This didn’t make Facebook’s status limit even with aggressive editing, but it is dedicated to our political system, with love and consternation.
The major problem — one of the major problems, for there are several — one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.
To summarize: it is a well known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem.
Douglas Adams, the pre-eminent social and political philosopher of our times. Right behind Monty Python. Then probably Jon Stewart. With Friedrich Hayek and John Rawls taking a joint and distant fourth.
But Adams has a point. People are the problem. People disagree, for various and manifold reasons. That disagreement is a problem, since it prevents us from fixing problems, and moving in whatever direction the body politic believes is good, given a strong following.
And now, in the United States, there are 350 million of us, and growing. Do you know what the probability of us all agreeing is?
There are complicated stochastic models — interacting particle systems — which describe the full probability distribution of any combination of pairwise agreement statistics for this population (voter and contact models, see works by Thomas Liggett and Rick Durrett, in particular). In such models, there are cases where the population will eventually reach consensus. But the time required for the population to reach consensus is astronomically increasing with the number of people involved. With hundreds of millions, we are guaranteed that no process which involves people talking to each other (this simplfies our exact situation, but….) will come to consensus in a population this size before the sun burns out, on average. If we’re lucky — we end up with periods of metastability where we hover in a bounded region of state space before we wander off and “change” into something new. When we look back, we see a “historical progression” but all it really consists of is the cumulative history of how we’ve agreed and disagreed.
Granted, this is a drastically simplified model. In reality, we live in societies which are much more like the Potts model, or specifically, the q-state threshold Potts model described by Axelrod in his cultural polarization and cohesion simulations in the late 1990′s. Their behavior is roughly similar at a macroscale, however, and consensus happens for a small range of parameters but a large part of the state space is coexistence of diversity, with endless wandering through the state space, especially near critical values.
In terms of political philosophy, what this means is that Montesquieu was correct with his “small republic” hypothesis, in empirical terms. Consensus, and thus harmony on most aspects of social life, is possible with a small population, or with small numbers of attributes that define us as “us.” As population rises, and the richness of what divides “us” from “them” rises in the Potts model, the more time we spend wandering through inconclusive regions of the state space, where we have lots of change and no stable customs, etc.
This means Madison might be wrong about his “big republic” hypothesis, at least in terms of the classical portrayal of these two thinkers and their relation to classical republican ideals. But as we know from modern work on first and second-order social punishment, group formation, social network structure, green-beard models, and similar ways of creating ways out of the prisoner’s dilemma, we have ways of making “many overlapping small republics” out of ”one big republic,” which means if we figure out a better way to blend our opinions — not the old state’s rights divisions, but some new way of slicing and dicing our diversity for purposes of developing a working majority, we have a chance of managing this big Madisonian republic while giving everyone the feeling of involved, empowered inclusion that really sits behind our concepts of citizenship and liberty.
And yes, this really was triggered by Douglas Adams.
Happy Towel Day!