Saturday, October 6, 2012

Government is the killer app

The punic war, and a little more on group selection.

I've been reading a bit of Roman history, the Punic wars and the late Republic in particular. If you want to learn about group selection, this is a great place to start. The cohesion of groups was paramount, as was their judicious leadership. Make too many errors, and your city was razed and your population massacred. Or perhaps it was sold off into slavery. The price of communal failure was harsh, the rewards of success vast, whether one was close kin or not kin at all.

Rome excelled at pretty much one thing- government in all its forms. The typical activity of well-to-do Romans was a mix of law, soldiering, and politics, which they honed through hundreds of years into an ornate legal system, bloodthirsty militarism, merciless slavery, and stolid architecture. Their constitution was a mess, involving numerous bodies and elements, all in somewhat confused relation. It had, like its devoted student Britain, a mass of unwritten traditions and ever-evolving common law.

Early Rome was characterized by an extremely cohesive ruling class which occupied the senate, combined with modest input from a nominally sovereign popular assembly. Their consistency of judgement and constant aggressiveness allowed them to proceed from very unillustrious beginnings under the thumb of Etruscan monarchs to a Mediterranean-wide empire. Romans had very modest intellectual and artistic attainments, feeling perpetually inferior to Greece in this respect. They were cruel, practical, superstitious, fair in many dealings, and saw rhetoric as their highest art.

But with success and expansion, something about this republic went haywire, as the riches flowing in sapped the unity of the ruling class and bred corruption, the enormous armies in the field bled power from the senate to its appointed generals, and the nominal sovereignty of the assembly became real after the partial breakdown of the unwritten clientela system that fed senatorial dominance (in part displaced by the grain dole). Corruption grew and political violence, previously unheard of, ripened into senatorial murder squads, mob actions and civil war. The senatorial faction (optimates) evidently lost ideological control of the masses, and murdered a long series of popular leaders. Consul after consul edged closer to dictatorship until finally Julius Caesar swept the Senate aside for good. Ultimately, the senatorial class settled for political toothlessness in the empire of Augustus, in exchange for his careful preservation of their economic and social interests.

It is the usual story of aristocratic oligarchies challenged by members who take up the mantle of far-overdue popular reform, who through the vitriolic and murderous opposition of entrenched powers are forced into the position of dictators, which they eventually find rather amenable, (Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Lenin, etc.), leading to reversion to an even starker form of status quo aristocratic power as emperors, Fuerers, party chairmen, etc.

I see it as a lesson in two ways. First, in the importance of government, as against the Republican refrain of the last few decades where government is always "the problem", must be smaller, must always serve the rich, etc. and so forth. And second, in the importance of good government. Sure, if one governs badly, (certain recent Republican presidents come to mind), then government is going to be the problem.

But we humans have little power to do anything useful without our social institutions, and while private enterprise has its significant place, we also have many needs for common action that can not be filled by individual greed / voluntary enterprise alone. It is truly remarkable how thoroughly we have been dumbed down and deceived through this ideology of late, taking for granted the work of centuries and millennia.

Fittingly enough, the US Senate is, in our day, leading the way to institutional breakdown and corruption. Each Senator is known to think of her- or himself as presidential material, and they have devised ways to make themselves mini-presidents, at least of a negative variety, with the ability to block, veto, and filibuster any action. Executive appointments go unfilled, needed reforms are anonymously blocked, and the public's business is held hostage to unseen special interests and fringe agendas.

We are not at the point of armed gangs going from chamber to chamber in the US capitol, clubbing people to death. But we should take a hard look at the breakdown of our intitutions, at the heart of which is corruption by money and the unconstitutional arrogation of power by the Senate through its internal "rules". Our system is easily as oligarchical as Rome's, in the sense that the Supreme Court has deemed money to equal speech. While Rome had its attachment to rhetoric, tradition, circuses, and privilege, we have ours to the miracle of modern advertising methods, sound bites, and astroturfing- the alchemical transformation of money into power.

So don't look to the iPhone to save our civilization. The focus should be on the East coast, not the West. For all the communication we are now swamped with, how much of it counts? How much of it makes the world a better place? Who runs our TV systems and pours content into those fat pipes? Who makes the rules? Who tells the politicians what to say? Can we turn our gaze from the navels of Facebook out to the collective system that controls so much of our fate? Can we put people back into politics, instead of money?

  • The Cato institute says it draws its name from a series of British pamphlets called Cato's letters. But more likely they draw inspiration from the ultra-conservative and pretty much fascist Catos the elder and younger of ancient Rome. The elder ended each speech with "Furthermore, I believe that Carthage must be destroyed."
  • From the Cato letters ... "In all these cases, ’tis abundantly the interest of a nation, to promote credit and mutual confidence; and the only possible way effectually to do this, is to maintain publick honour and honesty; to provide ready remedies for private injustice and oppression; to protect the innocent and helpless from being destroyed by fraud and rapine."
  • Also note letter 108 on morals and indeed animal rights. "I will suppose, for once, a dialogue between his Holiness and a lion ..."
  • TED talk on trust and sharing ... and online reputation capital.
  • Voting is a tiny step in a much larger process.
  • Speech should be free- all of it.
  • The great barrier reef is half as great, over the last three decades.
  • Bikes are back, in Italy.
  • Messiahs- more common than you might think.
  • A Fed official lies for ideology.
  • Bill Mitchell, plea of the week:
"The damage that arises from excluding the youth from the labour market is life-long and then some. This cohort will carry the disadvantage throughout their lives and typically endure unstable and low-paid work interspersed with lengthy periods of unemployment when the business cycle turns down.
But even more damaging is that they will find it harder to form stable relationships and if they do their children will inherit this disadvantage arising from the exclusion at this time of their parent(s).
It is unfathomable why this is not an absolute policy priority and the Euro leaders announce immediate job creation programs through the Eurozone targetted at youth, if they cannot bring themselves to introduce an unconditional job guarantee for all workers.
The costs of this folly are so large and so enduring that there is no fiscal justification that can be mounted to not introduce such a plan.
And if you think about it from a conspiracy theory perspective – that the EU elites are trying to destroy unions and the welfare state – it is still a pretty weird strategy to undermine the prospects of the future workforce in an era when dependency ratios are rising and there is a greater need than ever for increasing productivity growth."

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