Sometimes, it’s useful to step outside our usual political debates about programs and policies, about this or that candidate or pundit or official, and think a bit about a more basic question–perhaps the most basic question facing any society: how should we live together?
In my graduate Law and Public Affairs class, we spend a semester considering the American answer to that question. We discuss the effect of Enlightenment philosophy on our understanding of the role of the state, we examine the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the constraints those documents impose on policy formation, and we take a closer look at current policy debates through that lens. Well and good–the stated purpose of the class is to give public affairs students an appreciation of the myriad ways our legal system shapes our policies.
But every so often, I give an exam with multiple questions from which students can choose (“write an essay on one of the following questions…”), and among the choices, I include one that poses the following scenario: Earth has been destroyed in WWIII. You and a few thousand other inhabitants, representing a cross-section of nationalities, cultures, races and religions, have escaped to an M-Class planet. (I’m a Star Trek fan. Sue me.) Create a new government.
The question instructs students to identify the values they will privilege, the measures they will take to ensure stability, etc.
The point of the question is to shake students’ tendency to think that the world they inhabit is the only world possible; to get them to question structures and processes they take for granted, and to think about more basic questions. Typically, those who choose to answer my “science fiction” question, rather than the more mundane alternatives (immigration, taxation, environmental issues, etc.) are the better students, although even among them there are plenty who simply fashion their new world government after that of the U.S.,who simply replicate the world they inhabit, albeit with minor changes. (Most would get rid of the electoral college, for example.) Over the years, however, I have gotten some truly inspired answers–funny, thoughtful, creative approaches to that fundamental question of how humans should construct our social order.
The answer someone gives to that question is a pretty good clue to what they truly value–not to mention to their ability to understand what can and cannot be expected to work in a world composed of real, diverse and quarrelsome humans.
What “new world order” would you create, if you had the chance?