#41 On history

Dear Mat,

Can society be working for some but not others? Can it be objectively measured? This is a much more fascinating disagreement!

The left expect the perfect society; the right think there’s only the incumbent. But surely history demonstrates two things:

  1. the perfect society is impossible and thinking it possible ends in mass-murder;
  2. status quo supporters were consistently proved wrong by reforms that were just over the hill, but they enforced the status quo, generally through small scale murder.

There is the politics of eternity and the politics of inevitability. Both are ahistorical.

Societies work to different extents and the only complex society that hasn’t gone extinct is the current one. Longevity is not the only measure. Maybe North Korea will last a long time. Other civilisations lasted longer than ours but were terrible to be living in.

After all, a civilisation is the people living in it. Take Soviet Russia. It represented an increase in living standards for many poor people, because the Tsar’s Russia wasn’t anything to write home about either. For those in the regime who avoided Stalin’s wrath it was great times. But for an outsider like Solzhenitsyn it was hell and there were many like him. These subjective experiences add up to an objective indictment against the regime. I think you should read something by an outsider in our society.  From an entire ocean of literature and activism, I’ll pluck Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

Our society is much better than the USSR, but can and probably will be better still. Not perfect. Every society in history could have been better in a non-utopian, achievable way.

Also, you’re right, I have been using “skin in the game” incorrectly. Powerful people are invested in perpetuating the system as it is, especially their place in the hierarchy and the rules of the game in which they have their and other’s skin. Perhaps that’s not a conflict of interest, merely a non-mysterious vested interest.

Exploitation is certainly the best way to run a society — from the point of view of those on top or even the abstract view of maximising productive efficiency. From the more numerous points of view of those on the bottom, it’s bad. Ditto for some other abstract points of view, like maximising happiness, well-being, freedom, etc.

There’s the old slogan about how power corrupts. Sort of. Everyone is corruptible; power lets you get away with it.



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