I want you to imagine a road. A main artery, lots of traffic. Now, this road has some serious problems, and it’s really hurting the people who use it. Potholes are busting up people’s tires, wearing down their suspensions, and causing accidents. The city keeps patching up the potholes, but it’s not enough. The potholes keep coming back. The problem isn’t with the asphalt, it’s with the foundation, and it’s costing the city a lot of money to implement these temporary solutions over and over. The whole road needs to be replaced, or these problems are only going to get worse and worse until the road is entirely unusable.
This doesn’t mean it would be a good idea to go out with a bunch of sledgehammers and break up the road. The road is a problem, but it’s only a problem because people need to use it. Everyone knows the road is awful, but they take it anyway because they don’t have any other option. If you break up the road, it’s going to grind commerce in the city to a halt and force people to use the side roads, which in turn will lead to more and more wear until they break down too. The roads aren’t just necessary for people getting to and from work; they’re also necessary for all parts of the supply chain, including delivery of food, medical supplies, and other essentials for life. Trying to dismantle and rebuild the entire road all at once is a terrible idea with potentially disastrous consequences.
You’re probably wondering right now how you ended up reading the world’s least controversial article on road maintenance. Most everyone has seen road work in progress. We know how it works. What we don’t know how to do, is change deeply entrenched political and social systems in a way that’s meaningful as well as resistant to shenanigans. I imagine that’s why you clicked on the article.
I think that a worn-down road can be a good corollary for toxic political institutions all over the world. Temporary fixes don’t seem to work. Reforms mostly lead to disappointing results because they fail to fix the foundational problems that make the institutions harmful. At the same time, these systems find a way to become intertwined with other institutions and our lives in a way that makes it impossible to predict the outcome of eliminating them. This is what conservatives like Jordan Peterson appeal to when they discuss the dangers of tinkering with the “internal mechanisms” of the world economy. Other thinkers like Thomas Sowell take an even more pessimistic approach, deriding the social justice movement as a misguided attempt to change the fabric of reality, a Sisyphean struggle for a mystical “cosmic justice”.
It is true that the infrastructure of our society is incredibly complex, the fruits of thousands of years of thought and struggle. We need this infrastructure to survive; just a few days without electricity can leave millions without access to medicine, food, or water. In March 2019, a major power outage in Venezuela left millions without clean water while at least 15 people died of kidney failure without access to dialysis. In any major crisis, it is always the most vulnerable who suffer the most. The idea of spontaneously dismantling a major thoroughfare with no plan and expecting renovations to follow as a matter of course may seem ridiculous, but I have seen people put forward essentially the same scheme when it comes to our political infrastructure. The idea seems to be that our situation is so dire now that we don’t have time to plan, and we’ll have to figure it out as we go.
This reminds me of something my Arabic professor told me about the 2011 Egypt Uprising. After 18 days of struggle for freedom against brutal crackdowns that resulted in over 800 deaths, president Hosni Mubarak stepped down, and there was jubilation in the streets. After the high of victory wore off, a feeling of immense weight and emptiness sank in. The streets were still full of trash, and it wasn’t clear what, if anything, had really changed. Nine years after the revolution, I spent two months living in Alexandria and touring Egypt from Nubia to the Sinai. I encountered a great deal of warmth, generosity, and kindness on my journey, but something profound was missing. Nobody had any hope.
Let’s go back to our broken down road. How is it that something that experiences constant wear day in and day out, twenty fours a day, seven days a week, gets fixed? Piece by piece. You section off a part of the road while making sure that there is a clear path for regular traffic to flow through. You fix that section, make sure that it’s solid and functional, and then you let traffic flow through it while you work on the next section. Real change is possible, but it needs to be done carefully and with stability in mind. If you don’t give people a way to live their lives normally, they’re going to fight change and support whoever promises to preserve their way of life.
You also need to make sure that the new system is going to stay functional, flexible, and robust across time. The constitution of the United States has sustained the nation from its origins as a federation of colonies up to its current role as the global hegemon, but over time many of its core institutions have gradually eroded while unsolved problems have led to significant bloodshed. The founding fathers knew that slavery was fundamentally at odds with the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but they failed to address the atrocity in a meaningful manner. This hanging question led to the deaths of between six and eight hundred thousand people in the American Civil War, unquantifiable suffering for tens of millions of people, and political instability that remains a problem to this day.
A bold experiment like the representative democracy outlined by the founding documents of the United States is bound to come across edge cases that could not have been anticipated by the architects. George Washington believed that political parties were divisive and would lead to the destruction of the United States. Despite this, his presidency was the first and last not to be represented by a political party. Gerrymandering, or redistricting of constituencies to favor one party unfairly over another, is a direct result of this trend towards partisanship. Australia’s ranked choice voting and Germany’s Mixed Member Proportional system are among the many solutions other countries have found for this problem.
Like any piece of engineering, government systems and institutions are liable to experience bugs at launch. The way engineers handle this issue is by thoroughly testing new systems before implementing them, and then iterating on their old designs progressively until they end up with a reliable system. The Apollo 11 mission that sent two Americans to the moon was of course the eleventh iteration of the Apollo program, which was based on the unmanned Saturn test flights. These flights were informed by the results of the X-15’s 199 flights, the preliminary research of which started in 1952. The X series of rockets began development in 1944 under NACA, which would not have been possible without the development of British contributions to rocketry based on the jet engine patented in 1929 by Frank Whittle. The jet engine was designed on principles formulated in 1903 by the Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, whose job description that would not exist without the first true rocket built by Chinese inventors in 1232.
I believe that Isaac Newton said it best: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”. Great inventions come about iteratively through the work of many people who each contribute something invaluable to the ultimate pursuit of knowledge. The constitution of the United States has a deep lineage, just like the moon landing. Before the constitution there were the Articles of Confederation, ratified by the Second Continental Congress. This act of federalism had roots in alliances like the New England Confederation established in 1643, while the Congress had its roots in local legislatures like the General Assembly established in 1619 in Jamestown. This is essentially a continuation of hundreds of years of development in Britain’s representative government, starting with the liberties granted by the Magna Carta in 1215. Other inspirations included the Roman Republic founded in 509 BCE, Athenian direct democracy established in 507 BCE, and quite possibly the Haudenosaunee “Iroquois Confederacy”, established some time between 1142 and 1700.
Needless to say, representative democracy did not pop out of nowhere, and the fact that the United States was composed of communities that already had decades if not hundreds of years of experience in self-governance probably has a lot to do with its success after the revolution. I believe that in between reform, which is often impotent, and revolution, which is always risky, there exists another method of creating change. Basically, we need to implement the political systems we want ourselves on a small scale, then continue to develop and foster growth in these systems until they are stable, strong, and popular enough that the old systems become irrelevant and can be peacefully phased out. This can be as small as gifting money to friends so they do not take on crushing debt from predatory loans, or as large as campaigning to implement a community safety program to supplement the police department in your city. Labor unions have been responsible for improvements in health, community well-being, income equality, and much more. The internet makes it possible for workers to organize internationally, meaning that democratization of the economy is now possible on a global scale.
In times like these, it can be difficult to talk to our neighbors. It may even feel like people on the other side of the political spectrum live in an entirely different world. In my experience, people agree on much more than one might think, and often times someone’s political alignment has more to do with the information they receive than their actual values. Building strong communities in our neighborhoods, our cities, and even online means people are able to discuss, diffuse information, and empathize more readily with each other. It is not possible to implement a solution without widespread support from the people, which means that changing the culture is often a necessary first step before legislation can be passed and institutions built. Good communication is necessary to keep track of problems and respond dynamically to new situations. Organized communities have greater political will as well as a deeper understanding of the unique needs and problems facing their members.
It’s the height of arrogance to think our country is somehow intrinsically immune to the bedlam we’ve seen in Syria, Zimbabwe, Kyrgyzstan, and so many other nations around the world. Despotism and deprivation have been the baseline state of things basically since the beginning of large scale agriculture. It takes concentrated and thoughtful effort to build something better, and even more work to maintain it. I feel fortunate being born into this era. I believe we are on the brink of a society capable of equality, freedom, and material security unlike any before in the history of humanity. We have the knowledge, the infrastructure, the tools, and the technology to implement it. The hard part is putting in the work, and finding peace within ourselves so we can bring it to those around us. We have gotten as far as we have because of our capacity to help each other and learn collaboratively. Let’s keep going.