Shattering My Dreams of Disunion

A piece in The Economist argues that despite popular fatigue with our country’s countless foreign entanglements, Americans ought to appreciate those entanglements, which enable us to maintain our world primacy, and therefore our ability to enormously influence the workings of the world to our advantage.

I am sympathetic to this position. I take solace that it is currently we who are calling many of the global shots and not some other superstates, on the ascent as they may be.

But when I think this way, when I’m expressing a preference for the primacy of American values around the world, I admit, I’m not thinking about a great deal of what makes up America. I’m not thinking about Texas or Florida or Louisiana. I’m thinking about myversion of American values; progressive, with a strong emphasis on human rights. I’m thinking about “Blue America.”

So this gets tricky for me. Here’s one of the qualities the author of the Economist piece in question notes as a key factor in our

First is geography. Being self-contained makes America secure, whereas all other great powers have had to defend themselves against their neighbours. Even Britain at the height of empire in the 19th century was repeatedly distracted by the need to stop any one country dominating continental Europe. By contrast, America has friends to the north and south and fish to the east and west. Europeans warily eyeing nearby Russia, or Asians fearful of China, can ask Americans for help, safe in the knowledge that they have a home to go back to on the other side of the world.

This is very Germs-Guns-and-Steel-esque, ascribing geopolitical destiny in large part to geography, both in terms of location and land shape. And it makes perfect sense.

But here’s the thing. I have suggested, rather earnestly, that the United States would be far better off if it were not so damned united anymore. Rather, I’ve preferred the idea of smaller North American nations that better suit the increasingly-disparate ideologies of the various regions. So, for example, you’d have New England as one country, Texas as its own nation, etcetera, all trading and cooperating, but no longer bound by the same central power, and therefore able to get more done without haggling with polities with few shared interests.

If I got my way, though, there go the fruits of geography. Poor, naive New England or the tiny-yet-dense nation of New Amsterdam (which is what I’m now calling the nation-state of New York City) would be suddenly vulnerable to the potential aggressions of The Old South or what have you. Far-right representatives now commonly sent to Washington have already shown themselves to be more than happy to destabilize the global economy on a whim, and they tend to hail from those gun and machismo-worshipping regions that might be more inclined to threaten their neighbors. Given the power of an independent nation with a military of its own, who’s to say they wouldn’t behave just as irrationally and dangerously?

So not only is a unified, centrally-governed United States good for geopolitics, but it may also be the only thing standing between a secure New England and an army of ornery Texans marching on Boston. I’m probably exaggerating the potential for all-out armed conflict, but it does throw a wrench in my fantasy.

Instead of Smaller Government, Let’s Elect Fewer Assholes

Ilya Somin kind of blew my mind with this piece at Cato’s website, and it briefly shook my belief in a strong central government. Briefly! Ever so briefly.

What I think Somin gets right is the diagnosis of a particular problem: voters’ abysmal political ignorance. No matter how much smarter we as a society might get, no matter how much more information is instantly available to us, we are still grotesquely stupid when it comes to government and politics, with no signs of improvement.

Somin refers to this as a “rational ignorance,” because there’s no way a sane person with other things on his or her mind like careers and families and pets and hobbies and whatnot could ever fully grok what the hell is going on.

So Somin posits that what would induce more rational engagement would be “foot voting” as opposed to “ballot voting,” or making one’s positions clear and affecting change by relocating to places where policies are more favorable, just as one patronizes businesses one gets better service or products from. Of course that sounds nutzo, until you see where he’s going: you can foot-vote if the jurisdiction is small enough that leaving it is not the end of the world. In other words, more decentralization and more hyper-localization of government.


The key difference between foot voting and ballot box voting is that foot voters don’t have the same incentive to be rationally ignorant as ballot box voters do. In fact, they have strong incentives to seek out useful information. They also have much better incentives to objectively evaluate what they do learn. Unlike political fans, foot voters know they will pay a real price if they do a poor job of evaluating the information they get.

“Political fans” are people like me, who love politics as a sport or drama, and follow the characters, but don’t necessarily know everything about policy (even though we one think we do).

More Somin:

The informational advantages of foot voting over ballot box voting strengthen the case for limiting and decentralizing government. The more decentralized government is, the more issues can be decided through foot voting. It is usually much easier to vote with your feet against a local government than a state government, and much easier to do it against a state than against the federal government. . . .

Reducing the size of government could also alleviate the problem of ignorance by making it easier for rationally ignorant voters to monitor its activities. A smaller, less complicated government is easier to keep track of.

Somin dismisses it as a solution, but this gets at the very beauty, and absolute necessity, of representation. Rather than needing to understand all policy minutiae, which I never could anyway, I get to choose someone to represent me and my interests. To do so, I can use things like party affiliation, history in office (if there is one), and statements of principles, as well as things like evaluations of character and integrity, to guide my choice. They are, as Somin points out, shortcuts, but they will do. They will have to!

And this applies to the micro as well as the macro level. Of course I can’t be expected to know all the ins and outs of the behemoth federal government and all its tentacles and tributaries of tentacles. So of course I need to choose someone to represent me. But nor can I seriously be expected to grasp all the workings of my municipality or congressional district. Budgets, education, public works, city management and countless other aspects of local government make it equally as daunting as the federal. (Perhaps it is not literally as complex, but if I could stand next to a moon and then next to a planet, they’d both seem impossibly big and have roughly the same effect on my sense of awe.)

I work a full time job and I have two small children. My job is intellectually rigorous, and demands an awful lot of processing power throughout the day. Even if all government were decentralized to some radically tiny, libertarian-pleasing level, it’d still be too much for me to fully grasp.

And that’s why we have a shorthand, known as representatives. We just have to do our best in choosing them, and hope we don’t pick a bunch of assholes, as we so often (usually?) do. Instead of slicing up the government and polity into bite size pieces, which won’t help anyway, and only lead to general provincialization and the dilution of federal rights, let’s try to get better at picking our stand-ins. Fewer assholes. As a “political fan,” I can make that effort, at least.

It’s Not Your Job to Know What You Want: A Jobsian Lesson for Government?

Matt Bai of the New York Times wishes Washington could learn some lessons from Steve Jobs.

In his obituary of Mr. Jobs on The Times’s Web site, John Markoff quoted him as explaining his aversion to market research this way: “It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.” In other words, while Mr. Jobs tried to understand the problems that technology could solve for his buyer, he wasn’t going to rely on the buyer to demand specific solutions, just so he could avoid ever having to take a risk. This is what’s commonly known as leading.

Bai goes on to lament that modern politics are too inflexible to adapt to change in the way Jobs forced technology to adapt. But I want to take Bai’s analogy far further than he probably intends.

Let’s say we really want politics and government to learn from Apple and Steve Jobs. Let’s then take the above quote and amend it slightly to, “It’s not the voters’ job to know what they want.”

Apple is often chided by many of the more hack-prone members of the technorati for having a “closed” system; there’s no upgrading the hardware or tweaking the software of an iPhone, for example. It’s exactly as Apple intended it. Indeed, Apple’s whole point is to say to the consumer, ‘You are in no way expected to understand how this works. Just use it and enjoy it.’

Is there an analogy here for politics? Let me take this all the way down the line for the sake of bloggy brevity: Should government be more of a closed system? Should not voters simply elect the representatives and leaders who reflect their values and who they trust to manage the almost-unmanageable machinery of government, and leave all the comprehension to those office holders? Might then government and politics be more flexible, more adaptable, and more efficient if every iota of its machinations were not broadcast and dissected for the under-informed electorate to (mis)evaluate?

I am not endorsing this approach, but it’s a worthy thought experiment. Could we still have an accountable and uncorrupt government and political system if the electorate is mainly in the dark — as a favor to them? Is there something simply leaning in this direction that does make sense and is less reminiscent of, well, 1984?

After all, if Apple’s approach is distasteful, the market will take care of them right quick, and folks can choose another option. Not so easy with government, I suppose, but as long as the principles of republican representative democracy remain in tact, cannot this radical idea be beholden to similar “market-based” (read: electoral) forces?

I’m not sure. Indeed, there may be nothing to this. But I’m going to keep thinking on it.