ONE REASON READING history is so much fun is that, every so often, you stumble across a minor character who captures your fancy. Not one of the giants who changed the world, but rather someone who, notwithstanding little impact in the scheme of things, said or did something with such charm and style that you can’t help but fall for him. For me, one of these minor characters is King Alfonso X of Spain. He ruled in the thirteenth century, and as best we know he did a fairly decent job — modest economic growth, no major wars, no bimbo eruptions. But what captured my fancy is something he is reputed to have said: "Had I been present at the creation I would have given some useful hints for the better ordering of the universe."
It’s an irresistible line of thought, for if there is one thing about which we all agree, it is that the universe is less than perfect. Of course, one oughtn’t be too critical of every little imperfection; when you do a big job in six days, there are bound to be a few things that could have used a bit more attention.
But had I been present at the creation, there is one imperfection I’m sure I would have noticed and about which I would have made a huge fuss: He forgot to put in the operator’s manual. I’m not talking about the glossy, two-page, read-this-before-opening brochure. I’m talking about the fat technical manual that shows how everything is wired together, what is connected to what, which switches and drivers make this or that happen, or keep this or that from happening. How anyone can create something as complex as the universe and then forget the operator’s manual is something I just cannot understand.
Because of this oversight, we humans have had to spend huge amounts of time and energy figuring out how it all works — so to speak, writing the operator’s manual as we go. Indeed, for centuries it didn’t seem to occur to anyone that the universe was capable of being understood. When that thought finally struck, progress at first came very slowly. Through the next several centuries, our cumulative knowledge remained so small that an educated person actually knew all that was known. But from roughly the early nineteenth century forward, the amount of knowledge started to increase so rapidly that it became impossible even for a genius to know it all.
Hard and soft sciences
KNOWLEDGE SEPARATED into its various disciplines, for which the generally accepted word is "science." There developed what we now call the hard sciences, such as biology (the study of plants and animals), chemistry (the composition and properties of substances) and physics (the study of matter and energy). As the volume of knowledge grew in the hard sciences, it became impossible for anyone to know everything about even one of these disciplines. So they began to split into smaller, more manageable specialties. Today there is no such thing as a biologist or a physicist, but rather cell biologists and evolutionary biologists, geo-physicists, plasma physicists and astro-physicists, organic and inorganic chemists, and so on — and on.
There also developed what are called the soft sciences. Chief among these is economics (the creation and distribution of wealth, and the production of goods and services). There is also, of course, the one to which so many of us have devoted so much of our lives, politics — the study of the relationship between the individual and the state, and of the relationships among states. Just as with the hard sciences, these two have split into specialties. Today there are economists who focus on trade and those who focus on corporate finance. In politics some people are urban specialists, some domestic-policy specialists, and some international or national-security specialists.
It has recently been estimated that today we are learning so much, so fast, that the total amount of human knowledge is doubling every five years. This leads to a very interesting question: As we approach the end of the twentieth century, how much do we really know? The crucial word here is "know." In this context of "understanding how things work" — as opposed to an anecdotal context such as knowing how many moons surround Jupiter, the year in which the Declaration of Independence was written, or the name of the current secretary general of the United Nations — when we say we "know" something we have a very specific meaning in mind. We mean that this particular bit of knowledge about how things work not only is true, but also is understood and accepted as true as part of a shared body of understanding. Of course there will always be disputes and disagreements among experts in any field. But these are at the margin, and they revolve around whatever seems likely to be the next bit of knowledge to drop into place; so to speak, the next piece of the puzzle that can be made to fit correctly into an ever-growing, ever-more-accurate picture of how things really work.
About the hard sciences, we "know" quite a bit. For example, we know that all living matter is comprised of cells, that our atmosphere is comprised of oxygen and other elements, and that the planets revolve around the sun. These are accepted and acknowledged insights, no longer in dispute. You don’t go to Stanford University to study the chemistry of oxidation but to Harvard if you want to learn how phlogiston figures into the phenomenon. Chemists the world over agree that water is made of up two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. They teach it the same way in Shanghai and in Los Angeles. Physics students throughout the world learn that the planets revolve around the sun and not that the sun revolves around the planets. Indeed, we know so much now about the hard sciences that Nobel Prize winners concede even they cannot stay abreast of all new knowledge in their own specialties.
Not surprisingly, we know less about the soft sciences than we do about the hard sciences. Human nature is unique, which means it will never be possible to predict how people will respond to a given set of circumstances with the same precision or certainty as we can predict how planets, or atoms, or even single cells will respond. So there always will be a fundamental difference between what it is possible to know about a discipline like physics and one like economics or politics. Still, after centuries of experience we ought to have learned something about how the practical, everyday world works that would enable us to predict behavior at least to some useful and accurate degree. And indeed we have. In economics, for example, we know that if supply remains the same and demand increases, prices rise; that when supply increases and demand remains the same, prices drop — the law of supply and demand. We have Say’s Law, which holds that supply creates its own demand. And with the exception of a few nitwit Marxists, we know that a market economy does a better job of producing and distributing goods and services than does a command economy.
SO WHAT DO WE KNOW about politics? I suggest that the correct answer is: We don’t know what we know about politics. Because we have never taken the trouble to codify what we know about politics — to bring it all together into a coherent, shared body of knowledge — we literally don’t know what we know.
To be sure, I think that I know one or two things about politics. For example: The stronger a country is militarily, and the more willing it is to use force to defend itself, the less likely is that country to be attacked. And: When economic times are good, people will tend to re-elect incumbents rather than replace them with challengers. No doubt many readers know a lot about politics, and could write out far more laws and axioms than I can. It may even be that some of what I know, and some of what you know, is the same. Or it may be that you think whatever I know is "wrong," and have your own sets of laws and axioms that contradict mine.
With no accepted body of knowledge to guide us, each of us is left to work out our own set of axioms. And because we tend to do this implicitly rather than explicitly — if indeed we do it at all — usually we don’t even know whether our own grasp of how things work matches the grasp of those with whom we are dealing. If we find out at all, it is through the experience of working together and arguing about this or that issue. Generally, when we say that we "agree" about politics, we mean that a common understanding of how things work shapes our views on issues. Mind you, this doesn’t mean we agree on every issue; merely that we reached our positions by traveling down the same intellectual track. When we find ourselves on different tracks, we have no way to resolve which one of us is heading in the right direction and which one is lost. Anyone seeking to learn about politics, or to reach an opinion about one or another specific issue, must start from scratch; there is no one source to which he or she may turn to learn whatever laws or axioms have been developed and which may be relevant and useful in a particular case.
The fault lies in the culture of our discipline. In the hard sciences, the overriding objective is to develop new insights into how things work. Despite the ferocious competition that marks their daily work, hard scientists all seem to share an insatiable curiosity, an extraordinary sense of enthusiasm, above all an overriding feeling of purpose. What drives them forward is precisely this hope of adding one more piece to the puzzle, of coming one step closer to a genuine understanding of how things work. Thus in the end they celebrate any individual’s triumph as a victory for the entire enterprise. When a new insight is shown to be true, that insight is accepted by scientists — embraced, actually — along with the individual who figured it out. And when an insight later is shown to be false, it is discarded — quickly, brutally, and often accompanied by the careers of those who developed it and who continued to defend it after its falsity had become apparent. This attitude among hard scientists — this spirit of collaboration — gives rise to what the great scientist and writer Jacob Bronowski calls a sense of the future, a driving optimism that comes from the faith that things can and will get better because honorable people are working together, to learn and to share a growing body of knowledge, for the sheer pleasure and triumph of getting it right.
What happens next is crucial. Once scientists develop and accept an insight, that insight moves into the practical world. Applied scientists at pharmaceutical companies develop new drugs such as Prozac, for example, while their counterparts at engineering companies invent machines such as microwave ovens and mris. Entrepreneurs now move in to bring these products to market. Meanwhile, the scientists’ insights make their way — fairly rapidly — into the minds of ordinary people. It happens through school science courses designed explicitly to teach these basic insights and, increasingly, through the popular culture. You can learn quite a bit of physics watching Star Trek reruns. Of course most people don’t learn enough to accurately explain Einstein’s theory of relativity, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or precisely how dna reproduces. But they get the gist of it, and that is really all they need.
The competitive spirit
THE KEY DIFFERENCE between political science and the hard sciences isn’t so much structural as attitudinal. At the top end, we have professional political scientists, most of whom teach at universities and do fundamental research into the relationship between the individual and the state and the relationships among states. Then — our equivalent of applied scientists — come those of us who might be termed political intellectuals and activists. We think and write about politics, and sometimes we jump in and actually participate through appointment to government positions or on campaign staffs. Finally — our rough equivalent of the entrepreneurs — come those of us who go out, get ourselves elected, and actually make the decisions that set policies.
But, unlike our hard-scientist counterparts, we see ourselves more as competitors than collaborators. Our objective isn’t to add one more piece to the puzzle; rather, it is to push forward our own perceptions and viewpoints. Political scientists conduct their research, publish their books and essays — but they never resolve their differences, and thus they fail to create a shared body of knowledge. Of course some political scientists do marvelous work and do indeed develop accurate insights. Often they rely on the writings of our very best historians, whose research can provide a deep understanding of why certain things do or don’t happen in a given set of circumstances. But nowhere does the profession separate true insights from false ones. Each political scientist does his or her own thing, the good ones and the bad ones working side by side, often sullenly, without the sense of shared enterprise that is so striking among the hard scientists.
This competitive spirit also drives those of us who are political intellectuals and activists. Our objective is to win acceptance of our own policy prescriptions or political strategies, which are based on whatever insights we may have developed from our personal study and experience. For us there is no such thing as a discredited idea or insight; there are only varying perceptions and realities. We too never settle any argument about the fundamental nature of politics once and for all. In our part of the business, the price of being wrong is — well, there rarely is a price to be paid for being wrong. You simply set up shop at another think tank, publishing house, or talk show whose staff is receptive to your own perceptions and opinions. Those whom history and experience prove wrong continue to joust with those who were proved right, the credibility of the former not the slightest bit tarnished. Perhaps because in politics our very subject is power itself, we see ourselves only as competitors, never as colleagues in a shared enterprise.
And as for those of us who try to get elected — the entrepreneurs of politics, if you will — the trick is to claim credit for whatever has gone right and to blame your opponent for whatever has gone wrong, regardless of who or what specific policies may really be responsible. For instance, President Clinton likes to claim credit for the country’s booming economy. This sort of thing may succeed in persuading enough voters to win an election, but it also leaves voters utterly confused about how things really work and why certain things really happen.
The lessons of history
BECAUSE THERE IS no codified body of political knowledge, it cannot be universally taught. Two students taking the same political science course at different colleges — or even at the same college but taught by different instructors — can come away with a wholly different understanding of how things work. The intellectual waters are so muddy that at the high school level, where the faculty’s objective quite understandably is to get through the curriculum without engaging in professional combat, instructors are loath to wade in. Even in those schools not infected with the virus of political correctness, there is a tendency to shy away from insights.
In my own children’s high school, for instance, teachers happen to do an excellent job covering European and American history. The textbooks they use seem accurate and non-ideological — even those chapters dealing with such politically charged events as the Cold War. The kids learn a lot of facts — for which I am grateful. But never are my children taught the lessons of history, merely the chronology and the leading players. So they emerge knowing everything about, say, World War II — except what they ought to have learned from it: Genocidal killers will keep killing until you stop them by force, and they won’t limit the killing to their own citizens. The sooner you take them on, and take them out, the fewer casualties will be required. They study all the major wars our country has fought this century — World Wars I and II, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War — but somehow don’t come away from their efforts with a grasp of the most important point of all: A war isn’t over until the government that started it ceases to exist.
All this leaves the students — who soon become voters — utterly confused. Because they don’t know how things work, they have no way of judging which of our politicians’ policy proposals make sense and which do not. After all, they say to themselves, if the experts can’t sort things out among themselves, how can we? Ask people to make a decision about something they don’t understand, and they will respond with anger, frustration, and a powerful tendency to avoid making that decision. The results are quite predictable. A growing percentage of citizens are tuning out, declining to vote. Moreover, a growing percentage of citizens who do vote are anxious, angry, and frustrated because they feel they are being asked to make decisions that will affect their lives but about which they don’t know enough. Increasingly, "serious" politicians who try to appeal for votes with policies based on a rational, "technical" grasp of how things work are finding that fewer and fewer voters have a clue as to what these politicians are talking about. Meanwhile, other politicians — aware of the voters’ lack of knowledge and not at all bothered by it — are discovering how to win by appealing for votes with policies that make no sense, or are actually dangerous. And, increasingly, politicians are learning they can win by focusing their campaigns on matters not relevant to how things work, such as their own personalities or what amount to offers of bribes.
We need to fix this. In the past few years our country has become an increasingly complex piece of social machinery. Thanks to the white-hot pace of technological innovation, entire industries die off and wholly new ones emerge at an unprecedented rate. People change jobs more often than ever. Today more businesses are operating than ever before, and they are creating a wider range of products and services. In the stock markets more shares trade each day than used to trade in a month. Meanwhile, at every level, the size of government itself has grown, along with the breadth and volume of laws and regulations. Both within the country and throughout the world, our political and economic relationships now are more varied than ever. And because we are the world’s only superpower, trouble anywhere tends to land on our doorstep; in every instance we wind up deciding whether or not to intervene, and if so how best to do it. In short, today we make more political decisions than ever, and we make them faster. And the cost of making a wrong decision keeps rising.
We are going to be in a lot of trouble if voters don’t really understand how things work. Mind you, the problem isn’t a disagreement over the general direction in which the country should go. That is what elections ought to be about. And within limits, a complex society like ours can change course fairly smoothly, for instance moving from left to right, or from the right toward the center. Rather, the problem lies in making political choices that are beyond the tolerance levels of a modern and complex society like ours — choices that could, in the long run, put us into a national nose dive.
An operator’s manual
THE SUREST WAY way to avoid this kind of disaster would be to provide voters with an operator’s manual — one that offers a general understanding of how things work in politics: of how the relationship functions between the individual and the state, and how relationships function between states. So, for instance, if the day’s issue is why the U.S. should throw its weight behind forces for democracy in one or another unstable country, voters might find it useful to know that Democracies rarely, if ever, start wars. Hence the more democracies in a region the less likely is fighting to break out. Or, if we are trying to help stabilize the situation in Russia or Indonesia, voters need to understand that Establishment and maintenance of the rule of law are crucial to stability. Countries that fail to establish a legal system, or that abandon their legal system, are on the road to upheaval and disaster.
Should one of our political parties be campaigning on a platform to boost the tax rates of those with high-level incomes, it would be helpful for voters to be reminded that You cannot make the poor rich by making the rich poor. When the issue of quotas is up for a vote, it would be useful to remember that Equal opportunity leads invariably to unequal outcomes. If you want equal outcomes, since you really cannot elevate those with less drive and ability, you must forcibly lower those with more drive and ability. And when some politician caught in a lie complains about the press that exposed him, voters need to remember that A free press is vital to the survival of any democracy. But when that press starts to filter its reporting to support the ideologies of its own reporters, voters must also know how dangerous this is because In a democracy the press functions like the instrument panel in a jet; if the instruments give false readings, the pilots can make rational decisions that result in catastrophe.
And so forth. Of course these examples are not the only ones, or necessarily the best ones or even wholly accurate; they may need to be modified or even junked entirely. Their purpose is merely to illustrate the kinds of things about politics that people will need to know to make intelligent decisions.
I readily acknowledge — once again — the inherent limit to how far we can go. We are dealing with human beings, so it will never be possible to predict their behavior as accurately and precisely as hard scientists can predict the behavior of cells, atoms, or planets. Politics is not biology; people are not lab rats. Perhaps this inherent limit to how much we will ever be able to know is what has discouraged us so far from even trying to codify our knowledge. But just because we can never know everything doesn’t mean we should be satisfied with knowing nothing. If indeed it is possible to learn about politics, then after so many centuries of experience we must know quite a bit.
We need not leave this to the political scientists. There is no reason whatsoever why those of us who are political intellectuals and activists cannot do the job, or at least make a start. In cases where we decide we need more evidence, like our colleagues in the hard sciences we can structure "experiments" that will test our theses and tell us, with as much certainty as we reasonably can expect, which are correct and which are false. Of course, when we do embark on this sort of process it’s inevitable that some of us will get answers we won’t like. That is the risk each of us must be willing to take.
However we proceed, surely this is the next great task for those of us who are involved in public affairs. As we embark upon this project, we should look to the hard sciences for guidance — the reliance on experiment and observation, the willingness to accept what works and to set aside that which is proved not to work, the fundamental good will and spirit of collaboration among scientists who consider themselves embarked on an enterprise of discovery and genuine understanding.
My guess is that, because we really do know so much, once we start the job we will be amazed at how far we are able to go, and how swiftly we can get there. It’s hard to imagine a more useful project with which to launch the next millennium, or a more interesting one.