If you’re the kind of person who wants to change the government so that it works better, especially if you’re the kind of person who wants to introduce new political orders to increase human flourishing, this essay is for you.

And the first thing you need to know is this: the bar is higher than you think. Much higher.

The field you’re walking into (politics, government, law—imagine them together, even though I’ll just say “politics” from here on out) is as sophisticated as the human mind itself. Politics, in terms of difficulty, should be regarded like physics: there is a lot to learn, there is a sort-of-proper-sequence in which to learn it, there is much to practice, and it is easy to fool yourself into thinking you understand more than you do if you’re not careful. And most are not careful.

It’s important to know this right out of the gate. Many people who discuss or get into politics think something like, “I’m pretty smart, and I have domain expertise somewhere else, surely I can just figure it out. I can certainly straighten things up faster than the dummies currently running things.”

Which is to say: they vastly underestimate the field of politics, and they are oblivious to the very zero-ness of their own relevant knowledge. They do this because, unlike physics, where people outside the field roughly understand that you need something like “lots of math” and “lots of study,”1 people do not understand what is required for politics. The practical outcome is that they proceed with no preparation or serious thought.

This produces a large group of otherwise intelligent people who assume they have an advanced grasp of politics because they bullshit about it with their friends, or because they keep track of the “blue team versus red team” play-by-plays that fly around the news and social media. Perhaps they have read a lot of political philosophy in their spare time, or picked up knowledge about certain legal mechanisms—this isn’t nothing, but it’s not as helpful as you’d think. It usually just results in a crank who can’t translate the eighteenth century treatises they’ve read into operational knowledge for the modern day.2

Why is this state of affairs bad? Well, besides the obvious point that people don’t know anything, they are unaware of this fact! And so they never proceed to learn what they must, to do what must be done. They are attempting to win a Nobel in physics without being numerate, in effect.3

And we cannot have a glorious political future without top-notch political talent!

If you’re worried that you might be one of these people, it’s easy to perform some basic checks. First, ask yourself if you know how the law actually works (or what it is). Like, where are all the laws written down? How would you change what’s written down there? What are the basic areas of law, and how do they interact? Second, ask yourself if you could confidently explain a basic outline of your relevant government (local, state, federal, etc), and how all its parts work and interrelate. Third, ask yourself if, given your policy priorities, you know which level(s) of government even control that thing, and how they control it.

There is much more than this to know, of course. Law, politics, government, history, economics, etc are all one massive bundle. Getting a clear enough cross-disciplinary grasp on them to make positive large-scale change in politics is a daunting task, and it should be approached with a positive attitude, rolled-up sleeves, and a willingness to work and think a lot.

How to learn all of this, however, is hard. One of the reasons people underestimate politics, and why they don’t learn about it properly, is because we don’t have cultural institutions that teach anyone about it. We also have no common understanding of what needs to be learned, and that there is a staggering amount to be learned. You can learn in an ad hoc fashion in political parties, you can soak in a small amount via cultural osmosis, but there is no proper “degree in government,” or something like that.4

What, then, is one to do? We’re at the stage now where motivated individuals need to construct interdisciplinary programs to help onboard people into politics.5 My own solution in New York is Maximum New York itself. One of its central premises is that we need many more minds—networked together, with a high minimum knowledge threshold—to improve our city’s governance. It acknowledges that politics is sophisticated, and so teaches that sophistication. The Foundations of New York is the beginning of that, but not nearly the end.

Notes

  1. And because you’d get kicked out of most physics departments if you weren’t numerate. There is no equivalent in politics, where things other than “knowing how to do it” often determine who does it. 

  2. This thing

  3. In reality, people do in fact love politicians that are quite estranged from mathematics. 

  4. There are literally degrees in government (and political science, etc), and I have one, but I generally assume these degree holders don’t know anything but contextless, fragmented theory that is not-at-all equipped to take us into a better future. Universities don’t have an integrated program that teaches people how to do politics properly. They are just an a la carte menu masquerading as an education. Most of them work like this: “Hello, student. Your government degree requires 21 credits. [Here] is a list of classes that each fulfill three credits. You need to take one class in four subfields, but pick whichever you want in each subfield, and otherwise just pick which classes you want. Come to our advising thing where there will be food if you want.” This lack of structure and ordered progression of knowledge has stalled generations of minds. Students who learn well do so in spite of the system, and only because of extra initiative on their own part. 

  5. This is its own difficult problem to solve: what is the right knowledge to know, what is the best order to present it in, what is the best way to tie theory to practice, how to reveal the subject’s inherent interestingness, etc.