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Got Choices?

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Most of us would have to admit, we indulge at least a little bit, in thinking about the way things should be in the world, and how we might change things if only we were in charge. Everyone has his or her own unique set of opinions and, with them, a set of concerns regarding how things are organized and how they could or should be done better. And most people would concede that a lot of things in our world are kind of messed up—we probably could be doing things a lot better than we do.

But if so many people think the affairs of the world are not working the way they should, then why don’t we seem to make the needed improvements? Who messed things up in the first place? After all, there’s no one but us people here. If we all want things to be better, then why aren’t they better? Is it the government’s fault? Are there sinister, unseen forces operating behind the scenes in ways we do not recognize? Or is it those rascals in that “other party” who are to blame?

Throughout recent decades, many polls have shown extremely low approval numbers for the US congress. Maybe one in six Americans seem to think the legislature is doing a good job. Yet, at the same time, most senators and representatives still get re-elected most of the time. In a related paradox, most people seem to think government is incapable of solving the problems of our day. Yet increasingly, government is taking on more and more responsibility for managing the affairs of our lives. How do we reconcile these apparent contradictions?

When considering social problems such as poverty, crime, illiteracy and the like, where do we look for a solution to the problem? Very often, the answer is government. If something is wrong, “the government should fix it.” After all, isn’t this the job of government—to fix things? Well, maybe—and maybe not. This is one of the questions we will discuss in the following pages. Certainly it is a question we should think about carefully before jumping to conclusions. And as we do so, we would do well to understand clearly the forces of human nature, as well as those of our physical universe in order to predict how effective we are likely to be at addressing the problems at hand.

This book is written with the hope of fostering increased unity, in the midst of a very divided world, in a fresh approach to addressing some key social challenges which regularly arise through the course of human civilization. I say “fresh” but the approach is not new, really. The principles we will explore have been understood throughout history. But we now live in a world with access to new technology, better communication, and more sophisticated ways of organizing ourselves. We have progressed a lot—particularly in the last century or two. In many ways we now have access to resources unprecedented in human history. Have we gotten to a point where we can now do some things better than has previously been possible? Can we re-think the way we organize ourselves socially and economically? For centuries we have been deferring to government to solve a broad range of social problems. And in many cases it has accomplished many good and worthy goals. But in many cases, it has also made a mess of things.

Regardless of whether or not you believe government is the problem or the solution, you must admit the challenges of crime, poverty and social justice are still with us. Whatever it is we have been doing hasn’t been very successful at making them go away. Wouldn’t it be great if we could find a way to use recent technological advances to organize ourselves in a new way which would maximize prosperity, reduce crime and enhance opportunities for everyone to live a good life?

After all, isn’t this what are we really trying to accomplish here—to improve the quality of our lives? As it turns out, it probably depends on who you talk to. Are we trying to live lives filled with joy and satisfaction? Are we trying to make sure no one goes hungry? Are we trying to get richer than everyone else? Are we trying to get the most in gains for the least amount of effort? Are we trying to obey the will of a supreme being? What are the objectives of human social organization and how do we best accomplish them?

In spite of the wide disagreement among the public about what we really are, or should be trying to accomplish, I do believe a large majority of people should be able to agree on a few basic principles. For example, I think most people would like to live in peace. By that, I mean most people don’t want to be involved in violent conflict with others. Given the choice, I think most people would not engage in war or conquest against their neighbors. Perhaps this seems a foolish assertion in light of the fact that our world history is one so filled with war and conquest. But I don’t think so. Rather, I hope to shed some light on some possible reasons why it is, in spite of our desire for peace, we often end up mired in conflict and bloodshed.

As we search for a core of common values, so basic and universal that large numbers of people can find mutual agreement, there emerges a second principle which also seems fundamental to human happiness: Most people want to be free to exercise their own will, making choices and living according to their own beliefs and best understanding. Self aware, we prefer also to be self directed. Given the option, most people would rather be able to make their own decisions rather than having things dictated to them by someone else.

So it seems strange why we spend a great deal of time and effort building up systems of regulation and control whose ultimate result is to restrict our choices and make it more difficult to exercise our free will. Perhaps one reason is, while we are clearly happiest when we can freely exercise our own ability to choose, we sometimes fail to be as enthusiastic about protecting our neighbors’ choices. To some degree, perhaps we see our own ability to choose as being in conflict with that of our neighbors. Maybe we suppose that by restricting others, perhaps our own freedoms will somehow be enhanced. But history would teach us otherwise. It seems, in order to live in a world where we can truly direct our own lives, we are going to have to learn how to also protect the same freedom for others. Can we envision a world where we get to choose the things we want, but at the same time, we truly respect our neighbors’ right to choose what they want? As it turns out, our future may well depend on it.

For better or worse, we have seen an increasing tendency to believe in moral relativism. This is the idea that there is no inherent good or evil—it depends on your point of view and what you believe in. Many attempt to explain the universe in a way that excludes a god, a creator, or some other superior intelligence who establishes some over-arching set of moral principles for us to follow. And yet most people seem to have no problem recognizing evil when they see it in such acts as murder, rape, robbery and other such acts of aggression. If there is no god, no standard for good or evil which transcends our temporary stay here on earth, then where do these values come from? How do we manage to agree in such large numbers about certain behaviors which are clearly unacceptable? What makes an act good or evil? At some basic level, we seem to agree on how reprehensible these crimes are. What they all share in common is they rob their victims of what would otherwise be an ability for self direction and self determination. It is as though we are somehow hard-wired to know it is right to allow people to direct the course of their own lives, and it is wrong to try to take that freedom away.

So powerful is this concept of individual choice, it defines the difference between the very best and the very worst of human experience. Perhaps the peak of human joy and fulfillment is found when two people engage in sexual intimacy in a consensual and committed relationship based on mutual love, respect, and a desire to responsibly nurture and raise the children produced as the natural result of this intimacy. In contrast, the most vile, hurtful and repulsive act of rape is based on the very same physical act of sexual intercourse. In both cases, the two parties are engaging in the very same activity. When they can both do so by their own informed, free will and intent, the result is joy and satisfaction. When one of the parties is forced or tricked into participation, the result is grievous pain and suffering.

In a similar example, we find people are generally happiest when they can engage in a productive activity to sustain the physical needs of their lives. In a modern economic parlance, we call this “having a job.” People enjoy better mental health and happiness when they have a job and can provide for themselves and their families. But the practice of forcing someone into a labor, which they have not chosen, defines another offense widely understood as evil and repugnant—slavery. The only difference between employment and slavery is the free will and choice of the person performing the labor.

So free will is clearly a critical component of human happiness. It is something we all need and desire. And we seem to agree in very large numbers on the idea that there is something inherently wrong about robbing people of their ability to choose. So is there a way to find greater social and political unity by coming together in support of this important concept?

In our modern political climate, we have become extremely polarized over a broad range of policy issues. We spend a lot of time arguing about which people should be taxed and to what degree. We fight over immigration policies, drug laws and regulations on business. We try to resolve what kinds of cars people will drive, what should be taught in school, and what should happen when we visit the doctor. On each issue, opposing sides fight as though the world itself might end if the battle does not resolve in the way they want. Yet on these very same issues, we often end up more or less equally divided. Forty something percent will vote one way, another forty something percent will vote the exact opposite, and ten to twenty percent are not really sure what to do and so will sway back and forth depending on how good the media campaign is at any given time and on any given topic. If these issues are really so critical, how can we be so equally divided on what is the proper course?

In this politically divided social structure, we often use a process called democracy to decide how we all will live. First we engage in a debate where half of the population tries to convince the other half of its point of view. Then, in one way or another, we vote on the issue in order to see which group will win. Laws are instituted, according to the prevailing point of view, to dictate how things will be done. And then government forces the minority to live and act according to the wishes of the majority.

It turns out government is pretty good at this—making laws and enforcing them. But is this what we expect government to be, an instrument of force? Or is it supposed to be something else? Is it an instrument of compassion? Is it the overseer of a “social contract” we all somehow made and are now obligated to comply with just by virtue of our having been born into the world? If so, who gets to decide the terms of the contract?

Why do we have government at all? And what kinds of things should it do? Are there things it should not be allowed to do? If so, who will keep it from infringing on those restrictions? Does government exist for our benefit? Or do we exist in order to support and maintain government and the people who enjoy its power? Is the purpose of government to make everyone else do things they way I think is right? But what happens if my neighbor is making government policy? Does he then get to decide how I must live my life?

Sometimes we do the same thing over and over just out of historical habit. It has always been done a certain way, so why change it now? For example, people lived for centuries cultivating their fields by hand or by animal-drawn implements. It is only more recently, we have figured out how to harness stored energy to power machine-driven equipment and produce food at a much more efficient rate. Other times, we have established habits or traditions which were developed over centuries for very good reasons. Perhaps generations of people have learned through experience that some things are best done a certain way. Even so, a new generation may toss the practice out in favor of a more modern approach, only to relearn a difficult lesson all over again. This phenomenon is embodied in the famous phrase: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

How do we discern which habits of our culture are helpful and useful and so should be preserved and protected? Conversely, how do we figure out which parts are obsolete artifacts which can be eliminated or replaced by a more modern approach in order to improve conditions generally? Should we re-think the way we do government? Or is it just right as presently constituted and shouldn’t be tinkered with?

These all seem to be difficult questions, and they underly the point made previously: What is really the desired outcome? What are the end-goals of social policy? What are we really trying to accomplish? And is government, as we presently have organized it, the best way to get those things done?

My hope is not to further polarize political thought, but rather to unify people around a few very basic principles most of us can agree on. I don’t mean a 51% democratic majority which can win one election or another so it can then force the remaining minority to comply with its wishes. Rather, I mean a broad majority of 80 or 90 percent of people—a clear governing mandate, actually finding some common ground, for a change. And I believe this common ground should be built upon the basic ideas that most of us want to live in peace and we prefer to be able to make our own choices wherever possible. Can we agree on this much and then try to organize ourselves in ways which maximize those values for everyone?

In my lifetime, I have enjoyed discussions with a great many people coming from a variety of facets on the political spectrum: Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Libertarians, Constitutionalists, etc. In each case, I find a common theme: Most people share a quality or characteristic. Let’s call it “goodness.” Maybe I am naive, but I really do think most people are essentially good. I say “most” for the same reason I think only 80 or 90 percent can agree, even on such an obviously worthy idea. Unfortunately, a few of us are just plain bad. Some people like to fight and some want to impose their own will upon their neighbors. But I think most people are not like this. Most of us are good or at least want to be good.

Sure, people don’t always make the best choices. We don’t always know the best way to accomplish the things we want. And when it comes down to getting what we want, we sometimes end up hurting other people in the process. But I don’t think this is typically our objective. Most people just want to be happy and live lives of joy and contentment. Most of us would even say we think other people should be able to be happy too. But sometimes, it is just hard to step outside ourselves and truly consider other people’s happiness with the same passion we consider our own.

So are you a liberal Democrat? I think you are probably good and want good things. Are you a conservative Republican? I think you are probably good and want good things. Are you a Libertarian or a Moderate or are you somewhere else on the spectrum? Are you religious, or not so much? Are you Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim or something else? Are you agnostic or atheist? I think you are probably good too. And I think a large majority of us could agree on these basic and important principles which center around the concept of choice. What’s more, if we could focus on these principles as we consider the ways in which we organize ourselves socially and politically, we could really improve on the richness and fulfillment of our lives. Armed with modern technology which can be used for both good and evil, it is ever more important to be firmly based on common ethical ground so we can build a future of peace and prosperity rather than one of conflict and subjugation.

So I hope to appeal to people across the spectrum of political and religious beliefs. Figure out who you are and what “factions” you currently belong to. I may appeal to you with some arguments, and I may say some things you disagree with. Hopefully, I won’t skewer too many of your “team’s” sacred cows. I may suggest how a certain principle might apply to your own set of beliefs. In doing so, it is not my intention to convert, to disparage, nor to promote one set of beliefs over another. Rather, it is my intent to appeal to people of all beliefs, and suggest that we can make it possible to co-exist in a way which respects individual beliefs and values while enriching and enhancing the quality of life for everyone.

I believe we are approaching a tipping point in the world—a time when conditions are ripe for change. If so, we will have a chance to decide where that change will to take us. We are enjoying the benefits of increasing technology and globalization. But at the same time we see stresses mounting on antiquated social, monetary, regulatory and production systems. In light of our recent economic crises, our clearly unsustainable levels of public debt, and ongoing volatility in markets, it seems very possible we could see a major monetary failure or some other type of major economic distress in the coming years.

If this occurs, one of two things will happen. Either:

  • People will be prepared with fresh ideas about how to reform civil society so we are less prone to the same types of breakdowns in the future, or
  • One huge failure of government will merely be replaced by an even bigger and more onerous form of government, doomed to fail again at some point in the future.

If the latter happens, quality of life is bound to suffer for people who prefer the freedom to exercise their own free will.

In the following pages, we will dabble in a broad array of topics from history and physics to economics and social policy. Why so broad? Because the principles of choice transcend the boundaries of philosophical and scientific thought. How we respond to the power of choice forms the basis of our history, our culture, our technology and our government. It is throughout everything we do. First we will discuss the forces which seem to be inherent to our existence—the conditions in which we live. Next we will try to understand how these forces have been formative in the history of the world so far. Then, after discussing some hopes and dreams about what we might accomplish if only we could better coexist and cooperate, I will present a few proposals in specific areas of public policy: energy, education, and monetary policy.

My goal is to discuss a few examples of ways in which we could make incremental but immediate improvements to prepare us so, if and when a tipping point comes, and existing social, regulatory or economic models begin to fail, we will be ready with tested and working alternatives. Hopefully, civil society will then be able to evolve toward more sustainable peace and human joy rather than falling into a state of deeper conflict and more profound human suffering and bondage.

My proposals are not, by any means, intended to be an exhaustive list, or even the “most important” list.. Rather, they are just a few examples which hopefully, illustrate how we can re-think certain public policies in a choice-centric way. I hope others will add to the dialog with their own specific proposals dealing with issues in other areas of the economy.
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