21 May 2022

The difficulties of enough

Elsenet, Brad Delong is struggling with an elevator pitch for Slouching Toward Utopia.

(I am writing this at noon, and it is dark enough for the street lights to be on; storm front coming through and I can just barely see the red stop lights two hundred metres away. None of the buildings on that street are visible.)

I am sympathetic; my book summaries are notoriously unhelpful.  Still, I think most of the problem is that Brad has masterful knowledge of the how and a terrifically shaky grasp of the why.

The "how" is that starting in about 1870, human productive capacity became immense and that for the first time, everyone could have enough.  The "why" is that is not what happened; this is clearly not a utopia. Why not?

This is, alas, easy, but you have to have looked at systems theory and enough evolutionary biology that iterated survival starts to have emotional meaning as the underpinnings of all life.

When there isn't enough, the only way for you to have enough is to take it.

You can't do that by yourself; someone will murder you in your sleep if you try.

A group gets created; we have enough.  It is right and proper that we have enough, even if they are starving.

Taking makes the pie smaller; the fighting you have to do to take doesn't make anything but waste and corpses.  (Notoriously! oppressed populations are poor because there is no way not to be poor.  Hel's Teeth, look at Disney's Robin Hood movie from the days you could say such things aloud. Everyone knows this.)

What you want when there's enough is for everyone to have enough, and for everyone's safety to depend on collective action.  Personal authority, taking, and concentration all hurt far more people than they help.  You need to get rid of taking for everyone to have enough.

You cannot do this because the wealthy and powerful will not allow it; they are safe, and you want to make them less safe.  (They'd have to obey laws if they weren't as rich as they are.  They really would be less safe.)

That everyone else would be safer, that everyone would have enough, and that everything would get better do not matter. That we might not go extinct by replicating the End Permian does not matter. For thousands upon thousands of years, the way to be safe was to take.  The old ancestral wisdom says you never stop taking, and the rich and powerful are not about to stop now. (If you are them, it is working.  What they want, they have.)

Systems function to keep existing; to copy themselves into the future. That is the iron law of bureaucracy; it's also the iron law of status and of life.  If you don't copy yourself into the future, you and everything like you goes away.  If it's not there it doesn't matter.  Every system that exists now survives while surrounded by other systems that exist to take.  Everything exists on the basis that the only safety comes from taking.  (From people and from the earth, under various loot sharing agreements, but to take.)

No one with status and power will accept a reduction in their status and power.  (Which is why office holders in democracies inevitably start getting given money and position upon retirement.  It's easier; it does not offend the norms.) No one with status and power will accept that it is wrong to take.  Everything they know says it is right; they have taken, and it has given them all that they might desire.

We don't have utopia because we can't, not with this society, and the risk of trying might make the Thirty Years War look like a game of chequers.

The plague and the other plague and the starvation and the rising awareness that we really are trying to replicate the End Permian and that there isn't any time left to not suffer the consequences are going to result in attempts anyway.

It would help if the idea of collective action -- broad civil collectivism; a fellow citizen might not be your sibling but is your cousin -- was out there, rather than a question of who does the taking.

It would help if the acknowledgement that greed is a sin and cannot be made virtue was out there, too.  That there is no legitimate reason to seek wealth.  (General and collective prosperity, absolutely.  "Take more, for me"?  No.)


mark said...

The current system cannot copy itself into the currently predicted future. The response from those in power has been to ignore or deny the predictions. It is distressing to see that as time goes on and predictions become facts, they are shifting more and more into denying facts. Once the reality disconnect is large enough, the system will flounder.
My sincere hope is that whatever new system is emplaced, it is more amenable to humanity and life in general.

Graydon said...


I think that's correct. Most of politics in Anglo NorAm since 1980 have been about not changing when change is obviously and inescapably necessary.

(I might say that the system is floundering now.)

Agree entirely on the hope!

Rosy at random said...

This all reminds me of attractors, tipping points, and local/global optima.

We can't make small-scale changes towards a better future because the rest of the system pushes you back

Graydon said...

+Rosy at random

Very much so, with the extended problem that the system is something undergoing dynamic construction and there are a bunch of billionaires actively working to make sure their relative personal power increases.