A New Golden Age of Governance

Jimmy Conover/Sunrise at Shiprock, New Mexico

The following essay originally appeared in print in Palladium 01. To receive original content in future print editions, subscribe here.

We launched Palladium in 2018 with “Towards the Post-Liberal Synthesis.” It centered our analysis on the exhaustion and looming failure of liberalism—the governing ideology of Western societies—and launched us on this Governance Futurism project to replace it. We hold to this vision: it is possible to build a new and better governing worldview that salvages the victories of our current paradigm and overcomes its flaws with a new and better vector for progress.

The intervening years have only confirmed the diagnosis of deep crisis.

At home, trust in traditional institutions of authority has declined. Political polarization has never been higher in recent memory. Problems ranging from climate change to deindustrialization remain unaddressed. Other problems equally as dire lurk beneath our notice. Abroad, countries such as Russia, Turkey, and Hungary are confidently locking in a more authoritarian model of government. China, the authoritarian state par excellence, is on track to surpass the United States economically and perhaps even displace it as the world’s preeminent global power.

Events in 2020 have only intensified these underlying trends, which have been visible for decades. The coronavirus pandemic was initially ignored, then bungled, then politicized and haphazardly managed with questionable competence at every level of our society. Widespread rioting and spectacular cultural upheaval—not to mention unprecedented partisan vitriol and recriminations at the highest levels—have challenged the basic assumptions of our society.

It is difficult to find social systems and institutions that are not merely chugging along, but unambiguously thriving. Is our educational system really producing the next generation of competent leaders? Is our healthcare system really preventing disease and healing the sick? Is our technology industry really delivering the cutting edge of innovation? Are any of our institutions functional in accomplishing their missions?

We certainly aren’t living through a cultural or artistic renaissance—to say nothing of the decadence and pseudo-legalized graft that defines our political culture. Moreover, our institutions increasingly fail even at chugging along and are instead beginning to embarrassingly explode. Californians are familiar with the result. The sky turns red, as if in warning.

These failures of governance cannot be dismissed as temporary speed bumps or unforeseeable complications. Together, they represent a pattern of a more fundamental long-term erosion of our governing institutions. It is this pattern that far-sighted foreign actors, from the Aga Khan to Xi Jinping, are responding to when they bet that the United States of America is in terminal decline and needs only to be placated and avoided until it inevitably becomes irrelevant.

Even if you recast our historical moment as merely a period of comfortable stagnation, that is not good enough. Perpetual stagnation, which is always fatal, becomes uncomfortable sooner or later. Our lowered expectations betray our felt sense of how well our society is doing.

But the growing recognition of these deep failures points to a shared understanding of a diagnosis and a cause for hope. American governance is due for an upgrade, and early adopters are settling into an appreciation of this need. With inspired effort on the right problems, we retain the potential to build the greatest society yet seen by history.

After two years of Governance Futurism at Palladium, it is time to more explicitly articulate the future we wish to build. This is the future that has animated our efforts, which we have explored in our work, and which our society must pursue if we are to retain relevance in world history. The future of our society is defined by our response to a few key existential problems:

A Golden Age of Political Engineering

The first and most important problem in our society is the one that makes all of this so tricky. We don’t actually have an epistemically flexible elite that could execute a change in direction to solve our biggest problems.

The fourteenth-century Tunisian scholar Ibn Khaldun described the cycle of how elites lose coherent vision and need to be replaced by wilder outsiders with stronger asabiyyah. The Arabic translates roughly to “group feeling” or “collective spirit,” but the concept is too important to be watered down with imprecise translation.

We have lost our elite asabiyyah. Our institutions have become zombified. Even a great improvement in our ideas will not itself fix our institutions, since ideas can no longer move them. Ideas require people with power in healthy institutions to implement them. With no ability even to have a frank and accurate discussion about our problems on sufficient scale to coordinate elite action, we can do very little.

Decline will continue unabated, and no other problems can be dealt with, until some new movement of sufficient power is able to fill that strategic leadership vacuum and build the institutions of the future. Such an effort will have to be animated by a confident governing philosophy able to coordinate elite political action.

It has become customary to say that we need to revive faith in liberalism, or to find some new religion or philosophy of the common good that could motivate us again to build and fight. But you cannot construct such a thing by fiat or in response to need. A faithless technocratic prescription of faith fails to achieve it. Life comes only from life. If we have only enough life left to lament that we are dying, then we should hurry up and die to make way for the coming world.

But on the contrary, as a society overall, we have no lack of vital faith in our mission. Our society is practically defined by glorious visions of progress, development, and shining cities on the hills of new worlds.

It’s just that, like any living system at the decaying height of its maturity, further growth has become intractable in the ossified main trunk of our society. Our real vital potential is concentrated primarily in small seeds—independent institutions and networks that have the potential to grow with proper cultivation. What is lacking is only the conviction that now is the time for these seeds of new growth to wax their ambitions and take root in the rotting nurse log of our society.

The project of building and maintaining coherent governing institutions does not happen overnight and isn’t finished even once a new paradigm is reached. It is a grand project that could occupy our concerted effort as a society for a century or more. Indeed, the process of dutifully stewarding our public institutions is never complete.

Let’s take it seriously as such a grand long-term project. We will find our feet with the seeds of some new paradigm and then set our sights on creating the greatest and most inspiring society. Rather than simply muddle through, let’s master the dynamics of government coherence, societal structure, historical development, and human flourishing. Let’s study the past not as trivia, but to reverse-engineer our predecessors’ greatest achievements. To become more advanced as a society, we will necessarily need a higher level of mastery of our own social condition.

The founders of the United States took this project very seriously and have been hailed as the greatest political engineers ever. Perhaps they were. But they won’t always be. We should surpass them.

As the failure of our current elite consensus plays out, the seeds of new growth must find their footing and support. No substantive collective political action is possible until that happens. Our priority must be to gestate the institutions, networks, visionary ideas, and ambitious live players that will form the backbone of our next paradigm.

Governments and societies, like all living adaptive systems, are strongest when they exert themselves towards great goals beyond themselves. The functionality of institutions can only be defined in terms of goals. And indeed, our institutional and governance quagmire is not our only problem. As soon as we have secured the roots of a new governance paradigm, and perhaps before, we will have to immediately turn our attention to our most pressing civilizational problems. There are many problems facing our civilization, but two, in particular, stand out in scale and tractability: industrial development and environmental sustainability.

Restarting Industrial Progress

Our second big problem is that we have lost momentum on real industrial development. This has not just happened in America, but also in the wider Western world. Huge segments of our economy have become essentially fake. We self-flatteringly assume that our slowdown is because we are a post-industrial “developed” society, as if we have already reached the finish line. The truth is that we stalled out and de-industrialized while we were only a small fraction of the way along the path of development.

The rhetoric of the “developed economy” rings false alongside potholed and crumbling infrastructure, food and transit deserts, empty industrial buildings, chronic underemployment, and shortage of quality goods. And those are just the problems we can see, leaving out the great advances we can still imagine. We are not anywhere near a fully developed society—we are mostly not even developing.

Many commentators write off China because it purportedly can’t innovate. This isn’t even true, but it illustrates how the idea of technological innovation has become something of a psychological crutch. We assume we are still great because we can innovate. We hope our seemingly intractable problems can be overcome with some wonderful new technology. But this is a coping mechanism for the loss of ability to pursue real industrial progress.

We have plenty of development left to pursue even with only twentieth-century technology. Vast empires were built in the age of wood, wind, and muscle. Much vaster empires than we have yet imagined could be built on aluminum, uranium, and silicon. Real technological growth can only follow on the basis of industrial development. Without a vigorous industrial base, future technologies will be stillborn, or immediately exploited by more industrious rivals.

Opportunity comes from leadership in commanding resources towards the opening up of possibilities and the clearing away of obstacles to progress. Progress on real economic opportunity, in turn, feeds back into new political energy. Along with a renaissance of leadership, we also need a great new renaissance of industrialization. This will mean both well-executed deregulation and ambitious industrial policy to clear the way and then push us to develop further.

Like our first problem of rebuilding a strong institutional backbone, getting back to the great path of real development is not an overnight project that can be achieved by a few policy initiatives within the current paradigm. Such attempts will fail, doomed to be recuperated by the much deeper structural forces that are generating our stagnation. To get real development, we need a wholesale reorientation of our priorities and deep structural change in how we organize and even think of our economy.

But despite the difficulty, a return to real industrial development is worth it. Let’s set our sights on the next real level of development and stretch our imaginations. Even by just harnessing present technologies, we can deliver progress only envisioned in science fiction. We could have orders of magnitude cheaper and more plentiful nuclear power. We could have megacities with ubiquitous high-speed public transit infrastructure and abundant housing. We could build domestic industrial ecosystems around all advantageous economic activities. We could master the craft of software engineering. We could put experimental industrial colonies on Mars and 16 Psyche. The limits of development are not yet in sight, if we make it our business to keep going.

Terraforming Earth to Save Our Environment

There is one place where new techniques and capabilities are definitely necessary, and where we must move beyond the paradigm of merely industrial progress: environmental sustainability. This is our third big problem and another frontier of necessary development.

Earth’s climate and ecosystems are not entirely stable in the best of times. We are now exerting unprecedented pressures through our extraction and pollution. Even with an unrealistic and disastrous contraction in industrial activity, we’ve already crossed the environmental Rubicon and are faced with an ecological collapse by default. Our choice is now between a vast expansion in our ability to control and develop our ecological environment to prevent collapse or a civilization-threatening environmental disaster.

Our environmental crisis is a control problem, not just a question of reducing our impact through the obvious waste reduction, recycling, and decarbonization; we need to be able to actively steer our environment towards desirable states. We rely on our environment for ecosystem services: providing for, regulating, and supporting our industries and population, and even our cultural and psychological health. We need to not just preserve, but accelerate and supplement, the health of our ecosystems. This means everything from climate geo-engineering, to wild ecosystem fertilization, green cities, and urban forests, measures improving soil health and biodiversity, desert greening, technological carbon capture, genetically engineered plastic-composting bugs, regenerative agriculture, and general ecosystem restoration. In short: we need to terraform Earth.

The governance of our environmental feedback loops as a first-class part of our social order is a necessary development as we continue to grow. If we do it right, it can be a beautiful fulfillment of our duty to protect and steward our natural environment, and an effective solution to our environmental impact challenges. Mastering our complex ecological environment will also feed back into mastering the human condition.

Much of the current resistance to environmental measures comes from a perception that we are treating our environmental challenges as an excuse to hold on to power in a slowly failing de-industrialized society. This perception is not unwarranted. But our environmental troubles don’t mean we have to accept or impose a lower standard of living. We can and should tackle the issue head-on with a great vision of environmental progress: we should master our environmental impact to cultivate a fully sustainable garden planet of unprecedented biological and industrial productivity.

A significant fraction of that resistance is also imaginary. Our elite consensus is not nearly as functional as it pretends to be. Of the three most important vectors of progress we have discussed here, environmental issues are the closest to existing consensus. We’ve known about climate change and the importance of our environment for decades, but the necessary goals have not been achieved. No one is powerful or savvy enough to do it, and so the endless accords and UN goals remain largely ineffectual. The central problem remains the construction of real governance, including renewal of elite culture and mechanisms of state.

The Seeds of New Growth

The imperative to develop a new paradigm of governance that aims at mastery of political engineering, and the large civilizational problems we could tackle from there like restarting industrial development and learning to govern our natural ecosystem, are three key frontiers of progress for the foreseeable future. We could usefully spend the next two hundred years mastering them.

We cannot pursue these frontiers of progress within our current institutional landscape. No matter how appropriate our vision is, it all hinges on our actual shift to a new and more functional governing paradigm, which needs to be the highest priority.

It will take years of practical institutional experimentation, studying the coming world, and pragmatic coalition-building to figure out the principles of a new paradigm and build the seeds of anything viable. Fortunately, American society is full of natural experiments, Palladium itself among them.

At its early stage, any new paradigm will be represented by a network of seed institutions. Like biological seeds, what matters with these seed institutions is not their initial scale. Rather, what matters is that they are operating on and developing a genuinely better paradigm, and that they can survive and grow as the society around them falters and even becomes hostile to growth.

This is how paradigm shifts actually happen in practice: the ideas and machinery of the new paradigm out-survive and out-compete the old by playing a bigger and longer game, and being more appropriate to the problems of the time. Independent institutions that are grasping towards something better in their own situations notice each other, trade ideas, and become self-conscious as a movement. Eventually, existing power centers notice this alternative movement and move to recuperate it. If this movement is willing, offers real solutions, and avoids the neutralization of its functional core, it can become the basis for a new paradigm. Otherwise, the movement is sidelined. The moment is ripe for this kind of disruption. All we have to do is build.

Since the beginning, the primary purpose of our work on Palladium has been to lay the intellectual groundwork for that paradigm shift. First in articulating and developing its ideas, and then in assembling the people to put them into action. Palladium’s editorial objectives follow from this overall mission:

  1. We need navigation-grade information about the society and political world we actually live in.
  2. We need visions of our future society that address that actual reality, which inspire us as Schelling points for coordination.
  3. We need to assemble a network of the most ambitious and creative thinkers and institution-builders to put those visions into practice.

In the first issue of our print magazine, distributed to our supporters, this article is accompanied by a selection of some of our best work so far on the specific problem of building a new governance paradigm and regime:

Towards the Post-Liberal Synthesis” by our previous editor-in-chief Jonah Bennett, we lay out our founding mission concept of a project to build a new governing paradigm.

It’s Time to Build for Good” argues that any program of rebuilding must be intensely political, and must explicitly engage with what we actually want to achieve as a society.

The Case For a New State Consciousness” argues that our elite culture has lost its sense of state consciousness, leading to a wide variety of social pathology.

Who Has Authority in the American State?” interrogates the concept and authority of the state in the context of the current crisis of authority in America.

Only the State Can Succeed At Decentralization” argues that functional decentralization is a productive collaboration between center and periphery.

Singapore is Failing at Digital Sovereignty” explores the disruptive influx of American political concepts into Singapore, and the importance of philosophical sovereignty.

The True Story of Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore” explores the messy pragmatism of how Singapore’s famous regime was actually built, and the limitations of trying to copy their model.

How Late Zhou China Reverse-Engineered a Civilization” tells of ancient China’s great movement of political reverse-engineering that created Confucianism, Legalism, and Taoism.

What Botswana Can Teach Us About Political Stability” examines the consistent presidential succession planning of Botswana’s royal dynasty.

These articles can’t possibly summarize everything we’ve learned on this key subject, but together they form a solid foundation for the paradigm-building aspect of the Governance Futurism project and its institutional seeds. We hope you find them useful. Future issues, and the rest of our work at Palladium, will cover all the other problems and insights we need to make this vision of new growth a reality.

This is Palladium’s mission, a contribution to society which we take very seriously. With the right information, the right visions, and the right allies, optimism and progress become possible again. We invite you to join us in this great mission: join our discussions, contribute your writing, and build the institutions and networks that will become the future.

Our society is facing a hard winter. But there is no need for resignation. Autumn is simply the time to let go, pull back the leaves, and plant the seeds of new growth that will come in spring. If we put the effort in now to lay the groundwork of a new and better paradigm, it can be a glorious spring indeed.

Wolf Tivy is Editor-at-Large of Palladium Magazine. You can follow him at @wolftivy.