When my family moved during the early years of my life, we went from an orderly big city neighborhood to a new and rising city which was barely settled in the area to which we moved. They told us when we moved in that you could not trust the police, the local mechanics were ripoffs, and many other facets of lore which rose naturally from the micro-culture there.
We quickly figured out as kids that it was not what you knew, but who you knew: formal roles were not really used, but there was always someone who had mastered some little skill and could get anything fixed. Even navigating the bureaucracy at the car registration agency had a “knack” to it.
Women served as the primary conduits of much of this information. They knew where to buy anything; in those days, the big box stores had not set themselves up yet and so we shuttled between dozens of small, independent, and iconoclastic stores, each of which was good at a half-dozen things and awful at a half-dozen others.
The maps in our heads told us what we needed to do in order to solve a problem. Our basic knowledge came out of old Anglo culture and its folk tales and homilies; on top of that, we could string together a list of tools based on what our moms and dads told us was available and good; the rest, as they say, was radical creative inductive inference, or “hacks” in the modern parlance.
Government did very little for us. If your connection to the city water supply broke, you called a guy who knew a guy, and he sent out a plumber he knew and they fixed it up for a mostly reasonable rate. The law was rarely evident, but old guys sitting on porches with their Winchesters and Mossbergs kept the bad guys driving on through.
If there was a break-in, we called the Sheriff’s office, and they sent out a deputy to file a police report. Then, we sent the word out to the neighborhood, and everyone became just a little more vigilant. The old guys nodded off on their living room sofas, young men were allowed to stay up late and keep an eye out, and community watch volunteers drove around shining flashlights in bushes.
When there was a natural disaster, we helped each other out. Neighbors ran extension cords to people whose power lines had been knocked down; women brought food to those who were afflicted. The men in the neighborhood would start walking at the end of a block, calling out to others, and by the time they reached a wrecked house, a whole work-party had formed.
Laws constituted an optional task. If it worked, we went with it, guided only by some general principles. Like the Greeks, we were hospitable and generous; like the Christians, we tried to do no wrong; like the Druids, we loved our land and would not tolerate its being spoiled by those who would dump, trash, and pollute it.
Things were not quite that simple. Every word in a piece of writing can potentially be the top level under which it is organized, and here the question of “we” arose. We meant us Anglo kids, and Negroes, Mexicans, Indians, and Asians lived somewhere else and maintained their own neighborhood. To the south was a Russian neighborhood and near it, an Irish settlement.
In addition, “we” carried and implicit but not formalized hierarchy. Formalization means you use rules, laws, incentives, titles, and procedures; we used know-how, elbow grease, hacks, and recognition of human differences. Every block had a leading family or two, and these people were acknowledged as the most competent and we went to them when there were problems.
For example, on our block there lived a fellow that we might call Mr. Harris. When something weird happened, we kids ran to him; he was home a lot, having a philosophy of doing the job early and right and then going home. I remember one time when a strange car showed up and someone offered a kid candy… we ran to Mr. Harris; he got on the phone, then went over and talked to the guy. While they were talking, a truck with two other big guys from the neighborhood showed up and they just stood around the car. We never saw that driver again.
When people from the big city visited, they were somewhat appalled. We lived in the Wild West, they told us. There were no decent stores, no organic groceries, not a cop on every street corner, and most of the kids spent little time in school. We did not emphasize book learning so much as being outside, being morally good, and focusing on family and personal quests.
By personal quests, I mean that every person of a certain level of intelligence had a purpose in life that they had to fulfill. For some, these were tasks like launching a business, writing a book, inventing a device, or becoming a certain role-bearer in the community like Mr. Harris. Every neighborhood needed a Mr. Harris. When we looked at the people cutting lawns, working in restaurants, doing construction, or so on, we saw a symbiotic relationship with another species; their quest was a closed circuit, and consisted of trying to avoid doing bad things too much, going to their jobs, and staying sober long enough to have families.
Our relationship to these people was dualistic. We adored them, but we never wanted to be them; for a heterosexual Anglo male, being black or Mexican (or god forbid, Indian or Gypsy) was like being homosexual or crippled. We had sympathy for people so afflicted, but we did not turn our eyes from the fact that they suffered a great disadvantage.
We viewed these people as benefiting from our rule by the obvious fact that we created economies which provided jobs, stable cities which had safer streets, and social capital like morality, wisdom, and know-how that made their lives better. To us, it was clear that being with us was materially better for them than being on their own.
This even extended to the genetic remnants of our serf class in the West. All of us kids knew the lower caste kids because they looked different. They had broader faces, stockier bodies, and different features including big brow ridges. They had trouble with basic stuff for us like complex sentences, multiple causes of an action, or long-term thinking.
In our Wild West, the competent took power simply by virtue of their competence. Any time a new challenge came up, someone rose up to master it, and in doing so, they gained themselves a place in the upper hierarchy. At the top were people who had it all — wealth, good reputation, good families, intelligence, health, beauty, and wisdom — and few doubted their right to be there.
However, none of these people were elected. None had official job titles. There was not a system, rather the absence of one. People organized into their own type of social order based not on formal rules, but on history. Whoever figured out how to solve a problem first, and kept solving it, defined his own role; everyone found their place in an unequal pyramid of interactions.
The great thing about a Wild West, like this semi-civilized city that we moved to, is that it offers positive rewards instead of negative feedback. We assume that everything is chaos until someone rises up and imposes order, and then that person gains a position unique to them and acceptance as part of the good people who are holding back the disorder.
On the other hand, formalism — the making of rules, laws, and procedures — insists that everyone be accepted and then sent to qualify themselves by means which the system itself measures. This naturally invites people to study for these tests, master them, and then go on despite having no abilities except for the ability to master tests.
When we look at the incompetence of our leaders, we can see that they mastered many tests — academic, social, even political — but are out of their depth when real-world problems arise. They know the “correct” answers, but not how to solve the problem, especially not for any duration other than an extreme short term.
Formalism makes us feel good because it implies a strong parental force that makes our future into a series of choices between uniform options. It removes risk by standardizing, wages peace by equalizing, and guarantees rewards by setting out a simplified list of tasks one must do to succeed which is easier than making something (farm, business, organization) work in wider realityland.
Every group, when it reaches a certain level of success and complexity, turns to external power in order to modify the behavior of its members. It does this instead of selecting those who are doing what it needs and throwing everyone else back; for whatever reason, the human mind favors quantity over quality, perhaps because in social settings, having more people doing something makes it more likely to succeed.
Formalism imposes a number of costs on the organization it regulates. We might assess these as ticks and tocks. Ticks are the number of delays caused by intrusion of requirements of the system; tocks are the delay in how long it takes to see effects in full as they filter through layers of administration and its requirements.
For example, each rule that a business must comply with creates a certain cost. First, in time; however, that subtracts energy, money, and time from what could be applied to the functional. Second, in risk; every rule or law can be accidentally violated, causing the organization to spend time enforcing it. Finally, in tedium: the more little red tape style barriers we throw in the way of activity, the less activity happens, especially among those who try to obey all laws.
Consider the bookstore which wants to open a café or coffee pub in the building next door. If all that is required is to rent the building, set up the shop, and start selling, this is most likely to happen. The more taxes, paperwork, court deadlines, inspections, notifications, and other ticks that are leveled on this new business, the less likely it is to happen.
In the same way, tocks hide the effects of laws. If a new law demands that all businesses drug test their employees, any other new law now faces another layer in which it can cause problems. If we add more freedom of contract, that clashes with the drug testing and must be fought out; if we allow businesses to engage in a new area of commerce, we have to wait additional months, years, or decades to see how well that works out with the drug testing law.
As any society grows more complex, “progress” appears, which involves having a large participating audience. This new audience do not have experience with directly making things work, and so they like guarantees of order, which are illusory — nature is in control here, not us — but since human thinking defaults to centralization, which favors one big powerful thing over many competing independent smaller things, the rules win out.
We see this centralization at every level. Not just government, like Lincoln’s federalism or Clinton’s regulatory state, but big box stores, open floor plans, freeways, and parking meters all show us this desire for false order. With success comes change, and with change comes lack of contact with that which is organic, or arising from the whole of the circumstances instead of the narrow view of human opinion, and so people naturally gravitate toward these simplistic systems.
Formalism champions that narrow view, instead of the more complex view of the organic whole, and translates into more rules which then restrict action. If you want your civilization to thrive, you keep it a Wild West: it moves dynamically, problems are solved at a local level, competition rewards the best who rise above the rest, and knowledge grows instead of being delegated to granular roles. In addition, people take responsibility for themselves and their own adaptation instead of externalizing their decision-making to powerful agencies. Humans grow in a Wild West, where in a formal system, they become domesticated and infantilized.
Education, jobs, tests, certifications, metrics, regulations, procedures, and even formal written religious texts are bad ideas; navel-gazing, or a formal inspection of self as if an outsider, arises as a psychological consequence, including the above-mentioned conformity. That conformity encourages people to rebel, dividing the organization into competing special interest groups.
Folklore, hierarchy, positive rewards, love, aggression, spending time outside, family, meditation, loneliness, and soul-searching are good, but these only come when we stop imposing ticks and instead allow things to develop naturally. Business, socializing, culture, and learning arise from these.
Formalism makes us powerless and sets us on a collision course with the more complex systems of nature. In nature, there is no autonomy, like there is no equality; we depend on these complex systems and adapt to them as we can, but cannot anticipate all scenarios or outcomes. Centralization attempts to do that and in doing so, stifles evolution.
Nature offers instead only infinite complexity, and that which responds on the level of fine detail — and requires people who are sensitive and can make fine distinctions instead of coarse ones — does well in nature. That which uses blocky, obstinate, equal, even, and rigid structures calcifies and collapses, much like most successful human civilizations.
True, we beat back nature; we built giant factories, cut down trees, paved the ground, and shot the wild beasts. However, nature also exists within us and our interactions, because nature ultimately demonstrates a mathematical wisdom based on billions of interactions over time. It is optimized, where our thinking reflects our wishes more than our knowledge.
Like morality, evolution works from this inner stage. Those who can adapt rise, and those who do not gain no reward. Over time, the rewarded behavior becomes the norm. A Wild West avoids formalizing this successful behavior so that each generation discovers it anew, keeping the “why” of the knowledge alive along with the “how.”
The stars await, but only for the human civilization that defeats its own inner urge to self-destruct. Since this urge comes from success, it means that it is invisible to us, and our “best intentions” turn out to have the opposite results in reality over time. A Wild West seems like a disaster, but in reality, it is liberation from ourselves, and the path to an infinite future.