The Futility of Reform

Don’t run for class president.  Don’t go to HOA meetings.  Don’t join a committee.  Don’t get involved in political campaigns.

All of these activities are about reform.  Get into the institution, play by its rules, and try to make it behave differently than it wants to.

Forget this approach.  It sucks.  Here are four reasons why.

It makes you less happy

Have you ever been to a town hall meeting?  Life’s too short to endure such horrors.  The worst life to live is a boring one.  The machinations of every political institution are stale and boring and full of self-serious processes, procedures, and practitioners.  Your every moment is too valuable to suffer through it.  It’s inhumane.  If Roberts Rules of Order are relevant to any effort you’re involved in, get out and go build something new.

You can’t change the game by playing

Political institutions do one thing best: restrict individual fun and freedom.  It’s natural to want to reduce the role of these rule-happy entities.  But you can’t win playing by their rules.  You can’t vote your way to a system where votes no longer curtail progress.

Trying to reduce the role of the state by engaging in politics is like trying to put a casino out of business by playing blackjack there.  “Oh, I have it figured out.  I’ll beat the house!”  No.  You won’t.  They want you to think that.  They want you to keep playing.  Abiding by house rules is no way to protest or change them.  Especially when the house gets a little richer every time you do.

If you don’t want the casino to keep luring people in don’t go in yourself.  Build something better that people want to go to instead.

Progress always comes from without

Political institutions are reactive.  They wait until the world forces them and then they change.  If humanity is a car these institutions are the brakes, able to stop progress but never create it.  If you want to get to a new destination you need the accelerator.

Accelerators are new ideas and products and services that forge ahead, paying no mind to the consensus-seeking bureaucrats nested in the status quo.  Accelerators don’t care about argument, nor protest.  They care about creation.  They build the world they want to live in instead of hoping to prevent its decay.

There is no permanence

The great thing about innovation is that it only needs to happen once.  That painful, gruelling, child-birth like experience of the creative act or eureka moment is born out of imagination, hard work, and courage.  If the result is of any value to the world it lasts forever and serves as the stepping stone to still greater innovations.

The wheel was invented once.  No one has to re-invent it.  It’s world-improving powers are permanent and irreversible.

Any apparent victory within a political structure is fleeting by definition and design.  You align all the powers and elites and interests just so after years of butt-numbing meetings and pompous proclamations from people you’d never want to have a beer with but now you must woo and coddle.  You have your mandate or constituency or whatever other serious sounding label you slap on the gaggle of interests vying for a win within the house rules.  You get your way.  Hooray!

Until the next month or year or election cycle when the new interests group outmaneuvers you and the tables turn in an instant.  Everything you created in your coalition vanishes, along with all the money you convinced people to throw at it.  The same tiny sliver of ground must be re-won, each time as if from scratch.  Only then do you realize that broader social forces created by the outsiders accelerating humanity are the master, not the servant, to these stale political institutions that apply their rusty brakes against all odds.

Go out and build something

Build something instead.  Exit.  Go your own way.  Forget the suits and speeches and posturing and canvassing and internal climbing and deal-making.  Go build your wildest dream.  Imagine and create things that excite you.  Move to a place that doesn’t suck.  Create a job that’s not boring.  Live a life you want to live.

Don’t wait for the world to change or beg for permission to let it evolve.  Go change your own world.  The rest will follow.

Is Sameness More Feared Than Difference?

There are a lot of cultural memes about accepting people who are different and embracing diversity of all kinds.  But I wonder if it’s actually harder to tolerate sameness than difference.

Consider people or ideas that cause the most upheaval.  They are often those that reveal the depth of sameness and lack of distinction in culture, rather than radical difference.  Tell someone an English degree is more worthless than a Math degree.  You’ll rile some people up, but it will mostly be a playful rivalry.  The distinction between these two degrees allows people to set themselves apart and sometimes argue, but both feel fairly secure in their unique place.  But say that all degrees, no matter what area of study, are essentially the same and that the believed differentiation is a farce, and you’ll have a lot of angry people on your hands.

Likewise there are always people who favor one religion and smear another.  They point to sharp contrasts between the beliefs and values of different religious texts and traditions.  Society can tolerate them and they’re not really threatening at the core.  The greatest heretics are those who claim that all religions are equally true or equally false.  The removal of differences and cherished uniqueness, and the revelation of sameness and lack of distinction threatens the very fabric of society.

People can tolerate difference.  They have categories for it.  They can tolerate hierarchy and the occasional odd one out.  They are scared to death of sameness.  They are terrified of discovering that they’re really a lot more like their neighbor next door or in a distant land than they are different.  The paradox is that most people strive for sameness.  They want their kid to be average, they want to be average.  That’s why almost everyone thinks they are middle class.  They don’t want to stick out on either tail of the bell curve.  They strive for it, but they don’t dare admit it.  The great mutual secret of society is sameness.  We believe that great distinctions exist, and huge divides between people and ways of life.  We don’t speak of the sameness.  The great times of crisis are when differences fade.  Rich and poor alike are decimated by economic collapse.  Flood and earthquakes are indiscriminate.  The break-down of perceived and real differences is perhaps more frightening and threatening to our culture than anything.

I’m still not entirely sure about this thesis, but there seems to be something here.  I’ll try to write more on it as I think more on it.  Feel free to send me examples, counter-examples, or thoughts.

Commerce is Better Than Education

I’ve recently read several essays on education by some of the American Founders.  These writings have in common a belief that good education will promote civility, manners, advances in agriculture, manufacturing, and morality.  It seems to me effect is confused with cause.

It’s not education – at least not formal education or schooling – that produces industriousness and social cooperation, but social cooperation and industriousness that increases knowledge and education.  Commerce is the great civilizing force in the world.  The greater and freer the extent of trade, the more scope individuals have to exercise and explore their abilities and the greater the incentive to obtain knowledge of value to them.

When people are free to reap the rewards or pay the costs of their endeavors, they have every incentive to improve.  This incentive leads to advances in industry, arts, and even culture and values.  Peaceful, mutually beneficial transactions bring the greatest returns, and these require knowledge and respect for other cultures, proficiency with products and processes, and constant adaptation and learning.

When commerce happens, the incentive exists to become educated.  No one need impose an educational plan on their neighbor, and no one has the ability to know what kinds of knowledge their neighbor needs.  We over-estimate the role that education plays in determining the kind of world we live in.  In reality, markets do most of the heavy lifting, and education follows and fills in the well-worn paths etched by exchange.  You could expend all the energy in the world trying to ensure more young people learn your favorite subject.  But if the market signals excellent returns in a different field, people will flock their despite what they’ve been trained in.

We needn’t fret so much about what kind of educational systems exist around us.  We do need to do everything we can to ensure free exchange is unhampered, and myriad educational opportunities will flower as a result.

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