Politics and the Limitations of Reality

The purpose of this post is to explain how political goals are limited by reality. Reality Reality is the state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they may appear or might be imagined. When we talk of reality, we are talking of a real world that exists independently of anyone's thoughts and experiences. We call certain propositions "facts" if they corresponds to reality.

Categorizing Reality Although there is only one reality, there are broadly speaking 2 ways to categorize reality. The first category relates to facts that are observer-independent such as the existence of particles, forces, mountains, and galaxies. I will refer to these phenomenon as Brute Facts. Brute facts exist regardless of what anyone thinks or believes. The second category is often more interesting and more complex. It relates to facts that are observer-dependent such as the existence of money, marriages, elections, and cocktail parties. I will refer to these facts as institutional facts. Institutional facts only exist insofar as they are represented as existing by human beings. (I briefly began to explain how institutional facts are created here). The fact that Barack Obama is president of the United States is an objective fact even though there is nothing intrinsic about Obama that makes it the case that he is president. Obama is simply president because everyone believes that he is the president. If someone were to say that Obama was not the president, he/she would simply be mistaken. The following chart visualizes various types of brute facts and institutional facts.

The Limitations of Reality Political goals are limited by reality. For instance, one cannot create something out of nothing. One must work with the materials available. If Howard Roark plans to build a skyscraper, he is limited by the brute facts of reality. He must understand the structural limitations of load-bearing beams, the effects of temperature on the contraction and expansion of the building, and various geological limitations, etc. Understanding how Roark is limited by institutional facts is a bit more complicated. He limited by whether he can find investors, he is limited by environmental laws, by zoning restrictions, by various city ordinances and other building codes, by the aesthetic tastes of the investors and by others in the immediate community. For example, the city of Charleston, South Carolina has extremely strict building codes that are meant to preserve the historical appearance of the city. Howard Roark could not build a skyscraper in Charleston, not because of any brute fact of reality, but because he is limited by what is institutionally "given". How do the limitations of reality apply to political goals?

Politics Politics, roughly defined, is the art of running government and state affairs. Politics deals with decisions made within a social context. When one desires to achieve a political goal such improving education, or increasing prosperity and human well-being, they essentially desire to change reality. This does not mean that they are trying to change the brute facts such as the existence of forces and particles. It means that they are trying to change social reality—or in other words the observer-dependent aspects of reality. The chances of success in achieving a political goal are increased when reality—both physical (observer-independent) and social (observer-dependent)—are understood.

Political goals are limited by brute facts It is a brute fact of reality that some social goals are impossible. The most basic brute limitations are resources and time. For example, a social goal to give everyone everything they want is impossible because resources are limited. This is called scarcity. Another basic brute fact is the limitation of time. Time is not free. The value of time is whatever alternative opportunities must be foregone in order to use it for a particular purpose. Spending 3 hours watching television costs the couch potato 3 hours that he could have worked and earned money. This is called opportunity cost. Everything has a resource cost and a time cost. Those 2 costs combined equals the total cost of every human activity.

Another vitally important brute fact to understand is human nature. The existence of consciousness itself is a brute fact and conscious beings have a "brute" nature. Human nature is a product of biological evolution. As such human beings are born with innate tendencies. We tend to be mostly self-interested but we can sometimes be cooperative as well. We have strong responses to honor and shame. Men and women vary in their respective natures. Men are more aggressive and women are more nurturing and social. We have free will to choose, but we do not have the power to choose the consequences of our actions. All of these aspects of human nature are observer-independent.

Political goals are limited by institutional facts Institutional facts are dependent on human agreement for their existence. They also ultimately rest upon or bottom out in the brute facts. For example, the institutional fact of money exists only because everyone agrees that it exists, but the status of money is always assigned to some physical brute fact such as a piece of gold, or a piece of paper or a magnetic trace on a computer disc. Once we have institutional facts we can examine how they limit political goals.  Since they are dependent on human agreement and recognition for their existence, political goals are limited by whether or not people agree to recognize a given institutional fact. if you are trying to change social reality and you do not have enough people in agreement, you will fail in your political goals. Institutional facts are like habits. The older the institutional fact, the more difficult it is to change it.

Brute facts about political institutional facts It so happens that there are brute facts about social reality. Institutional facts exist because people agree that they exist. But there are observer-independent results and consequence that do not arise from forces and particles or anything like that, but they arise from human transactions alone. Recessions fit this description.

Recessions are a social phenomenon and they would not exist unless people existed. But recessions do not exist simply because people believe that they exist. They are separate from things like marriages and money which only exist because they are represented as existing. If no one believed it was a recession, it would still be a recession. Whereas in the case of the existence of presidents and cocktail parties, if no one ever believed that they existed, they would never exist. The existence of recessions are brute facts that are discovered even though they are consequences of institutional facts such as buying and selling goods and services. Business cycles are brute limitations on political goals. We cannot create a good economy just by believing and agreeing to have a good economy. We have to recognize that there are some consequences that are independent of anyone's beliefs and intentions that occur because of human transactions.

Inflation is also a brute fact about social reality. The book The Ascent of Money by financial economist Niall Ferguson describes the inflation of 16th century Spain. "They dug up so much silver [in the new world]...that the metal itself dramatically declined in value—that is to say, in its purchasing power with respect to other goods." This inflation was not intended,  but it led to Spain's economic and imperial decline.

Summary I have tried to broadly describe the concepts of reality as it applies to a specific type of institutional change—namely political change. There are 2 categories of reality—brute facts and institutional facts. Political goals are best achieved when one understands and accepts the limitations of reality.