The most important question in the world is whether the American-led world order is near or far from decline. I say this, not out of some jingoistic view of preserving what I am part of. To explain, I turn to the thought-provoking, perhaps life-changing views of Ray Dalio and David Deutsch.
- Ray Dalio believes that America and the American-led order is in late-cycle decline, and susceptible to many of the worst outcomes experienced by prior empires, including societal disruption and war
- David Deutsch has convinced me that the exponential improvement in the human condition over the last few hundred years is a direct result of the culture and system we have lived in since the Enlightenment, one rooted not in parochial views governed by individuals, but one governed by the best ideas and explanations
- The freedom-based American-led order rests on the shoulders of this culture. For this reason, despite its many faults, it is the best system to ensure humanity's continued forward progress
- Our system appears to be fraying, besieged by autocratic forces - those within our own borders seeking to undermine our very institutions for their own gain, and those around the world, seeking to replace us as the world's leading power
- Rising inequality is fueling this attack inside our own borders. Solving inequality is likely our most important problem
- Coming together to solve inequality feels difficult, nearly impossible, with hardened views on both sides, and perhaps cynicism everywhere else
- Deutsch has further convinced me that humans are the universal constructors - no problem is beyond our reach to solve - we are only limited by the knowledge we have available to us, or by choosing to reject the most important tenets of the Enlightenment
- Solving inequality doesn't have to be a right v. left debate, a "real Americans" vs. "coastal elites" fight, a have v. have-nots tussle. It can be our shared sense of purpose
Perhaps you too will agree that the impossible is possible?
Is the World Order Changing?
"I believe that the times ahead will be radically different from the times we have experienced so far in our lifetimes, though similar to many other times in history." - Ray Dalio
Ray Dalio has argued in his Changing World Order series, that the American-led system is in late-cycle empire decline. These cycles have repeated across human history and usually end in war, societal disruption, and global regime change. Dalio further says that as the leading power in the current cycle, America is susceptible to many of the worst outcomes.
Of particular concern is Dalio’s point around inequality:
"My examinations of history have taught me that, as a principle, when wealth and values gaps are large and there is an economic downturn, it is likely that there will be a lot of conflict about how to divide the pie." - Ray Dalio
Inequality is on the rise. The investor and digital class continue to reap the benefits of low interest rates and technology automation. Find yourself outside this system, and you are falling further behind.
Why Do We Care?
The most apparent challenge to the American-led system appears to be autocracy. The battle is everywhere:
- Domestic autocracy is on the rise, exhibited by the horrific actions of the January 6th insurrection and ongoing attempts to suppress voters and question the rule of law
- Near-peer competitors like China, for all of their incredible progress and contribution, maintain autocratic political systems
- Autocracy is on the rise in other democratic nations, everywhere from India, to Brazil, to Turkey. This rise is fueled by social media platforms, almost all developed by freedom loving Americans
Dalio paints a picture of inevitability, where the American empire enters permanent decline, experiences a painful shock, and is replaced.
You won’t care if you believe that autocratic models are superior. Here is why I don’t think they are.
This Time it May Really Be Different
To answer that and much more of what I want to discuss, I am going to share the life-changing writings of David Deutsch.
Deutsch, in The Beginning of Infinity, makes the case that humans have enjoyed an exponential increase in knowledge and progress coinciding roughly with the Enlightenment, which was centered approximately in what we today call the West. This progress far outpaced thousands of years of prior human progress. Exponential progress became possible during the Enlightenment because a tradition of criticism arose that rejected fixed notions from the past. Many of those fixed notions were based on autocratic religious and imperial power centers where the relative few controlled the thinking of the many for centuries. They typically imposed a human-centric view of the universe, assuming a natural limit to human ingenuity and problem-solving. If you couldn't experience it or see it, then it was it must be magic, must be divine power, or must not be true.
During the Enlightenment, people began to replace these authoritative views, not with new authoritative views of their own, but with explanations for how things work. Explanations emerged through conjecture, not through actual experience. For example, today we have explanations for the Big Bang, but no human actually experienced the Big Bang. They have instead applied conjecture.
Combined with a culture of criticism, these explanations got better and better over time. Criticism allowed explanations to be improved, changed, rearranged, or rejected. Experience and actual testing were used to pick between competing explanations, not create them in the first place.
Ultimately, good explanations emerged which have become hard to vary. These explanations have explained and changed everything, building the modern world we live in. Around this groundswell of scientific progress, an entire political and societal framework emerged, focused on combining explanations and criticism, not on imposing the views of any one person or group of people. The best ideas became our rulers, not other humans.
Adams published articles in 1774 in the Boston, Massachusetts, Gazette using the pseudonym “Novanglus.” In this paper he credited James Harrington with expressing the idea this way. Harrington described government as “the empire of laws and not of men” in his 1656 work, The Commonwealth of Oceana, p. 35 (1771). The phrase gained wider currency when Adams used it in the Massachusetts Constitution, Bill of Rights, article 30 (1780).—Works, vol. 4, p. 230.
The American-led system stands on the shoulders of this culture, carrying its torch as the political, economic, military, and cultural leader of the world. For all its flaws, I believe is the last, best hope to keep this culture alive, and thus ensure the continued progress of humanity. What seeks to replace it is autocracy - albeit with a technology spin. Hidden behind advanced AI, social media, and cryptography, autocratic forces remain about the parochial beliefs of the few, not a culture of criticism and explanations.
Our Most Important Problem
Preserving a freedom-centric model requires that we do not self-inflict the worst outcomes on ourselves. To do this, we need to come together to make good decisions about society's problems and the global order we lead.
"History shows us that the biggest risk to democracies is that they produce such fragmented and antagonistic decision making that they can be ineffective, which leads to bad results, which leads to revolutions led by populist autocrats who represent large segments of the population who want to have a strong capable leader get control of the chaos and make the country work well for them." - Ray Dalio
In prior cycles of empire, the internal struggle over resources has been a key driver of disruption. So far, we seem no different. Rising inequality is everywhere - affecting both the traditional right and left. Solving inequality is likely our most important problem
You may hear this call to action, and conclude that our problems are intractable, our system is in unavoidable decline. It is disheartening to see a culture of cynicism, low expectations, and/or intransigence that seems to have pervaded our political class and our elites. At times it seems one side thinks everything can be perfect if we just changed the past, and the other side thinks everything was perfect if we just didn't change the past. Both offer up snake-oil salespeople to lure you to their cause. Meanwhile, inequality rises, for people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and creeds.
There is another path. Deutsch again helps us get there.
All Problems Are Solvable
People may very well be the most significant entities in the universe. Many people believe a couple of theories, that Deutsch warns can form a “rich conceptual framework that can inform an entire world view” (Deutsch, p. 45).
The first is the Principle of Mediocrity. Basically, this means that there is nothing special about humans, in the cosmic sense. We are just a collection of atoms in a vast set of universes, completely insignificant to cosmic forces.
The second is the Spaceship Earth idea. This boils down to a belief that we are part of a biosphere (Earth) that supports us with finite resources.
“If we overload it, either by our sheer numbers or by adopting lifestyles too different from those that we evolved to live. . . it will break down.” (Deutsch, p. 44-45)
In essence, both ideas assign insignificance to humans - our place in the cosmos and our inability to control the world that gives us life. Deutsch systemically debunks these two ideas:
“If you are seeking maxims worth being carved in stone and recited each morning before breakfast, you could do a lot worse than. . .People are significant in the cosmic scheme of things; and. . .The Earth’s biosphere is incapable of supporting human life.” (Deutsch, p. 45)
Why are we significant? Some facts, paraphrased from The Beginning of Infinity, Chapter 3:
- Only 20% of the universe’s matter is ordinary, including us. The rest is dark matter
- Most of the ordinary matter is plasma - we are infra-red emitters
- Virtually, the entire universe is “cold, dark, and empty” - our corner is not
Why is Earth incapable of supporting human life?
- The natural biosphere of Earth specializes in the extinction of species, “about ten species per year” (Deutsch, p. 49) - including many cousins of homo sapiens
- Genetic adaptations or accidents that favor one species, result in that species increasing its numbers, which eventually ensures that these now dominant species overextend themselves, find suboptimal habitats, and eventually squander their newly found benefits, leading back to an equilibrium
- Where our ancient ancestors survived and multiplied beyond such equilibrium, it was due to knowledge to tame their environment, a knowledge that they learned and passed down, not a genetic adaptation
Why are the Principle of Mediocrity and the Spaceship Earth ideas so pernicious? Because, as Deutsch says, they imply and assume that:
“the reach of the distinctively human way of being. . .is bounded . .and they argue that its bounds cannot be very far beyond what it has already reached." (Deutsch, p. 54)
Being range-bound makes sense when you think of all other species on earth, who enjoy the temporary fruits of biological evolution. It breaks down when you think about what humans have achieved, going well beyond subservience to our biosphere. How does this reconcile? Deutsch argues that something else is going on.
And that something is the “creation of explanatory knowledge” (Deutsch, p. 55).
This explanatory knowledge allows humans alone among Earth’s species, to extend their reach well beyond the limitations of their biological evolution. The ability to manipulate our world is only limited by the laws of physics or the requisite knowledge.
“Human beings. . .are factories for transforming anything into anything that the laws of nature allow. They are universal constructors.” (Deutsch, p. 59)
If we are bound only by the laws of physics/nature, then we must embrace that an intractable problem only feels this way because we do not yet possess the knowledge to solve it. Or, as Deutsch repeatedly talks about, we are constrained in a “parochial” view of the world that enforces traditions, not criticism and good explanations.
Inevitable Problems, Inevitable Solutions
Why is it important that we believe we can solve any problem? Because, Deutsch argues that problems are a feature, not a bug of the human condition. There is no perfect state, in the past, or the future. There are only new problems to solve. They will keep coming at us. Pouting over how great or terrible things used to be is a waste of valuable human energy.
Deutsch makes a series of statements, the gravity of which escaped me the first couple of times through the chapter:
“The Earth’s biosphere is incapable of supporting human life is actually a special case of a much more general truth, namely that, for people, problems are inevitable. So let’s carve that in stone.” (Deutsch, p. 64)
Before you get depressed, he next states:
“And, since the human ability to transform nature is limited only by the laws of physics, none of the endless stream of problems will ever constitute an impassable barrier. . .problems are soluble.” (Deutsch, p. 65)
Accepting that problems are inevitable, yet problems are soluble requires shedding a number of world views. Among those, Deutsch mentions things like perfect states. Various cultures, religions, and powerful movements to this day offer people the tantalizing prospect of a perfect future if you just follow their teachings and change this or that wrongdoing from the past. Others pine for the perfect state of yesterday, if only you change nothing or undo the changes those different than you have just implemented.
Deutsch dispenses with this easily:
“Neither the human condition in particular nor our explanatory knowledge in general will ever be perfect, nor even approximately perfect. We shall always be at the beginning of infinity." (Deutsch, p. 65)
Understanding this is crucial, as Deutsch shows in an example. A branch of the Enlightenment that developed in continental Europe (as distinguished from the British Enlightenment), was
“impatient for the perfected state - which led to intellectual dogmatism, political violence and new forms of tyranny. The French Revolution of 1789 and the Reign of Terror that followed it are the archetypal examples." (Deutsch, p. 66)
Does any of this sound familiar? Definitely feels like today's political right and the left, here and in other countries. Instead, we should aspire to the experience of the British Enlightenment, as least that's what Deutsch suggests:
“The British Enlightenment, which was evolutionary and cognizant of human fallibility, was impatient for institutions that did not stifle gradual, continuing change." (Deutsch, p. 66)
We want institutions that do not stifle gradual, continuing change. That is the best we can hope for, and it can be forever. Inevitable problems, inevitable solutions.
If it Can Happen in Space, Why Not Here?
Deutsch takes head on a possible critique, one that would use his own words against him. What about that “cold, dark, and empty” place that is most typical of the universes beyond. How would humans, supposed universal constructors of knowledge, thrive out there? Once again, the only limitation is knowledge. Let me paraphrase Deutsch from The Beginning of Infinity, Chapter 3, page 67:
- Those vast expanses contain billions of tons of hydrogen, nothing else. We are in trouble out there, right? Wrong
- We are only limited by the lack of knowledge to transmute hydrogen to other elements - physicists believe this transmutation is not constrained by the laws of nature
- Once that is solved, we would have an unlimited supply of energy to do anything we need - the conversion of hydrogen releases nuclear fusion energy
- So now, you have energy and can transmute hydrogen into other elements. You have the building blocks to do anything human knowledge allows
- What happens when we run out of hydrogen in a certain quadrant in space? There are literally billions of quadrants next to each other - so the process repeats
If you believe that one day humans can conquer the vast expanse of space because knowledge is infinite, then why can't we fix what is in front of us? To get the chance to do the former, we must do the latter.
All references to Deutsch are from Deutsch, David, 1953-. The Beginning of Infinity : Explanations That Transform the World. New York : Viking, 2011.
Any opinions or forecasts contained herein reflect the personal and subjective judgments and assumptions of the author only. There can be no assurance that developments will transpire as forecasted and actual results will be different. The accuracy of data is not guaranteed but represents the author’s best judgment and can be derived from a variety of sources. The information is subject to change at any time without notice.