Friday, May 06, 2005

Why Government

Nearly every modern political debate, when boiled down to its essence, is an attempt to define the proper role of government in a given situation. Be it Schiavo, Social Security, or steroids, on some level the participants are advancing their own personal theory regarding the appropriateness of governmental intervention. In a sense, all such questions can be reduced to a simple inquiry: What should government be doing?

In service of their respective conclusions, participants in this discussion reach out in every direction. They will alternatively quote Enlightenment philosophers and religious doctrine. Some will attempt to tease meaning out of the Constitution, while others search for the truth in the writings of Ayn Rand. Of course, there is much to learn from those who came before us and such investigations can be quite enlightening. However, there is an underlying assumption that the answer lies somewhere in the words and ideas of our ancestors, and that we need merely to decipher and properly apply this hidden meaning in order to achieve resolution.

I am not so certain. Perhaps the answer to our question can be so divined, but it is more likely that our divergent sourcing and interpretations will never converge, leaving us no closer to a conclusion than when we began. This makes for great debate fodder, but I find that it offends my empirical sensibilities. I'm not in this for the game -- I want an answer.

And so, I've been considering an alternative methodology that I feel has some promise. Rather than relying on the pontifications of a bunch of dead white men, let's approach the question from an anthropological perspective.

To do this, let's first change the question slightly. Instead of asking what government should be doing, let's ask why government even exists. What happened in our ancient history that necessitated the rise of such top-down societal management?

When the human species arose in Africa, they began as hunter-gatherers, functioning in a manner not dissimilar from the wild primate troops that we can witness today. These early humans lived in a condition not far removed from a pure state of nature. Yet, even at this primitive stage, there surely were rules of conduct that governed the troop's members. However, the small size of these communities meant that bureaucratic institutions of rule enforcement were unnecessary. Hierarchies undoubtedly existed, and those at the top certainly wielded control of those below them, but all such interaction was conducted face to face.

Then, about 10,000 years ago, humans started to give up their nomadic ways. As they learned to domesticate local plant and animal species, communities began to focus more and more of their energy on agriculture. While the productivity of these early farmers was still relatively poor, the shift did allow an increasing number of humans to subsist in a relatively small area. At first, this increased population density would not have demanded a shift in the social order. As long as the numbers remained low enough for high levels of intimacy to exist between members of the community, rules of conduct could be maintained through the direct application of interpersonal pressures.

Soon though, the size of these communities began to grow. As the number of individuals increased, the levels of intimacy between them began to drop. The connection between family and close friends remained strong, but community members were now frequently exposed to individuals who were not well known to them. Eventually populations increased to the point that community members frequently encountered fellow denizens who were complete strangers. This was a radical shift from the experience of the hunter-gatherer, who might have gone months without encountering a non-familiar human. Suddenly, such an experience was an everyday occurrence. And it surely began to create problems.

In small groups, where every individual is well known to everyone, there are high levels of accountability for behavior. Knowledge of transgressions against community norms circulate rapidly, making such transgressions extremely costly. You might be able to get away with cheating a fellow member of your clan, but if you are caught, all of your relationships will be affected by the existence of this sin. Moreover, for most people it is simply more difficult to cheat intimates, as opposed to faceless strangers. However, once these communities reach a certain size, these prohibitions against bad behavior start to fail. Individuals are no longer beholden to these informal constraints and are free to behave in a manner that serves their narrow self-interest.

The solution to the failure of these informal constraints is to institute new, formal constraints. This is otherwise known as government.

There is, I think, an object lesson in this tale of government's origin. Government, it appears, evolved to address a specific problem that arose out of increasing community sizes. Clearly, there were advantages to abandoning the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favor of agricultural communities. Over time, with increasing population, these advantages became much more dramatic. Communities with larger populations had higher levels of technological innovation, which led to higher levels of productivity, which could in turn support an even larger population.

But, increasing population brings with it its share of problems, the breakdown of informal behavioral constraints being merely the first. As we are now aware, large populations have a significant impact upon the environment, both with respect to resource exhaustion and production of waste. Also, the high population density of large communities increases the individual's vulnerability to infectious disease. These negative byproducts of increasing population must somehow be managed, as they threaten the very survival of the community. Without such management, the long-term advantages of dense population centers would be overcome by the costs. No large community could survive without it.

Now, let's return to our initial question. What should government be doing? It should be managing the negative byproducts of communal existence, just like it always has. Anything that government does should be justifiable in the context of this simple rule. Anything that falls outside of this narrow mandate is probably an inappropriate application.

Of course, the application of this rule isn't going to immediately resolve any public policy debates. Reasonable people can disagree about what necessarily constitutes a negative byproduct. Moreover, disagreements will arise regarding how we choose to manage the byproducts we agree on. That said, I do feel that reframing the question in this fashion allows us to jettison a tremendous amount of useless rhetoric. How would Jefferson, Locke, or Aristotle choose to apply government to a given problem? Who cares? Even if it were possible to divine answers to such questions, of what value would those answers be unless they were informed by our current understanding of the problem? Rather than attempting to justify policy by invoking the words of ancestors completely ignorant of the world we live in, why not simply address the problem directly? Given what we now know: Is the given issue a negative consequence of communal existence? Everything beyond that question is useless.

People, it seems, are too willing to rely upon the wisdom of our ancestors. This wisdom has become imbued with a sense of infallibility that often becomes impossible to dispute. While I would not argue against the brilliance of many who have come before us, it isn't the final word. These men and women were limited by the information available to them during their era. It is fascinating to see them struggle to answer the questions of their time. But, the key phrase here is of their time. We live in a different world and we shouldn't be afraid of wrestling with the questions of our time. Our ancestors were smart, but so are we. And we will demonstrate that fact -- as long as we can recognize the question before us.
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