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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Monday, December 13, 2004


The Best of All Likely Worlds

posted by Razib Khan at Monday, December 13, 2004 permalink View blog reactions
Update: Cross-posted over at Gene Expression.

If you are a fan of the history of ideas you will know that Voltaire once mocked Leibniz's contention that we live in "the best of all possible worlds." Now, Leibniz was a very intelligent man, the inventor of the useful calculus notation and a world-rank philosopher, aside from being professional trained as a lawyer, he dabbling in mine engineering and his day-to-day consisted of diplomacy and archiving to pay the bills. So, it makes sense that some of the spirit of Leibniz lives on today. For many human beings, though not asserting that this is the best of all possible worlds, believe that we can (with mild effort) attain the best of all possible worlds. I believe that such utopianism is folly, though the intentions might be laudable, the intersection between political and attempts to enforce the best of all possible worlds (whatever norms you might hold up as "ideal") and human nature have been catastrophic. Rather, what we can hope to achieve in our lives is the best of all likely worlds, the likely being contingent upon the constraints of time and place.

Perhaps my outlook is shaped by the fact that I am something of a "gene nut." One of the most common arguments trotted out against Creationists is that the anatomy of many species indicates a "good enough" solution. An ideally "optimal" design simply does not exist, "optimal" is contingent upon variables which actually shift in flux as a function of time or space. As an example, the human body's vareigated immune system deploys a "scout" in the form of the Major Histocompability Complex (MHC), the forerunner of killer T-cells which clean up nasty pathogens that wander into the orbit of any organism. The character of the MHC (its phenotype) is controlled by what are termed the HLA locii, that is, a particular configuration of its genotype. There are multiple HLA genes and each of these come various flavors, or polymorphisms. The short of it is that what you need to know is that the presence of multiple forms indicates that diversity is selected for. In fact, diversity is so important on these locii that various HLA forms are transpecies, you might have an HLA profile more similar to a chimpanzee than your cousin because the genes are that ancient. The diversity of the HLA genes is almost certainly a function of the fact that they are constantly assailed by a host of hyper-evolving pathogens. Just when the immune system becomes "perfect" at neutralizing one threat another pops up. The various forms are simply part of a whole array of tools that the body keeps on hand in the case of novel attacks. One interesting idea, posited by the late biologist William D. Hamilton, is that at any one given time a particular conformation of HLA locii might more "optimal," but since time does not stay still natural selection will never move that conformation to the species norm, that is, fixation, instead an oscillating cycle will perpetuate the diversity.

What does this have to do with "The Best of All Likely Worlds" and Dean nation? In "The Best of All Possible Worlds" perhaps our HLA profiles could always be optimally tuned for each generation, that is, if we had perfect information about the evolutionary trajectory of any given pathogen. Unfortunately, pathogenic evolution isn't deterministic, so we would be stuck with a probabilistic projection, and of course we do not have perfect information and can only guess at what pathogens might be up to a few years down the line. In this constrained world the human species is characterized by a host of HLA profiles, that is, a diversity of defense strategies, none of which are perfect for any given attack, but which are "good enough" solutions.

So to the second question, what does this have to do with Dean nation? Two points that I can draw by analogy. The first is that if you assume that various political persuasions are HLA forms on various genes, and that America is an organism, an ultimate victory against other forms might be deleterious in the long run. That is, the victory of unilateral militarism and unilateral pacifism are losers in the long run, you need a mix of both strategies, tempered by rational means, to perpetuate general international amity. Additionally, even within the intranational context there are implications. One trend that I have been noting with some hope is the recent Leftish flirtation with federalism. To some extent this is even more opportunistic than conservative adherence to the concept (now that the Right controls the federal government devolution seems less in vogue at that end). Ever since the New Deal the Left & the federal government were closely associated with each other. The Civil Rights revolution might never have happened without the interposition of the federal government between the states and the black protesters. Through the Warren Court there was also an expansion of individual civil liberties at the expense of local control (a trend that has been somewhat curtailed, though most of the substantive gains stand). With the 50 year domination of the Democrats in the legislative branch the federal principle was wholly rational (for Democrats). With the reality of gross barbaric injustice through broad swaths of the country (segregation) the federal principle was wholly just, on the balance.

But I think it is now a time to take a step back and count wins and losses. A republic is a fragile thing, and we've kept it for 200 years. It has scaled surprisingly well, from a polity shaped by the minority of white men who met property qualifications in an oligarchic republic of 2.5 million to a nation, a cultural empire, of 300 million citizens and over 100 million regular voting participants. The imperial presidency is an awesome thing, and the executive branch now has wide and expansive powers. I have watched as many of my friends and acquaintances shudder at the thought of Republican domination of every branch of the federal government, as the Democrat wrought tools of federal dominion now get turned to other purposes. The federal strategy is a winner-take-all gambit, it discounts incrementalism and favors wild oscillations. In concert with the scale of the republic I think this is causing great stress to the health of the polity.

A more relaxed federal state is a mixed solution at best. It is not "The Best of All Possible Worlds," from a liberal perspective much of the south might be characterized by regressive legislation directed against homosexuals, while conservatives might grumble at the legalization of marijuana in the West and gay marriage in the Northeast. But in an age of mobility and the guarantee of basic civil rights I think it is a more tenable position to adhere to even for those who hold universal justice dear. To use another biological analogy, genes might be selfish, but by and large they behave in an altrustic fashion when trapped within an individual because the death of one is the death of all. Absolute short term political victories for any given side, the utilization of massive federal tools in the service of a partisan agenda, might cause so much intraorganismic strife that it is vulnerable to morbidity. And so with our great country.

What does this mean practically? It means I hope the federalist impulse on the Left is not ephemeral, because it still exits rhetorically on the Right. Words and ideas have power, and even though the Right can wield the tools of the federal government many still have a soft spot for devolution. This is a crucial point of leverage because human beings do value principle and consistency in some ineffable fashion. In concert with the reality that the pendulum of power always swings, it might be enough to create a Left-Right alliance toward devolution and a curtailment of federal power, to the better health of the overall republic.


razib, this is a really great post. You have explained to me the need for political diversity, though the paradigm of genetics. :)
Political structures are subject to the forces of memetic evolution, and are surely sensitive to the environment.
Leibniz notation made a huge contribution to science-- I love calculi myself, and they are infinitely useful. For example, in robot planning we use "situational calculus". Could there be a calculus of democracy?
I agree strongly that there should be a healthy liberal worldview that can protect us from environmental changes where the conservative worldview is insufficiently reactive to he environment. I hope your "leftist federalists" can bridge the gap.

And, aziz, this is a great blog-- i really admire you comments policy. :)


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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.