the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2003 August 18


There are some battles without hope of victory that are only fought on principle, some perhaps only out of habit; but some are fought in the delirium of the weary soldier no longer thinking of principle or even survival. This last must be the case for many of those facing the automatizing force of regulation in our society. The individual in the lowest position is not required to think, expected to think, or allowed to think. Should thought be attempted, it will surely be punished and surely not successful. The world is not supposed to make sense, and thus does not.

‘Regulation’ is cognate with words for ruler in the kingly sense, such as ‘rex’; but it is ultimately derivative of an abstraction that also gave us words for ruler in the school-supplies sense, such as ‘regula’. The Indo-European ‘reg-’ is entirely about order, and this connection of order with dominion (as in ‘Reich’) but also propriety (as in ‘right’) is an ancient cultural legacy. It is a mistake to focus on the kings who have carried the process so notably. It is the broader system of order that is the more responsible for our regulation. It is the System, as often known; and yet the system is demonstrably composed of individuals and individual human choices, relying on a single self-perpetuating choice: I will.

‘Will’, to extend the etymology lesson (and pay attention, or I will smack you with the regula), is about wanting, about intention. The Indo-European ‘wel-’ gives us words not only for what we want (as in ‘voluntary’) but also for what we would naturally want (as in ‘well’). The myth at work here, in a bit of Aryan irony, is that both free will and order were supposed to be good, that we were to imagine ourselves as free while at the same time acting in constraint, that we were to do as the system required and somehow believe that we wanted it so. The trick of the system, as Orwell pointed out, was not merely to get us to say “I will”, but to mean it.

There is intentionality in the system; and it is not some systemic superconsciousness but the cumulative choices of human individuals. There is no telling, though, where that intentionality lies, not even from day to day. Because we are considering policies and decisions, it is reasonable to look first at policy- and decision-makers; but the world’s most powerful supposed decision-maker sets the tone for a rather-disappointing exploration of will. George Bush has been an object of his handlers and advisors for longer than most of us have known his middle initial. He clearly does not violate the rule against thinking. Kofi Annan, a genuinely-intelligent and apparently-well-intentioned person who holds the world’s official leading position, is wholly beholden to the powerful interests of the states who control his job and his organization, and can do little more than balance himself atop the surging body of geopolitics. Proceeding down through the ranks, we find ministers and parliamentarians who have been chosen to determine the course of society, ultimately to regulate society, and find them, even if capable of independent thought, unwilling to exercise it.

The politicians should not be blamed solely for being political, but we must recognize that they seldom act with any genuine independence. They like to pose as powerful and important, and certainly demand to be treated as such, but they almost invariably act with the timidity of the powerless. They and their advisors pore over polls and focus groups, draw heavily upon the unchallenged conventional wisdom of past success and failure, and color inside the lines. They speak in platitudes and vote in blocs, promise the popular and avoid even the moderately difficult.

When the analysis reaches the level of the individual, the pressure to conform to the regulatory program becomes increasingly irresistible, given the colossal weight of society. Superficial conformity is frequently discussed, the pressure to look and speak and act in a regular way; but there are other things that more affect our integrity as individuals. A person cannot engage in the most trivial transaction without being expected to attest to something untrue. Sometimes it is attesting to have read and understood a contract or waiver that is far too long to have read, let alone understood. Sometimes it is pledging to act in a given way in a future situation that cannot reasonably be predicted. Sometimes it is agreeing to indemnify, even on behalf of heirs, a malfeasant for an act of malfeasance that has not happened and cannot be predicted, for which the malfeasant would otherwise be liable. Sometimes it is agreeing to indemnify a malfeasant for an act of malfeasance for which no indemnification is legally possible. My father, a lawyer, once told his hospital that the waiver he was being asked to sign would be tossed out of court instantly in the case of malpractice. Never mind, replied the hospital, sign anyway, and the court will sort things out later.

And in court, at last, we find intentionality. This is quite disturbing, because the courts are not supposed to be making policy and establishing regulation. The judiciary is generally described as an interpreting body, to apply existing law after an impartial determination of facts. This is not, of course, the case; the freedom from electoral pressure that so many judges possess is put to the use of caprice, not impartiality. The US Supreme Court reminds us of this spectacularly every year. Whether the justices please one side of the political spectrum, as with Bush v. Gore, the other side, as with Lawrence v. Texas, or both and neither at the same time, as with the University of Michigan admissions cases, they are patently acting not according to the written law or even the intention behind the written law, but according to their own personal preferences. We can be relieved that they have capriciously decriminalized sexual preference; but things would be better for gays and for the rest of society had they more respect for electoral preference.

Alabama’s highest judge, Roy Moore, is maintaining his personal quest to sanctify Judeo-Christianity (or, let us be honest, Christo-Christianity) by defending his courthouse’s latest (2500 kg) monument to the Ten Commandments against a higher court’s order to remove it, though Moore is in fact sworn to uphold civil law, not religious law, and we may presume that his oath to uphold the civil law he is now defying was enthusiastically taken on the Bible. (Is it possible to predict how his God will react to the breaking of that oath?) Beyond that, he is certainly representative of a class of law-and-order conservatives who will also sanctify civil law, but when and only when it suits their purposes. Do not, in any case, expect to walk into his courtroom and defend yourself on charges of Islamist terrorism by claiming to follow a higher law. The writ of Allah will not be found to exceed the Constitution, hallowed be its name.

The highest court in Guatemala has reversed itself ― and disregarded a clear constitutional provision ― by allowing homicidal former rightist dictator Efrain Rios Montt, the country’s ruler de facto, to stand for election as the country’s ruler de jure. But this decision clearly blurs the line between what is de facto and what is de jure. Those who seize power ought never to be trusted in the democratic system. Cambodia’s Hun Sen has actually taken power by force twice ― once perhaps excusably, to help displace the Khmer Rouge, but then a second time to displace the actual winners of the first free election, killing about a hundred opponents in the process. The latest election “victory” by Hun Sen is absolutely incredible based on history alone, without resort to the ready reports of electoral abuse. Rios Montt and his party, like Hun Sen and his, have some popular support. But when they set the ground rules and tally the votes, the result is certain to be less an expression of the popular will than the will of Efrain Rios Montt and Hun Sen.

In sum, then, the system is a mass of individuals, all of whom can make decisions but few of whom do. The more important decisions are made largely by those who are unaccountable, dictators and judges, both in a self-serving, often capricious way. The decision-making power inherent in human consciousness ― which in fact may be the purpose of human consciousness ― is used primarily by humans to do what is expected of them, and this goes as much for those who are empowered by the masses to decide on their behalf. We are bound to this system and its stifling regularity by law enforcement, of course, but also by the legal profession, which creates the regulations that bind us. We are fortunate that there are some lawyers who help us to understand this complicated system; but we would be more fortunate if they were not needed. But the formal and informal, public and corporate, tangible and intangible bureaucracies that exist to manage our lives from birth to death, morning to night, leave nothing to chance. The system covers all the bases, or, if you prefer, all the asses. No one is responsible.

It is less that a personal superior tells us to jump and we ask how high, or even ask how high on the way up. It is more that the impersonal system decides that we should jump, and we do jump, without asking or even thinking, and we continue moving upward until the system decides otherwise. Though upward, needless to say, is the last direction in which the system would have us move.


Original version


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