Keeping the more progressive sections of the populations from running off into whatever fad madness strikes their fancy. Without them, we would waste countless resources every year reacting to every whim or fashionable cause to grace the earth, and we would waste ourselves uselessly. Of course, if you actually let them push their own policies they can range from pointlessly restrictive to outright draconian or criminal by today’s standards. The design of most modern governments deliberately incorporates a slow-down mechanism. For example, the American government’s House of Representatives can be subject to large and sweeping change with the times because each representative sits for two-year terms. If public opinion sways massively enough, half the house could be toasted in one cycle. On the other hand, the Senate features six-year terms, putting the brakes on any movement without sufficient staying power to stick around to replace senators. To go even further, the Supreme Court is appointed for life by the President of the day, so justices can put the brakes on movements decades later using mindsets that are hideously out of date and out of touch. Some might say that they counteract the impulsiveness of electoral politics because nobody has the power to remove them and can act impartially. While these are all good points in the design of a governing body, and I believe that the American government was, in its day, the finest form of government that 1776’s brightest could create. I am not going to go off on my usual tack of how these same design features could work for a non-coercive power such as a DRO, and indeed these types of traits are one of the main reasons to choose one DRO over another. However, I am instead going to analyze the nature of government today in a more conventional fashion. To say the least, times have changed. The old system of government really is out of date. The world is changing faster than the government can accommodate. Technology is the greatest and most prevalent difference between the age of governments- there was a large string of revolutions around the time of the American revolution- and the modern world.
First, let’s talk about the effect of technology’s dramatic extension of our life spans. Firstly, the minimum age for office in the United States varies but generally it’s about 30 or so, maybe a little older. Convention often requires a few more years. Google tells me the average lifespan in 1776 was 33 years. Now, keep in mind that this factors in infant mortality, so children who live through the first year or two would probably live to be much older than 33. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the average adult in average health around the time of the American revolution would live to be about 50 or 60. if you could expect to live to 55 then that meant you had about 25 years in office before making way for the next generation. While that’s a long time, it’s manageable. The turnover is approximately the same length as one generation, about 20 years. Today, however, the average lifespan in the US is known much more precisely to be 78.14 years. Also, let’s not forget that the infant mortality rate has lowered dramatically in the last 300 years to just 6.3 per 1000 live births, so that number is much more reflective of the actual age of the population. So now the possible political impact over time of any given person is increased from a scant 25 years to a full 50, if not more. Especially in the case of Supreme Court justices, they can live to be even older than 78 and further extend their influence. The median age in the US is now about 38, or 40 years behind the life expectancy. I would like to note here that this effectively sets the political decision-makers back as much as two generations from the modes of the age, rather than less than one. This gap is more significant if society is changing rapidly because being behind will produce behavior that seems irrational and ridiculous. I’m not being unkind here, I’m simply stating that actions that seem reasonable to a mind which is perceptually based in a time that is sufficiently different will make poor decisions.
My basic point here is that while a small restraint on the whims of today are a good thing, yet too much restraint will produce a resistance to the needs of the modern world, a stubborn refusal to accept reality that will cause serious problems. The important thing to realize about at least some of the old-fashioned, outdated generational phenomena is that the new phenomena exist for a reason. At least, the ones that we care about. Fads or the awesomeness of anything are insignificant and while there may be a reason it’s not a substantive one, it’s a subjective one. What I’m talking about is stuff like the terror threat. We don’t need to be afraid- the world is not a scary place. Virtually all its people want to cooperate with us, not attack us. The whole threat is just blown so far out of proportion it’s disgusting. But we’re talking about a generation ago- the Cold War. This generation is accustomed to having a massive threat hanging over them. In fact, they probably don’t feel comfortable unless there’s an enemy out there which they can try to defend against or outmaneuver. Now, if there actually is a massive and frightening enemy out there then that sort of mindset is quite useful. But if you don’t, the security measures and the paranoid aggression and the “preemptive strikes” against enemies that couldn’t possibly harm you are just insane. Yet these Cold War babies are the ones running our government, and the people voting them into power are generally about the same. The young are generally credited with having more energy and are therefore more politically active. Yet that is simply untrue. The young adults who actually care are probably about the same proportion of the population as older age groups. Yet they have a large amount of political pull for two reasons- 1) Their time is cheap. They don’t have high-paying jobs that require constant attentiveness and leaves them worn out at the end of the day. And 2) they are generally in line with the zeitgeist of the time because they were raised in it, recently. The thinking intellectuals of the time tend to flow with the times, they enjoy progress immensely. Conservatives, on the other hand, are averse to change and risk. So progressive, liberal, etc. tends to get the young, the academics, and the intelligent. Conservatives get the uneducated, the super-rich, and those who just don’t know any better. Once again, I’m not bashing conservatives. There are a lot of intelligent conservatives, but as a general voting population you have the very successful and intelligent who are very wealthy, and then the trailer park crowd, the rednecks, etc. Part of the reason why the Democrat/Republican debate is so fervid is that it is by definition impossible to resolve. This goes a long way towards explaining both parties’ successes. Republicans tend to be economically and socially conservative, where Democrats are liberal. Democrats want to give out services and taxes are a necessary evil to fulfill that goal. Republicans want to get rid of taxes, and the abolishment of services is an unfortunate side effect. There can be no compromise here in the same way that two sides of a tug-of-war can’t agree to disagree. When one side wins, the other one must necessarily have lost.
(all numbers in above paragraph courtesy of the CIA World Factbook)
So while being modern is fantastic, it’s vital that we understand why we’re being modern and progressive. We vet with rational choice which elements are improvements, and which are just madness. In a way, that’s what I’m trying to do with this blog. The biggest issue is that everything anyone does has secondary, tertiary, and other ripple effects that nobody can predict. For far-reaching changes like the invention of a new product or new capacity in technology, or new discovery, the effects are rapid. For slower phenomena like cultural drift and parenting artifacts, such as the behavioral effects of being raised with a single mother, the effects take longer to take effect, are more subtle, and more enduring. Older people tend to be conservative because the environment they grew accustomed to, in their opinion anyway, worked well. Even if they believe it was a nightmare, they still bought into it. The old guard act as a fallback position.
Think of it like this. When you’re designing a product you keep meticulous records of everything you try. When you try something and it works a little bit, you’ve made progress. You incorporate elements of the improvement into your future experiments. But if the next experiment doesn’t work at all, you haven’t lost anything because you retain the information from the previous experiment which worked. In fact, you have gained some critical data which you can use to further discriminate between functional and useless designs to try. However, due to the term of cultural shifts, this same type of rational analysis doesn’t necessarily take place. It is possible to go backwards as generations forget or are conditioned into behaviors that a previous generation improved upon already. In fact, because at certain stages of psychological development we rebel against parental or authority figures, there is a certain subsection of the population that is actively resisting progress and striving to regress at any given time. If the forces for progress falter substantially, there will be a serious loss of ground into ignorance and barbarism.
Now we arrive at the real issue. Technology, only a product of the more enlightened sections of society, has the effect of amplifying the regressive parts as well. The Internet has the effect of strengthening communications and sharing of information, which makes it easier for the regressors to organize and entrench their positions. Groupthink is strongest among the regressive elements, since rational and intelligent individuals recognize and avoid groupthink communities, and the artificially elevated levels of certainty and social proof that go with it. I think it’s important to point out right now that the regressive sections of society don’t think of themselves as regressive. They believe themselves to be seeking the “good old times”- a return to good old American values of family and patriotism and freedom. It’s the “good old” part that is mistaken. Historical categorizations tend to be extremely positive, such as the noble savage description of the Indians, or the free-and-easy cowboy reputation of the wild west. They are all wrong. There has been progress in virtually every year since the Industrial Revolution, technologically, socially, morally, and in so many other ways as well. The devaluing of nationalistic and family values is one of those advances. They were necessary to group mankind together into cohesive tribal groups, but in a global community they are destructive forces which must be overcome. The hard part of removing them completely is that a majority of the population believes there is a moral imperative behind these principles. You cannot convince such people that they are incorrect because they will interpret any attempt as an immoral person’s attempt to corrupt them. Interestingly, they tend not to recognize the same effect in others and believe religious conversion to be effective on its own merits. They ignore the marketing, conditioning, and manipulative elements of the conversion process. But I digress. Anyway, moral imprecations produce circular logic. That’s their purpose. You cannot violate a moral imperative and remain a moral person. Therefore, questioning the limits of morality is itself an immoral act. I’m not saying it’s a logical conclusion, just that it’s the way moral imperatives work. Particularly so for religious moral imperatives where there is a power base being challenged by questioning their commandments.
I need to find a way to wrap this up. My basic point is that conservatives serve as a pacifying force for turbulent times, mitigating the effects of rapid cultural shifts. However, at the same time and as a result of the same properties, they also resist positive progress. They slow down the social experimentation that advances society socially, they slow down the scientific experimentation that advances technology, and they slow down the cultural shifts that make lasting change possible. By the experiment model used previously, they limit how much you can change after each experiment, and limit the number of experiments. This helps because society doesn’t necessarily remember all the data of previous experiments to reconstruct a perfect fallback position at the latest, most effective model. This hurts because we could go so much faster if they weren’t around- in either direction. Progressive elements don’t work like conservatives, however. When progress is made, the conservative only get that much more fodder with which to feed their conservatism. Yet when the conservatives regress society, the progressives have fewer tools with which to push forward. We’ve been caught in such feedback loops before- the Dark Ages were the worst one, broken only by the Black Plague killing a third of the population. This brought basic survival drives into play and overpowered the conservative elements because it was simple: change or die. Let’s not get into that situation again.