Monday, I had so-called secondary cataracts lasered off the back of the membrane that holds in my clear plastic lens. I now feel that my vision, in terms of acuity, is the best it has been in my entire life. Just let that sink in for a moment. I’m 72 years old and experiencing the best my vision has ever been in terms of detail. My grandfather was an artist. When in his 60’s, he developed cataracts. He had surgery but his results were disappointing; the results are far better today. I am not sure he was even checked for secondary cataracts. His vision at 72 was frighteningly bad — especially when he drove. Wednesday, I played tennis for the first time since the laser treatment. The little fuzz hairs on the chartreuse ball, the grimace on the opponent’s face, the serve that misses the mark by a half inch and I can call it out because I am 100% certain it’s out- this is the joy of good vision, or at least a tiny sampling thereof. The result of Monday’s surgery is a moment to moment miracle for me personally, but it is also a miracle in cooperation across many kinds of borders.
It so happens one of my former colleagues at IBM Research, Jim Wynne was one of the co-inventors of laser surgery. People that do this procedure, or any other avant-garde medical procedure, typically share information around the world. They do this to benefit everyone, themselves included. Progress works best when information is shared. Over time, a very complex process has been developed in science to help insure that only truthful information is shared and that the most important information is more widely distributed (not necessarily the most sensational information). The system also provides a nice balance of tools for the researcher to find the information most relevant to what he is doing and tools for the publishers of information to guide it in directions likely to find interested consumers/reactors to that information.
People sometimes disagree in the scientific community about something, but violence rarely breaks out! Why? Because everyone values the truth? Well, that is part of it. Most people in the scientific community do respect the truth pretty much above all else. But not everyone feels that way all the time. So, just as the American Constitution is designed to provide good governance despite selfish or evil intentions of particular individuals, so too, the scientific community has processes and procedures to resolve differences and, for the most part, those processes and procedures work very well even if a particular scientist fakes data, say. He or she will be found out. And they will be held accountable. Even if they are not fired, their reputation is forever sullied in their scientific community.
There is a downside to settling differences the way the scientific community does. It can take time. In fact, almost every method of settling differences takes time. This should not be surprising. But let’s just make sure it’s front of mind. The only method that can resolve things extremely quickly is total power hierarchical chain of command. That’s its rep at least. But does it really work? Let’s just take another look at that. Imagine two hypothetical countries, let’s arbitrarily call them Russia and America just for fun. Let’s imagine that one of these countries — let’s say Russia — is essentially headed by a dictator who wants to exert personal control over the country. The dictator has an advantage of being able to decide things quickly and exert power over the press. Now, imagine that there are nuclear disasters in both countries. How are these handled?
In a dictatorship, it might take time for the truth to even be known that there was a nuclear disaster. People in charge of a nuclear plant will not want to let anyone else know. Eventually, of course, the truth will out. Eventually, the dictator will know. But the dictator will lie about it and then try to minimize what happened. This is really evil. People world-wide and probably even within Russia will fail to take adequate steps to minimize injury and will also fail to learn how to prevent such accidents in the future; they will fail to have the information available to make intelligent trade-offs about safety versus having a renewable energy source. If the Russian government lies about where and how much radiation leaked, then it also means people’s health will continue to be worse than it otherwise could be. People will be led to believe certain places are safe to live even though they are not. Mutations in the genes will cause medical problems for generations to come. The total cost of attempting to hide and obscure information about the nuclear accident will outweigh the initial cost of the disaster.
In a democratic country with a free press such as America still has, it will be much more difficult for the government to hide and obscure information. People in America will learn far faster about the proper tradeoffs between safety and renewable energy. More will be learned about how to recover from nuclear accidents as well as how to prevent them. Having a free society doesn’t mean there won’t be mistakes. Of course, there will be. But we can all learn from them much more easily than we can in a fascist state.
Dictatorships almost always promulgate wars and violence. By getting everyone in a country to see enemies “out there”, and by being at war, anyone who disagrees or tries to work against the war is jailed for the excuse of being a “traitor.” The populace may be bombed, taxed, and conscripted — but they are brainwashed into believing it is all for a good cause. Meanwhile, people are too busy scrambling to stay alive to ask themselves who actually benefits from the war. In most cases, only a very small percentage of the population of a state benefits from war. But everyone in the nation feels it’s time for celebration when a major victory is “won” even though that “win” probably costs hundreds, thousands or even millions of innocent human lives.
In the long run, I have no doubt whatever that democracy will prevail over autocracy. Though not the main topic of this post, I’ll outline the argument briefly. Dictatorships bring out the worst in people and especially where novelty and creativity are necessary. Yes, you can build pyramids with slave labor but you cannot really invent the transistor with it. When people are stressed to deliver exactly what is required on a short fuse, they will tend to stick to the tried and true. It isn’t just technological innovation that lags behind under dictatorship; it is also learning about every craft, every process, every art. Since income and privilege are so unevenly distributed in a dictatorship, it will always be the case that the dictator is inches from being mobbed and killed. In order to secure their position, they see their chief enemy as a free press and dictators will do just about anything to destroy truth. While this may keep them on their throne longer, it has the unfortunate side-effect of making it much more difficult for everyone in the society to learn from their mistakes or to make good decisions about anything. Being fed false information over a long period of time ruins people’s intuitions about what’s what. Although dictatorships claim to have the advantage of efficiency because of speed of decision making and centralized coordination, in point of fact, the dictatorship becomes more inefficient over time, both due to a lessened creativity but also just the general incompetence implied by “might makes right.” At every point in the hierarchy, there will be a growing likelihood of that position being filled by a power-hungry individual rather than one interested in getting the job done. Of course, these two goals are not always in direct conflict, but generally speaking they lead in somewhat different directions. Bureaucracies come to be more and more staffed with incompetents who have “powerful friends” rather than people who are more competent. Almost all decisions are better when the input of all who have knowledge are consulted. But the bully in power doesn’t want to do this. In his mind, gathering the opinions of experts just reinforces the fact that the bully is not an expert. Knowing how petty and egomaniacal the tyrant is, on rare occasions when he does ask for opinions, most of his underlings will try to guess what the tyrant wants to do (or, when possible, what will enhance their own position) and state that. So, first of all the type of social interaction that predominates in these two governmental forms is quite different. In the democratic case, people are focused primarily on how to identify and solve problems. In the autocratic case, people’s attention will be on kissing ass, figuring out how to advance their position, how to avoid making a mistake, how to pin the blame on someone else if they do make a mistake. Of course, both types of thinking take place in both a meritocracy and an autocracy, but how can there not be a correlation between prevalence of type of action and what is valued in the society? For these reasons, whatever initial advantage a particular autocratic nation may have had will soon be lost and that nation will tend to be surpassed by democratic ones.
Autocratic nations at that point (or slightly before once losing position becomes clear) will decide under the autocrat’s authority that it’s time to go to war. All sorts of reasons may be given to try to rationalize why there needs to be war but the real reason is always the same: to maintain or consolidate the power of the autocrat. There may have been a time when kings and queens physically led their troops in battle but that is not happening today. The autocrat knows he will be safe as long as possible. Lots of other people will die, but who cares?
So, therein lies the puzzle. Let’s posit that other things being equal, most people would rather live in peace than war. Most people would prefer not having their friends and neighbors shot dead in front of them. Most people would prefer not having their homes and fields destroyed by bombs and flames. Most people would prefer not having to give up their own dreams and ambitions in order to fulfill a military goal. But even if we assume peace is more desirable than war, what can be done to avoid war when autocratic nations are determined to go to war?
There may be alternative answers to this question but one answer seems obvious: the international community — the entire population of the planet — should work to ensure that all nations are ruled by some variant of democracy. If that happens, it won’t necessarily put an end to all wars, but two democratic nations at least have the possibility of talking through their disagreements because they both value truth over power. Autocratic nations, on the other hand, will eventually fall behind economically and in pretty much every other way because of the inherent inefficiency of dictatorships. So, those countries will necessarily go to war because that will be the only way a dictator sees to keep power.
In some cases, a deal might be made between many democracies and a dictator. Essentially, the democracies might say, “Hey, we’ll help keep you in power but don’t go to war (or at lest, not too much, and definitely not with us) or otherwise thwart our interests. Because if you do, we will crush you.” So, the dictator who is a successful bully in his country cannot pull that off on the international stage. The bully/dictator will probably make a condition of his being propped up and beholden to the democracies that that fact not be made known to the people of his own country. The bully/dictator will posture and speechify (and more recently tweet) that he is in control and has everyone else over a barrel. The only thing that the dictator (and its supporters) really value is power. So, the bully/dictator must keep up the illusion that he has power. Otherwise, his supporters will simply dessert him or her.
So we have a somewhat uneasy peace between dictators and the democratic countries of the world. The democratic countries typically don’t want war. Unless they are able to lie convincingly about the war and/or keep domestic casualties to a minimum, they’ll be voted out of office. This is why the US, for instance, engages in bombing, drones, or small strike forces rather than sending thousands of people out to die in a ground war. Those moves prove very unpopular. Most people don’t like seeing their friends and relatives come back in body bags.
Dictators don’t really care how many civilians are killed so long as there are sufficient protections and compensations for them and their supporters. They can’t be voted out of office by the population as a whole. Democratic countries realize that having a dictator in charge of any country is a potential threat to them because the dictator has far less to lose in a war, other things being equal. Of course, they are not equal and collectively, the democracies of the world enjoy a higher standard of living. The dictators don’t really care because they can always steal enough from their own people to keep themselves and their handful of supporters happy. But if any dictatorship creates a hazard for democracies, why let them survive? Why don’t all the democracies simply get together and eliminate all the dictatorships by force? Although non-peaceful and destructive in the short terms, wouldn’t there be more peace in the long term?
Not necessarily. It is possible for a democracy to become a dictatorship. The way that works is fairly simple. A candidate in a democracy appears or pretends to be an ordinary candidate who is “playing the game” of democracy. If such a candidate comes to power however, they will immediately wage a campaign that has absolutely nothing to do with improving their country (though they may claim that) but has everything to do with consolidating their power; i.e., making them a dictator. For example, they will see which people in the democracy are statistically likely to vote for them. These people will be favored over people who are statistically unlikely to vote for them. The latter will be disadvantaged economically and various roadblocks will be enacted to prevent them from voting. Government positions will not be filled by those most experienced or most able to fill the roles. Instead, government positions will be filled by those most willing to forgo a sense of duty to the common good of the citizens and instead to subjugate such motives to absolute loyalty to the would-be dictator. In many cases, the dictator will fill important roles with family and personal friends regardless of how incompetent such people are to fill the post they are supposed to be assigned to.
The free press will come under attack at the same time the would-be dictator spews forth a string of “big lies.” Political opponents will come under attack; in many cases, they will be accused of crimes. However absurd such charges will be, the loyal backers of the would-be dictator will join the chorus of accusers. The would-be dictator will also try to fill courts with people whose decisions are based only loosely on the law or the facts of particular cases, but who are willing to hand down decisions based on what will help the dictator consolidate their power. In some cases, this means putting political opponents in jail. In other cases, it means handing down decisions that simply make life extremely difficult for those who would vote the dictator out of power. For example, let’s imagine a country where there are people of different colors. (It doesn’t really matter much what the difference is; it could be religion, region, origin, color, style of walking, education level or all of the above). What matters is that there is a statistical difference in voting patterns. Suppose, people whose skin is colored green vote for the dictator while people whose skin is colored purple do not typically vote for the dictator. Then, people who are colored purple will be vilified, lied about, and, thanks to the courts, incarcerated much more often and for much longer than green people. The lies about purple people will be initially seen as absurd and ridiculous. But after constant repetition for years and years, even gray people and pink people will begin to wonder. (And of course, the would be dictator’s supporters — largely green folk — will immediately take it on faith that purple people all deserve to be in prison).
I’ve already mentioned that such dictatorships are ultimately inefficient and don’t really work very well from a practical standpoint. Beyond that, they are much more horrible to live under for most people than are democracies. And, beyond that, they almost always will end up in wars. Dictatorships kill. Often, democracies do as well. But it isn’t a requirement for a democracy to get into a war. Dictatorships will always strive toward war. So, part of creating “Peace on Earth” is to prevent dictatorships from arising from democracies. This is apparently harder than it would seem. Part of the reason is that most people who have grown up in a democracy have been taught to “play by the rules” and to cooperate. They tend to assume that others will do the same. The would be dictator pretends to play by the rules, but in fact, will break absolutely any rule to consolidate power for themselves. In most cases, there are plenty of signs that the would be dictator is just that. In today’s world, there are many public records of behavior from tweets to tax records that give insights into the character of a candidate. No dictator, no matter how clever, or well-connected can possibly come to power without the willing support of a substantial fraction of people in the democracy. Remember that Hitler was initially voted into power and so were many other dictators.
We must therefore ask ourselves the question why people would vote in someone who wants to be a dictator. Why would people give up democracy for autocracy? There are many possible reasons; these reasons need not be the same for everyone. Some people in a democracy may feel that they are “losers.” Since democracy is not “working for them,” they are willing to try anything else if it might mean they will now be “winners.” This is not completely irrational. After all, if someone has voted for various seemingly different stripes of competent candidates who are playing the “democracy game” and yet, the voter’s real purchasing power continues to fall, why not try someone playing some other game? Maybe things will be better. Of course, the would-be dictator plays into this and tells such voters that their lives will be so much better once the dictator is in charge. In some cases, the would be dictator will blame other groups of people; in Hitler’s case, for instance, he mainly railed against Jews. In our hypothetical case, recall that it was the purple people who are responsible for all the bad in the world.
I think some people don’t believe anything the would-be dictator says. They actually see right through the childish lies. However, some believe that once a dictator is in charge, they too can literally get away with murder. Such a supporter can become a corrupt judge, police officer, petty bureaucrat and then kiss ass and lie and manipulate until they reach a position of personal power that allows them to force sexual favors, destroy lives, demand respect etc. While everyone probably has an element of this nastiness in them, most people work against it and try to feed “the good wolf” within them. A few people, however, just say, in effect, “Hell with it! I’m going to feed the bad wolf!” And so they do. In many cases, their fantasy never actually materializes. All it takes, after all, is one misstep and they piss off their superior. In fact, they might not even make any missteps. All that happens is that they are a handy scape-goat for their superior.
Some people who support the would be dictator do not feel as though they are losers at all. They are already rich and powerful. They literally have everything they need and nearly everything they could even imagine wanting. However, they may have gotten all this and feel immensely lucky. But luck can change. And, it is a normal human tendency, if you have 435 pies and your neighbor has zero pies to feel as though you should share some of the 435 pies. Most of us would normally do that. But some people instead keep all 435 pies and instead come up with a rationalization for keeping them all. “Well, you know, that next door neighbor of mine is purple and we know that once they get one pie, they will want more!” Or, “My next door neighbor doesn’t have any pies because he never learned to make any! Why should I give him mine?” Or, “My next door neighbor isn’t really a Christian. He doesn’t deserve any pies.” Or…well, you are probably just as good at making up bogus excuses as the next person. This kind of supporter of the would be dictator wants a system in which keeping the 435 pies is seen as the “right thing to do” rather than the rather selfish and cowardly act that it actually is.
A variety of other rationales, excuses, reasons etc. help prop up an unpopular dictator among his or her supporters. But how can we help prevent democracy from devolving into dictatorship? There will never be world-wide peace until we can solve that puzzle. We certainly cannot expect that the would be dictators will simply wake up one morning and say to themselves, “Gee. I’ve been focused way too much on enhancing my own power. I need to think about what I can really do to help my country.” Or, “Gee. It just occurs to me that if everyone acted as I do, we humans would never have invented the wheel or controlled fire. We’d be little more than chimps throwing feces at each other. I’d better change.” No, that kind of insight is not going to happen. It might be, as Socrates purportedly said, that the unexamined life is not worth living. But the would-be dictator just uses that as motivation to make as sure as possible that no-one else’s life is worth living either.
In order to solve problems, people tend to focus their attention on what is different. We ask ourselves how this situation is different or how that person is different or which car has more horsepower or which stock will likely have a better ROI. We seldom think about how people are the same or what cars, in general, do to us and the environment or why we have a stock market. So too, when it comes to people we immediately gravitate toward what is different among people. When it comes to collective decisions, we tend to focus on how we differ. What would happen if, instead, we focused first on how we were the same? What if we went through a process that helped us identify what is similar or even identical in what we wanted and then worked together on ways to make those things more likely to become true? In other words, what if we identified and solved problems rather than characterizing each other in unflattering and overblown terms? On some items, maybe we would not agree. But to me, it seems exceedingly likely that any two people would find things that they did agree were desirable states of affair.
If that hypothesis is true, then, what would happen if these two people worked together to try to bring those states of affair into existence? It seems to me likely that they would make some progress toward their mutual goals. In the process, they would come to trust each other more. If they saw the world in different ways, or had different ideas how to proceed, could they not find a peaceful way to resolve those differences and continue to make progress? Wouldn’t they continue to learn from each other? If they worked together using a peaceful process on a problem — however large or small — it seems to me that they would be likely to plant seeds of peace on a small scale that could contribute to peace on a much, much larger scale.
We can do this. I see it quite clearly now.