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"Losing my faith in humanity ... one neocon at a time."

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Neal Stephenson on "Power Disorders" in Government

posted by Mike at 2/09/2005 01:08:00 PM


I'm running across a lot of gems today. There may even be a few more to come.

Neal Stephenson has always been a favorite author of mine. He wrote the seminal science fiction novel Snow Crash -- and if you consider yourself even slightly libertarian (or even if you don't), you really might want to enjoy this novel -- and has some absolutely amazing insights into society.

I found this remark of his in a recent interview with Reason magazine really quite insightful:

It's clear that the body politic is subject to power disorders. By this I mean events where some person or group suddenly concentrates a lot of power and abuses it. Power disorders frequently come as a surprise, and cause a lot of damage. This has been true since the beginning of human history. Exactly how and why power disorders occur is poorly understood.

We are in a position akin to that of early physicians who could see that people were getting sick but couldn't do anything about it, because they didn't understand the underlying causes. They knew of a few tricks that seemed to work. For example, nailing up plague houses tended to limit the spread of plague. But even the smart doctors tended to fall under the sway of pet theories that were wrong, such as the idea that diseases were caused by imbalanced humors or bad air. Once that happened, they ignored evidence that contradicted their theory. They became so invested in that theory that they treated any new ideas as threats. But from time to time you'd see someone like John Snow, who would point out, "Look, everyone who draws water from Well X is getting cholera." Then he went and removed the pump handle from Well X and people stopped getting cholera. They still didn't understand germ theory, but they were getting closer.

We can make a loose analogy to the way that people have addressed the problem of power disorders. We don't really understand them. We know that there are a couple of tricks that seem to help, such as the rule of law and separation of powers. Beyond that, people tend to fall under the sway of this or that pet theory. And so you'll get perfectly intelligent people saying, "All of our problems would be solved if only the workers controlled the means of production," or what have you. Once they've settled on a totalizing political theory, they see everything through that lens and are hostile to other notions.

And, by the way, I'm not somehow thinking that Democrats are excluded from this "power disorder" concept. It's most obvious among the neocons at the moment, but it's been a longstanding problem with most government, it seems.