Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.
[This article was originally published here.]
‘There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.’
― Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles
This article won’t be too political, but more philosophical in nature. It is a blog named ‘Bipolar Philosophy’ after all. The idea that there are no ‘solutions’, that there are only ‘trade-offs’, is something that I wrestled with as a young adult. I feel like I had this figured out young, but there was still this part of me that said, ‘No, we can make the world better. If people just did ‘this’, ‘this’, and ‘that.”
It wasn’t until I discovered the Tao Te Ching and other teachings that ‘there are no solutions’ really clicked for me in a much more humble and accepting way. Taoism may not be a thing for you. That’s okay. I’m not here to convert anybody. That’s just when it made sense for me and I stopped thinking I had all the answers for a ‘better’ world.
This article is just some of my own thoughts challenging my other thoughts. Perhaps, it will help others if they too are in a very militant spirit to ‘create some change’. And with all the things we see today with the elections, the pandemic, BLM, climate change, and a never-ending list of other problems — some old, some new — feel safe knowing that I am not here disguised as some moral hero.
We are just philosophers testing the thought experiment that maybe, just maybe, the world can’t be improved. That at the end of the day, ‘solutions’ are only trading one problem for another — whether they are immediately obvious or not.
Let’s start with something glaringly ‘obvious’. Our health and the advancements of medical science. How can we say that we haven’t ‘improved’ when it comes to our physiological lives?
Let’s go back in time to something we consider basic today, so basic we take it for granted with little to no appreciation today: plumbing and sanitation. Big cities were not really much of a thing until recently in human history. When people started to all live in the same place, building houses on top of each other, etc, we started living in cesspools of our own feces right out the front door.
It was unnatural, but we adapted. We brought water to people so they wouldn’t have to get it themselves from lakes and rivers. And we added more pipes so we could get rid of our waste in places far from sight, so we wouldn’t even have to know it existed after one flush.
Fantastic, right? I mean, this has to be one of the greatest inventions of man after the written word, BLTs, and WiFi. So, what could possibly be the trade-off here? How is this not just a 100% checkmark solution?
Well, it may not be obvious, and this may trigger a lot of hostility, but try to be open-minded as I point out a few things.
- We couldn’t have seen it right away perhaps, but as we started to grow and congregate and live all in the same place, building up rather than out, we can now see how cities are full of problems that usually aren’t as bad as small towns (if even existent). Yes, plumbing allowed millions of people to live on top of each other, but all these people living together… is it really such a great thing? Easier to make more money? Sure. More convenient shopping? Hell yeah! Is that worth the crime? Not really… Is that worth the existential dilemma of being a small fish in a big pond? Only for the really ambitious or high-level extroverts.
- The idea of ‘germs’, also known as bacteria, has become an enemy for the average person. In fact, we have become so obsessed with sterility that we created chemical products to eliminate this ‘enemy’: fluoride, chlorine, DDT, glyphosate, lauryl sulfates, etc.
- These cleaning chemicals are not only dangerous themselves, but they make us much weaker. The War on Germs is just as futile and destructive as every other ‘War on ____’. I don’t think it is a far cry to say that this is the cause of our, seemingly sudden, autoimmune disease epidemic of today. AIDS isn’t the only one. We also have: Rheumatoid arthritis, Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus), Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Multiple sclerosis (MS), Type 1 diabetes mellitus, And many more…
So, true, we may no longer die young, though truthfully our life expectancy hasn’t increased that much either over the past couple of hundred years despite all the advancements. Instead, we spend our extra time fighting chronic diseases that may lead to us suffering horribly for decades.
Is that a solution? Or just a trade-off? Perhaps if we learned to live more fully and honestly, we wouldn’t be so driven to avoid death that we feel the need to prolong life beyond what is natural.
Now, I know, life would be more fun and less stressful if we just didn’t have to worry about bills and could party and travel as much as we desired. Yet, in order to make that money to pay for that happiness, we have to ‘trade’ something for it.
Our time is the most obvious thing we trade in exchange for money, but even deeper, we give up a part of our souls. Our jobs can even change who we are.
Let’s assume we do get rich though. We find a job that adequately pays us correspondingly to our precious time here on Earth. That is clearly a win, right?
Well, evidence may say otherwise…
- In order to get that job that pays us so well, we may give so much time and effort that we lose friends and family. Whatsmore, how could we possibly find the time for a meaningful romantic relationship or give our children the time they deserve? We are all envious of the big dogs, the CEOs who make beaucoup bucks. Yet, it isn’t all smoking cigars with a Monopoly man monocle while sitting in a leather chair watching the ants work. Most CEOs work 80 or more hours a week. And those hours that they don’t work, do they really have the energy to enjoy their time off, or are they stressed by the constant competition of someone younger and smarter stealing their job?
- Beyond the physical toll that stress causes the body, the psychological evidence is displayed strikingly in the number of suicides by this ‘elite’ group. In fact, just in general, there are many more accounts of mental illness in the rich than there are in the poor. Given, this could just be due to having the means to be diagnosed by a professional, but I don’t think so.
- Poor people, despite all the existential struggles of living day to day, are usually ranked highest in happiness of any class. This is due to the fact that they believe and focus more on strong family ties and meaningful relationships with friends. They are there for each other. And being there for one another creates a natural bond between them. It forms an atmosphere of love that nourishes the soul beyond any form of material wealth.
So even here, it mostly seems like a trade-off. You can have money and luxuries. Yet ‘stuff’ will always eventually bore you. It will never fill the void the way love and true connection can.
The poor may struggle in fiscal ways, but they have the loving support of their peers to deal with that.
Everybody knows of the concept of ‘The Starving Artist’. It’s a stereotype for a reason. 99% of talented people can not make a living based purely on their art. There is just way too much competition and not enough people interested. Not to mention that nagging ‘Money-Art Complex’ we still haven’t overcome.
Is it fair that only a small percentage of artists can do what they are naturally good at doing? Well, maybe, maybe not. No doubt, artists do suffer hard from the Pareto Distribution (80–20 rule).
A man can spend all his waking hours, much like the CEOs mentioned above, to his work, yet receives little to nothing in return for his efforts. The artist sacrifices a normal life in pursuit of creation. S/he has to make the constant (yes, it is recurring) choice between barely scraping by doing what s/he loves or ignoring their incredible talent to go work some ‘normal’ job that doesn’t fulfill their true self. Either way, you may lose your sanity.
Still, it is a clear trade-off here: Do we live on through our art or through our children? Do we starve our hearts or our bellies?
For many, religion is (pun intended) a godsend. In a world full of chaos, religion provides stability. It is especially attractive to people who don’t have the ability of SELF-discipline or who are frightened by the idea of floating through space on a giant rock in the middle of nowhere.
Religion centers them and provides solace through its dogma and doctrines. It lays out clearly what a man’s values and morals should be. For many people, it may be the only thing keeping them sane and relatively ‘peaceful’.
I say ‘peaceful’ in quotations because religion is one of the biggest examples, that repeats throughout history in case you forget the lesson, that everything in life is just a trade-off.
When one of these preordained value systems is challenged by a new ordained value system, pull the swords out and push the plowshares in. Things are about to get bloody. Entire groups of people feel threatened. Their very identities are challenged. Their vanities are exposed.
- Old Tribal communities
- Vikings of the Norse Gods
- Christians against Muslims
- Catholics v Protestants
- Muslims against Christians
- Shiites v Sunnis
- Countless other cults…
Religion clearly shows that even something that preaches ‘love’ can quickly have the very opposite effect. My, isn’t this thought experiment about trade-offs just perfect for a blog about ‘Bipolar Philosophy’?
For most of the developed world, we’ve exchanged our former ‘solution’ of religion for government. It amazes me how many people now put faith in a power that is openly man-created rather than one that was secretly man-created.
I’m confident these same people 500 years ago would have been joining the new system of religion for a better world. But in current times, government is the parental figure people look to for salvation. The cool uncle rather than the boring parent.
Don’t get me wrong. We are trying. We have been trying for a long time now. Democracy v. Communism. Capitalism v. Socialism. Most will agree it is just a matter of finding the balance between the polar extremes. Yet, it still holds the idea of government as our potential saving grace from ourselves.
This is the Tao Te Ching coming out of me again, but I don’t believe there will ever be a utopian government to make the world a better place.
‘Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.
The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.’
— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
A utopian government is fun to think about like Plato’s Republic, but it is still just a fantasy, or thought experiment at best, just like a man in the sky that controls us.
[Do I have the answer? Well, yeah. Of course, I do. I’ve almost got it all worked out… just haven’t quite typed it out yet. ;)]
Still, until I do, let’s have a look at how the idea of government simply gives us trade-offs to debate and apply with fingers crossed, rather than providing simple and obvious answers. I feel like it should go without saying, but perhaps it should still be said: If there was an obvious solution to an ideal government, wouldn’t we have installed it by now?
There are many forms of government we have gone through in our human history, but the most popular ideas right now are based around one common philosophy: ‘Power to the People!’
Though the essence of the different political systems may be the same, they differ greatly in what reality that results in. Democracy is considered to be the best form of government in the elected world, whereas Communism is popular in China, South America, and on college campuses.
Though both believe in ‘power to the people’ as their defining principle, they end up with very distinct economic results and fabrics of society.
Communism in theory puts all the land, wealth, and power into an unbiased godhead of a government to distribute everything fairly between all citizens of a nation. However, despite having it tried in many different ways, in many different cultures, and in many different time periods, it has failed each time. Each time resulting in the deaths of millions of people and those that survived were really only equal in long bread lines with worn shoes that look just like the other guy’s.
Democracy, or let’s say Capitalism to really paint opposing forces here, gives power to the people by allowing them to own their own things with the promise that they are allowed to pursue happiness in their own way. This was a great idea and led to the wealth of many nations. Smith named his magnum opus correctly. Yet, this sort of laissez-faire freedom leads to corruption (as long as there is a government big enough to be corrupted). Big Pharma, Big Oil, and Big Tech can literally form a corporatocracy that manipulates or simply controls the so-called ‘people’s government’.
Both governments lead to corruption and power in the hands of anything but ‘the people’. So at the end of the day, we are never really deciding who gets to rule us, even in multiple-party systems with uncorrupted elections.
They both sound good on paper. They even work for a little while. They have their benefits. But as you can see, there is a trade-off. All governments, at some point, turn against themselves and poison the very people that they were set in place to protect.
Speaking of poison, let’s move on to drugs.
Many people don’t have religion or art or fanatical concepts about a utopian government to help them deal with the world. For most people, they deal with the stress of modern society with tobacco, alcohol, weed, Xanax, or whatever their drug of choice is.
We hate our jobs and our home lives are sometimes unbearable. Drugs help us escape this. And if we do drugs in wise moderation, they can actually be helpful to us rather than harmful.
But how many of us know how to use moderation. Eventually, we start to ‘chase the high’ or simply become reliant on our caffeine fix and antidepressants. We become slaves to the very thing that once helped us escape and deal with life. It is, sadly, as ironic as creating a government of freedom that turns into the beast that controls us, or a religion that should set us free from our worldly woes, yet only enslaves us in its pre-set doctrines.
Even on a more superficial level, drugs have obvious trade-offs. The ‘light’ drugs are the most addictive and cause the most long-term harm. While the ‘hard’ drugs give us an incredible feeling of euphoria, a euphoria that will quickly fall hard and fast. What comes up, must go down. It is a simple concept that always holds true, and an unwavering example of the trade-off argument.
It’s Not So Bad
I’m still not trying to convert anyone, but there is a reason why Taoists (practicing one of the old religions to date) talk so much about finding balance and accepting the duality of all things. The yin-yang is their symbol after all.
Whether we talk about governments, drugs, careers, health, or religions, we must walk the line between chaos and order that feels right to us. We shouldn’t approach choices as ‘this is the solution to solve all human problems’, but rather look at each choice for what it is: a trade-off.
The trade-off may not be obvious at first, yet however long it may take for the trade-off to present itself, we are no doubt giving up one thing to attain another and vice versa. By choosing one thing, we are at the same time not choosing every other option available.
We must be wise to try to see what the possible trade-offs will be ahead of time to truly measure the decisions we make. And we will get it wrong sometimes. That’s okay. We are on an ocean, with constant fluxes, some our own doing, some beyond our control. We just have to do our best to stay afloat as we sail along through life.
All this to say in a hopeful spirit that we shouldn’t look to ‘solve’ life. We should do the best we can. But along the way, let us enjoy all the wonders and blunders of existence we encounter. Every experience is pretty magical in the context of our conscious existence.
We can’t feel joy without knowing pain. And the more sensitive we are to these feelings, the more we will profit from them — good and bad. The tree can only grow as high as the roots go deep. Don’t let this bring you down. Without these ups and downs, life would be pretty damn boring and probably not worth fighting for or getting excited about.
Understand every decision is a trade-off and enjoy the ride along the way.
All the best.