Defeating the Villain

We have a re­cur­ring theme in the greater Less Wrong com­mu­nity that life should be more like a high fan­tasy novel. Maybe that is to be ex­pected when a quar­ter of the com­mu­nity came here via Harry Pot­ter fan­fic­tion, and we also have ra­tio­nal­ist group houses named af­ter fan­tasy lo­ca­tions, de­scrip­tions of com­mu­nity mem­bers in terms of char­ac­ter archetypes and PCs ver­sus NPCs, semi-se­ri­ous de­vel­op­ment of the new athe­ist gods, and feel free to con­tribute your fa­vorites in the com­ments.

A failure mode com­mon to high fan­tasy nov­els as well as poli­tics is solv­ing all our prob­lems by defeat­ing the villain. Ac­tu­ally, this is a com­mon nar­ra­tive struc­ture for our en­tire sto­ry­tel­ling species, and it works well as a nar­ra­tive struc­ture. The story needs con­flict, so we pit a sym­pa­thetic pro­tag­o­nist against a com­pel­ling an­tag­o­nist, and we reach a satis­fy­ing cli­max when the two come into di­rect con­flict, good con­quers evil, and we live hap­pily ever af­ter.

This isn’t an ar­ti­cle about whether your op­po­nent re­ally is a villain. Let’s make the (large) as­sump­tion that you have le­gi­t­i­mately iden­ti­fied a villain who is do­ing evil things. They cer­tainly ex­ist in the world. Defeat­ing this villain is a le­gi­t­i­mate goal.

And then what?

Defeat­ing the villain is rarely enough. Build­ing is harder than de­stroy­ing, and it is very un­likely that some­thing good will spon­ta­neously fill the void when some­thing evil is taken away. It is also in­suffi­cient to speak in vague gen­er­al­ities about the ideals to which the post-[what­ever] so­ciety will ad­here. How are you go­ing to avoid the prob­lems caused by what­ever you are elimi­nat­ing, and how are you go­ing to suc­cess­fully tran­si­tion from evil to good?

In fan­tasy nov­els, this is rarely an is­sue. The story ends shortly af­ter the cli­max, ei­ther with good as­cend­ing or time-skip­ping to a so­ciety made perfect off-cam­era. Sau­ron has been van­quished, the right­ful king has been re­stored, cue epi­logue(s). And then what? Has the Cho­sen One shown skill in diplo­macy and eco­nomics, solv­ing prob­lems not in­volv­ing swords? What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Sau­ron man­aged to feed his armies from a waste­land; what kind of agri­cul­tural tech­niques do you have? And in­deed, if the book/​se­ries needs a se­quel, we find that a prob­lem at least as bad as the origi­nal fills in the void.

Real­ity of­ten fol­lows that pat­tern. Marx ex­plic­itly had no plan for what hap­pened af­ter you smashed cap­i­tal­ism. De­stroy the op­pres­sors and then … as it turns out, slightly differ­ent op­pres­sors come in and gen­er­ally kill a fair per­centage of the pop­u­la­tion. It works on the other di­rec­tion as well; the fall of Soviet com­mu­nism led not to spon­ta­neous cap­i­tal­ism but rather klep­toc­racy and Vlad­mir Putin. For most of my life­time, a ma­jor pillar of Amer­i­can for­eign policy has seemed to be the over­throw of hos­tile dic­ta­tors (end of plan). For ex­am­ple, Muam­mar Gaddafi was kil­led in 2011, and Libya has been in some state of un­rest or civil war ever since. Maybe this is one where it would not be best to con­tribute our fa­vorites in the com­ments.

This is not to say that you never get im­prove­ments that way. Aragorn can hardly be worse than Sau­ron. Re­gres­sion to the mean per­haps sug­gests that you will get some­thing less bad just by luck, as Putin seems clearly less bad than Stalin, al­though Stalin seems clearly worse than al­most any other regime change in his­tory. Some would say that caus­ing civil wars in hos­tile coun­tries is the goal rather than a failure of Amer­i­can for­eign policy, which seems a darker sort of in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity.

Hu­man flour­ish­ing is not the de­fault state of af­fairs, tem­porar­ily sup­pressed by villainy. Spon­ta­neous or­der is real, but it still needs in­sti­tu­tions and so­cial tech­nol­ogy to sup­port it.

Defeat­ing the villain is a (pos­si­bly) nec­es­sary but (al­most cer­tainly) in­suffi­cient con­di­tion for bring­ing about good.

One thing I re­ally like about this com­mu­nity is that pro­jects tend to be con­ceived in the pos­i­tive rather than the nega­tive. Please keep de­vel­op­ing your plans not only in terms of “this is a bad thing to be elimi­nated” but also “this is a bet­ter thing to be cre­ated” and “this is how I plan to get there.”