Friday 23 December 2016

The Positive Emperor

Between Trump, Brexit, Syria, and elsewhere, this has been an awful, terrifying year in the news. I'm going to try and conclude it with something a little more positive.

By way of background, I have a friend, let's call him Bill. He's a lot more devoted to political reform than I am. He works for an NGO and goes to dangerous parts of the world, to spend time building institutions of democracy. I don't agree with all of his views, but I give him kudos for intelligence and dedication.

Bill has repeatedly criticised me for failing to offer a positive vision. I think he misunderstands this blog, and my activity on social media more generally. I more or less explicitly model my blogging on Ed at Gin and Tacos. Ed has described his modus operandi as something like, "Here is this stupid thing, and here is Ed making fun of it."

This is a hobby for me. I write about politics to amuse myself (and hopefully others), and criticising is easier and more enjoyable than designing worthy proposals. I try not to have delusions of grandeur; my blog isn't going to transform the world either way, so I might as well have fun. And for the record, my day job is in computational biology. Among other things, I'm contributing to new treatments for cancer. So I'm pretty secure in my belief that I'm a responsible citizen.

That said: Okay, Bill. You wanted a positive vision, and here it is.

Imagine that by an unlikely chain of events, I am made Emperor of the United States, Shogun of Japan, Grand High Poobah of Australia, and Protector of the Western World, with absolute power over the USA, the EU, Canada, Australia, Japan, and sundry other rich and more-or-less democratic countries. The rest of the world matters too, but I don't understand places like China well enough to articulate their problems with any confidence, let alone propose solutions; this Empire is plenty to be getting on with.

What would I do?

Joshua A Norton, self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States,
whose life was dramatised by Neil Gaiman in The Sandman.

Realistically, I'd abdicate at once and run as far away as I could. I am in no way qualified for this job. But for the sake of argument, let's suppose I stuck it out and tried to do some good.

First of all, I'd be a pretty hands-off Emperor. Insofar as I have a political philosophy, it is "first, do no harm." The world is a complicated place; people are unruly and unpredictable; and grand plans to fix everything often create more problems than they solve.

For instance, I can repeal the Second Amendment of the US Constitution by imperial decree, abolishing the right to bear arms. On its own, that won't reduce the horrifying level of gun deaths in the USA. It won't do anything about gun culture; weakness of social institutions; or the millions of weapons, and billions of rounds of ammunition, already in circulation. Those are much harder problems. My American subjects will just have to figure out solutions for themselves.

An analogy is the British politician Paddy Ashdown's time as UN High Representative in Bosnia. For most intents and purposes, he was an absolute ruler, with a heavily armed peacekeeping force to back him up. But as I recall, Ashdown said his job was very difficult, because he couldn't push people too far; otherwise they would ignore his edicts or actively rebel, and his authority would collapse in short order.

The best I can do is set some broad policy priorities, and hope to see them implemented.

1. The Low Carbon Society

This is the big one. Global warming is real, it is destructive, and we need to do something about it. The technological approaches are well known: Clean energy, efficient public transport, sprawling suburbs replaced by walkable, high-density neighbourhoods. As it happens, implementing them will, for the most part, make our lives more pleasant. It's time to focus a massive collective effort on achieving this, comparable to the national endeavours in the Second World War.

2. Economic Justice

The problems are clear: The wages and standard of living of the ordinary worker are stagnant at best, while more and more jobs are automated away, and institutions of democracy are hollowed out by corporate power. Charles Stross identified it well in his essay, Political Failure Modes and the Beige Dictatorship.

What to do about it? There are some low-hanging fruit: Strict banking regulation to rein in financial speculation, taxes and public services designed to reduce inequality rather than exacerbate it, and nuking the US health insurance industry from orbit. (You can keep the Second Amendment if you insist, but I draw the line at tolerating that health care system.) The above effort to invest in a low-carbon economy will generate jobs and improve quality of life. Fair trade terms, generous aid, and restriction of corporate power will benefit the developing world.

There are deeper, underlying problems at work here, especially the march of technology. I'm not entirely sure what to do about them. Proposals for a Universal Basic Income sound promising, but will they work in practice? There are parts of our system which work well, delivering technological advances and a decent standard of living for many people, and I don't wish to break them.

Here's one of my most radical acts as Emperor: I'm going to admit that I'm uncertain about some things. Let's approach this scientifically: Try some local pilot programmes, evaluate them, and see what works best. And while I'm at it, I'm going to massively increase funding for science education and research, over and above the investment in clean energy infrastructure.

3. Digital Bill of Rights

More and more of our lives are moving online, subject to surveillance and hacking. In its own way, corporate ineptitude is as great a threat as government spying. As Emperor, I would enact a digital bill of rights to secure our online privacy and autonomy.

In reality, there is no Emperor and we are stuck with our flawed, messy, divided institutions. How likely are our real societies to do any of these things?

In the short term, not very. The British government is at best indifferent to these priorities, and the Trump administration will be actively opposed to them. Other governments here and there take them more seriously, but they are tied up with their own problems and will have difficulty making progress.

In the medium to long term, despite everything, I remain an optimist. People can be stupid, selfish, and cowardly. We are also capable of amazing ingenuity, generosity, and courage. We will keep struggling forward, weathering the setbacks, and trying to build a better world for ourselves and our children. It will be untidy, and inefficient, and sometimes it will go terribly wrong; but one day, our descendants will study our history and be glad we didn't give up.

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