The Watchtower of Destruction: The Ferrett's Journal - Designing For Jedi
[Recent Entries][Archive][Friends][User Info]
Designing For Jedi|
“If you could live in any fictional world,” I asked my audience, “What world would you live in?” And a surprising percentage of people replied, eagerly, “Star Wars!”
“Now, wait a minute,” I said. “You’re not guaranteed to be a Jedi.”
That’s humanity, I suppose; given a fictional future, we blithely assume that we’ll be the movers and shakers. Those peasants and slaves, scrabbling in the dust on Tattooine? They’re the extras. This is our life, and as the stars we’re going to be on top.
It’s why I have a problem with libertarians.
I’m reading Bill Bryson’s At Home: The Short History Of Private Life, which largely focuses on the Victorian Era — appropriate, given that one of the hallmarks of the Victorian Era is the rise of the middle class and the technology required to get the middle class some homebound niceties.
The Victorian Era, it must be said, is pretty much a libertarian’s wet dream. No taxes for the supremely rich. Practically none of those pesky “laws” to get in the way of business operations. (Clearly, a world where you can employ eight-year-old kids to fix the gears on your weaving looms isn’t going to whip a whole lot of regulations on folks.) Anyone who can come up with a good invention can patent it, then make a fortune by dint of cleverness and gumption alone.
…and people went fucking broke all the damn time.
Bryson’s book, which is completely like every other book I’ve read on businessmen in the Victorian Era, is a litany of “This guy developed a marvelous idea, didn’t see its potential, sold it to someone else for a pittance, died broke. This guy came up with a great idea and manufactured it himself, but everyone ripped it off; he died broke. This guy had a great idea and manufactured it, became a millionaire, made a bad decision at the end of his life, he died raving in the streets.”
Now, “broke” isn’t as we understand it today, what with our namby-pamby housing laws and our welfare cheese; when you went broke in those days you often went workhouse broke, raving sick broke, the kind of ugly broke where you died in a fucking alleyway. Imagine the kind of broke where nobody knows what happened to Donald Trump because he made a bad decision and wandered into a river, and that’s pretty much where we are Victorian-wise.
Meanwhile, thanks to all of this unfettered business, we had the many and fetid horrors of child labor, of the horrid food sold to the poor and chronicled in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (which was exaggerated, of course, but the food was wretched and unsafe), of the rich and middle class ripping off the poor so there’s no possibility they can move upwards, of the rich and middle class working their servants practically to death (eighteen-hour days with one day a month off to attend to their private business)…
…and that’s all what I hear when I hear libertarians saying that if we let businessmen thrive, they’ll do right by the people. We did that, and they didn’t. The assumption that we’ve somehow become more moral than the Victorians strikes me as being ludicrously silly.
It should be noted that the people who lived in that environment worked slowly to change their punishing time into something resembling more of ours now. They had to live in it, and they wanted it changed.
(Well, for them. The poor, just as then as they are now, were demonized to the point where being poor was entirely their fault and a moral failing.)
There was a rising technological tide that floated all boats back then, which was definitely a help. And capitalism is a good mechanism to get new things to a massive number of people in a quick way, which accounted for some of the widespread changes that we saw. Yet looking at what actually happened back then, I wonder whether the libertarians quite understand that the world so many of them seem to be espousing actually existed, and it was terrible.
It had a lot of upward mobility. There were, in a few decades, more millionaires than had ever existed before. But that upwards mobility also came with an awful price, and that price was a dreadful failure mode that devoured some of the best minds of their generation.
I suspect what’s happening in the minds of libertarians is that they’re the Jedi.
Yeah, maybe those dumb businessmen got ripped off, but me? I’ve got the midichlorians. I’m not going to be among the seething masses of failed businessmen — my intellect will carry me to the top. I don’t need to worry about the bottom, because I’ll never be there.
A lot of libertarians reek of that superiority — they’re smart, and all they need is for society to stop holding them back. Then they’ll be geniuses. And who needs to care about anyone else?
Certainly there are libertarians who have a more nuanced view. They don’t want all the taxes gone, they tell you — and doubtless some of them don’t. But when you talk to a lot of ‘em, it often has that tang of a Democrat saying they just want a little more gun regulation, or a Republican asking for just a few more controls on abortion. One gets the feeling that they’re arguing that because it’s a stepping stone, not because they believe in the overall need for taxes and regulation.
Nor do I deny the underlying libertarian impulse that less taxes and fewer regulations help make it easier for businesses, which often drives a large and useful growth. But to talk to a lot of libertarians and Republicans, the whole point seems to boil down to the idea that we’re gonna be the Jedi — and anyone who isn’t isn’t worth discussing.
Look, I’m sympathetic. As a young liberal, I was all for giving free stuff to people until I read the history of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green and Bridgeport’s Father Panik Village. Then I had to reevaluate how my ideas worked in the real world, because clearly giving people free housing with few strings led to collapsing societies, and what do we do then?
I had to look at how things actually worked. Because the world I’d envisioned happened, and it really didn’t pan out too well.
Truth is, the chances that any of us will be a Jedi are pretty slim. Designing a society for the benefit of genius multimillionaires means that a lot of average people are going to get crushed underfoot. (Nor should we design a society entirely for the benefit of the indigent, but that’s another entry.)
There’s a price to be paid for no regulations, and that cost comes in human value. We need a government to step in and stop that from happening, because we had a world where we relied on individual morality, and it chewed up a lot of people, smart and dumb alike.
When you're looking to see what your philosophy will ultimately lead to, you need to see if there are any real-world analogs. In the case of “no laws and no regulations will make for infinite beauty!” , it existed. So you should probably learn from it.
This entry has also been posted at http://theferrett.dreamwidth.org/27297.html. You can comment here, or comment there; makes no never-mind by me.
Don't forget all the deaths from syphilis and cocaine in that era. And that if you were female and poor prostitution was pretty much your number 1 job choice.
|Date:||October 25th, 2010 01:12 pm (UTC)|| |
Has that changed a lot? It's still a pretty popular choice among the female poor. Especially if you throw in the rest of the adult industry.
But to talk to a lot of libertarians and Republicans, the whole point seems to boil down to the idea that we’re gonna be the Jedi — and anyone who isn’t isn’t worth discussing.
Questioning the efficacy of open-ended entitlements in combating poverty isn't quite the same as deeming the under-privileges "not worth discussing".
No, it isn't, and that's why I drew a distinction. But in many cases, the Republican and libertarian approaches to the poor seems to boil down to not just "A safety net causes a lot of people to rely on it," but "The people who need a safety net in the first place are just lazy and stupid."
These points you make do not strike me as compelling evidence that libertarianism is simply bad. First off, you seem to be confusing libertarianism with libertarian capitalism, which is just libertarianism's economic component. As for libertarianism, name an alternative to it, and I can probably find a society that attempted to implement it with equally or more disastrous results. Similarly, name an alternative, and I can provide equal speculation on what fantastic people its supporters think they would be under that alternative.
It's certainly fair to remind everyone that libertarian capitalism is like an economy: there will be some people on the losing end. But now it sounds more like a democracy: the worst form of government, except for all the others. That's why some libertarians describe their support in pessimistic terms; libertarian capitalism is preferable not because of all the good it gets you, but rather because screwups in it result in the least damage.
At least in your narrative, people who failed to see the potential in their property and undersell it are arguably to blame. What of the narrative where millions starve to death because some other people couldn't figure out how much grain to ship to them, but wouldn't allow them to farm their own?
As for me, I don't think in quite as pessimistic terms, although I certainly understand the argument. I think capitalism is not simply a way to get nice things distributed to people, but also a signalling mechanism that intrinsically tends to enable people to get exactly the things each of them values the most.
This point of yours is perhaps the best one in your post: I had to look at how things actually worked. Because the world I’d envisioned happened, and it really didn’t pan out too well. Capitalists, libertarian and otherwise, are pretty smart, and I think the libertarians of them DO have a significant advantage over doctrinaire collectivists, in that their lack of political power affords them the ability to sit back and ponder the system relatively dispassionately, but even they can fall prey to believing all will be roses.
It would be interesting to go into a crowd of nothing but libertarian capitalists and asked what problems might arise, not in an effort to discourage the whole thing, but rather from an analytical interest.
Simply bad? No, but incredibly naive. Even in this society with its regulations, cost externalities are a big problem. Can you imagine how corporations would act if they didn't have to worry about liability for pollution, dangerous working conditions, etc.?
Sounds like a good book. Sounds like "A Brief History of Everything" where the history of science is someone thinking something up and someone else getting the credit.
Tom the Dancing bug has a great collection non-libertarian comics (precipitated by the WSJ referring to the poor getting tax breaks as Lucky Ducks):
It's by the same guy, so it's not surprising there are similarities. But the history of that time is pretty much the same.
Most people assume when answering the question that going to live in a fictional world means they'll become the protagnist in the story, like Alice and the Pevensies. Fair enough, it's a hypothetical question in the first place. But I never said, "Star Wars." I always said, "Somewhere with live-action quality computer animation where my favorite tv folklore is nonexistent or public domain, so perhaps I could make my living making video serials. Maybe Star Trek or Niven's Known Worlds." Nevertheless, escapist as I may be in my entertainmant choices, I wouldn't go if I didn't have to. I've put too much time into this world.
|Date:||October 25th, 2010 04:18 pm (UTC)|| |
There was a big thing in Star Trek: Voyager where the Doctor's holographic novel caused societal chaos.
(He didn't quite grasp that you ask before using your friends in a novel)
This also explains why I don't like the SCA and other groups of that ilk. There is no peasant class. Everyone is a lord, knight, king or something cool-there are no privy cleaners, farmers or other people to keep the higher ups in the manner to which they are accustomed.
Astute observation, ha! Just like no one really wants truly authentic foreign cuisine...
|Date:||October 25th, 2010 02:06 pm (UTC)|| |
Good post, good points.
One thing I would question is, having looked at the wikipedia page for it, whether social housing itself is the problem for Cabrini-Green (couldn't find information on the other one) – the issues seemed more to be building the thing then not upkeeping it, and the jobs of the people there going.
Now, that's going to be an oft-repeated problem – the money dries up, the next administration decide they don't want to upkeep it as it needs. But I don't know that it's a problem based on giving people free housing with few strings.
Obviously though, my research is rather brief.
|Date:||October 25th, 2010 02:19 pm (UTC)|| |
I've found Gangland to be very instructive.
The short answer is that without rule of law, the population tends to be most in thrall to those willing to commit the most violence.
Given the history of the era, it's pretty much impossible for Chicago cops to institute rule of law in a large project like that.
Of course, the rule of law problem is not limited to large housing projects, it seems to come into play among those who are not priviledged, for obvious reasons.
Once you distrust the cops, it's a short step to gangs running the place.
The projects just condense a big problem in a small place, making it a much bigger problem.
I seem to remember Gangland having an episode on Cabrini Green, it was interesting to watch.
It sounds like a crucial tool here is John Rawls's veil of ignorance
, where we get the idea that your opinion that a society is ethically valid only has integrity if you do not know which role you will have in it
and would still choose it.
In any event, I don't know why it isn't obvious that if you want ethical behavior, capitalism requires regulation -- in fact, the ethical businessman needs
regulation to stay in business. Because if there's a way to create a product more efficiently using human baby spleens, and it's legal to do so, it is actually the purpose
of a competitive free market to ensure that somebody will come along and drive out of business his competitors who refuse to use human baby spleens.
I rather like that philosophy.
"because clearly giving people free housing with few strings led to collapsing societies"
. . . which is why we need to repeal the home mortgage tax rebate
Agree with your assessment of libertarians. They don't need to practice their theories here. They can just go visit Somalia.
Functionally no government and enough guns for EVERYBODY! =D
|Date:||October 25th, 2010 03:22 pm (UTC)|| |
Yes. This is my problem with everything Ayn Rand has ever written.
Indeed, but it seems to be a problem with most idealogues. Marxist-Leninists and anarchists as well. They imagine this wonderful world where they're in the upper echelon.
the star wars thing raises a question, though-whats it like for a "regular" person in that universe? i dont get a clear sense of it. These are the roles ive seen in that universe-jedi,politician,criminal,princess,tyrant,senator,farmer,bounty hunter, nomad,business owner. presumably they have a capitalist system, but i have no idea what life is like there for the average person.
Well, presumably someone's running the Cantina and selling power converters. Otherwise, though, I'm with you.
It's not necessarily libertarianism - what you describe is also the failure of "trickle-down" economics as well. If we reduce taxes for the rich, they'll have more money to create more jobs. - we've seen how well that's worked now, haven't we?
Economically speaking, Democrats believe you help society by helping the working class. Republicans belive you help society by helping the business owners. Libertarians belive you help society by helping as few people as possible.
As far as fictional universes go, I'd like to live in the socialist/communist paradise that is the ST:TNG universe, even as a red shirt. Presuming I get to be a human, that is.
|Date:||October 25th, 2010 04:15 pm (UTC)|| |
I do like the intensity of Bajor. And taking a vacation on Vulcan would be mentally refreshing.
|Date:||October 25th, 2010 03:51 pm (UTC)|| |
On your subject, I think the following poem is relevant:
In the Great Hall where Lady Ann by firelight after dining alone
nodded and dreamed that her cousin Rathwell turned into a unicorn,
and woke shuddering, and was helped to her chambers, undressed,
and looked after, and in the morning arose to read Mrs. Hemans,
sitting prettily on a garden bench, with no sound disturbing
her whorled ear but the wind and the wind's apples falling,
tended fires, answered bells, plucked grouse, rolled sward, fetched
eggs, clipped hedge, mended linen, baked scones, and served tea.
While Lady Ann grew pale playing the piano, and lay late in bed aging,
she regretted Rathwell who ran off to Ceylon with his indescribable
desires, and vanished--leaving her to the servants who poached, larked,
drank up the cellar, emigrated without notice, copulated, conceived,
and begot us.
Well said sir.. well said.
If you can get your hands on a copy of it - take a read of Pierre Berton's The Smug Minority
- yeah sure he wrote it in 1967 in Canada - but the ideas, and the problems it looks at - haven't unfortunately changed much in 43 years in any of the Western world.
|Date:||October 25th, 2010 04:14 pm (UTC)|| |
When it's not being exploded or ruled by tyrants, Coruscant would be awesome.
mari concurs. i'd like to get down to ground level and check out all the old places. but that's me. i like to dig.
|Date:||October 25th, 2010 04:24 pm (UTC)|| |
Agreed, with the caveat (already stated) that you're talking about one particular flavor of libertarianism, the conservative streak that's always popular when the GOP needs to win seats and becomes laughably quaint when the GOP wants to conduct wars.
Earlier this year, there was a debate amongst libertarians, with Jacob Hornsberger saying, "Wasn't the year 1880 fantastic
?" and David Boaz, Will Wilkinson and several other libertarians saying, "Sure, for healthy white males; WTF is wrong with you?" So perspective is getting better.
Ooh. I'm going to save that link and read it later. Thank you!
|Date:||October 25th, 2010 04:34 pm (UTC)|| |
Nice, nice article. Thanks.
I could live in either the Star Wars universe (and be happy not being a Jedi), the original Battlestar Galactica universe, or the 1970s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century universe - and be quite happy and at home.
Buck Rogers sure, but BSG? Unless you're a fighter pilot or commander, which very few people are, you're basically spending your life in a stinking metal tube full of people, eating sludge. Though at least the people were fairly pretty?
I always wonder whether the Star Trek universe and Blake's 7 universe would actually be very different to live in. We don't really see the Star Trek planetside life, and it seems like it might well be Orwellian authoritarianism just like Blake's 7 - we just see it in Blake's 7 because we're following rebels, not drones. (Also, similarly, we don't really see the pleasant side of Blake's 7's authoritarian society, we just see rebels being crushed under jackboots all the time.)
This was a good post. You can also add that deregulation lead to the crisis that we have now.
A fact that the Republicans seem to conveniently forget/ignore.
Ordinary people in Victorian England were insanely poor by modern standards because Victorian England was insanely poor by modern standards. The problem was with the raw amount of wealth available in society, not its distribution. Even if they'd gone all the way over to the Utopian Socialist side of the force and spread all available wealth around uniformly, they still would have been insanely poor by modern standards. You do acknowledge the rising technological boat as an afterthought, but I think you underestimate its importance.
If you put radical libertarians in charge today, you won't get Victorian England, because radical libertarianism will not destroy the enormous increases to society's total productive capacity, because radical libertarianism would not make us forget a century and a half of technological advances, nor would it undo a century and a half of industrial development.
|Date:||October 25th, 2010 06:42 pm (UTC)|| |
But technological progress is dependent on a level of productivity-enhancing capital being made available for usage, without which one's real wages remain about as high as one's wages would have been in Victorian England.
If the radical libertarian government ensured that unemployment benefits did not exist, one's 'real wages' from unemployed job search would be zero - as zero as zero used to be one and a half centuries ago. Sure, technological progress would ensure that if you were employed and therefore had access to capital (or, correspondingly, had the collateral to take a loan to buy said capital), your real wages would be dramatically higher than that of someone in 1830, but full employment is hardly guaranteed.
I'd live in the Star Trek universe: Earth is in roughly the center of the Federation, so Klingon attacks (as opposed to V'ger attacks, I suppose) would be a rarity; good medical care and education standard; you arrely see any poor/hungry people.
|Date:||October 25th, 2010 06:36 pm (UTC)|| |
You also live in a universe where they've somehow done away with gay people, getting drunk, and, as far as I can tell, jokes that are funny.
My favorite hypothetical question is what fictional world you would want to be an *ordinary person* in. I usually specify that you're an ordinary person of the type that you see the most of, so you aren't stuck as a muggle if you pick Harry Potter.
Star Wars would sort of suck.
Slaves in the Star Wars universe have it easy. Anakin's mother is a slave, but she spends all her time at her own apartment on the other side of town. And Anakin's a slave who has enough free time and money to build his own podracer. Even the moisture farmers mostly just have to make sure the droids are lubricated. Most of their days are spent looking into the horizon and shooting Womp Rats.
It's the droids who have rotten lives.
in the movie theyre called slaves, but i think its actually closer to being an indentured servant.
Screw Star Wars. I wanna live in Middle Earth!
I'd want to live in the fictional world of Harry Dresden, Wizard For Hire, not to be a wizard though (My lifespan between learning I have powers to accidently blowing myself up w/ them would probably be measurable in milliseconds) but just to know that they exist.