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Thomas Paine: Common Sense (1776) (constitution.org)
64 points by tokenadult 1427 days ago | hide | past | web | 18 comments | favorite

> government even in its best state is but a necessary evil, and in its worst state an intolerable one ... Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise.

I wish people took this more seriously and explored its philosophical implications. In a recent discussion with a couple of other HNers, I found a surprising amount of hostility toward my suggestion that the state and its laws are mere means to an end. But why not? What is there to romanticize, glorify, glamorize, sentimentalize, and eulogize about the fucking government? It's just a means to an end, like so many other things that we invented to make the harsh reality of life somewhat more tolerable. It's only raison d'etre is that, after years of experimentation, we have yet to find a less bad alternative as Churchill famously noted.

What Churchill didn't mention is that we've only been experimenting with governments for a few thousand years, with democracy for a few hundred years, and with universal suffrage for a few decades. In the grand scheme of things, we've only just started. So much for the End of History, Mr. Fukuyama!

When, after only so little experimentation, people cannot bear to admit that their current government might not be the best thing evaaaaar, it's a sign of a serious problem: confusion between means and ends. Developers who cannot bear to admit that their software has massive security holes tend not to produce secure software, and arguing with them often results in hilarious threads that we see here from time to time under headings like "How not to respond to a bug report". Similarly, people who equate any criticism of or harm to their country with the murder of their firstborn tend not to produce a good country. As Paine says in another part of the article:

> any prepossession in favor of a rotten constitution of government will disable us from discerning a good one.

Implication: Don't get too emotionally attached to a government.

Another thing that I'd really want to emphasize is that Paine was not an anarchist. Neither am I. Just because people refuse to romanticize the government doesn't mean that they'd rather get rid of it. The definition of a necessary evil is that although it is evil, it is also necessary under present circumstances. Anarchists are stupid, they don't understand necessity. Sensible people do.

People who have common sense do not destroy things that are necessary. But they are always willing to ditch one and get another if the alternative turns out to be a better fit for the job and the benefits outweigh the cost of transition. 237 years ago, Paine ditched Britain in favor of a new country. Perhaps 23.7 or 237 or 2370 years from now, sensible Americans may need to ditch America for something else. Throw around big words like "treason" all you want, but at the most fundemantal level it's just common sense. Countries just tend to be more difficult and costly to switch than your mobile phone contract is.


Here's something interesting: various Chinese think tanks wonder publicly about if, and when their country will transition to democracy. (Yes, they can get away with this - the unwritten rule is that they can't say "China should become a democracy in the next 5 years" but discussions of longer time periods are not considered a threat).

A lot of the left-leaning think tanks believe China should gradually become more democratic, building from the village elections they have now to city, province and ultimately national elections.

Some of the right-leaning think tanks have a more original idea - China remains a one-party state, but with increasingly sophisticated methods of soliciting public opinion. Basically technocracy.

I think the EU is converging on the same system of government from a different direction.

I'm not saying technocracy is a wonderful system of government either, but it won't be hard to do a better job than democracy.

Pretty much everything bad people have predicted about democracy has come to pass:

- many people will vote on ethnic/tribal lines (true even in the US)

- people's voting patterns will be mainly determined by the media, making the media and whoever controls it extraordinarily powerful (if you're Chomsky, this is the corporations, if you're UKIP, this is the "metropolitan liberal elite" - actually, they're both right).

- the idea of having rotating politicians managing a permanent civil service is insanely impractical, is not implemented by any non-governmental organisation, and has had the entirely predictable result that the civil service pretty much does what it wants regardless of who is in power.

- eventually the population realise they can vote themselves largesse out of the treasury. This is the equivalent of injecting smack for polities; it's insanely addictive, it's incredibly painful for them to quit, and it will probably eventually kill them.

- it doesn't even really give a voice to voters. Seriously, all your opinions and preferences are reduced to 1 bit of information every election cycle? And in practice its less than that, because you probably live in a non-swing region, or your preferences are highly predictable (eg, in information theoretic terms, an urban highly-educated media professional who votes left-wing probably only gives you about 0.2 bits of information, because you knew they were gonna vote left-wing anyway).

Something like Singapore is one good example of what a well-managed non-democratic state can look like. (INB4 caning: OK, corporal punishment isn't very nice, but neither are most criminals, and since Singapore has a low crime rate its "draconian" law enforcement leads to less overall suffering than, say, the American policy of placing two million people in rape-infested concentration camps. Free speech? You noticed how Jezebel and similar outlets have started threatening the employment of people who say things they don't like? I used to be a lot more libertarian, but I'm seriously coming around to the idea that people have more practical freedom in an orderly state than a libertine one).

People here interested in this stuff should seriously read Moldbug if they haven't already: http://moldbuggery.blogspot.co.uk (start with "The Case Against Democracy: Ten Red Pill" and then maybe move to the "Open Letter" series).

Singapore is a constitutional democracy: they have regular multiparty elections. Sure, there's only ever one party that realistically stands a chance of winning, but that has more to do with them being competent at government than the rather half-hearted intimidation of opposition candidates through the legal process. That, and the fact the media, civil service and government are all basically the same set of interests... it's actually the extreme case of "everything bad people predicted about democracy" coming to pass.

Yes, you're right that they're officially a democracy. Government control of the media ensures that the same party will remain in power. I think Japan and Taiwan had the same party in power for decades, too. Maybe they only work because of East Asian collectivist/Confucian instincts, but one-party states do seem to work well in that part of the world. Actually having elections, even unlosable ones, probably ensures the government roughly tacks towards the wishes of the populace.

(Moldbug argued that America is transitioning into a one party state, since most government workers and "respectable" media outlets are allied with the Democrats).

I think Japan and Taiwan had the same party in power for decades, too.

Both had long periods of same-party rule, but both have had changes in party administration in recent years, back and forth. Taiwan started having changes in party administration not long after press freedom was achieved.

> I'm not saying technocracy is a wonderful system of government either, but it won't be hard to do a better job than democracy.

My objection to that statement is that designing political systems is not about doing a better job (on average). It's about not doing a worse job (ever). Rawls calls this "maximin": you choose the option that maximizes the minimum possible value. The maximum possible value is irrelevant, and the average doesn't matter, either. When lives are at stake, you always choose the safest option, the one with the lowest chance of descending into tyranny.

I'm sure technocracy has the potential to soar higher than populist democracy under many circumstances, but unfortunately it also has the potential to crash just as hard as, if not harder than, most democracies can ever dream of. Without giving others the power to overrule technocrats, it's only a matter of time before technocrats become autocrats. Anyone in a position of power who can't be fired is a Stalin in the making. I don't see how that's "not worse" than any democracy. A populist democracy has a reliable way to throw a political leader out of his job or at least get him to change his mind: throw up a shit storm like we did with SOPA. It's dirty, it ain't easy, but once you manage to do it, it works like a charm. And in the end, keeping little Stalins at bay is all that matters.

Power tends to corrupt. Any political system that depends on trusting a group of people to do things right will invariably fail because of corruption, and technocracy is no exception. The only solution is to design a political system that harnesses the power of distrust. When all alternatives are necessary evils, you choose the most controllable option because a controllable evil is almost always less bad than an uncontrollable evil. Of course, evils aren't easy to control even under the best circumstances, but do your best to find one that you can at least put on a leash.

So the best government isn't one that is not subject to control by any political interest, because objectivity and neutrality in politics are never going to be anything more than daydream. Rather, I think the best government is one that is open to control by so many conflicting interests in so many different ways that the vectors eventually balance one another out. Politics is meant to be dull, boring, and utterly predictable. Because when politics gets exciting, people die! It's OK if you want to give up your own life for a cause, but don't put others' lives and human rights in peril.

tl;dr for technical readers: the performance benefits of putting a bunch of spinning platters in RAID 0 ain't worth the inevitable data loss. Especially if your data == human lives.

Yours is the standard post-cynical view of democracy. It's common among very smart people. Think Churchill's "two cheers for democracy". It's what I used to believe. I don't now.

"Power tends to corrupt." If this is true, then democracy may well be the maximin solution. But is it true? The word "autocrat" makes people think of Hitler and Stalin. They don't think of Frederick the Great or Deng Xiaoping.

Power often corrupts, but not always.

1. When power is insecure, it is dangerous, like a cornered wild animal: totalitarian spying against potential conspirators, suppression of dissent, brutal retaliation against political opponents. Secure power has less need for such behaviour. As Bismark said of the press "they can say what they want, and I will do what I want".

2. When power is a "family business", the leader's time preferences change and they want to ensure they pass a prosperous country onto their children. That's why old-school monarchs, for all their faults, were less rapacious than third-world dictators - the dictators knew their time in power was limited, so they made out like bandits while they could.

3. Many people are actually quite nice and will use their power to help their fellow men (or at the very list, fellow countrymen).

Consider that Communist China has transitioned from Maoist schizo-state to pragmatic autocratism and now to some kind of quasi-democracy, all without major revolutions. I see the real danger of technocracy being Brezhnevism, not Stalinism, but the same thing has happened with modern day democracy. (The current "democratic" system is designed to prevent charismatic populist politicians (ie, potential Hitlers and Stalins) from making much significant difference - how much personal impact over government policy did Bush have, for example? Or, for that matter, Obama? - and instead most power rests with hundreds of unelected but government-funded agencies.)

"So the best government isn't one that is not subject to control by any political interest, because objectivity and neutrality in politics are never going to be anything more than daydream. Rather, I think the best government is one that is open to control by so many conflicting interests in so many different ways that the vectors eventually balance one another out. Politics is meant to be dull, boring, and utterly predictable. Because when politics gets exciting, people die! It's OK when it's your own life, but don't put others' lives and human rights in peril."

I definitely agree with your last 3 sentences. The thing is any kind of true democracy is going to be full of exciting politics. Your ideal of a system where the vectors balance out is savvy (were you a British colonial administrator in a previous life?) and is also quite close to the current system. Designing a government that is ineffective by design is a good way to prevent tyranny. Unfortunately, it also makes it unable to make difficult-but-necessary decisions. Example: who in the USG actually has the power to reduce the deficit? Will this situation change in the next 20 years?

While I agree that some people who enjoyed absolute power were actually rather decent, I doubt that the modern world is conducive to producing more of them. The degree to which power corrupts a person depends a lot on external variables, and the variables that have been at play in the last 60 years or so have produced a lot more malevolent dictators than benevolent ones. Guido van Rossum is the only person that I can think of who actually lives up to the BDFL title in today's world, and that's probably because his realm does not physically exist ;)

I also wonder if the possibility of getting another King Sejong is important enough to risk getting another Vlad the Impaler, even if the chances were as good as 50/50. Even if power only corrupts 50% of the time, or even 10% of the time, maximin still says that you should choose the safer option.

I'm not saying that the current form of American democracy is the safest option. Every day it seems to move further away from the maximin solution. But if so, that's only a reason to find and implement the maximin solution, not a reason to move even further away from it. If all the power actually rests in the hands of 10000 unaccountable bureaucrats, the solution is not to give more powers to Obama and thereby end up with 10001 unaccountable people. The solution is to make those 10000 bureaucrats fully accountable, in addition to Obama, so that we have 10001 fully accountable people.

> The thing is any kind of true democracy is going to be full of exciting politics.

As long as my life, limbs, and human rights are not at the mercy of some megalomaniac (or any particular interest group), I'm sure I'll get used to whatever excitement "true democracy" brings. I'm assuming, of course, that this "true democracy" includes strong constitutional protections of my rights so that nothing that happens in ordinary politics can violate them. Democracy doesn't mean everything gets decided democratically, there are certain things that even a majority shouldn't be able to do.

> Your ideal of a system where the vectors balance out is ... quite close to the current system.

There are too few vectors in the current system. We need way more vectors to cancel out supersized incumbents like the military-industrial complex, the oil industry, Monsanto, the MAFIAA, etc. Putting together a short list of interested parties and deciding all matters among them is just corporatism. We need something more open and flexible, where EFF (for example) has a realistic chance of outcompeting Sony in the marketplace of ideas.

> it also makes it unable to make difficult-but-necessary decisions.

Big decisions usually shouldn't be made in a hurry. So as long as it's not 100% impossible for the government to make decisions, I think it's OK for there to be lots of checks and balances in the way. (This would be a different situation from what we currently have, where unaccountable bureaucracies are responsible for a lot of inertia.)

I also don't think it's right to move in the direction of facilitating the production of massive decisions on a national scale. In my picture of "true democracy", decision-making responsibilities would be decentralized unless the federal government absolutely needs to get involved, and most local decisions would follow an agile and rapid-iteration model. Take health care reform for example. Did we really need such a protracted, ideologically charged, misinformation-filled, national debate about it? Vermont actually wanted to implement their own single-payer system, and a few other states had similar but slightly different ideas. Why couldn't we let those states implement their own health care systems first, compare results after a couple of years, make changes along the way, and get other states on board over the next decade or two with plenty of opportunities for A/B testing between them? Answer: Ego. Obama and Hillary wanted to finish the job themselves, get it exactly right the first time, and take credit for it.

A very large proportion of the stalemates that make Washington ineffective could be eliminated if people refrained from saying "But there's this teeny tiny provision here that I don't completely agree with..." and just agreed to reiterate every year. Can't agree on the debt ceiling right now? Release the current version now and release the .1 version by the end of the year. You ask how the government can make massive decisions. I ask why such massive decisions are needed in the first place. Of course this won't work all the time (wars, for example, can't be easily canceled once begun), but the thing about necessary evils is that you don't want to make them appear any more necessary than they strictly are.

The USA is not supposed to be a "Democracy," it's a "Constitutional Republic," and were the government, and its agents, to adhere to the letter, and intent, of the US Constitution we wouldn't be in the quagmire we're currently bogged down in.

The founders were smart guys and the Constitution is a clever piece of political engineering, but you might as well be saying that the government is doing badly because they stopped following the Bible. As a non-American, I find the idolisation of the Constitution pretty amusing.

It's sad when we have to go back 240 years to try to convince people that we are moving in the wrong direction.

Common sense will tell us, that the power which hath endeavored to subdue us, is of all others the most improper to defend us.

This quote has always been a favorite of mine. It's from an argument made by loyalists (to Britain) and others who wish to stay out of a conflict (with Britain) Sudbury the commonly perceived protection afforded the populace in North America by the British Navy.

hmmmm, am I the only one who's totally annoyed by that URL path? Seriously, what's the point in abbreviating to "/comsense.htm"?

I know that's not a big deal, but being a fan of ... well, I'd say "semantic URLs" this always hits me square in my face! Why not use "/commonsense.htm" or "/common_sense.htm"?

And after looking at http://www.constitution.org/tp it gets even worse ("/amercrisis.htm" etc.)

Some of those files may have been named during the days of DOS 8+3 filename limit. Better keep an old filename than break a lot of links.

Also, some people who first learned computing in the DOS era keep using shortened filenames out of habit, even if it's not always capped at 8 chars. (The site seems to have several files whose names have been abbreviated to 9 chars.)

After reading this, I can't help but think that once and for all, we need to free Brad Manning and stop the NSA.

The US is just really bad and the sheeple need to wake up and stop listening to the media who are telling them lies.

Only people like us on the internet know what's really going on.

This is an unhelpful viewpoint. In fact, I'd say it's actively harmful.

It's one thing to rein in fantasies that we live in a dystopian, fascist, police state. That's not the case. In fact, today in the US we have a quite amazing degree of individual liberty compared to the historical average, even compared to several standard deviations above the historical average. And we should remember that.

But it's another thing to imagine that there aren't serious issues at play here, and that there aren't serious threats to our individual liberty on numerous fronts. To try to play things off as though everything's fine. Things are not fine. There are very disturbing abuses of power happening. And even more disturbing trends. Legally. Socio-culturally. And in business as well. If we ignore them until they rise to the level of seriousness of a dystopian, fascist, police state (or something just as bad in some other form) we will have ignored them for far too long.

I am getting extremely weary of users who have very little post history flooding HN with PRISM related anti-American vitriol.

I recall organizations like Russia Today being caught for registering users on youtube that promoted their viewpoints, gave up-votes, and voiced extreme opinions: making their extremest lies look more legitimate.

I don't know who these new people are but the quality of their posts is well below our standard and their users names appear to be a play on words.

I will defer to your judgement on what is up to 'our standards' since your account is less than a year old.

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