On the nature of governance
Quite possibly part 1
The flap over the recent disclosure by the group Wikileaks of a number of diplomatic messages has displayed what I would describe as some fairly sharp polarisation. The moderated view—essentially, "sometimes it's good, but this time it's not"—lacks any brightline distinction for where such things are good and why they would cease to be, and is uselessly vague. So let's turn to the extremes.

Essentially, I think, the furor over Wikileaks—like many discussions—boils down to one over what you think of the government. Simplistically, this would be cast as "the government is good" versus "the government is evil," but this I think doesn't really get at the root of the problem.

It also, incidentally, exposes yet another instance of the disconnect in a "right wing vs left wing" dichotomy of the political spectrum. Leaking sensitive information would appear to undermine the legitimacy of a strong central government, revealing it as duplicitous and overreaching—a stereotypically "right wing" view. However, much, though not all (in particular because the administration is "left wing" but still duty-bound to comment) of the criticism of the leak is from the right wing.

Similarly, keeping sensitive information secret would appear to strengthen the mission of a government with a mandate to improve the lives of its citizens (ignoring instances, presumably rare, where the leaks reveal the government to be acting in direct opposition to its citizens' interests), which is a fundamentally "left wing" view. But, again, this is where we find support for the leaks (though I venture to say that much of the support actually comes from anarchists who, as Alfred Pennyworth said, just want to see the world burn).

So what's the real divide?

In my opinion, the division actually comes from two fundamentally disconnected points of view. This also explains why few people have a "positive" view of the government and its organs, tending either towards neutrality or antagonism. I would suggest that in general people believe either that:

The government fundamentally has the best interests of the people in mind, and where it transgresses it generally does so with good reason; or
The government fundamentally is disinterested with the "best interests" of anyone, and to say otherwise is to needlessly anthropomorphise

This is essentially a functional view of governance. Either a government has a desired end state, or a government does not. Thus, while there are further extremist points of view, they generally lie beyond the first end of the spectrum. Nor, in general, does anyone take them seriously. It is possible to believe, for example, that the government is utopianist in scope, and that the desirable end-state is one in which it exerts total control to produce total happiness in its citizens. It is also possible to believe that the government actively conspires against its citizens.

Note that these both derive from the same basic concept: a government has some particular goal in mind. The divide is therefore not between "government is good" and "government is bad"—a value judgment whose continuum is orthogonal anyway. The divide is simply between "a government exists" and "a government exists and has a purpose."

In some cases, one end or the other is inarguably where a government lies. Municipal governments, for instance, are frequently a formality, existing primarily to handle essentially governmental functions like zoning and city services. Similarly, strongly statist governments occasionally have quite clear goals: the government of Nazi Germany had the desired end goal of racial purification and the expansion of the German state.

I note this because it is not my intent to point to a judgment between which point of view is "correct." Both are, I think, valid worldviews to some degree, and obviously both are generally somewhat tempered. My primary goal, in any case, is simply to lay out the arguments for each extreme.

One extreme, which we will call the teleological argument, positions government as being more or less anthropomorphic—that is, it has desires, goals, and so forth. The reasons for this are relatively clear. Firstly, government, being comprised of people, should logically have a more or less human character. Secondly, governments are frequently established with a philosophical charter, or acquire one after their establishment.

For the United States, this charter is spelled out in the preamble to the constitution. Some of the preamble concerns itself with functional aspects, such as "the common defence" or "domestic tranquility." Others, however, are more esoteric: "the general welfare," "the blessings of liberty," "a more perfect Union," and so on. Regardless, it's clear that the Constitution, and by extension the government that it structures, has a basic character and direction.

One key aspect of this view of government is that it is capable of making "mistakes" or having "successes," since it is only possible to err or succeed where there is a goal in mind. This humanisation of government also naturally promotes a sense of civic engagement, since a government with human interests is subject to human interference and direction. In other words, the government can be "worked with," and this worldview is generally not antagonistic towards the government.

Of necessity, any method of governance in an imperfect world with limited resources must occasionally create disadvantages for some individuals while creating an advantage for others. The notion that the government can "err" provides one means of explaining these instances.

The other method of explanation embraces utilitarianism as a directive force of government. In these instances, certain individuals are disadvantaged (for example, smokers, or people who wish to drive their cars at extremely high speeds past elementary schools) not because the government has made a "mistake" but because their desires or goals are outweighed by benefits conferred to other individuals.

One key element of this worldview is that it is driven, basically, by faith. We cannot, after all, know beyond a reasonable doubt that the government has the "best interests of the people in mind," since neither 'best interests' nor 'people' can be objectively defined. Is the best interest the greatest average longevity? The highest concentrations of dopamine? Are 'the people' all the people in aggregate? Only those people with non-deviant interests?

There is no clear way to define these parameters. Further, since the contributions of any one individual in a large democratic system are, to borrow from Douglas Adams, "as near to nothing as makes no odds," belief in the overarching goal or progress of that system must be vindicated—or challenged—subjectively.

Opposing the teleological side of the spectrum, then, is the extreme that we will call the rational argument. This does not take the "big picture" view of a government as representing an entity with singular desires or goals, particularly not those goals that are external to the government (that is, those that concern "the people" as opposed to "the legislature" or "the executive branch"). The reasons for this are also relatively clear, but are rooted in ethology rather than philosophy.

Because primates are social creatures by nature, their behaviour can be analysed biologically. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, examining primate social groups, theorised that the maximum number of individuals we can reliably identify—and therefore empathise with—is a direct function of neocortex size. For humans, this number is somewhere between 100 and 300.

Even granting deviant cases who either have no empathy at all or are capable of empathising with thousands or millions of individuals, science suggests that most of us can interact, as individuals, with a group that is not much larger than a hundred and fifty. In this line of reasoning, it seems transparently overoptimistic to expect that the leadership of anything larger than a small village would be able to exert much concern over the best interests of their people: saving for platitudes, it is biologically impossible to do so.

As a result, rather than the noble pursuit of some higher goal, this worldview holds that government workers are essentially human, motivated by their own well-being and the well-being of their tribe (their family, their local community, or their coworkers). Adherents to this view would argue, I think, that if government was truly purpose-driven, than its ability to act on that purpose would increase with more participants—in the fashion of an army. Instead, they become unwieldy and increasingly inefficient.

This would not be a particularly surprising conclusion. As human beings, much of modern society—from commodity fetishism to an objective monetary system to racial stereotypes—is designed to help us circumvent a basic, biological limit by providing us with other means of comprehending the world and dealing with a number of individuals that is far, far greater than our ability to actually interact with.

I therefore refer to this view as the rational argument not because it is intrinsically more logical, but because it is guided by behavioural psychology rather than by philosophy or emotion. It is, however, generally nihilistic with regards to a government's purpose. It is transparently sensical that any given employee of a corporation or government is chiefly motivated by their own interests. On a grander scale this suggests that it is unlikely that a large collection of self-interested workers would transform into an interested singular whole.

In this view, disadvantaged or disenfranchised individuals are so not as the result of an error or a utilitarian calculus, but rather because their interests do not coincide with those of the dominant tribe, who are also self-interested. Because all individuals are viewed as rational and self-motivated, and because they do not always share similar desires, this also suggests that as governments become larger they tend towards a stasis or equilibrium in which no one tribe exerts sufficient power to create dramatic change.

Persons with this position are, logically, antagonistic towards the government, because they view it as existing not for their benefit, but for its own. It also explains how different organs within one government can oppose one another: in the same way that office politics exist on a microcosmic level, at a larger level the directorial tribe of, say, the USDA and the directorial tribe of the EPA conflict over philosophies and scarce resources.

These two views of the government, one being rooted in an emotional or humanistic perspective and one in a rational or biological one, are both, I would argue, equally valid ways of analysing the practise of governance. Both also result in completely different perspectives.

People starting from the rational argument, for instance, are logically more hostile towards the government—after all, it essentially merely exists as another, opposing tribe whose interests, where they coincide with any given citizens, do so only incidentally.

On the other hand, people starting from the emotional argument are more willing to work with the government, because when it errs it does so on the basis of a different emotional platform, and different emotions can be much more easily reconciled.

What I do not know, and do not pass judgment on, is what this implies for the literal government itself.

Vulpecula
4.12.2010 - 1h13

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