While I was out yesterday I came across four people performing road work. They had halted all the motor cars at the four way stop and were taping to the pavement what appeared to me to be an extension cord, with duct tape. One worker held a stop sign; one worker taped; two workers watched the man tape. As one can imagine this was a slow and inefficient process. This is not an indictment of road workers, who as far as I can tell, work slower than any group of humans has ever worked and this case proved no different. Much like these road workers, our society runs in much the same way. As we sit in our cars we realize that there are many inefficiencies in our system. We can see that three people could be taping down the cord or that two of those people are not even needed but yet this method of work persists. Why?
Foucault talks about historical epistemes. These are large periods of time that are linked by a gradual progression of events. Occasionally there is a large shift that shatters the current episteme and begins a new one. We are located in a period of time and what we can know about anything is determined by that particular episteme. Further still, these sorts of knowledge are so ingrained, so fundamental to our episteme that they seemingly become invisible. This applies to all sorts of things we discuss often. Take taxes for instance. How many people know every tax? Every tax rule change? Is it likely that there are a number of taxes that make no sense? Is it likely that there are taxes that are too high or don’t need to exist at all? Yes. We can see that there could be change there that would benefit everyone but we are unable to make that change. We talk about it, hem and haw about it. Promises are made by leaders that there will be a correction, reduction, increase, overhaul, whatever you want to call it but the system seems to remain the same. Minor changes here or there but we are still left with four guys watching one guy do the all work.
It is not a lack of intelligence or ability on anyone’s part to change any particular system. We are immersed in the past and the past is up to a certain point, part of our episteme. The past is what we know about the why and the how of how we do what we do. History has written the play, set the stage and announced the start time. We get to play our roles and move the props around but we fail to ever change the play. In fact, we often don’t know why we continue to play the roles we play. Why do we cling to the past like a baby to blanket? It is safe. And it works. Two reasons that should not be ignored. It may be possible to revise the tax system but it would be new and new does not always work. What it more frightening is that these new problems may not be the problems we have dealt with for ages and therefore would cause great consternation. What we have may not be perfect but it works (at least in theory) and we have figured out to to side step or ignore the problems associated with our current system nicely.
Further proof of just how powerful the past is our esteemed third president Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson believed during Washington’s administration that Hamilton (and by association, Washington) were attempting to establish a government similar to England’s while ousting the freshly earned freedom for which Washington had fought. Jefferson resigns from Secretary of State because he cannot stand Hamilton or the polices of the administration all the while slandering Washington. Jefferson believes that the executive branch has too much power and is consequently at odds with the spirit of ’76. Fast forward a few years; Jefferson is president and buys land from Napoleon on the cheap doubling the size of the U.S; a huge display of power from the executive branch. It seems obvious that Jefferson should never have sought the presidency thereby boycotting the system which he thought betrayed the principles he had written about. Instead, he becomes part of the system and adds to the very framework he did not like.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t progress. There is. Things change, progress, advance but only within the bounds of what we as a people, as a society, can accept. We understand that things could change radically thereby altering the very foundation of the systems that govern our lives but we can not accept such a change. Julius Caesar did this very thing by putting an end to a 500 year old Roman Republic. Then all his senator buddies got together and stabbed him to death. It may be obvious that the Republic needed to end or that it only takes two people to tape a cord to the road but unless your willing to die to accomplish that sort of radical change, chances are you’ll be sitting at that intersection watching an inefficient system at work.