When I give a speech about the big-picture political and cultural ideas in my book The Future and Its Enemies, the question and answer period almost always starts with a down-to-earth query: "What do you think of George W. Bush and Al Gore?"
"Well," I say, "Bush is a mixed bag. But I think Al Gore is the devil."
This line always gets a laugh, but it’s not really a joke. Don’t get me wrong: Unlike some Clinton haters, who have the same opinion of his boss, I don’t mean Gore is literally the Prince of Darkness. I simply mean that he operates according to core principles that work to erode the freedoms of individuals and the progress of the open society.
This is true whether you examine the "real Gore"–the intellectual wannabe who seems like he’d rather have my job than Bill Clinton’s–or the political Gore, who speaks in poll-tested phrases. Both versions share the patronizing world view perfectly expressed in the vice president’s tendency to address his audiences as though they were dim second-graders. Both want to tell everyone else how to live, to subordinate our diverse, individualized purposes to their own goals.
Back before his populist peroration at the Democratic National Convention, the intellectual Gore gave a remarkable interview to Nicholas Lemann of The New Yorker. Lemann was smart enough not to ask routine, soundbite-inducing questions. Instead, he asked Gore about his favorite ideas, and he ran long quotations from their conversations.
Gore’s responses elicited scorn, derision, and dismay in Washington’s political-intellectual circles. He was way, way, way too interested in obscure notions about complexity and fractals. He drew strange diagrams. He talked a lot about metaphor. He dropped names of philosophers and physicists. Gore sounded like a New Age version of Newt Gingrich.
The pundits were so flabbergasted by his strangeness that they paid little attention to the content of what he said. But Lemann’s article revealed more than Gore’s interest in odd ideas; it gave readers a peek at his political philosophy. And the substance of Gore’s world view is troubling.
Gore believes society needs to take ideas from science and apply them to politics and economics, and he’s frustrated that scientific ideas are too unfamiliar to the general public–and his political colleagues–to be used that way. He wants to replace the old metaphors of a clockwork universe and machine-age government with something more up-to-date. His favorite metaphor is "distributed intelligence."
That sounds promising. The insight that knowledge is scattered through society, and that it’s impossible to collect all relevant information (including the knowledge of individuals’ purposes and preferences) in a single place, is fundamental to understanding why central planning does not work, and why it is incompatible with individual freedom. But Gore’s idea of distributed intelligence does not in any way endorse the significance of dispersed, local knowledge.
To the contrary, Gore imagines society as a giant computer system, using massively parallel processing to attack a single problem. In such a system, he explained in a 1996 speech to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "When a problem was presented, all the processors would begin working simultaneously, each performing its small part of the task, and sending its portion of the answer to be collated with the rest of the work that was going on. It turns out that for most problems, this approach is more effective." (Actually, massively parallel processing isn’t good for most problems, but that’s a messy real-world detail.)
As a metaphor for society, this analogy suggests that someone in charge decides what the problem is and parcels out tasks to individuals. Individuals do not choose their own problems and purposes or respond to the needs and desires of other dispersed individuals. Asked by Lemann to apply this idea to government, Gore imagined members of Congress bringing information from their districts to "assemble it at the center, in the Capitol building."
So "distributed intelligence," a phrase that appears to honor decentralized knowledge, turns out to enshrine centralized decision making. This vision is in keeping with Gore’s desire, in Earth in the Balance, for a "central organizing principle for civilization," a goal to which all other goals are subordinated.
Gore also rebels against the dispersed knowledge that makes an advanced civilization possible–the specialization that lets people do what they’re good at and enables us to benefit from the knowledge of others, the specialization that acknowledges that each of us is inevitably ignorant about most things. To the AAAS, he bemoaned "the increasing segmentation of society," blaming it for the failure of his favorite metaphor to capture the public imagination.
The problem of specialization, he told Lemann, was what Earth in the Balance was all about. The book was an attempt, he said, "to understand the origins of our modern world view, and its curious reliance on specialization and ever-narrower slices of the world around us into categories that are then themselves dissected, in an ongoing process of separation, into parts and subparts–a process that sometimes obliterates the connection to the whole and the appreciation for context and the deeper meanings that can’t really be found in the atomized parts of the whole."
No wonder the pundits scoffed. That Gore doesn’t sound like much of a politician.