Tuesday, July 12, 2011
The Watchmen and the Hecatomb
"When we come to inspect the watch, we perceive that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day...The inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.
-William Paley, 1803
"Every individual is constantly exerting himself to find out the most advantageous methods of employing his capital and labor. It is true, that it is his own advantage, and not that of society, which he has in view; but a society being nothing more than a collection of individuals, it is plain that each, in steadily pursuing his own aggrandisement, is following that precise line of conduct which his most for the public advantage. The true line of policy is to leave individuals to pursue their own interests in their own way, and never to lose sight of the maxim pas gouverner (not to govern too much). It is by this spontaneous and unconstrained effort of individuals to improve their conditions, and by them only, that nations become rich and powerful
-J.R. McCulloch, 1830
The Graphic Novel "Watchmen" is an alternate-history tale set in the midst of a possible nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. A group of super-heroes investigates a murder which improbably leads to a staged alien invasion that unifies the world by sacrificing the lives millions.
A "Hecatomb" is, in literal terms, a hundred oxen offered in sacrifice to stave off misfortune. Its meaning has (somewhat ironically) come to mean any large number of deaths that benefit the population as a whole.
In "Watchmen" this hecatomb was manufactured by the design of a very intelligent antagonist in order to save humanity from the even larger hecatomb that would have ostensibly occurred if global thermonuclear war had proceeded. The plan was carefully laid out with great foresight and detail. Loose ends were eliminated (hence the murder investigation). It is an amazing book that discusses, inter alia, the differences between folly by human design and folly by evolution. For example, humans have "evolved" the capacity for great intelligence and scientific achievement (like nuclear technology) but have not "evolved" the capacity to jettison base human desires such as Power, Lust, Control, Dominion, and perhaps even Racism (evinced by the staggering amount of nuclear weapons humans have manufactured).
This debate between design and evolution, of creation and spontaneity, is the prevailing issue of our species. It supersedes and penetrates all issues and fields, especially economic policy.
The God Complex and the Descent of Man
Politicians and policymakers tend to forget the lessons of antiquity and the wisdom of forbears, and especially forget (as it would mean the end of their profession) the inability of humans to "design" systems that achieve beneficial outcomes.
These thoughts form the basis for my "rule saturation" theory; the number of rules and laws that exist at the inception of any government is inversely proportionate to the number of years that government will exist. In other words, it is best to begin any system with very general rules and let organic growth germinate among the substrata to create spontaneous and organic growth. If this sounds like evolutionary biology, that is precisely the right way to think about how society should work. Hecatombs are important. Businesses must be allowed to fail, and failure itself should not be looked upon harshly, for it is to everyone's mutual benefit ("everyone" narrowly limited to one sovereign nation) that this occurs. Distortions that interrupt the process lead societies to fall.
This is the ironic truth about the Watch. The artificer and the watch are serving others, and have themselves evolved though countless trials, errors, and iterations. The Watchmen, who would design the correct society with the correct policies does not have the cumulative wisdom to do so, nor the danger of the hecatomb to temper their ambitions.