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Opting Out

I read Graeber and Wengrow’s excellent Dawn of Everything – maybe around this time last year. Unfortunately, it’s one of those books that is so monumental and filled with details, that you end up forgetting half of it by the time you’re done, let alone a year later.

Here’s a PDF of the book, which helped me refresh my memory. One of the strands they pull on a great deal in it has to do with especially the Huron-Wendat nation as an example where it was possible for individuals who did not agree with a collective course of action to simply not go along with it. Effectively, to opt out.

There are many references to this throughout the book, but one prominent one is from 1644, a Father Lallemant, who wrote:

I do not believe that there is any people on earth freer
than they, and less able to allow the subjection of their
wills to any power whatever – so much so that Fathers
here have no control over their children, or Captains over
their subjects, or the Laws of the country over any of
them, except in so far as each is pleased to submit to
them. There is no punishment which is inflicted on the
guilty, and no criminal who is not sure that his life and
property are in no danger…

The book’s authors continue:

After expanding on how scandalous it was that even
murderers should get off scot-free, the good father did admit that, when considered as a means of keeping the peace, the Wendat system of justice was not ineffective. Actually, it worked surprisingly well. Rather than punish culprits, the Wendat insisted the culprit’s entire lineage or clan pay compensation. This made it everyone’s responsibility to keep their kindred under control. ‘It is not the guilty who suffer the penalty,’ Lallemant explains, but rather ‘the public that must make amends for the offences of individuals.

This idea has been kicking around in my mind ever since reading this book, and lately I have been wonder on whether and how it might be applied today.

It is what lead me into recent meanderings around the notion of the consent of the governed. And whether, if under a system based on the consent of the governed, it is ever just to use coercive power against those who have withdrawn consent.

Wengrow and Graeber return throughout the book to what they call the three essential freedoms:

(1) the freedom to move away or relocate from one’s surroundings;

(2) the freedom to ignore or disobey commands issued by others; and

(3) the freedom to shape entirely new social realities, or shift back and forth between different ones.

And they add:

The three basic freedoms have gradually receded, to the point where a majority of people living today can barely comprehend what it might be like to live in a social order based on them.

As I said in my last post, one way I like to use ChatGPT is as a means to probe the will and intelligence of the faceless collectivity. In my conversations with it, the bot too seemed unable to conceive of a political system which included the right to opt out or not follow along with the majority.

In seeking contemporary examples, it spoke a bit about conscientious objectors (which really only applies to military action, that I’ve seen – see also: the right not to kill), and was vague on other kinds of moral exemptions one might seek within narrow circumstances. Unfortunately, the only discussion I’ve seen on moral/religious exemptions has been related to Covid-19 measures. I don’t want to get into that hornet’s nest, but do want to open up a much larger one: what if people in a society were simply able to opt out of any regulation or measure?

Chaos? The end of government? I’m not sure, but it’s an interesting question to pick apart. Especially in the light of Graeber & Wengrow’s book, which seems to offer historical evidence of it indeed working – albeit on a different scale than in the societies we live in today. Could it scale though? What would it take? What would it look like, where the coercive apparatus of the state was dissolved, and people only followed along when and where they decided they wanted to?

There was an interesting line in that Guardian article about the demise of nation-states which speaks to the “freedom to move away” element described above:

… it is unjust to preserve the freedom to move capital out of a place and simultaneously forbid people from following.

That argument is a bit different from ours, since it involves discussion of financial regulation, and the flow of money, but it speaks to the same core idea: if you don’t agree with the political system (i.e., you withdraw consent), then what are your actual options practically speaking? If the state can still exert coercive force on you, even after you’ve withdrawn consent, how can we say with a straight face that governance is based on consent? We can’t really. If you’re lucky enough to have the ability to move away, you might try to find a better match for your beliefs elsewhere. But most people don’t have that luxury, and so are subject to powers they don’t necessarily consent to in any other manner than passively.

Anyway, I have to go, and as usual, I don’t have answers, just more questions. I’ll see if I can’t turn this line of inquiry into a new AI lore book that explores these ideas in other more ‘weird’ scenarios… More soon.


Consent of the governed


Is democratic AI possible? Desirable?

1 Comment

  1. Tim B.

    i cant copy paste but some interesting bits here:

    they suggest that communities splitting into smaller groups was a way to preserve harmony when consensus could not be reached

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