The New Order of the Ages
This is a bit longer commentary than usual, but it is about an important topic that needs to be explained clearly. A recent book, The Constitution of Knowledge, by Jonathan Rauch, presents the case that our Enlightenment based system of developing knowledge and using that knowledge to build a modern society is suffering an epistemic crisis making it difficult to discern fact from fiction. But the author’s discussion on the nature of this system of knowledge made me realize that other systems in our society, most importantly our systems of governance and economic activity, share many of the same characteristics and are also under attack.
Western Civilization, which reached its peak in the late twentieth century, came to dominate the world based on three unique and powerful systems, our system of governance, our free market economic system and our system of knowledge. Of course, every nation and civilization have a form of these three systems. But the Western systems, led by the United States of America, are truly unique. Let me explain.
Historically, these systems have been captured or controlled by relatively few people. Governance was possessed by a hereditary king or emperor supported by an aristocracy. The monarch bought the loyalty of the aristocrats through grants of land or fiefs in exchange for loyalty and military service. The lords of the manor controlled the land, the peasants bound to it and the agricultural produce of those lands. Knowledge (which was faith-based not scientifically based) was controlled by a priesthood directed primarily by the younger sons of the aristocracy. The common folk supplied the foot soldiers, peasants and worshippers of these systems, but lacked agency and had little input into decision making.
These autocratic systems were designed to keep elites in power. Regimes only changed due to foreign invasion or internal intrigue among royal or aristocratic elites. Economies were intended to service the luxury lifestyles of the elites. Of course, the luxuries were primitive, and the health and hygiene of the elites was not even on a par with the worst conditions in the poorest countries of the modern world. And there were few inventions or innovations except those useful for making war. The Chinese inventions of paper and movable type were novelties for the amusement of the imperial court, not a means to educate the masses. Stability trumped progress.
Because these historic autocratic regimes suppressed the development of the human capital of their subjects, economic growth and the spread of literacy, were stunted. The lives of the common folk were of the meanest sort. The temple granaries of ancient Egypt were for the gods, not the people. Famine from natural or man-made causes was common. Plagues periodically ravaged whole continents. Untrained peasants in the fyrd were the first to die in battle. Between wars they labored in the lord’s field or in his manor. Change and the improvement of the human condition came slowly over the millennia.
The Enlightenment Difference
Things began to change about five hundred years ago when a number of thinkers in Europe began to ruminate about the nature of man in society (yes,yes, I know, they were mostly men, and mostly white Europeans and many of them were also old). One of the key concepts that these thinkers came up with was the notion of natural rights. Natural rights (sometimes referred to as god-given rights) are fundamental to each person. They are universal, meaning they apply to everybody – even peasants. And they are unalienable, meaning they cannot be taken away by law.
As Americans we believe these natural rights are obvious and normal and should be understood and accepted by everyone. But this was not the case historically, as we have seen. Nor are these rights understood and accepted by everyone around the world even today. Only in the Western world, and most prominently in the United States, have these rights been understood and accepted. And not only understood but raised up as the founding principles of our society.
The concept of natural rights profoundly changed how the great systems of governance, economics and knowledge functioned in the West. No longer were societies based only on the ideas of a few monarchs, high priests or warlords. Everybody’s ideas were included in the mix. The uniqueness of the Western world lies in the participation of millions upon millions of people in our great systems of governance, economics and knowledge. The human capital liberated by Enlightenment principles has transformed the world – for the better.
Instead of a system of governance ruled by a single monarchical authority (Hobbes’ Leviathan) or a cabal of nobles, every adult’s opinion on government and its leaders is registered through regular elections (direct democracy being too cumbersome for a modern society). Instead of an economy based on agriculture intended to benefit a landed aristocracy, the economy is composed of millions of economic actors making millions of their own economic decisions for their own benefit. And instead of a faith based on myths and legends handed down by long dead sages, knowledge is based on ideas and concepts empirically critiqued and tested by a broad base of philosophers, scientists and educators.
Of course, not all the ideas and economic decisions of millions of people are good and beneficial. Many of them are downright stupid and bad. But all these ideas are part of the evolution of enlightened societies and grow and adapt much like evolution in the natural world. In nature, organisms are constantly mutating. Some of those mutations are beneficial and help the organism adapt to its environment or improve its chances of reproducing. Mutations that do not help the organism adapt or procreate die out. So, even though many of the mutations are maladaptive (probably even the vast majority of them) only the better versions reproduce and become the dominant strain in the species.
Similarly to natural selection, in democracies, corrupt politicians are voted out of office. In free markets, shoddy products are rejected in favor or their better competitors. And bad ideas and falsehoods are expunged by empirical evidence. These evolutionary improvements and reforms do not occur under monarchies, dictatorships, empires or systems of governance not based on natural rights.
Reforms in enlightened societies, however, often take a long time. The legacies of historically autocratic systems are hard to expunge. Evolution is a slow process. Over a period of five hundred years many of these legacies that are not in keeping with our Enlightenment principles have slowly been eliminated, releasing additional human capital into society. Literacy was expanded, slavery was abolished, women were granted suffrage.
Unleashing Human Capital
Incorporating a large number of the citizens of a society into the governance, economic and knowledge systems (along with a multitude of subsystems) liberates vast amounts of power that can be of great benefit to the society. Through most of human history, the majority of human beings primarily supplied mechanical power. Plowing fields or harvesting crops, at the directions of their aristocratic masters. Peasants had little ability to develop their human capital. The surplus from their labor was captured by the lord of the manor. They had no reason to innovate or increase productivity because all the gains from that effort would also be captured by their master. This began to change about 500 years ago in Europe. Trade and commerce began to flourish from Venice to Amsterdam allowing middle class merchants to become wealthy (a political counterweight to wealthy land-owning aristocrats). The Renaissance and the Reformation open avenues to thinkers like Copernicus and Galileo who challenged established dogma, earning the wrath of the principal hoarder of knowledge at that time, the Catholic Church. These were the early developments of the Enlightenment systems that were more clearly described by John Locke and Adam Smith.
While diversity based on superficial characteristics such as race or gender can provide some small benefit to a society, the power of thought diversity is enormous. Adding the thought diversity of millions of people to the great Enlightenment systems of governance, economics and knowledge propelled innovation and economic growth the world had never seen before. But unless that energy could be channeled and controlled it could be very destructive. Remember, the latent energy in gasoline can only provide useful power if that energy can be contained within a cylinder that drives the piston of an engine. All sources of energy from fire to nuclear power contain both destructive and beneficial power. And people power is no different.
Human energy must also be channeled and controlled in order to be effective. Historically this has always been done through force or faith (backed by force). These forces blunt the power of the common people because the power inherent in the common people is a threat to the stability of the governing elites. But unrestrained this people power would be anarchic and self-destructive. The American Founders faced a dilemma, how to limit the power of government in order to unleash the power of the citizenry while retaining enough power and control to restrain the excesses of that power and prevent a relapse to a more autocratic form of government.
The control necessary to liberate the productive energy of the people is achieved through a social contract among the citizens of the society. The Founders created a constitution to define the role of government within the social contract. They sought to limit the power of government in order to liberate as much productive energy as possible while not creating an ungovernable situation as existed under the Articles of Confederation. The Framers of the Constitution did this by creating checks and balances that limited the accumulation power in government by dividing the functions of government into three branches, the presidency, the legislature and the courts. At the same time, they constitutionally limited the power of the federal government by granting powers to state and local governments (while preserving the rights of the citizens in the tenth amendment).
In the social contract, the people agree to cede a portion of their natural rights to government in exchange for good governance in the maintenance of the social contract. The people agree to respect the rule of law as established by their elected representatives. This requires a high level of trust in the integrity of the elected representatives and the civil service. This trust can often be misplaced because public servants are often driven by their own self-interests. But the people retain remedies for these breaches of the public trust and can vote out the scoundrels. These remedies are not perfect, but they do not even exist in unenlightened and illiberal governments.
The social contract placed the power for economic decisions into the hands of private actors. This liberation of the economic powers of millions of citizens has fostered an unprecedented wave of innovation and economic growth unheard of in the illiberal world. This wave of prosperity has made the lives of billions far better than in the past. However, some market participants are excessively driven by their self-interest, endangering the trust citizens should have in the products and services produced by businesses and tradesmen. Market forces tend to contain the abuse of the economic power of unleashed human capital but as markets got more complex government was obliged to regulate markets. Although competition is supposed to resolve many of these problems, it is the role of government to make sure that the trust of consumers in the economic system is not violated. The role of government is not to punish the accumulation of wealth but to assure that such accumulation is done within the Rule of Law, preserving consumers trust in the products and services provided at competitive prices. Government can assure that citizens are equal in rights, but it cannot create equality of ability, talent and drive; so economic outcomes will not be equal for all citizens. But government does have the obligation to assure that there is a level playing field and that all citizens have an equal opportunity to seek their own unique American Dream.
Much of the economic benefits that liberal societies enjoy is derived from a system of knowledge that is complementary to the systems of governance and economics, providing the scientific and engineering know-how that drives innovation and economic growth. In traditional societies knowledge was hoarded by the priests and aristocrats. Knowledge is power and in those societies elites controlled what knowledge there was and let few people enjoy access to such knowledge. The vast majority of people were illiterate and there was no such thing as science. The great competitive advantage of the young United States of America was, as noted by Alexis de Tocqueville, the high level of literacy of the people. Liberated literate people are capable of tremendous feats of innovation and the expansion of knowledge. The United States and the rest of the Western world have created a multitude of institutions to discover, validate, preserve and spread knowledge. It was these institutions of knowledge that facilitated the quick development of vaccines to combat the COVID-19 virus.
The Forces Opposed to Enlightenment Principles
The enlightened systems of governance, economics and knowledge, are successful because they encourage the participation of many people which unleashes vast amounts of human capital. For these systems to work smoothly, they all must be guided by the same principles. The free market economic system does not thrive in a non-democratic society. China opened up its economy in the late twentieth century but the entrepreneurs that boosted China’s economic growth also believed that they should be able to influence government policies to promote their business interests. The Chinese Communist Party under the leadership of Xi Jinping has reacted strongly to this defiance of the party’s leadership. The authority of the Chinese Communist Party over these entrepreneurs and their companies has been reasserted as regulators have cracked down and party cadres take over boards of directors. The authoritarian Chinese regime could not tolerate the freedom necessary for a market-based economy to flourish. These actions will have long term impacts that will impair China’s ability to compete with enlightened Western societies. Similarly, America can no more determine economic outcomes without destroying democracy than China can maintain a market economy in an authoritarian state.
Although Western governments are being challenged across the globe by rising illiberal authoritarian powers, the greatest challenge these governments face is of domestic origin, especially in the United States. As Abraham Lincoln said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” Forces on both the left and the right appear to have forgotten what gave the great American systems of governance, economics and knowledge such power.
People on the far right have come under the thrall of a single person. These people are not conservatives, but neither are they white supremacists (although there are white supremacists in their midst). Their leader demands personal loyalty over patriotism and demands that his will overcome everything standing in his way, even if they are sacred democratic institutions. If this populist leader had not been Donald Trump, it would have been someone else. America was ripe for a populist leader on the right. The globalization favored by elites had hollowed out traditional working class jobs and successive crises had millions feeling vulnerable. Vulnerable to a populist leader that told them what they wanted to hear. But ultimately, the plans of Donald Trump were thwarted by the multiple checks and balances that the Founders had incorporated into our system of governance to forestall exactly this type of threat.
There are people on the left in America who assert that the Enlightenment systems are not benign. They say that elites retain power and hoard wealth and resources, and that the lives of many people are miserable because of the unfairness of the inequality that pervades our society. They say the reins of power are retained by white people of European descent and that Enlightenment principles and values are not universal, but designed to benefit white people. They say that their ideas, whether socialism or antiracism, will make people more equal and that equality will make the world a better place.
The attack on Enlightenment systems from the left is subtle. Instead of battering down liberal democratic institutions, they work to infiltrate and undermine these institutions. They do this under the guise of caring for the less fortunate and a desire for fairness. They accuse American institutions being corrupted by capitalists and suffering from systemic racism that has resulted in disparate outcomes for minorities. They seek to transform American institutions through diversity, equity and inclusion training that highlights white privilege and attempts to divide the people within those institutions by identity group. They want to establish “The Science,” meaning science that meets their ideological goals, as settled and to prevent any criticism or research that might challenge their conclusions. They want courts to seek social justice outcomes instead of adhering to constitutional principles and precedence. They want to change the structure of the US Senate to facilitate their agenda. In other words, they are seeking to undo the systems based on Enlightenment principles that were established by the Founders and replace them with systems that will focus on equal outcomes and social justice as they define it. Rather than limit government and empower people, the Western system that has been so successful, they want to increase the power of government to achieve social justice results determined by politicians and bureaucratic committees. They want to take economic decisions out of the hands of millions of citizens and give that power to a state planning committee led by academic elites.
But the achievement of that better place that they seek requires the power of government to force the wealthy and large corporations to relinquish their hold on power and redistribute their wealth. This increase in government power, like the case in China, comes at the cost of a reduction of human capital as the number of economic decision makers is limited to those in charge of the government. The progressives say that the science on everything from climate change to gender dysphoria is settled and try to ban any research or discussion that could disprove their theories. Under such a regime, only government approved ideas are allowed. Whether they are good or bad does not matter. If these people are successful, the advances achieved under Enlightenment principles will slow. The liberation of human capital achieved under Enlightenment principles will be strangled. And knowledge will be controlled by government. This is not a step forward. It is a step back into our past.
When asked what type of government America’s new Constitution would create, Ben Franklin quipped, “A Republic, If You Can Keep It.”
Ben Franklin, along with John Adams and Abraham Lincoln, realized that the greatest danger facing America was internal. The Founders tried to protect us from ourselves. They separated the powers of government, they staggered the terms of the legislature and the presidency, they limited the power of the federal government, and reserved certain rights and powers for the states and the people. They didn’t include term limits for elected officials because they could not conceive of people making a career of elected office, let alone becoming wealthy at it. But they feared politicians that would try to convince people that they could deliver all sorts of benefits if only they were given sufficient power.
The illiberal attempts to overthrow the Enlightenment systems of governance, economics and knowledge, appear to be the driving force in America right now as they have gained control of the dominant political parties in the country, both the Democrats and the Republicans. They are setting the agenda and driving Americans further and further apart in order to achieve their radically different political goals. But they do not represent America. They are, in fact, a small minority. But they seek to sap the will of the American people. They attempt to undermine our faith in the Founding Principles of our nation. Principles that have led us to world leadership and unheard-of prosperity.
Don’t vote for politicians that offer you benefits with other peoples’ money. Don’t vote for politicians who promise a return to a golden age. Vote for statesmen that promise a difficult struggle to live up to the principles of an enlightened age. We have come so far. Now is not the time to falter.