This post builds off of my previous posts about the concept of a “Conflict of Visions” written by Thomas Sowell. See the brief summary here or the in-depth explanation here. It also builds on my explanation of the concept of “Rugged Landscapes,” found here.
The framers of the Constitution of the United States of America built a government that worked with a particular vision. Over time, U.S. citizens have increasingly altered the government away from this vision. What are the possible consequences?
See my post about “Rugged Landscapes” for the details, but as a quick refresher:
Although there are about as many definitions of “strategy” as there are strategy experts, we’re going to use the word “strategy” to refer to “the alignment of the component parts of an entity in a way designed to achieve a certain goal.” This is not unlike a common definition for strategy that simply states that it’s a goal and a plan to achieve it, but we’re going to go a step further and explicitly include internal and external “alignment.”
Although the definition is I used sound simple, alignment can be extremely difficult. In a paper titled “Adaptation on Rugged Landscapes” by Daniel A. Levinthal, Levnnthal describes the issues of interdependency within organizations or individuals. Put simply, the component parts of a strategy or entity interact with one another in ways that can be hard to identify, predict, measure, and prepare for. That’s a good enough reminder of the concept for now.
The Conflict of Visions
You’ll have to read my other posts for a full explanation on the Conflict of Visions, but as a quick refresher:
The constrained vision starts with an assumption that mankind has limits, and that these limits are substantive. This vision would picture uncivilized man much like Thomas Hobbes, where everyone would be at war with one another and life would be nasty, brutish, solitary, and short. Because of this, systems and social structures can establish the right incentives to make everyone better off.
The unconstrained vision starts with an assumption that, although mankind has limits, these limits are not substantive. Mankind can work out ways to overcome all problems, and mankind is essentially perfectible. This vision would picture uncivilized man in a relatively peaceful state, having no real reason for conflict. Because of this, those who have reached the higher planes of mankind’s potential should take control and push everyone onto a higher plane until individuals govern themselves through reason to the best benefit of society.
Each of these visions lead to different logical strategies for social organization and government. How would they interact with U.S. strategy?
To identify the U.S.’s strategy, we need to start with its goals. Perhaps this is simplistic, but we’ll start with a look at the objectives identified in the preamble to the constitution. These include
- Forming a more perfect union
- Establishing justice
- Insuring domestic tranquility
- Providing for the common defense
- Promoting the general welfare
- Securing the blessings of liberty
Each of these objectives can be (and have been) analyzed extensively for their purpose, history, and value. What we’re most interested in here is how the framers decided to align the components of the U.S. government to achieve these goals. Let’s start with a look at two hypotheticals: (1) how the framers would align the government under the unconstrained vision and (2) how the framers would align the government under the constrained vision.
If the framers of the constitution held the unconstrained vision, we would expect to see ultimate preference given to reasoned judgment. It doesn’t make sense to solve most problems by popular vote since the general public will not necessarily have the knowledge or capability to understand the issues and identify the best decision. Small groups of elites who are capable of deciding the level of rationality inherent in different policy options would be tasked with ensuring that reason prevails.
The executive, legislative, and judicial functions may or may not be separated. Since articulated rationality is the most critical criterion for the implementation of a policy, it might make more sense to subject proposed legislation to a review board to ensure that the logic is clear and correct (perhaps similar to a peer review process) before passing legislation to a weaker executive branch tasked simply with doing what an expanded legislature demands. Ideally, the judicial branch would not need to “legislate from the bench” since the laws would be rational upon implementation, but if a judge can convey a more convincing rational to a piece of policy, it would hold weight and demand a change in the law.
Under this perspective, any separation of powers would be for convenience and efficiency rather than to prevent the government as a whole from becoming too powerful. If everything must pass the test of articulated rationality, the government will only be doing what’s best for the national interest. Checks and balances only need to exist in terms of checking the rationality of proposals; mankind will be able to mitigate isolated pockets of evil and power-hungry despots by way of their ability to identify and act with strict adherence to logic and reason.
You should probably see fairly clearly that the U.S. government was not established purely on the basis of the unconstrained vision. This leaves the question: would people with a purely constrained vision establish the U.S. government? and if not, what kind of mix are we left with?
If the U.S. government is a mix of the two visions, it certainly leans constrained. Since a constrained vision believes in substantive limits in man, especially in man’s ability to act morally and disinterestedly with any amount of reliability or efficacy, the constrained vision would install sets of incentives that work to keep various components in check. This is exactly why the U.S. has its separation of powers and why people seem to think it’s so important.
A separation of powers logically grows from the constrained vision because of its assumption that mankind has limits on its ability to act disinterestedly. The constrained vision assumes that if some individuals see an opportunity to grab more power for their own benefit, that they will take advantage of it. The separation of powers does nothing to curtail this desire, but it does make it extremely difficult for individuals to achieve this desire. The members of the executive branch will relish opportunities to grab power over the legislative branch, but the legislatures seek to do the same against the executive. Since both have powers to stop the other when disagreements become strong enough, neither side has a solid opportunity to lock-down too much power.
James Madison probably said it most clearly in Federalist 51 when he said that men are not angels. He argued that
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
If James Madison held the unconstrained vision, he would probably have tried to turn men into angels (made them better and more perfect) instead of taking man’s particularly un-angelic nature as a given and building around it.
More could be said about the decidedly constrained vision under which the constitution was created, but I want to proceed with how this idea relates to strategy. If we can assume that I’m correct in that the constitution was founded on the constrained vision, this has significant strategic implications for us even today.
The Impact of Alternative Visions
The concepts about strategy contained in “Rugged Landscapes” are important for us today on how we choose to modify our government. Put simply, steering away from the systems and attributes of the constrained vision can impact our ability to succeed at our defined goals in ways we can’t predict.
What Attributes are Changing
One of the clearest examples of the U.S.’s systematic shifting from its original vision is in the judicial sector. The Supreme Court has long been shifting more power to itself to decide public policy that the constitution, operating with the assumptions of the constrained vision, originally left to more democratic procedures. In Obergefell v. Hodges (the case legalizing same-sex marriage) Justice Kennedy repeatedly used the phrase “reasoned judgment” to justify the court’s decision to overturn popular votes and legislature creations. The principles that grow from the constrained vision find the reasoned judgment of a small group of judges fairly irrelevant on matters where a broader base of the public have made a decision. The principles founded on the unconstrained vision treat reasoned judgment as the only criterion worth having.
Military strategy feels the impact of changing visions as well. Since the military is led and directed by politically influenced officials, general strategy often gets altered by the two visions. This can take the form of different amounts of funding, the types of engagements they get sent into, and even tactics. The constrained vision seeks peace primarily through strength, intimidation of potential enemies away from fighting, and capability to meet any challenges that do come. The unconstrained vision prefers higher levels of communication and negotiation between highly intelligent individuals. The unconstrained vision views the constrained vision as wanting to fight a war, while the constrained vision thinks that the unconstrained vision must want to lose one.
Visions have changed in economic policies as well (and perhaps the most). Our current expectations of how the federal government will intervene in financial matters is a far cry from the original federal government. Instead of playing a major role in welfare, economic stability, and wealth redistribution, the federal government spent its first hundred years largely without imposing even an income tax. Consistent with the constrained vision, the government largely stayed out of certain economic affairs, until the years chipped away at the public’s willingness to let the federal government stay out of their bank accounts. The public became increasingly unconstrained in their attitude toward the government’s ability to handle economic problems, and the government’s structures and policies followed suit.
Implications of Unpredictability
Although changing the visions and structures of government sends us into unpredictable territory, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we should stay stagnant. Not only is there the possibility of greater success upon making some changes, but remember that the landscape itself is constantly changing. What worked yesterday might not work today. This means that we need to have ways of testing new sets of attributes.
The unconstrained vision’s method for deciding on the changes to make primarily involves articulated rationality. Once greater understanding is reached, mankind should act on that greater understanding. This allows for widespread change, often done fairly quickly if changes can be argued well in a short amount of time. This also favors a more centralized approach to change since there would be no reason to delay a change rationally demonstrated to be good.
The constrained vision’s method for deciding on the changes to make involves widespread experience and experimentation. This is why pushing power down as local as possible can be so beneficial. If each state, county, and city has power to test different policies, each area can figure out what works and what doesn’t. With smaller and more homogeneous populations, voters can more easily reverse changes that they decide were for the worse. Other political entities can look at the experiments of others and decide if they like the results enough to implement it in their own district. With enough freedom to act, and adequate information on the results, the best ideas will survive, and the bad ones will die out.
The United States has taken a strong departure from the constrained method of implementing change by centralizing power and allowing smaller and smaller political groups to exercise that power. These slight changes may be the most critical when it comes to a misalignment problem in U.S. strategy. If other parts become misaligned, the fixes can be relatively simple if power if kept closer to the people and the founding documents are interpreted and implemented consistently and correctly. If this method for guarding against negative changes is damaged, it may be like firing our maintenance crew.
Although I’ve clearly argued for an adherence to the principles in the constrained vision, I’ve done so primarily from an alignment perspective. A nation founded and aligned from entirely unconstrained principles may be viable (although I personally don’t think it is), but our system is currently straddling them both, preventing us from reaching optimum national performance.
Strategy is a touchy thing, and one that needs to be altered carefully. Drastic changes can be made in emergencies, or when clear perspective demonstrates inevitable failures of a current course of action in the long-term, but these changes are difficult and shouldn’t be taken lightly. As the U.S. has moved increasingly further from its original strategic establishment, we’ve risked rocking the entire boat into the sea from unforeseen interdependencies.
Perhaps our most dangerous misalignment is the compromise of our method of self-correction. Veering toward the unconstrained vision’s method of change puts the U.S. at risk of encountering the same problems as any entity that attempts unified radical change.
Keep seeking truth.
You may also be interested in: