Who Gets To Decide the Truth?
Reason magazine|August - September 2021
We all get a say—not just priests, princes, or partisans.
By Jonathan Rauch

UNTIL THE 1600s, the average annual rate of economic growth in human history was approximately zero, on a per capita basis. Economies developed haltingly and, by today’s standards, minimally. Politics consisted of a long and bitter series of wars, revolutions, and coups, punctuating variously short or long periods of oppressive and corrupt rule. Regimes came and went, and borders were redrawn, and politics staggered from one empire, invader, or upheaval to the next. Doctors and scholars knew barely more than the ancients had known—in some respects, less. The word scientist did not exist; neither did the concept of science as we know it today.

Knowledge existed, of course, and impressive kingdoms appeared, and new technologies emerged. But an objective observer would probably not have said that the Europe of the late medieval period was better organized or more advanced than the Europe of the Roman Empire at its height. In the year 1500, alien visitors might reasonably have pegged Homo sapiens as a stuck species. “Come back in another 100,000 years,” they might have concluded, “and maybe these goofballs will be interesting.”

And then it all changed.

THREE LIBERAL ORDERS

THERE WERE BREAKTHROUGHS and advances before the Industrial Revolution, the American Revolution, and the scientific revolution. What was lacking was a social order capable of generating and then cumulating advances systematically. Systematic social orders require constitutions: systems of rules that channel human energies in pro-social directions.

All three of the great liberal social systems—economic, political, epistemic—are traceable to breakthroughs in the 17th and 18th centuries. All were pioneered by men who followed each other’s writings and doings and who sometimes knew each other personally. They and their works were flawed with the inequities and blind spots of their eras (one of which is reflected in the fact that all of them were men). But the founders were not just blundering along; they self-consciously sought to create an alternative to the failed regimes of the past. The greatest of them were men of genius, whose acuity and sophistication remain astonishing even today.

The economic system has no formal constitution. It does have something like a founding document, in the form of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, plus Smith’s equally important and closely connected treatise on moral development and social behavior, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith elaborated a sophisticated theory of where human cooperation comes from, how to encourage and exploit it, how to wire it into societies’ rules and institutions. He argued that Thomas Hobbes was wrong to believe that the natural human condition is a war of all against all: Human beings are oriented toward cooperation as well as conflict.

People, Smith argued, come into the world equipped with what he called sympathy, or fellow-feeling; empathy is the word we might use today. We have a natural inclination to imagine how others see and feel, and to align our own perspectives and dispositions with theirs. Also, people come equipped with a desire to be trusted and respected by others. Through our desire for mutual esteem based on our empathetic intuitions, we can align our interests and form social bonds on a basis other than force or domination. True, human beings are also greedy and ambitious. Yet—here is Smith’s most famous insight—a well-structured social order can harness those very traits to promote activity which benefits ourselves by benefiting others. If we get the rules right, millions of people of every imaginable skill and temperament and nationality can cooperate to build a fantastically complex device like a Prius or iPhone, all without the oversight or instruction of any central planner. If we get the rules right.

Smith’s proposition seemed ridiculous, given that human history through his time was soaked in blood and oppression. His claim was redeemed only by the fact that it proved to be true. Although Smith did not invent markets, he notated the code which enabled a tribal primate, wired for personal relationships in small, usually related groups, to cooperate impersonally across unbounded networks of strangers, and to do so without any central authority organizing markets and issuing commands. Economic liberalism—market cooperation— is a species-transforming piece of social software, one which enables us to function far above our designed capacity.

Political liberalism grapples with another version of the cooperation problem: Can we make rules that channel self-interest, ambition, and bias to benefit society as a whole? Can we provide social stability without squelching social dynamism, and without submitting to a Hobbesian authority? Yet another version of the cooperation problem preoccupies epistemic liberalism: Can people with sharp differences of opinion be induced to cooperate in building knowledge, again providing both stability and dynamism without recourse to authoritarianism?

Solving those problems requires a constitution, in a broad sense of the word: not necessarily a piece of paper or a formal law, but a social operating system that seeks to elicit cooperation and resolve differences on the basis of rules, not personal authority or tribal affiliation or brute force. In that sense, the liberal economic, epistemic, and political systems all have constitutions, even if only the political constitution is written down. (Even then, the written U.S. Constitution is only words on paper. The real Constitution is a dense system of explicit and implicit social rules, many of which are not written down.)

All three liberal constitutions organize far-flung cooperation, distribute decision-making across social networks, and exploit network intelligence (where the system knows much more than its constitutive individuals), all with a minimum of centralized authority or control. They all emphasize impersonal rules over personal authority, open-ended processes over fixed outcomes, and consent over coercion. They all take as their starting point that individuals are by nature free and equal, and that freedom and equality are important and valuable. They are all extraordinarily successful, especially compared with the alternatives.

Which is not to say they are perfect. Far from it. But they are much better than their competitors at adapting to change and at identifying mistakes and self-correcting. And they are much better at averting the destructive social conflict Hobbes believed was the only alternative to authoritarian government.

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