Free Speech, Coercion & the Business of the People

Government tries to level the playing field.

I had something of a difficult conversation the other day with one of my friends from the Breakfast Club. I introduced him, rather clumsily, to the Intellectual Dark Web, which he immediately conflated with the Dark Web, meaning probably 4chan or 8chan. I asked if he had ever heard of Jordan Peterson. He said no. I asked him if he had ever heard of Jonathan Haidt and he hadn’t. Nor was he familiar with Quillette or the events at Evergreen State College. I was at something of a loss, halfway through my oatmeal, to describe the state of affairs.

We talked about free speech and theatre fires, white supremacy and punching Nazis none of which was effective. I feared that he sensed something in me that was wrong, that fell afoul of his best hopes. I’m not sure that I could resolve that in the few minutes we had. The key about the IDW was the story I told about the No Whites Allowed Day at Evergreen State and how Bret Weinstein was run off campus. (I forgot that his wife was too). He was sure that this was an isolated incident signifying nothing. I asked if every client was able to use a similar tactic to get their attorneys disbarred what would become of our legal system. But he was clearly too clever to take the import of my meaning. It’s a problem I have arguing with lawyers. They never take my intellectual gist, instead the deal squarely with the words I awkwardly utter, which they should. So perhaps this essay is my second chance. I must admit that without any context of the pitchforks aimed at Peterson and the alt-right, I couldn’t expect him to get my gist, so I let it go.

In the end it’s not the IDW that I care about so very much as it would be the effect of what they might do, and in that we agreed, finally. Reduce the money in politics. I would go a step further and say reduce the aegis of electoral politics. In my improved America, the Judiciary has a bit more authority, the Congress has a lot less to do, and the Executive Branch presides over a much smaller federal bureaucracy. Quite frankly, I like the idea of the separation between the CIA and the FBI, MI5 and MI6. Let one agency deal with the outside world, and one with the inside world. Let the Presidency deal more with the CIA and less with the FBI. I express it thus: ‘Decentralize until it hurts, then centralize until it works’. He immediately understands that I want Utah to be Utah. Good.

But what I really want is marginal legislation, and a marginal area in which populist politics can operate. I don’t think there’s a lot of new law we need. Not that I am gung ho for deregulation. I simply believe our ability to generate rules and bureaucracy exceeds our ability to deal constructively with actual change. In other words, the end effect of proper legislation and law enforcement in Congress makes our government more accountable to less reality. It’s reductive. From the perspective of those who stand on their hind legs and squawk “There oughta be a law”, the successful passing of a legalistic framework over an additional patch of human or organizational behavior is a win for the team. But this is generals fighting the last war. The playing field has shifted. What’s really going on is that they have put signs, ropes and a dirt path into a new area of the jungle of human behavior, but the new legal map is not the territory. It just gives the illusion of control. People skip through those ropes all the time and quickly move into the unseen forest. And yet the legal fiction expands the definition of ‘forest’ to include half the planet of which only a fraction is navigable and policed. Practically speaking, Elizabeth Warren wants to decapitate Facebook and Google, but she understands nothing about the open source software she wants to disable. The law is not fast enough but the spirit of the law is too broad to ever be responsible. The law just captures the jungle path.

I want society to manage society. I want a society permeated by reason in which the coercion of law is applied minimally and consistently at the margins. I don’t want the ideas of culture warriors codified, because laws are hard to ratchet back. If the spirit of the law dominates the spirits of society, we become brittle. When the coercion of law replaces the persuasion of culture, we destroy our democratic experiment. No less than that is at stake. Law enforcement always entails violence. We will become more violent with each other if we try to empower politics over the rules of society. So the failures of the hierarchies of social reward and punishment are what get my attention. When the illogic of aggrieved freshmen can destroy the logic and careers of tenured professors, universities cease to be what they should be, and instead become political battlegrounds. I see more and more of America becoming political battlegrounds in the context where politicians say “Vote for me and I will change the climate.” This is the Leviathan of our liberty’s destruction.

The business of the people is simple. It is nothing more than the maintenance of a walled garden. We understand the difference between flowers and weeds, but we have let it run to ruin distracted as we are in our attempts to perfect ‘equality’ and ‘save the planet’. The hubris of our political rhetoric has justified in many minds the purposes of flamethrowers and salt for our own front yard. That is the temperature of our screaming. The people don’t seem to realize that society cannot be politically weaponized without grave consequences.

A simple moral principle: when a future change is framed as a problem which we might hope our political system to solve, then the only acceptable reason to talk about the consequences of failing to solve that problem is to scare folks into trying harder to solve it. If you instead assume that politics will fail to solve the problem, and analyze the consequences of that in more detail, not to scare people but to work out how to live in that scenario, you are seen as expressing disloyalty to the system and hostility toward those who will suffer from that failure.

Yet here I stand with modest, even minimal, political ambition. I write essays. I do not need a bully pulpit, and yet this is what people want to elect, a spiritual, cultural leader for America placed into the Oval Office, tweeting out the right words. I fear the man with the charismatic smile and silver tongue who captures this sick infatuation. So my interest in politics is about the business of the people. The Commons. Right now the Commons is ‘the comments section’ and that is a dumpster fire of illogic and emotion. I am not afraid of those who speak loudly, nor if they mumble. My concern is with what policed, flattened shortcuts through the jungle of life are promised by those who run the engines of our democracy.

Originally published at https://cobb.typepad.com.

dad. architect. writer. entrepreneur. stoic. gearhead. hacker.