Friday, May 16, 2008

The Need for Government

Given that people can only track between four and seven pieces of information at a time, we are fundamentally incapable of independently dealing with the complex environment we find ourselves in. We are especially vulnerable to long-term threats that we all can’t individually anticipate and that require immediate, collective action to thwart. Even the threats we can identify are often ignored by many of us because they are not felt viscerally, perhaps because for most of human history people lived fewer than forty years, and the greatest threats over a typical lifespan were starvation, predators, and disease.

We are instinctively inclined to follow leaders, beginning with our parents, who by virtue informed judgment (gained on a larger scale through the luxury of research afforded by abundance that does not require some people to directly support themselves) can keep us from harming ourselves or others by establishing and enforcing rules. We may not personally be aware of an emerging threat, but by following the rules laid out by groups of people who are, we can still avoid it. We can handle the level of complexity involved in following rules, even if we can’t individually comprehend the body of knowledge and reasoning that led to them.

There are more insidious threats than the obvious ones that most of us are more than vaguely aware of (such as foreign armies bent on domination). Traffic fatalities, for example, would be much higher if we did not have rules governing how and where we can drive our vehicles. Disease would lead to more pain and death if we did not require sanitation, enable quarantine of infected people, and demand vaccinations for our children.

This points to a need for collective control of individuals in a society to ensure its very survival, and the common cultural representation of this is government. A functioning (useful) government has the resources to anticipate threats, create rules to mitigate them, and enforce those rules (especially since some critical fraction of any population will choose to ignore or perhaps even increase the threats).

People who would arbitrarily disable government because they hate being subject to rules should consider the alternatives. Even if they and their own small groups are smart and powerful enough to deal with much of their part of the world, there is a vast majority who is not. If we value lives – all lives – then we must embrace the reality of our dependency on each other, and the fact that the limitations of the least powerful among us will inevitably limit us all; any population will have this characteristic, and can most effectively reduce its impact by collectively ensuring that everyone has a minimal level of capability.

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