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Enemies Should Be Carefully Chosen

June 4, 2009

As I posted elsewhere:

One of the things I love about The Wire is that “The System” is a character. hell, a main character. Hell, in many ways, The System is the antagonist of the entire show! Cops/Drug dealers does not map to Good Guys / Bad Guys. Instead what you have is a bunch of people trying to accomplish their goals and often being prevented by the nature of the world and the web of incentives that governs it. A system that those nominally in charge of (Mayor, police chiefs) are at the mercy of almost as much as everyone else.

As humans, we are naturally disposed to find enemies in the world, and to band together against those enemies.  Enemies inspire passion, hard work, and togetherness.  This may not be a particularly noble or desirable characteristic, but it is part of the landscape of the world and so those of us desiring to change the world must work with it.  (Robin Hanson: “If you want seasteading to work, you’ve got to make sure you have a good enemy!”)

The type of enemy our minds tend to come up with usually either people or ideas that a group of people subscribe to.  Somehow, systems of rules and webs of incentives just aren’t classified as the right data type to intuitively jump to mind as an enemy.  They aren’t seen as actors – entities with moral obligations who are wrong to do what they do.

Hence the brilliance of The Wire – a show where some characters are more moral than others, but the differences are not huge, and people are largely constrained not by evil or evil people but by the system in which all of these non-evil, self-interested people work.  That system, to a large degree, then becomes the enemy.

Now, I certainly believe that some ideas are our enemies, like democratic fundamentalism.  And “The Government” makes a convenient scapegoat, to be sure.  But in the long run, it won’t do, since we aren’t trying to do away with governments – merely create a system in which we can more easily experiment with a wider variety.  “Status Quo governments”?  But we want to trade with and influence them, and enemies aren’t seen as things to be traded with and influenced.

It is also tempting to see any action of government that I don’t like or see as immoral as the enemy.  Income taxes, or the War on Drugs, for example.  But while that may galvanize a small group, it doesn’t appeal to those who might support experimental government but like income taxes and drug bans.  An enemy like “the current system of geographic monopoly states which tend to centralize power, resist secession and local autonomy, and thus provides little room for innovation” is something that I think a large number of people can get behind…but can we get behind it with enthusiasm?  After all, as you make the enemy broader, vaguer, and more abstract, it loses relevance and the power to inspire passion.

Another important criterion is that we should focus on problems that we can solve.  Rather than just complaining, we must provide a positive example of an alternative.  If we don’t know how to fix a problem, there is no reason to complain about it or point it out.  So, for example, there is no point in complaining about human greed, selfishness, or in-group/out-group divisions – only about them being harnessed in bad ways.

Vague enough to appeal to many, specific enough that they seem real and people care, and in areas where we can provide viable alternatives…we must pick our enemies carefully.

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