced and 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 — forces that we’d rather not see. 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 hierarchical civilization structures needed to sustain agriculture.
Philip Howard’s proposed fix
Philip Howard offers four propositions to help ameliorate the problem he discusses in his TED talk.
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.
I feel these are somewhat sensible by Taoist standards, which means don’t hold your breath. Moreover, these solutions are a little too weighted on the freedom side of the coin. Our culture goes overboard in equating freedom with happiness, which makes it hard to see outside that paradigm’s box. This is then aggravated by a “fetish with rules that has kind of replaced morality”, as Philip puts it.
Finally, how do you support freedom and yet support boundaries on freedom? We all know boundaries are essential, except when it comes to setting boundaries on our own freedom! Chapter 38 offers deeper context to this “fetish with rules that has kind of replaced morality”. It reveals reality from a symptoms point of view. As the end of this chapter points out: loss of the way begets virtue, loss of virtue begets benevolence, loss of benevolence begets justice, and so on.
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.