The excellent book, “The Constitution of Knowledge,” by Jonathan Rauch, The Brookings Institute, 2021, inspired this commentary.
Once upon a time, the country of Acadia was established. The new nation’s founders believed in a democratic form of government. They wrote a constitution to guarantee that both individual liberties and the rule of law would govern the new land. This binding legal document imposed checks and balances on the elected leaders.
As the country grew, disagreements developed among the different tribes that lived within the borders of Acadia. The large land mass was very diverse in language, ethnicity, religion and cultural practices. The citizens who lived in the large cities came to value knowledge, merit and the diversity of many different tribes. However, the rural tribes became distrustful of city dwellers and feared that the rustic way of life was being both ignored and threatened. Moreover, rural tribes, immigrants themselves, were opposed to permitting foreigners the right to immigrate into Acadia to share in its vast resources.
Despite the disagreements, the constitution of laws allowed strong governmental institutions to develop, and Acadia thrived for many years. Leaders with moderate liberal views were elected, often followed by the election of moderate conservative leaders. At times, radical political tribes sought power, but they were quickly absorbed into the moderate political parties. The political and social changes that took place were adopted slowly, with vigorous debate and compromise by all interest tribes. The democratic struggle between the state and the people was healthy. It never gravitated toward the twin evils of authoritarian state authority or into political chaos brought on by mass rebellion that plagued other nations.
Over the years, Acadia was slowly transformed from an agrarian society into an industrial one. The conflicts between rural tribes, who remained fixed in an agricultural culture and the urban areas that adopted an industrial way of life, became more pronounced. It became difficult for the constitution and the democratic institutions to keep a moderate elected government in place. There was increasing pressure for the state to move sharply to the right or the left. Thankfully, Acadia was equally split between voters on each side of the debate. This helped to maintain the appearance of order.
In addition to the traditional conflict between rural and urban citizens, conservative tribes attracted Christian citizens with what became known as a “family values” agenda. This platform wanted Acadia to become a Christian nation that would ignore the constitutional mandate of the separation between church and state.
The death blow to Acadia’s long-running system of democratic government was the dawning of the Information Age. Within several decades, access to and control of information became the defining characteristic of society. This was initially thought to be good for democracy because all the tribes would have a vast store of knowledge equally available to them. In fact, the information age fostered social media where each citizen could express opinions that would go viral and be viewed by millions of others. Untrue diatribes that encouraged negative emotions of hate and distrust replaced vetted facts on which all could agree.
Unscrupulous politicians began to run for office using social media as their path to victory. The message was about the individual leader. The leader was adept at communicating untrue authoritarian “us against them” themes to his followers. Acadia was politically and socially split in half. Knowledge became irrelevant, and the constitutional institutions began to weaken.
Many thought that civil war was inevitable and that Acadia would become a failed nation. Finally, wise citizens, both conservatives and liberals, gathered and convened a second constitutional convention. The goal was to develop a new “constitution of knowledge” that would serve as a defense of truth and avert the coming storm.
The constitution of knowledge was designed to manage disagreements among the tribes. As in the original constitution, speech was free to flourish. What changed was a system that vetted speech before the tribes accepted it as knowledge. The constitution of knowledge became law following a national referendum.
Under the new constitution, views or opinions that an individual wanted to be accepted as knowledge were submitted for peer review. The medical professionals vetted medical questions; legal scholars, the legal disagreements; respected sociologists, the social issues; and religious leaders and philosophers, the moral dilemmas. However, the constitution of knowledge was not limited to professionals. It also included journalists, law enforcement, election administrators, union officials, corporate leaders and any other evidence-based group where theories required testing and justification from different points of view. Everyone was still entitled to his or her own opinion, but the community as a whole agreed on what constituted knowledge.
When a proposition was finally given credence as true, it was always subject to change as the facts supporting the proposition changed. In this way, the proven scientific method that existed for centuries was adopted to manage disagreement among the tribes. There was now a welcome, level playing field for conflict, which rejected misinformation and provided a defense for truth.
The constitution of knowledge became widely utilized in Acadia. The nation became ruled by its values and common practices that were fair to all of the tribes. Disruptive trolls and divisive politicians who previously thrived on hate, fear and disinformation disappeared from the land. The information age became a positive force that propelled Acadia forward into many years of peace and prosperity.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.