Social systems can always function better than they do at a particular moment. Whether there is a need to return to normal after an unexpected disruption or to try to permanently improve the system's performance, there is a never-ending set of problems to address. This book describes the contrast between addressing such problems from outside that system through politics and allowing the participants in that system to self-regulate without external guidance of this kind. This chapter introduces this problem and these two contrasting approaches to it, and defines some terms that are frequently used in the book.
Almost as long there has been a human species, we have formed societies based on the principle of political regulation. There is a small cadre of leaders often assumed to have the right to order the lives of other members of society, supported by a current monopoly of armaments. While not universal, this pattern has been the norm since the agricultural revolution. In particular, it is argued that the idea of continuous social improvement was hardly known in ancient civilizations. Only in the late Renaissance did a pattern of thought evolve that indicated that it is better to see the pattern and outcomes of human social systems as progressing, with such systems capable under certain circumstances of regulating themselves to better effect than outsiders could hope to regulate them.
Beginning in the 1600s, primarily in Britain, the Dutch Territories, and France, people not only tried to think about how the world worked (a pattern of thought as old as human civilization); they also agreed that there was much that was yet unknown and collectively built procedures for how to know more. The construction of the system for defining such knowledge and evaluating claims to be adding to it has been a gradual evolution that continues to this day. Among the landmark events discussed are the development of the ideas of hypotheses, the experimental method, free competition among scientific ideas, the use of the (growing number of) mathematical tools to arbitrate scientific claims, the development of modern research universities, the establishment and improvement of the peer review system, and the more recent addition of techniques beyond traditional scientific experiments as ways of supporting or falsifying scientific claims.
The question of how much free expression to tolerate hardly came up until the modern era. The creation in Europe of the printing press changed that and made expression a threat to long-standing social institutions. The nature of the new technology made it impossible to fully control the flow of books, pamphlets, and other printed material, but European governments tried. The argument in favor of a free press ultimately emerged, and the practice itself was institutionalized, mostly in Great Britain and northwestern Europe. The chapter emphasizes the self-regulating argument for free communication, that ideas beyond science would be improved if they must be subject to readers' scrutiny. Particular attention is paid to Milton, Struensee and John Stuart Mill. The arguments made in favor of the broad protection of freedom of speech that prevail in much of the world are shown to have significant self-regulating components.
There is a long history of condemning merchants as agents of social disorder and little advocacy of free commerce as essential to ensure the proper allocation of efforts across economic activities and promote socioeconomic improvements. This began to change with both Aquinas and thinkers in the late Renaissance in Spain asking different questions about how producers could be induced to provide goods in a way that benefits society. The contributions of Bernard Mandeville, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot and, Adam Smith are sketched. By the end of the nineteenth century, much of the general public and even political leaders in Europe and North America believed in the virtues of the self-regulating socioeconomy. Through colonialism and observation of the "modern" West's seemingly obvious successes, people and societies around the world began in ever-larger numbers to believe as well. But such widespread confidence was not to last.
The later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed arguments from social reformers and artists and economists that the new, spontaneously evolving society was deficient. It worsened poverty, and it impoverished the soul. The tool of political regulation, exercised in the growing political power of the emerging organization known as the nation, was called in to polish the rough edges of the self-regulating society. As time went on, political regulation gradually came to be seen as the default, and self-regulation needed to be justified. The chapter particularly emphasizes the growth in such thinking among socialists and progressives in the United States and Western Europe. The catastrophe of the Great Depression, combined with admiration for a Soviet Union, Italy, and Germany, where political regulators said they were rationally designing a better society, meant that by the onset of World War II, this presumption was firmly in place throughout the West.
Here the analysis turns to questioning the very premises that underlie the virtues of self-regulating social systems. Macro-objections agree that individuals cannot be assumed to be able to do what is best. It is the job of political regulators to take over and facilitate the development of society. Marxist theory in particular viewed history as unfolding inevitably, and so appalling cruelties were inflicted by Marxist governments to steer the revolution forward. The eugenics revolution categorized entire groups of people as genetically inferior, frequently because of their ethnicity. Politics was used in various countries to improve society by reducing births among inferior types. Micro-objections to self-regulation described individuals as incapable of being incented to choose what self-regulation requires. In either case, it is the essential task of political regulators to replace, if not destroy, the outcomes of the choices made under self-regulation.
This chapter uses the new Google nGrams database to track the rise and fall of different English-language phrases in order to illustrate the corresponding rise and fall in confidence in self-regulation. After briefly introducing evidence on the rise in the extent of political regulation over the last century or so, documentation is presented on the parallel rise in skepticism of the self-regulating socioeconomy and self-regulating science generally, and in skepticism of the cognitive capacity of individuals to make socially productive choices in particular.
There is good reason to be skeptical of the assumption that political regulation operates with the public interest in mind. Scientific productivity has continued to advance in the past half-century, as has the value and quantity of human expression. The argument in favor of socioeconomic self-regulation is identical to that for the other two systems. Yet recent scholarship suggests declining rates of economic growth in the wealthiest countries most subject to increasing political regulation during this period, while greater reliance on self-regulating economic forces has resulted in dramatic improvement of socioeconomies in the developing world. As political regulation of human expression has declined, literary, artistic, and philosophical achievement have expanded. Guidance is offered for how people should understand social change in their role as citizens and how they should conduct themselves in a world full of short-term instability but tremendous long-term progress.