The thing about interesting times

… is that you don’t officially know they’re “interesting” until they’re over. Or possibly ever, depending on how your life intersects with the rest of whatever’s going on.

I have no doubt at all that the people who were around through both world wars considered their times excessively interesting, just as those who lived through the Great Depression did. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that every year of every decade qualifies as “interesting” to those who lived it, especially those who had the signal “honor” of being adults through it.

It’s really not so much a matter of a particular time period being more interesting than any other as of life not being any kind of orderly process like we’d all prefer – not least because humans are very much a storytelling critter. We use stories to impose order on what is fundamentally a chaotic process that we can’t do much about.

Of course there’s a strong desire – if not need – for the stories to make sense in the way life doesn’t. So of course people have a tendency to attribute things going badly to some kind of malicious conspiracy against them, and things going well to their efforts or skills. Usually the former isn’t part of it, of course, and the latter includes what a person’s doing as well as a healthy dose of luck.

And when there’s a whole lot of people all doing what they think is best for their lives, well, you get interesting times. It’s one of the arguments that nobody is ever going to win because when it comes down to it, what’s best for me isn’t what’s best for my neighbor and might be completely incomprehensible to someone else – and that’s just talking English-speaking people who have a more or less common cultural set of references.

It’s why top down planning fails when you try it for anything larger than a family – and why it’s usually kind of creaky at a family level, too (since most parents will share the decision making, and as the spawn get to be old enough to express preferences and sensible enough to take some responsibility, they’ll start to have their preferences considered in the decisions). It’s also why purely bottom up decision making is much messier, takes much longer, and usually ends up with a compromise.

There’s a saying I’ve heard (but don’t remember where it came from) that goes something like “the most effective form of government is a benevolent dictatorship – but it’s almost impossible to find one that starts that way, and probably is impossible for it to stay benevolent”. Messy and frustrating as it is, the whole process of elections and voting and representative democracy or republic is pretty much the best option long or short term.

It’s definitely the only option that’s proven to consistently generate and keep most people who live in one healthy, happy, and free. Well, mostly.

What it doesn’t do – ever – is give everyone the quiet and above all predictable life that most people I’ve known really want. It all comes down to human nature again – the number of times I’ve found myself retreating from otherwise intelligent, sensible people who just want someone in authority to tell them what they should be doing is, in all honesty, terrifying.

As Pratchett pointed out in (I think) Pyramids, a lot of people would prefer predictable slavery with a decent owner. And preferably, two weeks vacation (running away from the owner time), three guaranteed meals a day (one with named meat), and someone else having to pay the medical bills.

I can’t say I’m not somewhat attracted… except that there’s no guarantee that any such arrangement will stay that way, not when power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. No matter the attraction of the predictable safety of someone else looking after me, I’d rather stick with interesting, even with the drawbacks.


  1. Benevolent, in comparison to what?
    Considering the alternatives, it’s arguable that Pinochet and Franco qualified. (Mandatory disclaimer: they were both murderous thugs who I do not admire. They look good in comparison to the communists they fought against, but that is damning with faint praise.)
    Singapore seems to be doing pretty well for itself, despite having almost no political freedom. Sure, the law about chewing gum is petty, but not capricious. Everyone knows the law, and it’s enforced without fear or favor. (And seriously, any kid that vandalizes other people’s property *deserves* to have his buttocks caned. Even, or especially, if his father has wealth and power.)

    1. Singapore as it stands is a pretty decent example. Prussia under Frederick the Great may have qualified.

      By “benevolent” I mean being pretty much an absolute ruler but still making sure the law is as just as possible in the circumstances and aiming to have that law enforced without favor to any faction. It also includes things like not having one’s enemies disappeared, murdered, or otherwise dealt with in an extra-legal fashion – which rules out Franco and Pinochet.

      One could argue that in choosing not to intervene with the running of the British Government when she clearly had the power to do so (and reportedly loathed at least one of the Prime Ministers who served during her reign), Queen Victoria met the criteria to the extent that when she died it had become pretty much unthinkable for a British monarch to exercise their power.

      1. That response is too glib by half.
        Outlawry was long an official part of the legal system and for good reason. Whether one was branded a wolfshead or hostis humani generis, there traditionally has not been an expectation that those in open opposition to the Law would benefit from the protections of the Law.
        The way to deal with The Shining Path murdering police, assassinating judges, and disappearing citizens was to haul the members in front of a judge and have witnesses give public testimony? Yeah, that’ll work out. (rolls eyes)
        The purpose of Law is to protect the citizens who consent to the Law. You’re implicitly arguing that Law must work against its own purposes, and is further unbound from any allegiance to Justice. There really isn’t any question that Pinochet was pursuing the purpose of Law in protecting citizens. Further, Justice demanded the deaths of those who had been terrorizing the populace with wanton slaughter, so he’s on solid ground there, too. Of course, there’s the acid test unbound by devotion to abstract ideal: what were the fruits of his efforts? And they’re almost universally positive. And from a baseline of what things would have been like without his interference, there’s no overstating the positive influence he had. (Shrug) Thus it can be easily argued that a rather horrible person, was a benevolent dictator who accomplished great good.
        It’s a truly fascinating case study.
        (There are also examples running the other direction. King Stephen was one of the most moral kings England ever had. And quite possibly the worst.)

  2. Different thought, so different post.
    It is my opinion that however much the zealots of socialism are goaded by envy (Lord, are they a hateful bunch), it is the promise of stasis that causes much of society to support them.
    This, in turn, makes opposing the march of socialism a tricky balancing act.
    It’s all well and good to show and mock the evil of the true believers, but that isn’t going to be persuasive to anyone on the other side. Those following along because of the evil won’t be put off, while the larger group knows that they’re personally innocent of the charge, and resents the implication that they’re guilty by association.
    At best, we successfully replace a clumsy snake with a subtle one. At worst, we successfully convince a chunk of people that the evil is a necessary one.
    It needs to be done, both for our morale, and to fight for the uncommitted middle.
    But there is a cost.
    Everything has a cost.
    Especially passively bleating that “this hill isn’t worth dying on”. (Our self-proclaimed intellectuals are such f***wits.)

  3. As Pratchett pointed out in (I think) Pyramids, a lot of people would prefer predictable slavery with a decent owner. And preferably, two weeks vacation (running away from the owner time), three guaranteed meals a day (one with named meat), and someone else having to pay the medical bills.

    Really what that describes is childhood. Your parents are the dictators, but they give you food and a place to sleep and will take care of any doctor’s visits you need. You could even argue summer camp fits the “two weeks vacation.”

    Growing up sucks. Being a free adult is hard and tiring and not a lot of fun. But it has to be done.

    1. Growing up sucks. Being a free adult is hard and tiring and not a lot of fun.

      I’m pretty sure I disagree. I’m not sure where my problem with that statement lies, though. When I run it through the “but consider the alternatives” filter, I certainly agree with “but it has to be done.”

      Flipping it around (“being a free adult is easy and energizing and tons of fun”) is clearly not true (at least for me). Something about it grates.

      Maybe add to it: But it has to be done and it’s worth it.

      1. Being a Free Adult is wonderful. You make your own decisions, for better or worse. But they are yours. (Child of two control freak parents, here.)

        It’s like Indie writing/publishing . . . no wonder I like it so much!

        The desire to be controlled and be taken care of is horrifying to me, a shrinking of the human soul. I pity those lost children who are afraid to grow up and take responsibility.

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