So, what are we humans, as creatures?
I ask, because it bears a great weight on how we answer “how should we be governed”?
A lot of people since the enlightenment (but not the Founding Fathers) have assumed that humans are creatures of reason and that once you get them to a certain state of government that answers certain needs, they’ll stay there.
They’ve assumed this for good and ill. As I’ve been known to say before 1984 and Brave New World would last about ten seconds under the impact of a Heinlein character. But so would any of the utopias we can think of.
So, the question is this – are we humans (or can we be) – creatures of pure reason? Is that even desirable?
Heinlein notably – sometimes being a man of his time, and his education and of course a writer, worked at cross purposes with his horse sense – thought by now we’d have a science of the human mind and a science of crowd behavior. Of course, at the same time he expounded this, his societies gave it the lie, so maybe he was being tricky and that’s what he meant.
We’re hearing a lot of this too, right now from the progr– vile progs. About how they had everyone pegged with consumer info and knew where to concentrate their efforts for getting out the vote. Brother. They managed to be more unorganized than the other campaign and I had to forget I was a lady several times over the phone to them before they stopped bothering us. (And now they’ve resumed.)
Communism, of course, assumes this. It assumes the only reason man isn’t perfectly rational is the chains of medievalism, the dank influence of capitalism, and that good old villain “greed” which is an excuse for communists envy.
(Sorry, I have in mind an old Reader’s Digest joke. My father had piles of old Reader’s Digest from his dad lying around, and it comprised a lot of my reading as a kid. One of the jokes went “I went to my politics test, and they asked for ten ways to combat communism. The only thing I could think of was the Ten Commandments. I had an A.” To an extent, quite right, of course. Where would communism be with “Though shalt not covet” foremost in people’s minds?)
Then there’s Ayn Rand who also assumed humans could be rational if they got rid of “slave mentality.”
Are humans rational? Well, most of the time and within limitations. But thinking reason is the only thing that guides us is as blinkered as thinking emotions or culture or history are the only things that guide us.
If humans were perfectly rational… we’d live in hell on Earth. From the purely “reason” point of view there is no logical motive that the very rich shouldn’t be like the vampires in the vampire-parallel-world of buffy “we rode people like ponies.”
But if you’re going to say that type of behavior is a thing of instinct and emotion, perhaps – but using people for dog food or fertilizer, isn’t. It’s not our reason that recoils from this. It’s other parts of us.
Even at its mildest, a human society run MOSTLY by reason would be a crazy society given to all kinds of lurches. Look at me and my colleagues, and the things we play with in our minds… yeah.
The new and hip thing – and I’ve read a lot of books on this recently – is that we’re purely creatures of instincts, that we react according to instinct and then make up stories to cover it up. (Groans.) As someone who took psychology, let me tell you this is a load of pure hokum. First because – WHY would we make stories to rationalize it, if all we had were instincts and everyone was jumping around when someone said frog? In fact, if this were the case, we’d never have got off square one of civilization.
But the main reason I KNOW it’s hokum – and you guys might not be as sensitive to it, as I doubt most of you have humanities degrees and/or moved extensively in New Age circles at one time (one of our friends worked in a New Age bookstore for years. He started a science fiction section.) – is that it’s a non-falsifiable theory.
No? Well, if I tell you “Of course people aren’t just creatures of instincts. My instinct was to do x not y and I overcame it with my reason.” You can always tell me, “No, your instinct was always y, you just made up a story afterwards to rationalize it. How do I answer that? How do I prove you’re wrong? Absent recording my thought process, I can’t.
This theory is close kin to another, also in vogue right now, that “there are no coincidences” and “no one does anything unless at some level they meant it.” Say I’m late for an appointment and don’t get in. I meant to do that because I didn’t want to go to the dentist, or whatever. Even if what made me late was the car breaking down. You get “subconsciously, you knew there was something wrong with the car.” Poppycock. A new incarnation of the “fate” doctrine, only it’s all on you and your subconscious.
And a close descendant of the New Age doctrine that I heard twenty years ago, which insisted if you caught a cold you meant to. So, you know, you could get mad at your friends for getting sick.
The thing is – watch that ball move – while these theories seem completely different, they’re like the two sides of global cooling/warming, the idea is always the same. If you can contumaciously get sick when you wish to, it’s a failure of the will, and you need a guru to guide you. And if you can’t control yourself and are just acting by instincts, you need to quote the song “Someone to watch over” you. All of you. At all times.
The vile progs love both of these theories – in their new incarnation. While they contradict the idea that man is perfectly rational and is born tabula rasa, they have the same solution: if properly trained by the people in power, you’ll be all right. If not, you’re a quivering mass of contradictory instincts. And they never let a little contradiction bother them.
Are you a quivering mass of contradictory instincts? Well, of course you are. You’re also a rational human being. But wait, that’s not all!
To all this I’d add that you’re a product of your culture. The people who think that you have, inborn in you, all the characteristics of your culture at birth have taken over the schools. This is why you hear people who say things like “you should speak English in America” accused of racism. Because language is culture and culture is innate, don’t you know?
Forget the fact that we’re not speaking whatever they spoke before recorded language in the fertile crescent, and that we’re not living like them – proof enough that culture changes and is not in the genes. But before someone says “but genes change, too, gradually.” Yes, okay. But what mutation was involved in Italians crossing the ocean and settling in America? Because my second generation Italian host parents in Ohio were middle America and my mom spoke no Italian. (My host dad spoke Italian to his mother only.)
Do traces of the culture linger? Well, of course. There’s the way things are done in any given family which even in melted pot America are not the same as any other family. And some of them are very old indeed. I’ve mentioned before that in my region “pila” was the slang term for a part of the human male – probably the result of a slew of bad jokes by legionaires.
And the ways of life in Portugal, to an extent, including the patronage system to advance, are clearly descended from Rome. The part the vile progs are right about is that I’m likely to feel transported to childhood (not always in a good way) when confronted with many parts of Hispanic/Latin culture. My host-parents best friends were immigrants from Cuba. I loved going to their home, because at a basic “how things are done” level they were a lot like my own family, so when I was homesick, it helped. It even smelled right. OTOH …
OTOH when I’m at the Embassy Suites in Denver that is now mostly staffed with Latin immigrants, and they start closing the breakfast buffet half an hour early so they’re done on the dot at nine thirty – as opposed to starting to close at nine thirty, so customers can find breakfast till that time – I’m reminded why that is a bad thing, and why I left.
And that’s ultimately the thing – immigrants CAN leave, and they can make the decision to acculturate and to port the best parts of another culture.
None of which would be possible if humans were merely reactive, or purely reason. If they were purely reason, culture would not exist or have no influence. If they were merely reactive, then they would be caught in something like animal behavior – and human civilization wouldn’t really exist, nor could people move between cultures. (This last is what the vile progs currently believe, so assimilation is a bad word.)
HOWEVER when you are raised in a culture, never go out of it, and/or have to live in it, culture is a heavy determinant of how you’ll react to things, often with no rational thought.
So, humans are creatures of reason, and physical body (which implies instincts, but also other things. Trust me, it’s possible for me to be hormonally insane and not know it) AND culture. (To these, because I’m a believer, I’d add a fourth, what Giovanni Guareschi (Great theological philosopher. What? You thought theology had to be boring? Seriously, if you haven’t read his Don Camilo short stories and the other stories about the village in the valley of Po, you’re missing a treat) called “The something else” which grabs the priest of mind and the priest of body and throws it into the ring to help the communist mayor win a bout against an “outsider, who kept hitting low.” To this the Christ (the Christ over the altar talks to Don Camilo. Deal. Their relationship makes me wonder if Guareschi read Nero Wolfe stories) says “I suppose you mean the priest of spirit?” And Don Camilo says “I didn’t say that, Lord, I wouldn’t presume to lecture you.”)
My older son who is about to finish a bachelors in biology says the weird thing is not “how well man is constructed” but that we don’t al fall dead after a few minutes because of how BADLY systems interact together, and everything that can go wrong.
This is because we have in us the remnants of our evolution, like that “pila” embedded in Portuguese slang. (The first man to make a joke on this gets a carp upside the head.)
Psychologically we’re about the same. Reason and sentience might have given us an edge over the other animals, but they haven’t exactly taken over completely. In the end, we might be “in reasoning so like the angels” but what this angelic creature reasons with is an ape’s skull and ape’s instincts, including the desire to belong and to make the band as uniform as possible (because this worked, for the apes.)
All of which means – so how do humans tick? And how should we govern them and by what principles?
Well – fortunately I don’t have to answer that question all at once and all on my own. I’d say the normal, default governance of mankind is the strong man system. This is what governed us in the pre-human bands.
It can be an okay form of governance, too – sort of – if you have an okay strong man.
Take Salazar, in Portugal. I’ve said before that there were serious troubles with his governance (ruling, really.) Partly because of where he came from and what he concentrated on. He was an accountant, and he’d been – I think – a charity inmate at a Jesuit orphanage.
Even his worst enemies never accused him of being lavish in his private arrangements. He was, in fact, said to live “like a monk.” And he was probably a decent enough human being, to begin with.
It is a very bad thing to put a decent enough human being in charge of a large group of people and a vast territory (even when these are Portuguese scale.) There are compromises that have to be made with reality. You assume other people work the way you do. Your understanding of economics propagates itself to the economy, and you end up in a mercantilist backwater. People talk back and give you guff, and you end up with a secret police and an apparatus of repression – for people’s good, of course. And the bureaucracy festers under you, because no matter how much of a type A personality you are, you can’t do everything.
Was the Portugal I grew up in hell on Earth? Well… no. In some minor ways it was much better than it is now: there was virtually no violent crime – there was a lot of theft, mostly of clothes from the lines, and that’s telling – and the police was far less bribable. (Look, it’s a Latin country, they were still bribable. But people were NOT afraid to call the (civil) police to the site of accidents.)
But the reason clothes were stolen from the lines because we were all desperately poor. Because his understanding of economics was the opposite of free trade. And even though he stabilized it after the disastrous “republic” – life didn’t get much better. That said, we were far less poor than the communist portions of Europe, so if you’re going to have a strong man government, take it without serious ideological sauce. (Salazar had the beliefs of his time including in National superiority or unity or whatever, but he governed mostly with an eye to the purse. And because he’d come from a very poor background his idea of a road to prosperity was to save.)
And before the Straw Kung Foo Fighters come in – no, this doesn’t mean I approved of Salazar’s government. I also didn’t approve of the mostly crypto-communists who followed after the revolution and as much of a bumble broth as the current mess is, it’s better than either of those… unless you have to live there with the crime rate and the corrupt institutions. But I do think there are better ways to solve that than strong-man government.
The strong-man form is so prevalent that it’s what communism, fascism and all the other hip “isms” of the twentieth century devolve into. And, again, it can be okay — depending on the strong man – or hell on Earth. Names like Castro and Stalin come to mind. Also, let’s not forget that sociopaths MIGHT be particularly well adapted to get to the top in this form of government.
But it might – given the right kind of education/training – provide countries with stable governments where the least people get hurt and things are “okay”.
What it rarely provides is innovation, a decent life standard for the individual or… well squid farms on Mars – that is, the things we don’t even know never came into being because the system wouldn’t allow them.
The systems under which more innovation happens and the standard of life increases are those that put the most emphasis on the individual.
Universal suffrage is an insane idea, of course, based on the premise that more voices are saner than one voice. But sometimes insane ideas work. If nothing else, universal suffrage makes the government not quite so cavalier about what they’re doing “to the least of these little ones.”
But a collection of fallible human beings are still fallible, which is why the founding fathers (and don’t tell me by our lights they didn’t have universal suffrage. We don’t either, we have machine politics, in which cats, dogs, made up people, cartoon characters and – mostly – organizations control our vote.) had a system of checks and balances, with different people voting on different things and…
The way to promote human prosperity and innovation is to have as close to universal suffrage as possible (actually restricting it to property owners is the most common and least troublesome – in playing out – arrangement) and as small a government as possible. This is likely to become corrupted as people find they can vote themselves bread and circus, but it will become corrupted faster if the system is subtly changed to direct democracy and if the checks and balances are destroyed, so leviathan can rise.
(We could discuss ways of suffrage. I used to think Australia was barmy to have voting be mandatory. One of the saving graces of the American system when it worked was its low rate of participation. It kept voting to a small, very interested minority, a majority of which would either take the trouble to inform themselves, or vote with the RIGHT instincts – right instincts? – well, yes, a tendency not to go overboard on new new things was one of those. However, Australia by keeping track as it does keeps the vote of pets, imaginary people and cartoon characters to a minimum and it would be really obvious if thousands of votes were found in the trunk of a car and put the voting at well above the population. It has merits.)
It actually doesn’t matter much how universal the suffrage is, provided representatives are hampered in their attempts to exert their power and kept in fear of the population.
No system of government lasts forever. So… how do we judge what we should do?
A wise man said: by their fruits ye shall know them.
Strong man government (and the ancillary feudalism and fiefdoms in any society over 20) is the default system that everything falls to, when out of control and when humans are left to their instincts. It’s not hell on Earth, unless the strong man is hell on Earth. But at its best it’s stagnant and it imbues the personality of the person in charge.
Communism STARTS as hell on Earth, because it tries to make humans into gadgets, which can’t be done. And then it becomes strong man government.
A democratic republic seems to work for a time at least – maybe we should give it a try again – but it too decays into direct democracy, which decays into strong man government.
The good of a system that protects life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness might not be self evident, but it is nonetheless real over time and squinted at.
It will never be perfect – humans aren’t perfect. We’re a barely cobbled together mess held with spit and glue. It just happens to be the best we can do – even when it’s honored more in the breach.
Humans are cobbled together creatures. Because we’re social apes, some form of government is inherently “desired” or we default to strong man. Keeping the government small might be the best we can do — and allowing more importance to individuals, to minimize the chances of mass-killings.
Can we get there from here? Who knows? Possibly not without centuries passing. Probably not without wading through rivers of blood. Certainly not without an education that’s not mass indoctrination. (It is worth considering that while state schools serve the interests of a strong man — there are nauseating panegyrics to the great leader, and some of them stick — they serve very badly a system that’s supposed to de-emphasize government.)
It is the only cause worth fighting for. Even if the brief periods of freedom and innovation and individual prosperity and dignity don’t last – their memory warms the centuries ahead, and passes on the torch, so that the light might be kindled again.
It’s worth a try.