[ExI] commentary from those safely outside

Anders Sandberg anders at aleph.se
Mon Jun 10 20:10:14 UTC 2013

On 2013-06-10 17:03, spike wrote:
> I have a question for you and those of you who are safely outside the 
> system: have you any commentary on what is happening in the USA? In 
> just the past few weeks, we have seen it revealed the IRS is corrupt 
> to the bone and is targeting its political adversaries, the Justice 
> Department is apparently corrupt and is targeting news agencies, and 
> when caught assigns itself to investigate itself, and now our National 
> Security Agency is being reported by an insider to be recording 
> everything. Clearly I am not in a position to comment: I could be 
> called in for an IRS audit and never heard from again. But you can. It 
> appears that all that stuff the alarmists were alarming about has 
> become alarming. Comments?

In a way the US has always been alarming. I did a little research for a 
blog post about whether we had become better at stopping terrorism ( 
), and found the list of US terrorist incidents rather alarming. The 
Wikipedia category "rebellions in the United States" also show that 
there were quite a bit more mess than that big civil war. When you read 
history you will see that there have been plenty of venality, corruption 
and very iffy legality of much what the federal government has done.  In 
short, business as usual.

What has changed is the scale of things. There are more people, more 
layers, more technology, more money, longer tails. Things that were not 
too bad when society was smaller and personal connections could to some 
extent rein in ambitions now get scaled up to enormous levels. J Edgar 
Hoover did some damage, but had to work hard at it. Now imagine him with 
Prism or drone technology.

The first problem for the US today is that it has scaling problems. The 
routines and assumptions in the political system - including the 
venerated constitution - were set for a smaller, agricultural society 
that worked very differently. The US has not undergone a real 
constitutional reform since its foundation (since it has always been on 
the rise it didn't need to).  As the US has boomed the differences 
between what they say and reality have successively become too large, 
somebody has patched the holes, and so on, building up a real mess. The 
result is that many institutions seem to be fundamentally broken. In 
most other countries there have been more recent (often painful) 
constitutional and structural resets, giving them new systems that scale 
better for the current era. (or just crash them)

The second big problem is that the US is starting to crash its myth. All 
societies are based on shared memes, often expressed as unifying myths. 
They give meaning and stability to the structure. When they break - like 
it happened in the Soviet Union - the repercussions are harsh. Nobody 
really wants to work for something meaningless, and nobody supports the 
structure. People who lose their collective myths feel bad too; they are 
part of the infrastructure of their lives. The US has had a few strong 
myths, partially supported by the open and critical society that has 
actually helped them by questioning them (just you wait until China get 
a similar crisis). But when the US is no longer #1, is not the moral 
guardian of the western world, and does not have a manifest destiny 
except as another big post-industrial country, then the US is in real 

That is my diagnosis.

Curing it requires a re-evaluation and reinvention, something that might 
be quite painful and dramatic, especially since it is easier in smaller 
and more cohesive societies. Since the US is largely held together by 
certain myths and cultural tricks this can be really hard - it is not 
obvious it is possible to unite 300 million modern people about 
anything. But the rest of us are standing by the sickbed with flowers 
and get well cards. (partially because Uncle China is pretty creepy...)

Dr Anders Sandberg
Future of Humanity Institute
Oxford Martin School
Oxford University

More information about the extropy-chat mailing list