In an earlier essay I talked about the need to bring light to the festering skullduggeries that were rife, during the last eight years — either through official malfeasance or private turpitude that was fostered and enabled by a general atmostmere of lawlessness. Many people are frothing for a time of comeuppance. For a fierce and ferociously determined version of this drive, see "Justice after Bush: Prosecuting an Outlaw Administration," by Scott Horton. Nice to see folks out there who make me seem mild and moderate.
Of course, much of the tone will be set by President Barack Obama. I have no private window to the President-Elect's inner thoughts. Having discussed, last time, the curing benefits of light, let me admit that he might choose a different tack — to quash some scandalous revelations about Bush era travesties.
One can picture the lowest of reasons — in order to gain leverage with many of the top players in the New Aristocracy. Yes, BHO seems to have the smallest list of IOUs of anyone ever elected to the presidency. Still, he's human and that means keeping a corner of our minds skeptical.
Or, perhaps, some members of his circle have already been suborned, either by direct corruption or by the kind of blackmail trap that I caution against in another place. (If I could grab the lapel of every single young idealist now heading for Washington, and force them to read one thing, it would be this desperately urgent warning!)
Or else — more likely — Barack Obama may go to the opposite extreme, and justify downplaying the full extent of recent crimes, with the highminded purpose expressed by Frederick March, when he played President Lyman in Seven Days in May... preferring that the American people never learn how terribly they were betrayed in order to maintain the beneficial illusion that we truly are a blessed nation, somehow above the dismal and fetid cesspools of corruption that spoiled Rome and so many other empires.
Indeed, we already have some evidence that this kind of thinking is at work. Certainly much more went on than the public ever knew, a couple of years ago, when a large number of generals and admirals must have staged some kind of work action or warning that forced George Bush to replace Donald Rumsfeld with Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, prying immature fingers off the tiller of national survival. Anybody else — any other group — would have blabbed or bragged afterward, but not the flag officers. Their subsequent stony silence over what happened may represent their loyal effort to preserve a sacred image... that of total and perpetual subservience to civilian authority. A supremely honorable, if frustratingly mysterious event, for which (if it really happened) we owe the officer corps, a lot.
President Obama may decide to not to pursue Bush-era dirt for some reason like that. And, if so, I suppose I can understand...
... but no. I am author of The Transparent Society. So which side of all of this do you expect me to come down on, in the end?
Judge Louis Brandeis said that "light is the best disinfectant." It is also the one great advantage of an open society. People find it all too easy to come up with rationalizations not to step under the glare. It is a trap of human nature, and even decent leaders are tempted by secrecy. But there comes a point when sunshine becomes our only hope. Steady progress toward light is what makes us healthier, when all other forms of government shrivel under the naked sun.
Let me follow up with a little deep perspective: All this talk about dealing with recent crimes and "truth commissions" has got me thinking about the Big Picture Context — where all this may fit in the epic of human history. So let's take a little time to play thought experiment:
Suppose we discover that the "worst" was worse than we ever imagined. What if the coming wave of revelations really rocks us back in stunned dismay?
Thomas Jefferson said that each generation must hammer together a new and revolutionary set of methods to use, in vigorously defending freedom. One reason for this is that technologies and other social factors change, requiring new and innovative solutions. Also, the "solutions" of a previous generation often get spoiled or suborned by new waves of parasites, who learn how to twist them to their advantage.
Take the way agencies like the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) and the Bell System all started with the intent of overcoming monopolistic abuses, but wound up being "captured" by the industries they were supposed to regulate. Hence a little known historical fact — that it was the Democratic Party, particularly under Jimmy Carter, who performed the biggest and most effective deregulations in U.S. history, by breaking up all three of these calcified entities and several others, restoring healthy competition to railroads, trucking, airlines, telecommunications and many other fields.
In contrast, GOP-led "deregulations" in S&Ls, banking, securities and mortgage lending all led directly to locust-swarms of loophole-using vampirism. The clear lesson of history: if you want decent de-regulation that both reduces government meddling and fosters open, honest competition, ask Dems to do it.
Or witness what happened to the supposedly "progressive" income tax. An innovation that appreciably limited aristocratic power for a while, but now seems fine-tuned to serve the interests of a newer aristocratic clade — one that grew up knowing every twist in the creaky and arcane and outdated law. Why do I raise this now? Because we do not yet know how deep the rot goes, how far parasitic tentacles have penetrated, during the last decade.
Suppose Special Prosecutors or a "truth commission" were to reveal something truly pervasive and nasty? Might our leaders try to hide this information from us, for our own good? Or, if it is revealed, might people be so radicalized they demand draconian, even revolutionary measures?
This is the ultimate, illogical foolishness of insatiable/rapacious, top-level parasitism. Aristocrats who think they are mutant-smart (instead of merely lucky) tend to assume they are immune to history, that cyclical patterns can never apply to them, or that sheep don't look up.
That tumbrels can never again roll through the streets.
Time for a historical factoid. At around the time of the 1775 uprising that sparked the American Revolution, vast sections (up to half) of the colonies of Georgia, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were owned by individual families under charters granted by the British crown. The great landlords were mostly royal cronies — personal friends of the king — who never even visited their vast new fiefs. (Such cronyism was cited by Adam Smith as the great destroyer of free markets.)
How did that earlier generation of Founders solve the problem? Certainly seizure of some Tory assets had a great deal to do with the breakup of those grossly unfair, unearned estates — and such things might happen again, if the People must rise up against a new feudalism. Still, mass confiscation is a bludgeon, at-best unreliable. Often, it only leads to a new class of meddling masters, even worse than those who came before.
Fortunately the main rebalancing technique that was used just after the revolution was far gentler and less socialistic. Across the 1780s and 1790s, many states passed laws against "primogeniture"... the automatic inheritance of all real property and titles by the eldest son. (Some had even begun this process before the revolution, explaining part of the enmity of the British aristocracy toward colonial home-rule.)
That was it. Banning primogeniture. Simple. But it sufficed.
Recall that primogeniture had been a strong tradition that let aristocratic wealth and power remain concentrated in a few families. Hence, for a generation, American society (through consensus political action) stepped in to severely limit a landowner's right to decide which of his children would receive what. Instead, for a while, the law demanded equal distribution among all offspring.
It sounds meddlesome and anathema to libertarian principles. Yet, without such innovations, America would have started as a true feudal-oligarchy. But thanks to anti-primogeniture laws, within two generations all the remaining giant estates had broken down to fair economic units, without much actual confiscation, by simple division of inheritance among large families.
The result: a win-win situation. Profit motive was retained and wealth continued to be a draw for innovators, yet aristocracy was forestalled. Moreover, having done its job, the solution was then allowed to wither away! Today, by phrasing a will correctly, a man or woman can bequeath to whichever child he or she likes best.
Why do I raise this now? Because we were blessed, since the era of George Marshall, with an era that featured the flattest social structure in human history, a period without major class conflict, dominated by a highly mobile and empowered middle class. One in which by far a majority of American millionaires were "self-made" through having delivered competitive goods or services or innovations. A time when billionaires left far more to their foundations than to hyper-privileged offspring.
But we need to prepare against the very real possibility that we're re-entering a more "normal" period of history, one riven by steep cliffs of disparity of and inherited privilege — tendencies that appear to be rooted in human nature and our genes. The very same trends that ruined free markets and democracy in hundreds of other nations and eras. Precisely the trends that the Enlightenment was invented to resist.
This could be our generation's time of testing. Just suppose that it is so, then we have a duty: We must emulate our pragmatic reformer ancestors and avoid the excesses seen in France, Germany, Russia and China and so many other places, where anti-artistocracy uprisings went too far. Where they radicalized and then turned monstrous, in their own right.
Resisting the tempting allure of class hatred and simplistic ideology, we should recall that nothing good ever came of the hoary and stupid and utterly destructive/insane so-called "left-right political axis." It has nothing to tell us. Toss it out! (After all, isn't it... French?)
No. If we find our nation slipping into an age-old human failure mode... if some fraction of the monied elites... if disloyal capitalists and kleptocratic thieves... are doing the same-old, tiresomely predictable human thing that over-privileged fools have done in most eras — trying to turn their advantages permanent, into something like feudalism — that doesn't automatically make the answer socialism!
Indeed, I doubt very many Democrats — and certainly not the pragmatists currently running the party — lean that way, even slightly. After all, Adam Smith would be a Democrat, today.
No, if we do find ourselves in such a crisis, forced to reconsider the fate of class and nation on a basic level, well, there are many details of capitalism that might be revised. But we are Americans. No one ever benefited more from the positive side of markets. We can and must do as our ancestors did, when they faced similar problems. Fine-tuning in ways that punish the wicked and prevent feudalism while still incentivizing the creative and dynamically inventive! Ways that serve to stimulate new and brighter and better and more competitive/creative markets.
We need to save and care for the baby, even if the bathwater stinks.
Every generation of Americans has had to strike the balance in new ways. We need to gird ourselves with courage, imagination, goodwill, pragmatism, dedication and plenty of good old common sense.
"Reconciliation: Will We Bring Economic Crooks to Justice?" (published in full here) was one of a series of 21 "Unusual Suggestions" Brin posted following the election of Barack Obama, when it seemed that everybody — columnists, political sages, bloggers and citizens — wrote missives about 'what I'd do if I were president.'
Copyright © 2009 by David Brin. All rights reserved.
David Brin blogs at Contrary Brin and posts social media comments on Facebook, Twitter, Quora, and MeWe specifically to discuss the political and scientific issues he raises in these articles. If you come and argue rationally, you're voting, implicitly, for a civilization that values open minds and discussions among equals.
David Brin, "Truth: Can We Restore Integrity?"
Scott Horton, "Justice after Bush: Prosecuting an Outlaw Administration"
Seven Days in May (1964) (film #ad)
Pankaj Mishra, Age of Anger
T. M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other
William MacAskill, Doing Good Better
Paul Bloom, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil
Joshua Greene, Moral Tribes
Steven J. Brams and Alan D. Taylor, The Win-Win Solution
Peter Singer, The Most Good You Can Do
David Brin's science fiction novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. They range from bold and prophetic explorations of our near-future to Brin's Uplift series, envisioning galactic issues of sapience and destiny (and star-faring dolphins!).
Short stories and novellas have different rhythms and artistic flavor, and Brin's short stories and novellas, several of which earned Hugo and other awards, exploit that difference to explore a wider range of real and vividly speculative ideas. Many have been selected for anthologies and reprints, and most have been published in anthology form.
Since 2004, David Brin has maintained a blog about science, technology, science fiction, books, and the future — themes his science fiction and nonfiction writings continue to explore.
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David Brin's Ph.D in Physics from the University of California at San Diego (the lab of nobelist Hannes Alfven) followed a masters in optics and an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Caltech. Every science show that depicts a comet now portrays the model developed in Brin's PhD research.
Brin's non-fiction book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?, continues to receive acclaim for its accuracy in predicting 21st Century concerns about online security, secrecy, accountability and privacy.
Brin speaks plausibly and entertainingly about trends in technology and society to audiences willing to confront the challenges that our rambunctious civilization will face in the decades ahead. He also talks about the field of science fiction, especially in relation to his own novels and stories. To date he has presented at more than 200 meetings, conferences, corporate retreats and other gatherings.
Brin advises corporations and governmental and private defense- and security-related agencies about information-age issues, scientific trends, future social and political trends, and education. Urban Developer Magazine named him one of four World's Best Futurists, and he was appraised as "#1 influencer" in Onalytica's Top 100 report of Artificial Intelligence influencers, brands & publications. Past consultations include Google, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, and many others.
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