This short NPR/TED talk, Is The Law Making Us Less Free, is a sobering account of yet another way we shoot 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 us 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 ‘pseudo tribe’. Maintaining this cultural illusion requires law and order and institutions to promulgate them. A small hunter-gatherer tribe has no such requirement for civilization’s law and order, or the cultural institutions that prop it all 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 us that as civilization’s mean for interaction increases thanks to technological progress, civilization life spans decrease. This increase civilizations need for order — law and order. Correlations give another way to see this.
——- = ——-
This reads as: chaos needs order; order fears chaos. This can convey 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 this than we imagine. Over the last few decades, the 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. Computers speed up a bureaucracy’s transactions, which increases the ‘efficiency’ of the bureaucracy. This is not true efficiency in the natural qualitative sense, but more in the quantitative sense. If one thinks that ‘more is better’, I imagine this sounds like a good thing. It looks to me like a ‘benefit’ in sheep’s clothing.
In addition, we have the destabilizing effect that ensues from 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 drop more easily away from its traditions, and this is freaking out traditionalists the world over.
A straightforward solution?
We’re not 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 ‘solution’ is not as straightforward as it sounds. We can’t even sufficiently face the unintended consequences of civilization’s other ‘benefits’ that the agricultural revolution made possible just 10,000 years ago. We are fighting fire with fire by expecting to fix civilization’s problems with ‘better’ civilization. I suspect that being able to recognize benefits, and yet come to grips with the downside of those very benefits 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 never be necessary because nature would keep most 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, 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 hierarchical civilization structures needed to sustain agriculture.
Philip Howard’s proposed fix
The TED speaker, Philip Howard, puts forth four propositions that he says will help ameliorate this.
(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 all sensible by Taoist standards, which means I won’t hold my breath. I mean, these solutions would be a lot more viable if we actually had free will.
Next, 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 difficult to ‘see outside that 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”.
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.