Bemeficent Society, Chpt 11(rev2)

MEETING OF THE POLITICAL COMMITTEE, (REV2)

 

15 June, 2015

 

Martin addressed his group—Gretchen, Henry, and Timur—in a matter-of-fact tone that reflected his engineering background.

 “Thank you, my friends, for volunteering to serve on the committee.  We’ve had a chance to chat among ourselves at the coffee bar so there’s no need for formal introductions.  Let’s just get to work.  Believe me, there is plenty of it to do and not much time to get it done.

“When I was asked to head the committee, I spent a little time mulling over the general drift of governance through the ages.  If one took a long-enough view, it seemed there was a discernible, however painfully slow and erractic, progression: the absolutist kingships of 3,000 BC, the various experiments of the classical era, the absolutist  autocracies of the Middle Ages, the constitutional monarchies of modern Europe, and, finally, the full-blown democracies of contemporary times.  The road had been a bumpy one, God knows, but it could be said that over time, as the application of arbitrary force retreated, constituencies exerted greater impact and achieved greater freedom.

“Given these positive trends, it seems to me the committee’s objective is to strengthen them.  And there is no doubt but that democracy is the best system attainable for man’s utilization.  True it does not always work as well as it should, which saddles us with the responsibility to make it work better.  We should welcome the challenge.

“Here’s how I decided we start.  We are the Bemeficent Society, right?  Whatever is preventing democracy from operating at its optimum level, has, over time, been incorporated in the memes that besiege it.  Let’s take a look at those and then try to figure out how to reconstitute them so as to produce the smoothly working system we’re aiming at.  Make sense?  (the members nod assent)

“Good.  You’ve all pursued careers that have bound to involve you in governmental affairs.  You’re all intelligent, well-read, sound-minded people with a strong interest in governmental affairs or you wouldn’t have volunteered to serve on this committee.  So pour yourselves a cup of coffee and get to work.  In an hour, we’ll get together again and compare notes.  Three memes each would be about right, I think, to get a sense of where we go from here.  Looking forward to your findings.”

BAD MEMES INFECTING GOVERNMENT

 (an hour later)

“Gretchen, you first,” said Martin.

“I tried to look at the big picture,” she said.  “My first meme is the one you recited yourself.  DEMOCRACY IS A BETTER FORM OF GOVERNMENT THAN ANY OTHER.  I’m sorry Martin, but I can’t agree.  As far as I’m concerned, that’s the most pernicious meme in politics because it suggests that our attempts to improve governance  have reached some sort of unassailable apogee.  That it can’t be improved upon.  That whatever problem arises can always be cured in the next election.  It’s not working out that way.

“Okay to go ahead?”

“Absolutely,” said Martin.

“My second bad meme is DEMOCRACY UNIFIES A COUNTRY.  That might be

true of some stable country populated by tolerant, well-educated people, but, if there is such a place, it is exceptional.  For the most part, countries are made up of heterogeneous elements whose differences are aggravated by the stress of elections.  People of different faiths, who might have been living together peaceably for centuries, are set against one another.  Irresponsible politicians, jockeying for power, unleash latent animosities that lead to street violence, looting, civil disorder, and, of course, bloodshed.

“My third meme is, DEMOCRACIES ARE ECONOMICALLY STABLE.  More likely, the  opposite is the case.  The natural tendency of politicians in a democracy is to pander to the masses by distributing governmental handouts.  Such largesse to millions of people leads to heavy expenditures, deficit spending, and increased national indebtedness—none of which is likely to damage the career of politicians who can generally desert their posts in a timely fashion leaving their successors holding the bag.  Eventually, of course, such socialistic policies are unsustainable.  Governments are overthrown and their constituencies exposed to hardships.

“Sorry to sound so negative, but that’s the way I see it,” Gretchen concluded.

“No problem.  That’s just the kind of critical analysis I’m looking for,” said Martin.  “Thank you, Gretchen.  Henry, you’re next.”

“I’m afraid I’m just as down on democracy as Grechen.  I tried to focus on the functional difficulties democracies encounter.  In this connection, one of the bad memes that arises is THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS RESULTS IN OPTIMUMAL POLICIES.  Like Gretchen said, such supposition assumes the existence of an informed, intelligent, impartial, and cool-headed electorate.  The reality is that voters are likely to be ill-informed, prejudiced, emotionally driven and vulnerable to propaganda.  Decisions arrived at under such circumstances are not likely to be well grounded.

“Another of the bad memes that contributes to democracy’s malfunction is that THE LARGER THE VOTE, THE BETTER THE OUTCOMEThe fact is that the greater the number of voters, the more likely it is that many of them will be unqualified—that is to say, the least well informed and the most likely to have been swayed by emotional and self-centered appeals.

“And my third entry,” said Henry, “is that ELECTIONS ARE THE BEST WAY TO CHOOSE LEGISLATORS.  No.  In my opinion, they’re the worst way.  Electorates tend to favor the most fervent, the most glib, the most charismatic, the most cynical, the most physically attractive, and the most willing to disregard the facts—characteristics that have nothing to do with their competence in office—indeed, negatively correlate with competence.”

“Thank you, Henry.  Are you equally critical, Timur?” asked Martin.

“I’m afraid so.  Maybe more so.  The measure of the democratic process is the quality of its governance, so I decided to concentrate on it.”  My first bad meme is ELECTED LEGISLATORS CAN BE TRUSTED TO ACT IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST.  It makes you wonder how these bad memes ever get started because that’s obviously not the case.  Not even close.  The only thing elected officials can be trusted to do is whatever keeps them in office.  This means spending much of their time raising money for the next campaign, catering to fickle—and often erroneous public opinion, and focusing on short range solutions as opposed to outcomes that will materialize after they leave office.

“Here’s another one,” continued Timur. “POLITICAL PARTIES PLAY A VITAL ROLE IN A PRACTICING DEMOCRACY.  They certainly play a prominent role, but it is a largely negative one.  To gain adherents, political parties have to dramatize differences, emphasize their vote-getting strategies, and demonize their opponents.  What these activities do, of course, is needlessly polarize public opinion.

“In addition, political parties assemble lists of presumably popular issues which they promote as their declared platforms.  As might be expected, these chosen issues harden into commitments that have adverse affect of locking their candidates into fixed positions which restrict their ability to engage in constructive compromise.  Moreover, voters are forced to swallow one or another basket of policies each containing policies with which they strongly disagree—one more obstacle to rational debate.

“My last bad meme has to do with the scope of legislative undertakings.  ONLY GOVERNMENT HAS THE COMPETENCE TO HANDLE LARGE-SCALE PROJECTS.  Government must be credited with implementing such achievements as the interstate highway system and the Apollo moon mission.  On the other hand, such successes are exceptions to the rule—the rule being managerial failures.  Project after project—housing renewals, public education, high-tech weapons procurement, war on drugs, welfare programs, healthcare, and solar panels—have chalked up massive expenditures while falling far short of predicted benefits and encoutering interminable delays.

“Thanks group,” said Martin.  “I was worried at first that I hadn’t given you enough time, but it seems one hour was all you needed.”

“I was done in half the time.”  “Me, too.”  “I got two more.”

“Great.  Let’s meet again in a week and we’ll go over all this stuff plus your extras, and we’ll go on from there.  Okay?”

*    *   *

MARTIN AGONIZES OVER “DEMOCRACY”

 

When Martin took the time to review his notes in the days following the meeting, they put him in an unsettled state of mind.  Whereas none of the bad memes the group uncovered were particularly surprising—left to come up with such a list himself, his choices would probably not have been far from their’s–taken together, they presented a compelling indictment of the system itself.  These weren’t just bad memes, they were devastating ones.  Practically every essential feature he associated with democracy—the election process, the legislature, the administration—now struck him as largely dysfunctional.  It was as though democracy suffered from an inherent degenerative disease—its initial idealism forced to give way to the combined weight of factional discord, populist leadership, fraudulent special interests, biased media, and undue influence by moneyed cliques.  He could not escape the thought that whereas democracy’s dependence on the will of the people was its greatest strength, it had degenerated into a critical weakness.

As the week wore on, Martin grew ever gloomier.  If democracy could not be made to work, what of any government of man?—a question that led to a cascade of melancholy reflections on mankind’s history.  Throughout its millions of years of evolution, mankind’s survival depended upon its aggressiveness.  But this once invaluable boon left it with an existential headache.  We harbor a nasty, indelible streak in our brains that, can excite violence at the drop of a hat,.  The fact is civil society rests on a fragile foundation that depends on man’s willingness to tolerate his neighbors yet, at any time, we can find ourselves at the mercy of raging mobs demanding illusory retribution and revengeful bloodshed.

One would think, Martin mused, that mankind would take every precaution to prevent such flare-ups.  Not so.  Mankind persists in doing exactly the opposite—that is to say, it nurtures a veritable catalogue of divisive compulsions.  We arbitrarily crisscross the surface of the earth with political boundaries designed to breed xenophobia.  And when nationalism proves insufficient to arouse the requisite level of animosity, we invent every other conceivable excuse for conflict whether it be economic, cultural, linguistic, or, lest we forget, tribal.  Even our traditional religions inadvertently lend a hand by drawing their inspiration message from centuries-old texts authored by pious scribes intent on promoting their particular sect and denigrating the competition.

Ruminations regarding the present state of the world offered no encouragement.  Efforts of the United Nations to achieve worldwide peace had, despite Herculean efforts by statesmen with the best of intentions backed by generous funding, been futile.  Worse, things were slipping backward.  Thanks to the prevalence of weapons of mass destruction, it was difficult to refute the argument that the existence of civilization was more precarious today than it had ever been.

With only a few days to go before the next committee meeting, Martin reversed his political orientation.  His rejection of the current version of democracy, had broadened to encompass the conviction that mankind was simply incapable of living peaceably for an extended period within a multicultural world.  That it was not, in short, competent enough to govern itself.  And with that dispiriting thought in mind, he took himself to bed.

21 June, 2015

After a restless night, Martin pondered his next move.  As it happened, Silvia had scheduled a meeting that morning of the society’s committee heads in which the attendees would be asked to give a rundown on the current stage of their respective assignments.  He was tempted to invent some vague excuse regarding the distractions of his professional work and, thanking his colleagues for their friendship and cooperation, resign as head of the political committee.  But when the time came for his report, he held back.  Instead he gave a reasonably accurate, if incomplete, account of his dispirited state of mind and his committee’s lack of accomplishment.  There was, he admitted, a question as to whether the designing of a workable form of government was even possible.  In a matter of days, he would let Silvia know whether the committee would try to forge ahead or, reluctantly, disband the altogether.

As might be imagined, the other committee heads expressed displeasure over Martin’s disclosure.  Speaking for the attendees as a whole, Silvia complained that the lack of some sort of political agenda would leave a gaping hole in the society’s intended package of reforms.  To ward off this eventuality, she delegated Angela, who had thus far refrained from criticizing Martin, to take him to lunch and try to dissuade him from giving up on his project

.

 LUNCH WITH ANGELA

 “You know,” Angela said after the waiter had poured their wines, “keeping up with my field is all I can do.  So I don’t try to follow political events.  But what little I hear leaves me with the same impression as yours.  It’s an appauling mess.”

“Your Gad doesn’t help straighten things out?” Martin asked.

“I wouldn’t think of asking her.  I’m afraid she’d tell me she’s too busy running her cosmic extravaganza to bother with our pathetic little sideshow.”

“But you’d think she’d be curious enough to check on us once in a while.  Find out whether we’ve blown ourselves up yet or just fizzled out in an Amazon forest somewhere.  We may not be her favorite species, but we must be one of her most entertaining ones.”

“I doubt entertainment is high on her list.  In all probability she wouldn’t give a damn about us,” Angela said with a laugh.

“Maybe she wouldn’t, but I do,” he said.  “We’ve done some good stuff.  It’d be a pity to see it all go down the drain.”

The waiter’s request for their orders brought their conversation to a halt.  The pause provided a minute or two for Martin to  collect his thoughts.  “You know what we should do?” he asked and then went on without waiting for an answer, “We should put our heads together.”

“Meaning?”

“You look to Gad for religious inspiration, don’t you?  Filled with admiration for her adminstrative abilities?” he began.

“Something like that. Yes.”

“Then did it ever occur to you that we should take advantage of her skills?  Give her a more active role in our affairs?”

“Lord, no.  For me Gad’s just a personal thing.”

“I understand that, but I’m suggesting we put our heads together.  Harness your Gad to my problem.  Look, mankind can’t go on pretending it can govern itself in the absence of some kind of authoritarian framework.  I had no hope that we could ever arrive at one, but Gad could be our salvation.  She’s universally loved, inarguably neutral, and is possessed with an uber-expert world view.  Just what we need.  It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?”

“I guess so.  You know me and Gad.  But I don’t know how many others would go along.”

“That’s their problem.”

“Somehow I doubt that they’d see it that way

The arrival of their salads allowed small talk to take over their conversation.  However, with the sobering effect of their after-lunch coffee, Martin returned to their disagreement.

“I tell you what,” he said.  “We’ll conduct a poll of some unbiased people and let them decide.”

“How would you go about that?”

“I’ve scheduled a meeting of the political committee tomorrow night.  If you come along, we could put the question to them.  Make it kind of a trial run.”

“’Kind of a trial run’ is right,” Angela noted with a laugh.  “A representative sample of three people all beholding to their committee leader?  The most illegitimate survey I’ve ever heard of.  Sure, I’d be glad to come.”

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