Two Societies

Is it just a coincidence that I am thinking, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, about how to organize society?

Consider a mythical society organized on the principle of open debate in the free marketplace of ideas as the road to problem resolution. Consider an alternative mythical society organized on the principle that might makes right. We can surely agree that these constitute two clear alternatives for constructing a human community. Indeed, they are pretty good end points, two extremes, simple and mutually exclusive. One could sort out all real human societies somewhere between these two extremes, and if one did so, one would quickly see that one had thereby rated all those societies. We would all no doubt concur that one extreme was “good” and the other “bad.” We would all choose to live pretty close either to one extreme or the other. That much we can all agree on.

The disagreement would come over choosing which end of this “continuum of human societies” was to be considered “good” and which “bad.” It won’t require much imagination to guess that Saddam Hussein and Joseph Stalin would have strongly preferred living in a society based on “might makes right.” Indeed, they did and presumably enjoyed the experience, at least until Saddam went underground and Joe lay down on his final sickbed terrified of his doctors. But ask yourself how many public figures in the United States today might, in their heart of hearts, agree with Saddam and Joe.

Listen! I can almost hear the protests already! Everyone is yelling, getting angry, feeling insulted (i.e., guilty), and starting to pick up rocks to throw at me. “It depends!” they say.

I beg to differ. It does not “depend.” It is conceivable that the strongest among us might, theoretically, at least once in the course of human history happen to be right, with everyone else wrong, but even if so, that individual’s strength would be an irrelevant detail, a curious coincidence. Indeed, it would be a statistical anomaly, because there is no poison more likely to induce stupidity than power.

Can we slice and dice this fundamental choice about social organization? Can we, for example, have a foreign policy at one end of the scale and a domestic health or financial or environmental policy at the other end of the scale? Can one department of government be run according to the principle of “might makes right” while another is run according to the principle of “open debate?” How might the two respective secretaries participate in a policy-making session with the President? Would the former bring a gun to the White House, while the latter invited a dozen of his experts to testify? And what about the President himself? Can he make foreign policy at 9:00 on the basis of the former principle and sincerely devote himself to considering the needs of the domestic weak and poor at 10:00 on the basis of the latter principle? Or, to reverse the situation, can a leader who oppresses his population be trusted honestly to implement international treaties with weak countries?

Perhaps some such amazing event has occurred during some instant of history, but I would not bet my mortgage on it.

The sad truth is that today in the U.S. many CEOs of financial corporations and many politicians are doing their best to push American society as fast as they can toward the “might makes right” end of the scale.

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