I was listening to a radio program in the car this past weekend. The subject was A.I. — artificial intelligence, computers with the capacity for thought and reason and the analytic power to surpass us a thousand-fold. The commentator was saying something about how the most important development we could engineer into artificial intelligence would be safeguards to ensure A.I. maintains moral behavior even as its abilities outpace our own. That was a prerequisite, he said, the only thing that could make artificial intelligence viable.
It sounded like a great idea. But we humans have a knack for creating things outside of our control. Take money, for example. How many lives does money rule? How many people think they never have enough, that they spend all their time chasing it and it just goes on outpacing them, never quite allows them to sit quiet? The next job might finally be enough, maybe. Just a little more work will make ends finally meet.
Money didn’t exist before us. It’s a thing humans imagined into being, and now it runs lives. It transformed from being a helpful means to facilitate the exchange into something that keeps people in a race no one wins. How did that switch happen? When did it occur? Was it always that way, or did that relationship develop over time?
Regardless, the scorecard begins: Humans, 0; our creations, 1.
Then there’s religion: Ostensibly a celebration of our existence on Earth and the unexplainable power we call God (whatever version), religion is not only a foundation for kindness, generosity and warmth but also for exclusion, hatred and genocide. Regardless of your thoughts on God, we humans created religion. And somehow we allowed it to take control of our morality and bend it to terrible purposes. The Westboro Baptist Church reads the same Bible as millions of peaceful Christians. ISIS reads the same Quran as millions of peaceful Muslims. The Catholic Church has a history of atrocious acts dating back hundreds of years. Countless wars have religious roots, as did slavery. Yes, religion does wonderful things — just look around at the holiday spirit surrounding us today, the food pantries and the charitable organizations founded in its name — but here again, one of our creations has grown beyond our control, spurring us to do terrible things.
Again: Humans, 0; our creations, 2.
And then there is government, another of our creations. This is the one that makes me laugh most. “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union …” In a moment of sheer brilliance, a group of rich, white, land-owning men crafted a country from thin air. There was no history, no common heritage to justify bonds of nationalism, and the original ties were both tentative and exclusionary — they left out women, the country’s native inhabitants and millions of slaves. Imperfect foundations to be sure, but there was something in the seed of that idea.
And that seed grew. The restrictions dissolved slowly, first for white non-landowners. Then slaves became human. Then women became voters. Then black citizens earned “equality.”
Clearly, this is among the least-nuanced American history ever put in print, but the original brilliance of America’s founding ideas were not bound to themselves. They had capacity for expansion, to grow as America’s definition of its people grew. The country was as resilient as the people who lived inside its borders.
Something great happened here, something unique. We are the inheritors of that legacy.
But then we get to the tricky task of governance, the implementation of these brilliant ideas. Today, we live in an age of dwindling trust, where the people and Washington sit on opposite sides of a chess match.
But this is an illusion. Government, like money and religion, is something we conjured. It grew from our hands, and it cannot grow bigger than us. It is an instrument created by men, designed (in our case) to be wielded by its citizens. If we have lost trust in it, it means we have lost trust in ourselves.
Government has the power to oppress us only when we let it go to seed, when we forget it is ours, borne from us, an extension as our rights as citizens, rights we named for ourselves. Its power is derived from our willingness to come together collectively, our agreeing to “form a more perfect union,” and that perfection is a reflection of our vision. “Live Free or Die” is a mantra as communal as it is libertarian, for example, our collective agreement to use government to protect our individual rights.
So what is broken government? The fetid mess that is Washington is nothing more than our willingness to allow something we were entrusted to run wild. We are essentially bad dog owners, the kind that ought to leash their pets but don’t. Who besides us let Washington run free?
We are “the People.” We came together to form this union. It has the power over us that we give it. And yet somehow we’ve fallen into a narrative where the great American experiment in democratic rule has grown beyond our power to control. We must “starve the beast,” “clear the swamp,” to combat a government gone feral.
Such claims are hollow. They pawn blame onto the spectre of “government” without taking on the responsibility of our part in creating it. If “government is broken” then the blame rests with ourselves.
The truth is managing a country of 330 million is hard. It is complex and messy. Government isn’t broken, it’s just tired of been ignored. It runs wild only out of ignorance, not malice. It needs a willing master dedicated to training it, and that master is us.
We, the people, we form this union. The sooner we stop running away from that fact the better. We’re the best safeguard this government’s got.
This column appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.