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Monday, May 22, 2017

Excalibur Is a Cool Sword but It Doesn’t Create Wealth

No sword-clad king, no matter how wise or favored by destiny, can create wealth and peace.

The new and fabulous re-telling of the medieval King Arthur legend – King Arthur Legend of the Sword – is faithful to the original, and it is very telling. The great myth of premodern thinking was that the King was the source and summit of all life, the decisive key to whether people eat or starve, live in peace or suffer in war, thrive or die, go to heaven or not. If this is true, it’s really important that the right dude sits on the throne.

 One Sword, One Ruler

If there is a contest between two claimants to the throne, everyone will pay the price until it is settled. And this is precisely what happened in the case of King Arthur. His father once held the throne, and you knew he was the right one because he held the magic sword called Excalibur, which was forged by the wizard Merlin. But the King’s brother successfully plotted to overthrow him. The king son baby Arthur escapes the chaos to grow up and seek to regain his title.

There is only one sword for one ruler to make one law for the whole kingdom. Why is this?Famously, Arthur successfully pulls the sword from the stone where it had been stuck for years. But he didn’t really want to be king, so he threw the sword into a lake. The “lady of the lake” was having none of this and dragged him into the water, putting the sword into his hand, and thereby convincing Arthur that he needed to step up.

Watching all this unfold – it seems like a million people die in this PG-13 film – you can’t help but wonder if there is a better way. Democracy might be one option: instead of having wizards and lake-ladies picking rulers, a more peaceful path might be to let people vote. But that of course creates its own troubles, as we know too well. The skills necessary for campaigning are not the same as those that make good executives, as the experience of Donald Trump (and so many others) demonstrates.

The core of the problem is different. There is only one sword for one ruler to make one law for the whole kingdom. Why is this? For most of recorded history, this was just presumed to be the right way. Do you ever stop and ask why? There is nothing about social organization that requires this to be true. Instead of handing out swords, the lady of the lake should have become a merchant and sold stuff that people clearly needed more than a ruler, such as groceries, medicine, or cash advances.

Another Way

The film’s ethos is like every other of this genre. Everyone is beating each other up to get what they need to live a decent life. The beauty of modernity is that we discovered another way. We discovered that wealth can be created if we get the institutions right. Through production and trade, we can dispense with the bloodshed and serve each other to our mutual benefit. This is also a great way to inspire creativity and a sense of personal accomplishment, and foster genuine community feeling.  

The revolution in favor of freedom and against the power of the king is never permanent.No sword-clad king, no matter how wise or favored by destiny, can accomplish this. What a revelation! The first writings that speculated on the possibility of this new model of political, economic, and social organization came very late history, around the 16th century and following. What a great thing it was, too, and many people caught on. Two centuries later, we had a new way of living, one that vastly increased the wealth of all people. People started living longer lives, making progress in social status, getting food and medicine, and thriving as never before.

It all happened because we stopped relying on ladies in lakes to hand out swords and started trusting freedom to forge a better life for ourselves.

Today’s Divisions

The revolution in favor of freedom and against the power of the king is never permanent. Look around today. Daily we are roiled by non-stop political division. Maybe this was fun and exciting in the past, but it’s not now. It’s wicked, toxic, exhausting, and ever more so.  

Depending on your news source, you can discover that the leader of the US is either: 1) a savior protecting the country from a plot to destroy all that is good and true, or 2) a conspirator himself in a Russian plot to subvert democracy.

The narratives on what is true are absurdly divergent: different facts, different judgements, and an inverse understanding of good guys and bad guys. You thought it would end after the election? No chance. There is no end to it. This is your political life as far as you can see. There will be no healing; the sore is deepening, widening, and ever more insidious. You don’t want to play this game? Too bad. It’s forced on you. And there is only one solution. Someone must rule.

The lady of the lake emerges from the deep to hold in her hand a shining can of Coors Lite.Why are we doing this? It actually makes no sense. It is no smarter than the system of government that led to unending civil war in the days leading up to King Arthur. As for his reign, we’ll have to wait for the sequel but we know from other sources that it was fine for a while, until it wasn’t. War started all over again, due to an amorous relationship between the queen and one of the top knights of the round table.

What is the other way? It’s pretty simple: there does not need to be one system for all. We all have different preferences and desires for our lives. Markets we experience on a daily basis show the path forward. If you need beer, you could pick among hundreds of varieties, each with a different flavor, alcohol content, price range, and marketing pitch. As consumers, we check out all the types and make a decision. Later we can change our minds and get a different type. There is no conflict. Producers compete among each other for our affections.

Just imagine if there were only one beer allowed in the kingdom. The lady of the lake emerges from the deep to hold in her hand a shining can of Coors Lite. One beer for all. Certainly this would create civil war, inevitably. We fight each other for hundreds of years to get our way, until someone came up with the great idea of market competition.

And so it is for our current system of selecting one executive leader for the whole country. Half the country will be unhappy. There is no fixing this. It’s a tremendous waste of resources. There is no winning this struggle in any case. Plus, we have better things to do. The same principle that dug us out of the mire of kingly succession battles can solve the problem with presidents too. Diminish or eliminate the idea of One Ruler for All and you take away the source of conflict too.