The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Monday, June 13, 2005


In the famous Chapter XIII of Leviathan ["Of the Natural Condition of Mankind as Concerning Their Felicity and Misery"], Thomas Hobbes writes:
Again, men have no pleasure (but on the contrary a great deal of grief) in keeping company where there is no power able to overawe them all.
Yet nations, in general, manifestly have more profit than loss from keeping company; throughout history isolationism has been a recipe for decline. Of course nations are not people; but this difference is sufficiently stark to merit exploration.

Two primary differences seem immediately obvious: irresolution and immortality. Nations are by nature less resolute than the individuals who populate them, since all actions are ultimately undertaken by individuals. This multiplicity of impulses makes it easier to entangle a nation with the small mutual ties that encourage peace, and harder to summon the will to enter the negative-sum game of war. [I will attempt a follow-up post giving more detail on this.]

The second characteristic, immortality, might be better called durability. The salient characteristic is not a tendency to longevity (which I will call "weak immortality", but a great capacity to resist destruction. If, in the state of nature, I covet my neighbor's possessions, I may cut his throat in the night and avail myself thereof. But if on behalf of my nation I covet, say, some small islands of England's, this option is not open. Nations can be relied upon to endure, in the majority of circumstances, and thus to seek redress or revenge against their attackers.

These two conditions produce, between them, a state where no moral restraint is needed to prevent war between nations. By decreasing both the necessity for and the advantage of preemptive war, they make possible the condition colloquially known as "peace".

A great advance in the technological power of mankind has the power to change both of these conditions. Short of outright mind control or brainwashing, more invasive governments can increase their power over their citizens so as to effectively increase the resolution of their nation. The internet is seen as a tool for freedom, and thus for irresolution; but this only remains true as long as the innovations of freedom outpace those of control. And research into mind- and emotion-altering drugs, which may point to more direct forms of control, continues to progress.

Still more importantly, the immortality of nations can now be called into question. Wretchard's Conjectures at Belmont Club have discussed the possibility of the Islamic world's destruction by non-state actors. There can be no serious doubt that America has the technological capability to tailor deadly gene-linked diseases; and we may not be alone in this. Even beneficial changes, like the spread of information, bring the threat of permanent dissolution for nations that cannot win their citizens' affection or keep them imprisoned in ignorance.

It might seem that increased human longevity would counteract these destabilizing forces. But human longevity, even in Drexler's extreme vision, offers only weak immortality; there is little hope in the near turn that individuals will gain in durability. A long but fragile life may be defended even more fiercely than a shorter one.

The bounds on the conduct of nations are dissolving. The idea of a self-enforcing international law to which all will subscribe as a matter of course is a quaint fiction. One solution is American hegemony; the potential advocates of alternative feasible solutions are busy ignoring the problem.