Updated: Jul 23
This essay is Part 2 in a series. Read Part 1 here,
"To propose alterations belongs only to those who are so happy as to be born with a genius capable of penetrating the entire constitution of a state." (Montesquieu, xxi)
When Montesquieu penned those words he also wrote to a friend, "this work has nearly killed me, and now I shall rest and labor no more." This was a man who poured his entire genius and the labor of a lifetime into a single work, one in which he endeavored that "every nation will here find the reasons on which its maxims are founded." That was the price he paid to fathom all of the governmental structures of mankind, including their weaknesses. The Spirit of Laws, published in the mid-eighteenth century, became the seminal work on the subject and was used heavily by the U.S. founders as they labored to structure and balance the fledgling nation's federal powers.
While we don't have to comprehend the inner-workings of every nation, his warning is still daunting: if we want change we must understand the complexity and evolution of our own culture and political machinery and we must understand the seen and unseen consequences of our proposals to change them.
Unfortunately, expedience and passion incentivize us to disregard Montesquieu's caution. The public square has never seen a shortage of opinions or sense of urgency, but we now live in an age where alarm bells and calls for action abound in every book, news article, and social media post and comment. How many of us however, possess that genius, that knowledge added to wisdom, to comprehend the entire state and the domino affect of change?
Certainly not I. The first step in this journey, then, is trying to make sense of who we are and how we got here. Once gained, we can better judge whether proposals would take us backward or forward.
Who We Are
In a prior post, I shared a framework for making sense of any society by breaking it down into its major components. Every society has a generally shared moral foundation or belief system about good and bad, right and wrong, the purpose of life, etc. Its political and legal systems originate from this foundation and codify it to some degree. Its economic layer is informed and shaped by the prior two and determines how goods and services are produced, distributed, and consumed.
These first three "layers" form the ecosystem within which our social institutions exist, such as family, academia, business, community, media, arts, medicine, churches, and charities. They also inform how a society views and cares for dependents like children, the elderly, and the incapacitated.
Like a boat on the sea, any turbulence experienced by our social institutions is directly related to the degree of coherence or alignment of the underlying layers to one another, to human nature, and to the physical and metaphysical realities of our world. This misalignment or turbulence manifests itself as waste, injustice, and suffering.
For example, The Great Society programs and the War on Poverty initiated during the Johnson administration in the 1960's were meant to address the underprivileged and the poverty cycle by creating work programs, college funding, urban renewal, community action programs, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. On the 50 year anniversary of these initiatives researchers Rachel Sheffield and Robert Rector reported:
"U.S. taxpayers have spent over $22 trillion on anti-poverty programs. Adjusted for inflation, this spending (which does not include Social Security or Medicare) is three times the cost of all U.S. military wars since the American Revolution. Yet progress against poverty, as measured by the U.S. Census Bureau, has been minimal, and in terms of President Johnson’s main goal of reducing the “causes” rather than the mere “consequences” of poverty, the War on Poverty has failed completely. In fact, a significant portion of the population is now less capable of self-sufficiency than it was when the War on Poverty began." (Sheffield, 2014)
Clearly, there is a misalignment somewhere in the Stack, if we can spend that much money, see no reduction in the poverty level, and actually end up with more dependency rather than less.
Whether our communities float or flounder, in other words, often has much to do with how well our systems and behaviors align with reality and with one another.
Of course, no society is static. Individuals and interests exert pressure to move society in the direction they think it should go. Argument, persuasion, and force have all been used to shift a society's moral or legal landscape. The remaining social structures inevitably follow suit. Emancipation, the civil rights movement, reproductive rights, and marriage equality are all examples of shifts in the cultural landscape that started in one layer and moved to the others.
If we believe in both suffering and progress then we can aim for something better than what we now have.
The problem of such a target is two-fold. First, we must understand and agree in general on the realities of being - our nature and the physical and metaphysical world. Second, we must identify solutions that actually align with those realities.
Societies have struggled bitterly with these two very significant challenges for millennia. Perhaps the difficulty lies in that the target, truth, is both elusive and moving.
Some aspects of reality are arguably unchanging, like human nature itself, yet we have so much to learn and often ignore what we already know. We can't even agree on something as fundamental as God's existence or nature. The truth eludes us as we lock horns over what constitutes evidence and proof.
Add to that, our collective heart wanders. In an earlier post I shared another of the lessons Montesquieu taught us, that "the heart or spirit of the people must match the heart or spirit of the law, else they would become ungovernable." So, our laws, customs, and social structures must change to maintain alignment with our heart, but if those changes take us out of alignment with nature itself, further waste, suffering, and social turbulence is inevitable.
So how do we "aim for better?" How do we balance the impassioned, even violent pleas for immediate change with the warnings that change itself is fraught with danger? Nearly everyone is familiar with Thoreau's famous quote about a "thousand hacking at the branches of evil." Fewer are aware that the full quote is a warning against misalignment and imprudent solutions:
There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve. (p. 80)
History is full of well-intentioned efforts that were not aligned with reality that made things worse, or were wasteful, or that caused suffering.
So, are we to do nothing? Are we to allow suffering to go unanswered until, after a lifetime of study, we understand civilization well enough to propose and advocate for change?
No, there are a thousand things each of us can do each day to make the world a better place, especially the world around us, the spheres we ourselves inhabit and know - our home, our neighborhood, our community, our churches, charities, hospitals, and schools.
It is the siren call of large-scale change that worries me. Vladimir Lenin, someone who knew about large-scale change said, "there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen." This notion, a sort of punctuated equilibrium, can in theory bring about great good, but if we are to believe Montesquieu, Thoreau, and the U.S. founding generation who purposely made change difficult, we should approach the public square and levers of power with great humility and a great deal of homework.
How often do you "think before you post?"
When you share your opinions is it with an "us v them" attitude? or one based in kindness and a desire for mutual understanding?
What is our target? What should the world look like? If human happiness, fulfillment, health, prosperity, etc. is our goal (is it?), what values and perspectives should occupy each layer of our stack?
How well does your worldview align to human nature? How well does it encourage human virtue and discourage vice? How does it define virtue and vice, if at all?
When you encounter different opinions, do you consider differences in your world views? For any given topic, does our cultural debate focus on the right level of the Stack (Thoreau's "root")? or higher up ("branches")? If higher up, how likely is it that parties with differing opinions will see eye to eye and agree on solutions?
What homework can you do to become better informed in general? on a specific topic?
Baron de Montesquieu, C. (1952). The Spirit of Laws. In Great Books of the Western World (27th ed., Vol. 38). Chicago, IL: W. Benton.
Sheffield, R. (2014, September 15). The War on Poverty After 50 Years. Retrieved July 22, 2020, from https://www.heritage.org/poverty-and-inequality/report/the-war-poverty-after-50-years
Thoreau, H. D. (1978). Walden: Or, Life in the woods. New York, NY: Grolier.