The Ants and the Grasshopper

One bright day in late autumn a family of Ants were bustling about in the warm sunshine, drying out

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  1. Why “share”?? Why don’t we couch this in terms of “sell”?? Surely the grasshopper has some valuable minstrel services that he can provide to entertain the ants while they work…no?

  2. Avatar for nick nick says:

    That’s certainly the ideal solution here! Particularly in the case of a single grasshopper. Actually, as far as metastability is concerned, in the fable’s base case involving the ants and a single grasshopper, it’s perfectly fine to just let the grasshopper starve. A moral philosopher might challenge that view, but the moral philosophy of this is a whole other issue.

    In fact, you can easily imagine the Ayn Rand version of my “extended edition,” where all the insects are strict utilitarians. Here there’d be no need for any “metastability insurance” because of a strong consensus around libertarian utilitarian values as the organizing principles for society.

    Likewise, you can imagine a Scandinavian “extended edition” where all the insects are social democrats or whatever. That society may have a very different set of consensus values and an entirely different level of metastability.

    This is what I’m driving at when writing about metastability as a reflexive process, and why the social contract is necessarily something that’s negotiated. The obnoxious, twenty-five cent word for this process would be “dialectic.” Outside of relatively small, culturally homogenous communities, it becomes increasingly difficult to establish a strong consensus around values. The example of Prussia used in the post is a prime example. The Prussian “solution” to the problem of forging consensus around shared values at scale was to bind cultural identity to the state. It worked pretty well. Too well, in fact.

    Anyway, for the purposes of this post I’m not concerned at all with whether libertarian or social democratic values are inherently superior. I’m more concerned with the idea that at the scale of a large, technologically advanced nation-state, maintaining social metastability is a balancing act across different constituencies. Because a widening gyre is synonymous with a breakdown in metastability. And breakdowns in metastability are usually bad.

  3. I usually say I have a strong libertarian lean - which prompts calls of “weakling” or “traitor” from my hard-core libertarian friends. My entire argument back to them is captured (in a much better way) by this piece, which requires several reflective readings as it’s just that smart and important (I’ve been through it twice and plan to go back).

    My reason for “leaning” libertarian is that I’m fine with a hardcore ant-grasshopper world where we, literally, let grasshoppers die in the streets. I’d do my best to work - offer value in return for value - save, struggle and survive in a libertarian society, in part because I believe in its philosophical integrity and superiority and, in part, because I believe I’d succeed. But if I didn’t, I think (you never know until tested), I’d accept dying in the street as the outcome. I also believe advanced private charities would evolve, but that’s a separate piece of the philosophical puzzle.

    Okay, so why the “lean?” Because libertarianism is not politically viable in any country I’m aware of. As I tell my Randian friends, that’s a beautiful philosophy you got there - but from a practical point of view, get back to me when you’re no longer <5% of the population. Politics is often defined as the art of the possible; if so, pure libertarianism is an intellectual parlor game - fun, even impressive, but not practical - not possible.

    But its ideas can be incorporated into the discussion and that's where we libertarian leaners can have real-world impact. To the point raised in the piece, "So, where do we draw the line? Is there a way to balance a pragmatic view of social metastability with checks on the expansionist tendencies of the state?" a libertarian leaner can have practical impact. We can argue for - and educate to the benefits of - a limited government and raise risk concerns around an expanding one, but you can't do that if you are only talking to <5% of the public about the intellectual purity of, say, only having private roads - sigh.

    The second benefit of being part of the discussion is impacting what is described in this piece as a culture's / country's "core values and mythology." The traditional American mythology of the rugged individual / of a Puritan work ethic / of personal responsibility is being challenged by a collectivist one (see AOC for a real-time example). And it's that battle that will determine the future of America.

    To illustrate, I'll close with this: if America didn't have its traditional values and myths firmly established, the country would have experienced a revolution in the Great Depression, but socialism or communism - any revolution (I know, technically, socialism isn't a revolution) - was a philosophical bridge too far, so Americans slogged on through a decade plus of economic misery rather than wipe the American gameboard off the table. To show how much those traditional values and myths have changed, I sincerely doubt America today would endure anywhere near that amount of suffering before demanding a revolution (launched from a safe place, I guess).

  4. Avatar for nick nick says:

    Thank you for taking the time to provide such a thoughtful comment, Mark. This is a wonderful enhancement/extension to the original note!

  5. ‘Ants’ produce our food and energy. Grasshoppers pontificate at best. Grasshoppers want to dis-arm the ants, both literally and via Electoral shenanigans. Long live the ants!!

  6. Was unable to give a "thumbs up, so let me commend: high-quality thoughts, admirably expressed.

  7. Thank you.

  8. Excellent note, this was great. A thought:

    “I don’t believe it’s possible to divorce the expansion of the Prussian welfare state, and the Prussian state more generally, from the subsequent arc of German history. Prussia is a cautionary tale.”

    Absolutely. And to expand a bit on how complex and interweaved history, culture and sociology can be in determining outcomes that used to happened on relatively longer time frames in at least the 18th and 19th centuries: recall that some of these ideas toward a Prussian/German ‘welfare state’ came from events and ideas formulated from Prussian history. Particularly in education. The Prussian movement toward subsidized education had its seeds in a series of military shortcomings, including the Napoleonic wars, which led to ideas about decentralized command (Auftragstaktik) in military units through (initially) officer education among other things. This education system wasn’t limited to intent to military leadership principles, but to enhancing the collective cultural symbols, stories and traditions (Kulturnation) intentionally. The education reforms came significantly prior to many of the other welfare state initiatives, but as you said, they are part of the history arc pre German hegemony and are related to what happened with other social reforms later.

    So why I am making this point? The idea is that especially in history, that while ideas and history arcs that promoted major shifts in social metastability in various states happened at different paces (the Prussian example versus say the Russian experience of Marxist revolution - also undivorceable however from Russian history), the overall trend was from slower to faster. On a relative level to now, they happened at a pace that seems very slow by 20th and 21st century standards. I am sure the reasons are expansive - expansion in overall literacy, invention of the printing press, increased ease of transportation etc.

    So if mythologies are the bedrock of social contract, and the velocity of mythology is increased at an increasing rate (for lots of reasons that ET has discussed far better than I can), then does that inherently lead to waning metastability and more Really Bad Stuff? Is there an upper limit on the velocity of mythology change that if approached causes new embedded mythologies (reflexivity) that promote competitive (in a bad way) games that are hard to unlearn at a societal level? It feels that way right now. Not that ‘feels’ should be the framework for analyzing this!

    When we see capital allocators and legislators operating (let’s assume honestly) on the basis of current ‘Social Contract’ only to have a shift that entirely changes the outcome and create more instability on short term timescales (years) happen more and more often, is this entirely inevitable?

    I don’t know, but I feel like it is. It’s hard for me to not think that way, read Obama and Schumers positions on illegal immigration in the early 2000s that would be entirely untenable to Dems or liberals now (widening gyre), to massive capital projects that have complex regulatory processes being hijacked at the 11th hour (ie pipelines) when stakeholders thought that the process accurately expressed prevailing Social Contract. With more observers to these processes, are we more beholden to observer effects than ever before? I hope I am wrong that the velocity of mythology/narrative/social contract is inherently accelerating, and a certain level of velocity becomes incompatible with metastability. It seems that way right now, and while historically speaking my measurement period is very short, there are lots of examples over the last several hundred years that could generally support this idea.

    Thanks for reading my ramblings.

  9. And at the risk of being ostracized, I suspect we of the ET Clear Eyes and Open Hearts are not ants but actually Racoon Grasshoppers.

  10. Excellent article and discussion.

    I worry unfortunately, that the “Grasshoppers” have long figured out they can force future generations to pay for the food they eat today,
    since future generations don’t get to vote and millenials don’t understand it’s implications (perhaps the Fed has anesthetized us all?) .And the ants lost so many elections fighting that “scam” that they went along with their own “scam”, repetitive tax cuts, i.e. “supply side theory”

    I believe the original fable was harsh to prevent long term society breakdowns, not create them.

    Protect future generations, not enslave them to debt repayment.
    Never seems to be much discussion about that immorality.

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