A Thought Experiment

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?


  1. As a fellow Star Trek afficiando, Sheila, I need to advise you that a recently defeated Indiana U.S. Senate candidate whose last name begins with the same letter has laid claim to that M-class planet you refer to. Most likely he’ll be formulating his own contributions to your thought experiment between trying to pay off his campaign debts. Clearly he won’t want any part of a First Amendment since the press is only concerned with electing his opposition. The preamble to his Constitution almost certainly will begin with “As God intends……”. So better to take your students to “N” or “Q” planets. I think Southwest Airlines flys there.

  2. First, Sheila, thank you for using “myriad” properly. The word’s an adjective, not a noun–despite the trend of trying to make it so. (Forgive me for the STTNG reference.)

    Second, would you mind sharing the syllabus or at least the reading list for your course?

    Third, thank you for teaching a course like this. The whole issue of “how should we live together” is completely lost in today’s politics. Have you considered putting the course up on iTunes U?

  3. The “Q” planet, Don??? Oh, surely not. The Continuum would not be amused.

    As far as Star Trek goes, didn’t “Pattern of Force” already cover this?

  4. Varangianguard: OMyGod, I totally forgot about “Q”. (Sheila wouldn’t – she likes “Next Generation” – the original not so much…right Professor Kennedy?) Man, er….person the battle stations….warp speed Mr. Sulu….there has to be an “R” planet within a couple of light years.

    (Meanwhile, Kennedy seriously considers moderating comments to her thoughtful and serious posts to keep unserious Klingon’s from sabaotage eminating from the Neutral Zone>)

  5. Clearly, people who read my blog also read and watch the things I do! Yes, Don, you are right that I prefer TNG to the original Star Trek, and Red-George, I agree that fjords are magnificent and the meaning of life is 42.

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