My thinking about reconstituting some key elements of our current civilizational order is in its infancy. So what I write here will be neither comprehensive nor fully developed.
But it’s typical, from what I can tell, to see the emergency clearly before being certain what to do about it. And there are some emergencies already presenting themselves, as well as others emerging, in distant outline, on the horizon.
I’ve written before about breaking the current paradigm of the Internet. What’s behind the emergence of these three other trends is even more fundamental. No status quo or form of “peace” is worth paying the price of them in human life.
We may even find out that the global upheavals that seem likely in the coming years have the beneficial effect of removing the conditions that make such trends seem inevitable, or even desirable (to some people), or possible.
What that means will be obvious in a moment. The first two trends seem on their face to be mainly about technology, and the inevitable march of its prowess and implications. But what they are actually about is centralized control of things that should never, under any circumstances, be under centralized control.
One of the trends is something that came up for a vote in Congress today. It’s the rush to fit human beings with microchips, so that things about us can be “tracked.”
We can be ambivalent about that, when the “chipping” is done incident to synthetic body parts like pacemakers that may enable individuals to live longer or more normally. We should be ambivalent, because however beneficial this technology is, it is subject to the gravest forms of abuse. (A chip in your body can be stimulated to do things that can kill you, just for starters.)
But we should not be ambivalent at all when the chipping is done just for chipping’s sake: i.e., because it’s a convenience for other people to have us chipped, so they can locate us and know things about us whether we want them to or not.
No one can be trusted to hold such power over other people, through a device implanted in the human body. This is not even up for argument.
The second of these technology-centric, centralized-control trends is the rush to self-driving cars. We are bombarded now with messages that self-driving cars are “inevitable.” We’re told that they are much safer than our current human-driven cars, and that there will be no avoiding them, because they make so much more sense than having all the unprogrammable people out on the roads making their own decisions in traffic.
This argument doesn’t require countering on its own merits, although there are many ways to do that. We could start with the fact that driving decisions are fundamentally moral ones, and must be left to the individual humans on-scene.
But that would actually be only a secondary argument. The primary argument is that no one can be entrusted with centralized control of millions of self-driving cars. People can’t be programmed, but the controller(s) for self-driving cars must be – by humans, exercising a dangerously centralized role.
If we went to a mandate for self-driving cars, the best way to kill thousands of people at a time would be to hack the cars, and/or the limited number of control centers that would come to manage them, especially in congested urban centers.
Even worse – yes, there is something worse – the paradigm of centrally controlled motor vehicle operation would remove the discretion you have a right to, over your daily plans and priorities. Centralized controllers would tell you when you could move and when you couldn’t. Our whole way of life would change, and for the worse.
You know this as well as I do, once you think about it. A centralized, programmed regime of self-driving cars won’t be at your beck and call. You will have to adapt to it. And it will severely restrict every aspect of your life, starting with where you’re allowed to be driven at certain times (imagine if it’s “not to church on Sunday morning,” as it very well could be), and what your economic options are.
Never in history have humans benefited from restrictions on travel options. Whatever the mode of travel, the greatest synergy in freedom and productivity has come from individuals having access to discretionary transportation, on their own schedules and terms. Nothing about the technological future can possibly change that, because the intractable element in the equation is, and should be, the human being.
The third trend is about centralization in an organizational dimension. It has to do with centralizing decisions about people’s health care, or what we used to call “socialized medicine.” And in one respect, an appalling outcome of centralizing these decisions is already here.
Leslie Eastman outlined it a few weeks ago in a thought-provoking post at Legal Insurrection. What has been found is that the marriage of Obamacare and legal assisted suicide, in California, has removed the options patients with intractable conditions used to have for extending their lives with treatment regimens. The insurance companies most people can afford – out of the shrinking pool of them still operating in California – will no longer pay for the treatments, because assisted suicide is now being considered a viable, morally equal alternative.
Patients in such circumstances have encountered this shift in these exact terms. The same insurance company that was previously prepared to pay for a form of treatment no longer is – and it cites the California option of advising the patient of his assisted-suicide alternative.
As bad as the development itself is the secondary result: patients lose heart and hope, and their health declines faster. Public policy, premised on coercing people into collective schemes like centrally managed health care, is making this happen.
You are paying for it, both by paying taxes and by paying insurance premiums.
We have already reached the precipice at which the status quo of modern government is too centralized to avoid vicious, dangerous, destructive uses of power. These words are not intemperate; rather, they are barely adequate to convey the dreadful prospect that lies before us if we don’t correct our course.
It’s not only the paradigm of “social and governmental organization” that needs to be broken. It’s the set of expectations in our minds about what is appropriate and tolerable. We have to be able to live with each other – something from which we get many benefits – and innovate and progress, without being in a pell-mell rush to organize each other. We are not competent to organize each other, in the manner so broadly envisioned in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The collapse of global order, alarming as it is, may well be coming at an opportune time. As technology tempts us, it will be salutary to have our eyes opened anew to how little we can trust each other with centralized power. We will do well to relearn the lesson that no one seeks centralized power out of love or compassion. We must always be wary of centralized power, and opposed to it on principle. Always.
Men are capable of great things. But acting with moral restraint when we are organized to hold the casual power of life and death over each other is not one of them.