Sunday, July 5, 2009

My America, the body of an enchanting meme

I've always thought a lot about truth, justice, and the American way. But not because I'm a fan of superman. Because I'm a human being and can't help but find those things sacred. Even a crook has a code of honor. That emotional reward is most likely why we have minds designed to cooperate, master a language, and outwit the various things in our world. Discovering truth feels so good because it leaves us better at working out the consequences of some hypothetical we're contemplating. Our sense of justice is no different, complicated by the fact that fairness isn't as easy to test as truth. And I love the American way most of all. I didn't know why as clearly for much of my life, but I do now. It's because for me, America stood for nothing so much as a deliberate effort to make those metaphysical ideas more robust and tangible than even we are. America was the flesh and bones of justice itself.

America to me seemed more like a process than a place--we were a nation of immigrants from all over the world. It was the very formula for fairness; the honest desire to create the most liberating and genuine parity of opportunity that the best and brightest of us could engineer. It seemed so incredibly ingenious, like life itself--create an environment suitable for useful things to grow and thrive and they will. We call those things enterprises. They combine land, labor, and capital to create profit using a recipe called a business model that is really just the DNA of the enterprise. Those recipes that generated the most profit per unit of input were the basis for the next enterprises that emerged. How could a system like this possibly fail?

What gets in the way of living up to our principles? In a word, I think it's design. We aren't sufficiently wary of our own designs. Good design just doesn't come from a conscious deliberate attempt to build something, but from creating the environment where what you want can evolve and will be best suited, and then waiting for it to show up. If you take the former approach, you're constantly trying to shore up a poor design. But with the latter, you're constantly getting closer to an environment that permits nothing else. It's a fundamental shift in perspective that sees human force as the most expensive and therefore worst solution to any problem and gravity as the cheapest and best. Don't look for a law to prohibit what you should be trying to use geometry to leave impossible or never worthwhile. Does it strike anyone else as curious that punishment is such an obvious solution to humans while utterly absent anywhere else in nature?

Laws, and the infrastructure needed to enforce, adjudicated, and punish the condemned is often more expensive than the actual damage done by the injustice all that infrastructure is intended to dissuade. In my reality, that's a red flag that something more fundamental might be broken. Like our perspective on what crime really is. And that's what I needed all this context to get to and what I'll write about next because one the greatest problems I see facing our world is that when law was spun off from religion, the geometry of those memes didn't allow sacred respect to go with it. For law is little without the respect that makes obeying it pleasurable. And threats are the very poorest way to motivate behavior working only when the consequences are perfectly predictable and utterly unavoidable. When it's less than that we call it a challenge. And that's one of the main things that makes us so remarkable to begin with--the love of challenge.

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