NOTE: This essay was written in response to a suggestion from the
editorial board of the new political site - You will
want to visit the site before or after reading this. 

The politics question

This hot web site, SALVO, describes itself as being a political site for those who hate politics by those who also hate politics. Does this make any sense? Is this the most productive approach to solving the problems created by the fact that the American Dream of circa 1950 has become, for far too many, the American nightmare of 1996? Will demonizing politics help us find solutions to the problems of the failing social contract and the debasement of our social capital?

It is a common place: it has become very fashionable to demonize politics. Frequently this is done by equating politics with government, usually called `big' government. This misses several points. The easy point is that the federal government is now at about the same head count as it was in 1960. As a percent of the total US workforce it is about where it was in 1930. So government now is actually rather small yet doing more. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, certainly has done very useful things around the country in response to the recent spate of natural disasters.

The more important points are these:

1. There are, as a friend points out, many reasons to `hate politics' today:

But it is important to separate politics from government. Why? Because if you hate the government how can you love the country? Hating politics is another matter. What after all is politics? Is it the debate we have to determine how we are governed? Politics will determine, for example, whether we institute a flat tax. But politics should not, conversely, determine how the tax is applied, just as politics has no role in the administration of FEMA, social security or veteran's benefits. Politics, being a debate, is truly amenable to reform through participation

2. demonizing a person or thing, even politics, does not increase understanding of situations, it only obscures possible solutions. It only serves to minimize and distort the idea space available to us in which we can explore for better solutions. The fewer the ideas, the less likely we are to find an appropriate one - to evolve successfully.

3. It is very hard to imagine a place you would want to live that had no police or fire departments, public schools, roads, public services for water and sewage, foreign affairs, defense capabilities and so forth. Since these are all generally considered to be the `job' of government, this suggests that we are stuck with government because we need it. And politics comes with government - it is, after all, the process designing government.

So now the question becomes, what sort of government and politics do we want? Which really suggests a more important question: What sort of country do we want to create for our children and grandchildren 25 to 50 years from now? If we can engage in a dialog to explore this issue, then the results will create a frame work for implementing a government, and its related policies.

How else should we expect to get to our goals and preserve democracy?

Another view of government is that is that we the people, who after all are the government, ask the government to implement and manage the constraint system we design to help us get to the goals we set. I think of it this way: nature works very well from the bottom up within the constraint system created by `the laws of nature' - the speed of light, gravity, the laws of thermodynamics, quantum mechanics and so forth. Take these constraints away and what is possible? Anything?

I suggest that the same is true for society, politics, government and the market. Take away all constraints and the most likely results are either total chaos or collapse into some sort of rigid, frozen, state. So the question becomes one about the constraints we think are required to get us to our goals. The first couple are pretty easy: thou shalt not kill, and we can probably agree that it would be a good idea to have clean air, water and earth. We can also probably agree that lying and cheating are bad ideas.

Thus we have already started on a basic constraint system which we think will help keep us as close as possible to the only place where there is possibility for anything: the liquid edge of chaos. Move too far from this edge in some directions and you freeze up, too far in some other directions and you boil off into chaos. The hard trick is that the map, the so-called fitness landscape, is always changing and thus so must we.

Finally, if we must have government, for any number of reasons, then it follows that working in government is an important job - far too important to ignore and demonize. It is in fact as honorable to work in government as it is to want to contribute to moving the country towards the goals we choose.

So what do I hope for on SALVO? I hope we can stimulate a vigorous dialog on what sort of America we want to build for our future. And then begin the dialog on the steps we need to take NOW to start getting to our goals. For example, how do we want to change our current political process? Campaign finance reform strikes me as an excellent place to start. What sort of participation is required to achieve our goals? To take the abuse of money out of politics?

I may have only another 40+ years to go, but many on SALVO, and my children, have 70 or more years yet to live in America. What sort of America do you want to find when you get there? As we used to say back in the 60s, if you are not part of the solution ....

Send me email and/or visit my website. Under favorite places there are some very interesting political sites. Under MIT, look for the political participation project! Under clients, check out MassINC. For a good read, try one of these: WIRED, March 1996, page 67 "It's the NEW Economy, Stupid" by John Heilemann. Or: Dan Dennett's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Evolution and the Meanings of Life".

Jock Gill
Penfield Gill, Inc.
Boston, MA

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