An explained hiatus; governance; song of storms
"I went out to a hazel wood because a fire was in my head"
machines + society
Mako Shen | October 10, 2021
This will be the last edition of Machines + Society for the foreseeable future. However, it will not be the end of my writing online. For those who have been following me, you know where to find me. For those who haven’t, email me and I may let you know.
Questions about Governance
The Allegory of the Good Government and Bad Government, Ambrosia Lorenzetti.
I'd been curious about 'governance' for a while and wanted to understand the crux of the debates. The process of generating questions has been really helpful for me in trying to understand a new topic so I decided to do just that. I ended up doing a brief overview of the history of governance.
I'll be using the descriptive/normative division to organize the questions.
A brief note before I get to the questions: as David Levi-Faur points out in the Oxford Handbook of Governance, the term 'governance' has been introduced only very recently. I am using the term 'governance' in line with Elinor Ostrom's use of the term; 'governance' refers to the negotiation of rules, strategies, and norms that guide behavior within a political realm.
Here are the questions (very roughly following the order in which they were first asked):
what are the different forms of government regimes?
what are the different types of societies?
what types of taxonomies may be used to categorize societies at large?
what is an institution?
how can understanding institutions help us understand society?
how have past institutions successfully averted the tragedy of the commons?
what are the tradeoffs in values between different voting systems?
what is the ideal state?
what is the scope of divine positive law? Can humans experience salvation in the absence of divine law?
what is the justification for forming a state?
how should states respond to change?
Should we value material equality as a direct outcome? Or rather do we care about the total wellbeing of individuals in society? Or some mixture between the two?
how should we consider the importance of future people?
For further reading, I recommend both the Oxford Governance textbook, and Leo Strauss' History of Political Philosophy.
 There is a tradition of attempting to classify various forms of the state stretching back to Herodotus, Plato, and Aristotle (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ancient-political/), both of whom attempted to answer the following questions like 'What are the different forms of government regimes? Which are good and which are bad?'. Evidently, the normative and descriptive lenses are intertwined from the beginning. After Aristotle, however, most of the focus seems to have shifted to the normative questions.
 As best as I can tell, there was somewhat of a revival of interest in more descriptive analyses of governance in the 1940s. Social/political anthropologists like E.E. Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Fortes used case studies of the Nuer people in Ethiopia to build general theories of society (and its governance).
 Much more recently, thinkers such as Vincent and Elinor Ostrom have refined and specified the descriptive questions, placing emphasis on the institution as the base unit of governance. Elinor Ostrom in particular is unusual among economists and political scientists for placing large emphasis on descriptive fieldwork. In the last decade, her descriptive analyses have also been extended into digital spaces, notably in studying the open source software ecosystem.
 As mentioned in footnote 1, the Greeks are among the first on record to have considered the ideal state. However, it is worth noting a parallel trend within the east. The Guanzi (管子), an epic tome that covered topics ranging from soil topography to state savings, also prescribed how a state should be ruled. It included principles such as "success in government lies in following the hearts of the people" and "make clear the road to certain death" for those who go astray.
 Sometime after the Greeks, much thought about governance became highly entangled with religion. The most noted intellectuals from the Medieval period (~300-1500 C.E.), for instance, were scholars like St. Augustine, Alfarabi, and St. Thomas Aquinas.
 No, according to Aquinas.
 During and after the European enlightenment (>17th century), debates between people like Hobbes, Locke, Rosseau, Burke, and later, Marx, shifted the normative focus of governance from being so tightly entangled with the church. Out of the storm of these debates rose the four broad political philosophies of liberalism, communism, conservatism, and anarchism. The distinctions are roughly as follows:
Classical and modern (aka social democratic) liberalism both accept Rosseau's idea of the social contract, but have different conceptions of the ideal state. Classical liberals generally want less government intervention whereas modern liberals are in favor of more government intervention.
Communism is a reaction against capitalist conceptions of the ideal state; rather than private ownership of property, communist thinkers advocate for an ideal state where there is no stratification by economic class. The most popular actualized form of Communism is Marxist-Lenninism, whereby a large central government, run by the people, comprised the entirety of the state.
- Conservatism is largely motivated by the idea that states should respond to change gradually. This contrasts starkly with Marxist arguments for radical social revolution. Conservatism is highly multidimensional; one may be a fiscal conservative, calling for minimal government spending and debt, but not a cultural conservative.
Anarchism is motivated by a skepticism for any justification of a state. It generally rejects all involuntary forms of hierarchy — in most conceptions, the ideal state doesn't have any form of government.
 I would be remiss not to include mention of ethics, which encompasses discussions of how resources should be distributed among populations. Egalitarians value equality directly. Utilitarians care about total wellbeing (however defined). Prioritarians are a mixture between the two.
📰 Assorted Links 📰
Alain Bombard’s Castaway Cuisine. The story of Bombard, who believed you could survive at sea by drinking small amounts of seawater. Short and recommended.
The image of men drowned in their life jackets remained with Bombard, by turns haunting and bedeviling him. He became convinced that the trawlermen needn’t have died, and they wouldn’t have done so if only they’d known what action to take to save themselves.
At submarine cable landing points, particularly in the low latitudes, it is important to have mechanisms for electrically isolating cables connecting to higher latitudes from the rest, to prevent cascading failures.
🎧 Music 🎧
Imaginary Ambition — Take Five but it’s Song of Storms. A major cover of ‘Take Five’. I especially like the flair of the left hand.
Ave atque vale, my friends.