Laurel & Hardy, Babes in Toyland, 1934

We humans find ourselves in an awkward – perhaps fatally awkward – circumstance. We seem unable to safely and morally manage the technologies and systems we are clever enough to invent.

From Bhopal to Chernobyl, from Three Mile Island to the Gulf Oil spill, from New Orleans levee failures to the Japan nuclear crisis, we have failed time and again to adequately prevent or prepare for man-made disasters or respond adequately when they occur. I could add other items to the list:  DDT, pharmaceuticals that kill, and financial systems that destroy global economies.

We are babes in a dangerous toyland, convinced of our own Promethean powers only to be undone when our magical machines explode.  We are like Grumio, Toymaker assistant in the 1961 film version of Babes in Toyland, driving our toymaking machines to the breaking point.

Human invention is not the problem. The problem is political. We lack the collective will to safely manage our systems and inventions. In the case of the grandest failure of them all – the global climate crisis – we are going to need all of our creativity and inventiveness if we are to avoid catastrophe. And we are going to need to apply that creativity as much to political problem-solving as to technological innovation.

It’s fair to say that among other differences liberals and conservatives divide along this fault line. Conservatives believe the systems are better off without human intervention, denying that they were created by our intervention in the first place! In their faith, the Free Market is Divine Providence and fallen humans should keep their sinful hands off the levers. Liberals believe we need to be more deeply engaged in the operation and management of systems we invent.

The failures noted above, of course, are not limited to capitalist democracies all of a kind. There are profound differences among governing systems in the former Soviet Union, India, Japan, and the United States. Heavy-handed centralized state management is as inadequate as our (theoretical) laissez-faire political economies.

The problem is complex and much harder to confront than it is to glibly describe. Social and political organizations are not machines. They are emotion-laden collections of diverse people and interests. We are connected to one another by fuzzy attractions and repulsions. There’s no Intel chip at our center.

I won’t digress about the ideological baggage of much science and technology, but it seems obvious that human political thought and action is so freighted with bias, self-interest and ideology that some different rules apply. The “psychohistory” of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series – the reduction of human behavior to mathematical formulae – is science fiction.

Still, much of our political thinking follows lines similar to Asimov’s. This is ideology, whether it’s the myth of perpetual progress in classical liberal thinking, historical inevitability in Marxist thinking, or the belief in the divine status of a free market in conservative thinking. All assume their answers from the outset. All believe human behavior is predictable. All rely on a very shaky determinism.

We are not likely to find workable solutions in the so-called “Third Way,” that is nothing more than brainless compromise between inadequate approaches.

It does not mean that creative answers cannot or will not be found. As a start, we should collectively decide to apply our creativity and inventiveness to our all-too-human circumstance. Egalitarian or popular democracy is a profoundly creative approach to political, social and economic organization. We can be proud of it and other political inventions, even if we have failed to fully adopt them.

It’s not beyond or ability to safely and morally manage our systems and inventions. So far, it has been beyond our will. That, we can change.

Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith