Welcome to Project Sentinel.

Project Sentinel is a blog about thought. It tries to understand how and why our complicated world works – and whether there’s anything wrong with it. It’s also sort of a personal project for me, a 16-year-old student in Singapore, to catalogue and sort out my thoughts about, well, stuff that keeps the nerdy me up at night.

Berlin Wall

As this is written, wars are being fought, violence is rampant, and people suffer – like just about any point in recorded human history. But why and how did this happen? The reasons are often complicated, difficult to face, and are rooted deep within our flawed human nature. In this website I hope that you will find clear and simple explanations about these various issues in the world, along with novel and creative points-of-view about them – even if you have no idea what these issues are.

Understanding these problems is a matter of understanding their history and how they came to exist. Hence Project Sentinel, where I will attempt to track the development of world events and play the part of a guardian – a sentinel, watching carefully and offering insight wherever possible.

Awareness on an individual level is the first step to building a world of peace and prosperity, as a collective species. Sadly, the world is not yet at that stage. Still there is conflict. Still there is unthinkable, unnecessary violence.

Earth

Here is a picture of the planet Earth. All of our science and culture and literature, every single fragment of human experience, and every single human being* has only ever existed on this little shiny marble. It is a very beautiful marble. I am very proud to say that this is the world we live in. I put it as the background picture to remind me.

 

Some Tips For Navigation:

  1. To the right of the “Project Sentinel” title is a button that says “Menu”. Click on it to access the rest of the blog.
  2. Pages  are sort of like permanent posts, Categories allow you to access a certain type of post, and other stuff like the Recent Posts and Archives should be self-explanatory.
  3. Click on Home in the Menu or the Project Sentinel title to go to the main feed of the blog.
  4. Follow this blog. This is not a tip.

~

*except for some astronauts.

Picture 1: http://www.dogonews.com/2014/11/12/commemorating-the-25th-anniversary-of-the-fall-of-the-berlin-wall

Picture 2: http://7-themes.com/6787605-earth-wallpaper.html

Report: Baltimore Riots

People are rioting in Baltimore – a city in Maryland, one of the states in the U.S.

Of course, rioting isn’t the real problem. As Martin Luther King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard,” and these riots are only the symptom of a dangerous disease. 50 years ago, riots erupted within this very same city, in the name of the aforementioned man after his tragic assassination. This time, events are hauntingly parallel, where the riots have come merely days after the death and funeral of Freddie Gray, a young 25-year-old black man.

What happened?

Here are some basic facts. Freddie Gray is an African-American with a record of some minor crimes and drug-related offenses, eulogized as “loving, caring and respectful.” He was arrested on the 12th of April, Sunday. That morning around 8.45 a.m, police lieutenant Brian W. Rice caught sight of him on a street. At that moment, Gray turned and ran from the senior police officer. No one knows why he ran, but like dogs running after a fleeing rabbit, the senior officer and his fellow policemen gave chase to the young man. Gray was arrested for allegedly possessing a switchblade of a type that was illegal in Maryland; police officers say they glimpsed it after chasing him down.

Gray was then handcuffed and restrained in a hold where his legs where folded backwards behind him. From video recordings, Gray is seen to be shouting while being dragged into the police van. He was not buckled into the van, nor was he given medical help despite him requesting it twice, violating police protocol.  His legs were then shackled. After a 45 minute ride to the police station, Gray was discovered to have lost consciousness and entered a state of cardiac arrest – there was damage to his spinal cord at the neck area as well as his vocal chords. He was resuscitated but was left in a coma that he never recovered from. He passed away a week later on the 19th of April.

At this point, we have to understand that people, especially young black men (who seem to make up the majority of the rioters and protesters), believe with some justification that Freddie Gray’s death fell into a pattern of young black Americans dying at the hands of police brutality – a problem which uncomfortably reminds many people about subtle racism that still exists in American society. The case of Freddie Gray is strikingly similar to the cases of other notable young black men, such as Michael Brown and Walter Scott, both of whom died at the hands of the police. Michael Brown’s death caused riots and protests in Ferguson as well – the recent events after the Freddie Gray incident comes perhaps as no big surprise.

Protests and demonstrations began right after the 19th when Gray passed away – but the real violence only started on the 25th of April, Saturday. Protesters threw bricks and stones at police officers, causing injuries to 15 of them. It only got worse on the next Monday, when Gray’s funeral amassed a massive group of people 2000 strong, and emotions in the city ran high. Rumours of a “purge” (referring to the film The Purge) drove young protesters to go out onto the streets, where they arrived at a shopping mall to meet with lines of riot police. More students who happened to be at the mall stopped to join the growing crowd.

The standoff between young student protesters and riot police became confrontational midway through the afternoon – and like a spark in a heap of dry wood, violence exploded. Some of the more notorious incidents include a CVS drugstore burnt down and looted (see picture), and protesters sabotaging a hose used by firemen by poking a hole in the rubber tubing. Protesters once again were hurling stones and bottles at police, and rioters in other parts of the city set fire to cars and looted departmental stores. The mayor of the city imposed a curfew sometime that night that was to take effect from Tuesday onwards, and the National Guard arrives in Baltimore in an attempt to restore peace. The next day, public schools were closed.

Aftermath – and some opinions

The past week, 6 police officers have been found guilty. Charges include second-degree depraved-heart murder, manslaughter, and false imprisonment.

People cheered when this was announced by the state attorney – and there are a number of reasons why. First of all, the officers are already clearly in the wrong, having violated protocols that are essential for the basic well-being of the arrested – requests for medical help, for example, should really never be ignored in any circumstance. Second, almost unbelievably and most infuriatingly of all, the “switchblade” that Gray held in his possession turned out not to be a switchblade at all; it was confirmed in court to be an ordinary pocketknife. The arrest was never warranted. Finally, the simply heart-wrenching image of Gray being forcefully thrown into the back of a police van has evoked strong feelings from everyone about the unnecessary use of force from the police. Given the strong evidence in favour of these officers having done wrong, the state attorney’s announcement comes as no surprise.

The curfew has continued, however, despite calls for it to be removed, considering the peace that has fallen over the city the past four days. Perhaps it should be. But we must remember that this peace only hides a larger problem that has gone unsolved.

The problem of police brutality will be difficult to solve because both sides of the story have their sympathetic and unsympathetic features. The police probably are more violent in America than in any other country (think about the recent case of Sweden police peacefully resolving a conflict without any guns); yet innocent, hard-working and well-intentioned officers are harmed too by riots and protests, which are clearly going out of hand. These rioters should not be burning cars and looting stores and otherwise causing completely unnecessary damage to public property – yet we must try to comprehend the problems of these young black men, and recognise the possibility that they have been marginalised and sidelined by society. Either way, compromise will be difficult. America must step up its efforts to solve this growing problem festering in its cities.

Sources and Further Reading:

http://www.businessinsider.sg/what-we-know-about-the-van-ride-that-led-to-freddie-grays-death-2015-5/#.VUYT2fmqpBc

http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2015/04/protests-baltimore

http://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/27/us/baltimore-riots-timeline/

http://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/local/baltimore-riots-recap/

http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/apr/27/freddie-gray-funeral-most-of-us-knew-a-lot-of-freddie-grays-too-many

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/04/the-baltimore-riots-that-didnt-happen/391931/

Featured Image: https://tribktla.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/471137480.jpg

CVS Drugstore: http://www.tampabay.com/resources/images/dti/rendered/2015/04/baltimore6_15112961_8col.jpg

Report: Earthquake in Nepal

What happened?

Just yesterday (Saturday) right before 12 noon, an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter magnitude struck Nepal at a spot nearby its capital city of Kathmandu. This is considered a major earthquake – and even the aftershocks reached up to a magnitude of 6.7 according to some sources. It has caused immense destruction to the buildings and infrastructure of Kathmandu, and has affected significant locations around the area such as Mount Everest, Tibet and states in both India and Bangladesh.

This earthquake comes as no surprise to geologists and seismologists. Nepal is located between India and China in the Himalayan region. India rests on its own tectonic plate, pushing into another tectonic plate beneath Eurasia and China. As two tectonic plates are shoved towards each other, one tectonic plate rises above the other, forming mountains – it is a mark of how intense this effect is that the Himalayan region is home to what is considered the tallest mountain in the world. Sometimes, these plates jerk past each other, causing earthquakes.

What are the impacts?

What is most significant about this earthquake is the huge impact that it has had on the region – estimates say it has affected up to 6 million people. This could be due to several reasons, such as the fact that it struck right at the heart of Nepal near one of its most populated cities, the weak infrastructure of Nepalese buildings due to some complacency the past years, or the sheer strength of this particular quake. Let’s take a look at the numerous impacts it has had.

The death toll has risen from 100 to 500, from 500 to 1000, from 1000 to 1900, and from 1900 to the current estimate of above 2400 all in the space of the last 24 hours, with many suspecting that there are still more corpses to discover. At least 5000 people were injured across Nepal.  Contrast this to the earthquake a few years ago in 2011 – being further away and less robust at a magntiude of 6.9, there were only 6 deaths. 50 were killed in India’s eastern states, and another 17 in an avalanche on Mount Everest, amongst them a notable Google executive and adventurer. Three were killed in Bangadesh, one due to a stampede.

Infrastructural damage: Four UNESCO World Heritage sites were horribly damaged in the earthquake as well. Dharahara Tower, a feat of architecture unique to Nepal and symbolic of its culture, also fell, taking 60 people along with it to their deaths. These are sacred pieces of history that will never be regained. Importantly, this is a blow to the tourism industry in Nepal, which no doubt will already be crippled by the earthquake – alarming, because Nepal depends much on its tourism industry.

How have we responded?

How the world reacts to this disaster will reflect on us as human beings. India has provided 43 tonnes of relief material such as tents and food and an almost 300-strong disaster response team. China has sent a rescue team of 62 personnel, 6 sniffer dogs and medical equipment. The USA notably has provided 1 million US dollars as aid to Nepal, as well as their own disaster response team. Pakistan has delivered a mobile hospital for 30 people, medical personnel, search-and-rescue teams, as well as food and shelter. UK has also fielded a rescue team, and the EU has pledged their support and aid in the future.

The world must continue to send aid. The Nepalese government has been criticised already for its slow and inadequate reaction to this disaster – yet they are not completely to blame for their incompetency, having only just emerged out of a time of political turmoil and strife, where they were preoccupied with problems other the hypothetical possibility of an earthquake. Their country is weak economically, and will suffer from this disaster greatly. Let us all hope for the best.

Sources and further reading:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-the-nepal-earthquake-happened-like-clockwork-1430044358

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/04/toll-mounts-nepal-searches-earthquake-survivors-150426052834661.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/26/world/asia/nepal-earthquake-katmandu.html

http://www.wsj.com/articles/nepal-earthquake-china-sends-search-and-rescue-team-to-katmandu-1430032246

Left and Right Wing Politics (Politics 3/4)

How much should the government do?

In a previous post, we discussed the role of a government – and we came to the conclusion that by sacrificing a little bit of their rights and some of their money, societies empower governments to provide (public) services and enforce laws. This is all well and okay in a tribal context. But yet, as people became smarter and got better at co-operating with each other, this concept has come into question as well. Why do we need a government to do this? Perhaps the government can do the minimum of enforcing law and order, but can’t we provide these services ourselves?

When a society gets big enough, past the tribal/village stage, something called the economy happens. That’s when people invent the idea of currency, using little paper bits to represent value, and begin to provide things for each other.

Money Exchange

For example, Bob may decide to start a car company. The people working for him handle everything from buying iron from another country to building the actual car in a factory they set up. His company, Bob Inc, provides cars to people in America – they provide a service, or a product. And people, who want these cars, give Bob Inc. little paper bits called money in exchange for these cars. And the workers of Bob Inc. use this money to buy food and housing.

Bob Inc. provides a service, just like the public services of healthcare, a police force – but not on the same level, since people don’t need cars to survive.

But this raises a question – why can’t the public services be part of the economy as well? Why does it have to be run by the government? Why can’t Bob privately own a healthcare company as well, one which sets up hospitals and hires doctors? People can pay him money in exchange for Bob Healthcare’s services.

Because it’s owned privately by individuals, these companies such as Bob Inc. has traditionally been called part of the private sector  in the economy – a slice of the pie that belongs to business owners like Bob. The other big slice of pie is the public sector, including the public services, because it belongs to the government – and by extension, everyone.

Now the problem is this – Bob Healthcare and Bob Inc., like most companies, are motivated by money. Bob has to spend money too on car factories and hospitals. And in order to pay his workers, he has to charge the car drivers and sick patients a little more than what he spent, so that the extra money he gets – called profit – can be given to his workers.

This means that hospital fees under Bob Healthcare is probably going to be pretty expensive. And that’s bad for poor people – what if a man, the breadwinner of a really poor family, gets into a car accident? And he can’t pay the hospital fees of Bob Healthcare, which runs the entire country’s healthcare service? Or he does, and his family starves. That’s unfair, surely. Surely it’s better for the government to take money from everyone in society (tax), and use that money to run hospitals which provide free or low-cost healthcare, or run schools that offer free primary school education.

Bob

“I work hard,” says Bob. “Why should I pay taxes for the government to spend my money on other people?” (In most countries, richer people are taxed more because of their higher income.)

“But these people are poor,” you say. “Isn’t it right for richer people like you to help them out?”

“They’re poor because they don’t work hard like me,” Bob insists. “Anyway, private businesses can do basically everything. There’ll be some companies which will provide cheap healthcare for the poor, albeit at a lower quality. Businesses are more efficient and productive than the bulky state-run systems – privatising healthcare will be good.”

“The poor are poor maybe because they were unlucky and didn’t have the same opportunities as richer people,” you protest.

There is now an awkward silence.

Welcome to the world of left-right politics.   Left Right Politics

So what is left-right politics? You definitely have heard the terms left-wing and right-wing, perhaps on the radio or in a newspaper. What do they refer to in politics and economics?

Essentially, the left-right political spectrum represents the different answers people have come up with in answer to the question: how much involvement should the government have in the economy? Or, how much should the government do – in order to fulfill its role?

On the right-wing side, you have people like Bob. “The government shouldn’t touch the economy,” Bob grumbles. Even the traditional public services such as healthcare and education should be privatised – let businesses run them, it’s better that way. Then governments can lower taxes, since they no longer have the burden of running the public services. That’s good for everyone.

The right supports the idea of Capitalism – people should get what they deserve . For example, if an individual works hard and contributes significantly to society, others will pay him for his services; if he works more, he earns more; if he works less, he earns less. And that’s fair. The public sector should shrink as much as possible and stop interfering.

On the left-wing side you have people who believe that things don’t always work out so nicely in reality. The ones holding true power in capitalism are rich business owners like Bob, they argue – because he owns the factories and the hospitals (the means of production). People underneath him like the poor workers will never be able to move up to his rank. They’ll forever be workers, and over time, become exploited once people like Bob realise how much power they have. Businesses are not all bad, they say, but they shouldn’t be trusted – governments should take over important services. In fact, governments should raise taxes – especially for the rich – and redistribute that money to the poor through providing things like free healthcare, free education and good social welfare policies. The public sector should be considerably big.

Most people are somewhat left, somewhat right or somewhat in between, moderate as they call it. But many in the past were seized with creating a political system that goes to the extreme left or right. On the far-left, for example, you find the idea of Communism. Conventionally, government tax takes away a portion of your income (or it could be based on property or whatever). In leftist countries like Sweden that could be up to 40%. Communists say it should be a 100%. Everything that you own should belong to the entire country – there isn’t even a government as an intermediary. And everything that the entire country owns will be redistributed according to the principle – people should get what they need.

Both the systems of Communism and Capitalism in their extreme forms are noble in principle, and are commendable attempts to create a perfect society. Yet, they are idealistic, and the truth is, these systems only fall apart in the hands of cruel and corrupt humans – and this has happened time and again the past century. As said earlier, most people are somewhat in the middle between the left and the right, and most countries run on a model of regulated capitalism or socialism, a toned down version of capitalism at its extreme, allowing the government to partially tax people, and use the funds to help society along. This, though maybe differing slightly from country to country depending on their individual cultures, is probably the most suitable system of government given the nature of human beings. But we will of course work and strive towards better and better systems of government

Sovereignty, Autocracy vs Democracy (Politics 2/4)

Imagine that we are back in the early stages of humanity. Bob is a member of a tribe that lived back then, hunting wild animals and gathering food to live.

His tribe’s current leader is a big, burly guy who acts as chieftain. This chieftain is not a very nice guy. He got those scars on his face from systematically killing all the other vaguely intelligent, physically strong young men since the tender age of 15. Now, Bob wonders, who in the world gave this guy the position of chieftain? Why in the world is this ruthless asshole making decisions for everyone? How does he have the right to do this?

Who should be the leader?

Now, Bob, first of all the chieftain has something called sovereignty. In a nutshell, sovereignty is the right of someone to rule – that’s why a ruler is called a sovereign. Because the tribe believes in the chieftain, and the chieftain’s orders are followed, the chieftain has sovereignty. This concept of sovereignty is very important as it gives rulers – and in the present day, governments – the justification for their place as leaders of society.

Yet, Bob is asking a very important question. Who should have sovereignty? Or perhaps, more significantly, how does society decide who should have sovereignty? 

In a tribal society like Bob’s, the chieftain got his position perhaps only because he was physically stronger than all the other contenders for power. Or perhaps he was the most clever – some tribes have old, wise men as their chieftain. Or maybe he was the most valuable, like how the medicine man is also sometimes in charge. And basically, the chieftain is the only one who calls all the shots.

Autocracy Vs Democracy

This is called autocracy. Autocracy comes from the Greek root words “autos” (meaning self) and “kratos” (meaning power/strength).  As you can probably guess, it means a political system where power is concentrated in the hands of a single individual – and this individual can basically do whatever he wants. Although you can also probably guess how this can go horribly wrong, human beings love autocracy. After the tribal chieftains, there have been kings, emperors, dictators and all sorts of rulers who fall into the category of the autocrat – and there are still autocracies in today’s world. Kind of a bad habit that human beings don’t seem to be able to break.

What does this have to do with sovereignty? The problem comes when people like Bob begin to ask questions about the legitimacy of a particular autocrat – in other words, challenging his right to rule and his sovereignty. And in human history, there have been many people like Bob. Sometimes, they say, the strongest warrior or the cleverest voodoo priest aren’t necessarily the best leaders. Or how about monarchies? Kings and queens (and like pharaohs) have sovereignty because of their divine right to rule – the notion that God chose them to be the leaders of society. As kings and queens go wrong and make bad decisions, people begin to lose faith in that system, and they start thinking about different and better ways to choose their leaders.

And here is where we have to look to the other end of the spectrum, the very opposite of autocracy – the cocnept of democracy.

Fast forward hundreds of years and you get the boisterous Roman and Greek empires, which lasted from 800 BC to approximately 400 AD. During the tribal stage people were too busy spearing each other or hunting animals that there wasn’t really much time to sit down and think about life. In the Greco-Roman empires, people were a little better off (or as they say, civilized), and clever old men were beginning to write poetry and long essays about philosophy and science. And that’s about when they carefully thought about it and decided that autocracy was fishy idea.

As opposed to autocracy, “demos” means people in Greek, and the word refers to a system of government based on people’s choice – where people as a collective whole decide who their leaders should be and what kind of policies should be implemented. Hopefully, they thought, this would be better than autocracy, where the single individual holding power might be some crazy paranoid guy who decides to start killing everyone who looks like a threat to his power (which has happened numerous times throughout history). As such, the Romans had the system of consuls and the Senate, where the 2 top officials of the country (essentially the President or Prime Minister in modern times) were elected by the people, and advised by the Senate, a group of respected and intelligent citizens. The idea of votes and elections and people being able to speak out about policy is a very democratic thing, and is still the way by which people choose their leaders in the modern world.

Ancient Rome

It was not a perfect system. Ancient Rome also had its own share of nasty conflicts and civil wars, and there’s the whole story of a guy named Julius Caesar, who tried to take over as the sole ruler of Rome (and thus an autocrat), succeeded for a while, and was dramatically assassinated by another man named Brutus. As a result he became very famous and had a play written about him – you can read up about all these if you want to.

The point is, much of history is about the conflict between autocracy and democracy, two very different political systems. But if autocracy is such a bad thing, why is it that human beings always seem to return to it?

It’s important to note that autocracy, as an idea, is not an inherently bad thing. It’s only bad because of how bad human beings can be. In fact there are probably some clear advantages to autocracy as well, given that the autocrat is a genuinely nice person. One of these advantages is speed and efficiency in decision-making. In a democracy, leaders have to waste time on all sorts of things like asking people whether they’re doing the right thing and organising elections and referendums. An autocrat can just make decisions without asking anyone anything at all. Maybe autocracy in a country isn’t the best of ideas, but the political system exists in other situations – a company, for example. Or the military.

CEOs and military commanders don’t stop to ask the people under them about what they think should be the right decision for their organisation to make. And that’s probably a good thing. In a company, things can keep moving in a fast-paced economy. In an army, it doesn’t really make sense for soldiers to vote on where they should next attack. Similarly, in a country which might be in the rare situation of having a dire need for decisive leadership and is lucky enough to have a benevolent autocrat, autocracy might be quite a good move. There are other benefits too. What if, in a democracy, one government starts a long term economic plan, but is voted out? The next government might just come in and throw everything away – and that’s bad for the country too. An autocrat would have no such problem.

Of course, these ideal circumstances are not the case most of the time. The problems of autocracy is the obvious problem of abusive, power-hungry rulers who seek to consolidate power, and lead to terrible, nightmarish societies (think Hitler, Stalin, so on). Or even if they’re not abusive or power-hungry, they’re basically just individuals – and individuals don’t always make the best political decisions. Having the views of the masses weighing in, governments become less likely to exploit their people and become more likely to make good policies, and that’s good for everyone. For most countries in the world right now, this seems to be the ideal path, and democracy is generally accepted to be a more reasonable system compared to autocracy.

And this brings us back to the concept of sovereignty. No matter the benefits and harms of either system, it still just sounds more reasonable to have a leader that people choose, rather than a leader that seems to have been arbitrarily put into position – because he was born into a particular family (kings and queens), for example. People believe in what they choose, or at least that’s what’s ideally supposed to happen, and when they believe in their leader, or have good reasons to, that creates a more civilised and stable society.

The Social Contract (Politics 1/4)

Not too long ago, human beings were mostly ape-like creatures who lived in tribes or villages and stayed alive through a combination of growing crops and raising animals.

Hunter-Gatherer

The picture you will find above is wrong on a few levels:

1. Such houses (with windows) did not exist in the time when humanity was at the tribes and villages stage.

2. The pig does not look like a pig. (The pains of Microsoft Paint.) I wrote pig on it to tell you that it is a pig. I am also not sure that humans brought up pigs at the tribes and villages stage. It was more likely cattle, or sheep.

3. I do not know how to draw rice stalks. Anyway, the mass of black lines is supposed to represent crops. It could be rice, maize, or a whole range of other stuff that humans grew once they discovered agriculture about 12,000 years ago.

~

Politics back then was much simpler. The leader of the tribe or village was a chieftain, who was often a burly, rather old and scarred guy (depending on the kind of tribe you’re in, this guy could be a medicine man, a voodoo priest, the strongest warrior, etc). He had the utmost say over just about everything. If he thought you sorta looked more handsome than him, you just might get your head chopped off.

How did we get from there, to modern society, where we have governments and presidents and prime ministers and political parties?

This is a difficult question to answer. Ever since this time, mankind has undergone developments after developments at an increasingly fast pace. But first, let’s take a step back to take a look at the basics of politics.

Let me introduce you to Bob, a member of the tribe. He was always a little different compared to the rest, and couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong about the tribe. One day, as he watched the chieftain go around giving orders and being chieftainly, he asked himself a question:

“What is the role of a leader in a society?”

This sounds like a simple question. Yet it is also a question that people have been grappling with for centuries. To answer this question, we need to dig deep into our understanding of where society comes from, and why it needs a leader.

What is the role of a leader in society?

This is Bob.

 

Bob 2

Bob is a human being, so he has a few basic concerns: food, water and shelter. At some point in time, before the tribe came together and existed, Bob was all alone. This meant that in the jungle/rainforest/desert/savannah/plains, Bob had to take care of these few concerns by himself. This could have been the breakdown of Bob’s typical day:

  1. Wake up
  2. Fish for food
  3. Cut wood/find material for fire
  4. Eat breakfast
  5. Cut more wood
  6. Find stones and sticks to make tools; e.g, hunting spears, fishing rods
  7. Fish/hunt for food
  8. Eat lunch
  9. Maintain shelter made from woven branches
  10. Make clothing from leather in case old clothing wears out
  11. Fish/hunt for food + gather food
  12. Eat dinner
  13. Sleepz (as it gets too dark for anything)

Clearly, this isn’t the ideal way to live. Apart from the complete lack of technology and luxuries, the more pressing issue is – what happens if Bob suddenly wakes up one day and is terribly sick? Or, what happens if Bob breaks his leg while hunting and basically can’t do anything? Or a tree falls on him in the forest? So on so forth.

To solve this problem, Bob struck a deal with Jane. Jane is another human being who has similar concerns. In fact, her average day is pretty much identical to Bob’s. But here’s the deal: Whenever Bob gets sick (or temporarily disabled), Jane will take over dealing with all the concerns over food, water and shelter – she would hunt for Bob and ensure that he is sheltered and safe until he recovers. And vice versa; when Jane is temporarily out for the count, Bob takes over. Pretty simple so far.

But as they work together, they discover more things. Bob finds that he is way better at cutting wood than Jane is, while Jane discovers that Bob sucks at hunting and she can kill deer 2 times faster than he can. They make more bargains. Instead of both of them doing both jobs, Bob does all the woodcutting, Jane does all the hunting, and the fruits of their labour belong equally to both. By doing this, they actually produce way more wood and food (haha rhyme) than before. They share and realise this is a system benefits both of them. (They also realise that they can procreate and ensure continuity of their species, but I’ll leave that from this post.)

Bob and Jane

This still isn’t a perfect system, Bob thinks. What if Jane and I BOTH get hit by some virus? … We need more people.

Bob and Jane explore the area and find other human beings (who also basically have the same concerns as them) and eventually are able to strike a deal with most of them. They begin to live together. And amazingly, they find a person who is great at making clothes, another person who is awesome at crafting weapons for hunting, a dude who is absolutely talented at fishing, and even a woman who knows how to take care of sick people … so on. The same thing happens – they delegate tasks, and those who are best at what they do, does it for everyone instead, and everyone benefits when they help each other. In fact, because now only the best people are doing all the respective tasks, things get done so fast that people begin to have more free time in their average day.

They’ve become a tribe.

One day, something happens. A man in the tribe slaps a woman over some petty argument. After things calm down a little, the tribe gathers in a clearing to have a discussion.

The woman says, “Ugh, how could the man have slapped me! He deserves to be punished in some way. Let’s banish him from the tribe.”

Some other person says, “That’s a little unreasonable isn’t it, for just a slap? How about we whip his ass with a stick 10 times?”

Another person: “How about 20? It’s a nicer number.”

Another another person: “13’s my favourite.”

This goes on for a while until a very large and burly man steps up. He says this:

“Okay, I have an idea guys. How about we feed him psychedelic mushrooms and leave him to hallucinate about balloons growing out of trees?”

Woman: “That’s an absolutely terrible idea.”

At this point some other people were starting to speak up but the large and burly man casually rolls up his sleeve to show him humongous bicep. This makes everyone shut up for a few seconds, and he says: “Okay, so psychedelic mushrooms it is.”

The man who slapped the woman is fed psychedelic mushrooms and hallucinates about balloons growing out of trees. He is visibly traumatised, and people are happy. The burly man, whose name is Chieftain (to make things easier), now takes on a new job, which basically is to make decisions about what to do during disputes. If you think really carefully about it, what this actually means is that his job is to make decisions on behalf of the society, because as his decisions is representative of the greater whole, it becomes final.

Chieftain

So this is the overriding Extremely Important Role of the Leader: Make decisions on behalf of society.

This actually entails way more than you might think. Let’s split this very huge role into three smaller roles:

  1. Make laws
  2. Decide ad hoc stuff
  3. Ensure essential services

So the first thing he does after the psychedelic mushrooms incident is to make a set of rules in the tribe – otherwise known as laws. Now this makes things whole lot easier because he doesn’t have to make decision EVERYTIME some dude slaps another guy, insults another person or steals something, especially since all these situations are very different. So he makes up a set of guidelines to deal with this situation, like – he who steals something will have to eat 5 up to 30 psychedelic mushrooms, depending on how much he stole. In fact, if the Chieftain knows what he’s doing, he’ll even set up a little group of people whose job is to decide just precisely how many mushrooms must be eaten every time someone steals something. More on this in another post.

The second thing he needs to do is to make decisions that cannot be covered by the law. There are basically an infinite number of problems that are going to befall society, which will cause many people to have many different solutions to the problem, but the Chieftain needs to decide which is best and implement it before the problem gets too bad. For example, let’s say another tribe settles in an area near them and begins to take up a lot of resources. They cut trees and hunt food, and worst of all, Tribe 2 has a nasty reputation of attacking nearby tribes in order to get more resources. Once the people of Tribe 1 know about this, they have a few choices; they could run away, send ambassadors to talk with Tribe 2, prepare an army, so on.

Chieftain decides to form an army; he tells the weapon makers to make sharper spears than can pierce human skin, and he tells some of the hunters and other strong folk to begin practising attacking with a spear. Whenever anyone disagreed with him, Chieftain would show his humongous bicep, which usually stopped any dissent. This became a very important decision because when Tribe 2’s warriors eventually attacked, Chieftain’s army managed to fend them off and protect everyone from danger.

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The third thing that happens would happen a little later in the future, but it nonetheless would be a very important part of what a leader/government does. Essentially, the system which the tribe works on at the current moment goes something like this: a person’s work and produce (the wood he chopped, food he hunted etc) is put into a central pile in the clearing, such that there are piles of wood, food, clothes and weapons, and every person in the tribe is entitled to a small and equal portion of every pile, so that everyone gets what they need. (Basically, Communism.) In summary, many people are going to criticise this system as society grows larger, preferring instead a capitalist system (perhaps where people have to trade away their stuff to get food, rather than be entitled to a portion from a central pile).

However, society (and therefore their leaders) usually would make a decision about some Central Piles which are TOO important to be taken away, and which everyone needs. For example, the society might decide that the Medicine Woman who is able to heal people (her product is her service in this case, so a physical pile doesn’t actually exist) is going to available to everyone, and people don’t have to trade her anything to be healed when sick. How does she survive then? The leader makes sure that everyone gives a little amount of food/clothes throughout the year to the Medicine Woman to keep her going. It may not just be Medicine Woman; it could also be the Teacher or the Police Officer whose services that society decides is too important and must be given to everyone in society. As the leader made the decision to keep these services as essential services (e.g healthcare, education, police force), these are under the leader’s purview, and it is the leader’s job to ensure that these important people are kept alive and well fed. However this is also an extremely debatable topic, so we’ll talk about it in a separate post.

So far so good.

Let’s summarise everything that’s happened so far.

  1. Society is formed by a mutual need to survive.
  2. Society is kept moving along by making decisions.
  3. Leaders help to make decisions.
  4. Leaders usually make rules, make decisions in new situations, and also set up essential services (sometimes)

If you look very carefully at this flow of things, you’ll see that while our short answer to the role of a leader could be to make decisions on behalf of society, the higher cause that leaders actually serve is to make sure that society moves along and is able to solve its problems. And if you look even more carefully, you will realise that society is formed and kept alive because all human beings essentially want to stay alive, and we sort of mutually recognise that and help each other out. Therefore, the Highest Cause that leaders really serve is to ensure that all human beings stay alive. This is very important to their thinking, and whenever leaders make decisions, they usually are keeping in mind the safety of their people and what’s best for their people (or at least they’re supposed to. There are some very bad leaders.)

But of course it isn’t even as simple as all that.

Let’s take a time machine to about 18th century France. About this time, France was a rather messy soup of rich people, religious people, and people who wanted to revolt (in fact the French Revolution happened around then). And amongst this mess, around the early 18th century, was a man named Jean-Jacques Rousseau who wrote a book and brought to the world the idea of the social contract. (Partially causing people to want to revolt.)   Social Contract

Essentially, the social contract goes like this: people give up some of their rights to a leader (or their leaders, or government), and in exchange, these leaders make decisions that protect the people and their rights.

This is a little bit more sophisticated that what we had earlier, although it is pretty much the same. Let’s take a look.

Just now:

  1. Society is formed by a mutual need to survive.
  2. Society is kept moving along by making decisions.
  3. Leaders help to make decisions.
  4. Leaders usually make rules, make decisions in new situations, and also set up essential services (sometimes)

The Social Contract:

  1. Society is formed by a mutual need to maintain people’s Basic Human Rights (e.g life, but also more than that – plus things like choice, freedom of speech, happiness)
  2. Society is kept moving along by making decisions.
  3. Leaders help to make decisions, which people must agree to abide by.
  4. Leaders usually make rules, make decisions in new situations, and also set up essential services (sometimes).

The key differences are clear. Firstly, leaders now serve a different Higher Cause – it isn’t just to make sure everyone survives, that’s too primitive – leaders now need to make sure that everyone has Basic Human Rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and hence a decent standard of living. Secondly, people have to play a part as well – they have to agree to let the leader make decisions, and recognise the legitimacy of these decisions. Technically, this system was already present even in the tribe, when Chieftain’s right to make decisions was recognised because of his humongous bicep – and Rousseau is simply bringing this unspoken deal out into the open.

If you think about it, the very idea of a leader sort of contradicts these rights of freedom and choice. Having a leader means people have to obey, and that also means some people aren’t going to get the freedom and choices they want, but rather have to be ordered around by another person, or be restricted by laws which dictate what they can or cannot do. But in a way, a good leadership is the Most Essential Service of all, because it ensures that society can continue existing rather than being torn apart into shreds from the inside. And by ensuring society can exist, it also ensures that the people of that society has a decent standard of living, as per the contract. So if people have to give up a little bit of their freedoms, in order to achieve a pretty good life, this is simply a fantastic deal. The alternative is to have absolutely no guarantee that they can survive – think back to Bob before he met Jane.

 

Let’s summarise this once more by going back to the example of the tribe and the chieftain. Bob swears allegiance to the chieftain, and now the chieftain has the right to force him to join the hunting wing of the tribe, or the military arm. But in return, Bob has the benefits of being provided with food by the tribe, or being protected by the tribe’s spearmen – and his life is preserved. If he doesn’t contribute, he will probably be punishable by tribal law – maybe they’ll whip him or throw him out into the forests.

Of course things are very different nowadays. Tribes were perhaps a hundred-strong – now countries have millions of people. With so many people the system is slightly different, but the concept in itself has remained. Bob is now a citizen of a country, such as perhaps the United States of America. As he is a citizen, the government has the right to force him to pay taxes (give up his money!!), or in other countries, to join the military and be conscripted for a couple of years. In return the government runs numerous essential services – for example, healthcare, education, a police force, the army – using the money from taxes to ensure national security, and that people can maintain their lifestyles. If he refuses to pay taxes, the law can punish him by fining him, or even jailing him.

Tax is not the only thing that people have to give up, although it is one of the major ones. People also have to abide by laws set by their government – and by choosing to do so, by agreeing that everyone should follow a common rule of not murdering/stealing from anyone else, by giving up a little bit of their own individual freedoms – they create a better, civilised society.

So in essence, the people agree to do what the government wants, and in return they are given their rights to life, choice and property through public services – services that aim to help everyone – as well as the decisions that the government makes. And what the government decides to do with their power has thus been called policy, and is where the idea of politics has come from. This is essentially the role that leaders play in society. By agreeing to do what the leader wants, people – and society – empower him to make stronger decisions and take stronger action, leading to a common, greater good for everyone.