Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

29 July 2009

Ecclesiastes and the EU

    “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9
This old saw has both great truth and great falsity.

Today we take it to mean that the Nature of Man changes not, or at least changes too slowly for us to perceive. There is truth in that insight. Our evolution required many millions of years. In comparison, our recorded history of some five thousand is an eyeblink.

Anyway, our own civilization has all but halted our biological evolution. We have tamed the vicissitudes of Nature and made “survival of the fittest” a social rather than biological fact.

So our basic makeup seems invariable. We still have the same jealousies, envys, rages and unreason that we did in Caesar’s time or in the Pharaohs’. Shakespeare’s plays, written nearly four centuries ago in a vastly different age, still speak to us as if composed yesterday.

But while human nature may have changed little over recorded history, what we do with it has changed profoundly. We may not be evolving much (or may be evolving too slowly to detect), but our memes and social institutions are in continual evolutionary ferment.

Today we have experimental and observational science. As distinguished from the solipsistic musings of “natural philosophy,” modern science is only about four centuries old. It has given us electricity, telecommunication, controlled flight, atomic energy, atomic weapons, space travel, and the Internet, among many other things.

None of these things existed in the time of Ecclesiastes. Then and for millennia afterward our own or our beasts’ muscles did our work. We produced power and light by burning things. Now we take energy from the atom, the wind, the sun, the tides and the Earth. Now we are powerful enough, as a species, to extinguish ourselves (and most other living species) in an orgy of rage or stupidity. Or we can make our planet a paradise, more livable for us and our fellow creatures than it has ever been since we arrived on the scene. This power, too, is new.

Our evolution in the social sphere has been no less profound. So many things we take for granted today did not exist in the time of Ecclesiastes. Despite ancient Rome’s generally high level of civilization, there was no such thing as a police force, even in Roman times. The rich protected themselves from crime with bodyguards (often slaves), high walls and grated windows. The poor fended for themselves as best they could. Now we have a formal institution designed to protect everyone, rich or poor, from crime and make the law a reality on our streets.

Universities are also a recent social innovation. There was no such thing until the Renaissance. Higher learning, study, and research took place―if at all―in castles and monasteries under the patronage of royalty, nobility or an authoritarian Church, and at their whim. Now every nation has permanent institutional centers of culture designed to preserve and advance human learning and to train the next generation of teachers and researchers. The Internet’s impact on this relatively new (half a millennium) human institution is a work in progress, but it is likely to be world-changing.

The business corporation, too, is a relatively recent innovation. A Roman creation perfected during the Enlightenment, this profoundly decentralizing institution has done much to improve the human condition. It is largely responsible for the predominance of Western cultures in business and innovation.

Evolution can seem particularly slow in the political sphere. The contest between democracy and authority is as old as Athens and Sparta. Democracy appears to be winning now, but its ultimate destiny is unclear. The world’s newest rising power, China, seems bent on an exhausting an authoritarian model based on technocratic Mandarins.

Yet there are three relatively recent political phenomena that no one in the time of Ecclesiastes could possibly have imagined. One is our own nation. A second is the United Nations. The third is the European Union.

From prehistoric times until 1776, nation-states arose out of tribalism, ceaseless war and conquest. With rare exceptions (in Greece, Rome and England) they governed largely by force alone. The Enlightenment produced a wholly new political conception: the idea of “social contract,” that government depends on the consent of the governed.

Our nation is the first in world history to be designed from the ground up as a matter of social contract. Our Founders cobbled it together from thirteen very disparate British colonies. The Constitution they devised for that purpose is the world’s first national charter based entirely on social contract. That simple fact has made us the world’s most powerful, admired and envied nation, with our historical progenitor, Britain, a close second.

The US is thus unique in human history for arising out of conscious design, not evolution. Maybe that’s why so many of us―despite the evidence of science―believe in “intelligent design” rather than biological evolution. That phrase does not describe our biology, but it does describe our form of government, and it distinguishes our government from all that came before. Oddly enough, the very same concept applies to the United Nations, which many of the folks who believe in “intelligent design” of living creatures tend to deprecate.

But whatever the oddities of current American politics, one thing is clear: of all human governments that we know of, only the US and the UN arose from intelligent design, not evolution. That is, until the advent of the European Union.

Like the UN, the EU is a rationally designed political creation of diverse sovereign states. Unlike the UN, it is a real government, with enforceable laws and regulations, circulated currency, and functioning courts. As such, it is the second greatest political-governmental innovation in human history, after the United States.

In some respects the EU is even more impressive. While diverse and quite different (some industrial, some rural; some slave and some free), our original thirteen colonies had generally common cultures and had never warred among themselves. In contrast, the EU knits together separate and distinct sovereign states with vastly different cultures, languages and histories. Many of them spent much of the previous several centuries warring with each other over religion, territory, and the sheer glory of imperial conquest.

Today, you can travel by train from Edinburgh to Rome, Prague, and beyond and not see a single customs agent or border guard. You can use the Euro to buy things from Cork to Sicily, with stops in Bavaria and Budapest. And in a single railway car on a train in England, you can hear Polish, Italian, and various Indian dialects spoken by business people, young students and families with children out for a holiday in London. More important, a Pole, Czech or Spaniard can seek gainful employment and new opportunity in the traditional economic powerhouses of Britain, France and Germany.

As a result, the EU has supplemented, if not partially replaced, the US as the place that humanity struggles to get into. The Statue of Liberty, with its promise to “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” may stand in New York Harbor. But it was, after all, a French creation. Now the same promise―if not the same statue or military power―beckons from Europe.

These peaceful achievements, so commonplace today we hardly notice them, are extraordinary in human history. They would make someone from the time of Ecclesiastes cry with joy.

So as we contemplate the possible decline of our own country and China’s rise, let us not forget the EU. It is already bigger than we are, 350 to 300 million. Only about a half-century old, it truly is something new under the sun. In historical terms, it is not much older than the Internet. Other groups of nations, including Mercosur in South America and ASEAN in Southeast Asia, are trying to emulate the EU’s dramatic success, each in its own clumsy way. Evolution, whether social or biological, seems to proceed in fits and starts, rarely in a straight line.

For us Americans, the EU’s social and political promise at times may produce mixed feelings. It is a rival for admiration, envy and prosperity. By and large, it already has the universal health care and social safety nets that we are desperately trying to put in place or repair here at home. Far from being “Old Europe,” as The Arrogant Idiot Rumsfeld blathered, it is the newest brilliantly functioning governmental institution on the world stage. These facts should make us Americans a bit humble in claiming the status of God’s elect.

But the EU is more than just a rival for admiration and envy. Its existence shows that we Americans are no longer alone. The last best hope of mankind now resides not in a single nation, but in a few principles not seen in Ecclesiastes: social contract, liberty, free markets and the rule of law.

These key ideas of the Enlightenment now animate a marvelous congeries of nations across the Atlantic, which, like us, was consciously designed around them. Unlike us, the EU not only has better social welfare systems already in place; it is also open to new membership. We last admitted new states―Alaska and Hawaii―50 years ago. The EU admitted ten new members as recently as 2004, and it has a formal application process with several other applicants in waiting. Folks from the time of Ecclesiastes would be astonished and pleased.


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