The Adams Imperative: the Call to Good Governance
*Note on definitions: “government” is the ruling machinery and institutions, “politics” is the set of social interactions that changes and conducts that machinery. In this essay, when I say “government” or “politics,” I am referring to both unless otherwise noted.
“The Science of Government it is my Duty to study…I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”1
John Adams wrote these now-famous words to his wife Abigail during the American Revolution, and they outline a vital truth I call the Adams Imperative: the duty of citizens to regard the health of their government as their foundational priority. It recognizes that good government and good governance are the substrate within which all of society grows, and that that substrate, when properly maintained, can support an ever increasing profusion of human marvels.
This imperative asserts itself differently across time, both in the number of people it requires and what it requires of them. In Adams’ time, it was immediate, total, and unmistakable: it marched in red coats and occupied New York City. He and his peers would have been tried and hanged for treason if they would have done anything other than dedicate themselves to The Science of Government.2
But what about modern New Yorkers? They are not under any occupying force, and they can contribute their time and talents to private industry in ways that often benefit civilization more quickly than government—and for more money. Does the Adams Imperative call them to turn toward their government at the expense of their own time and attention, if not also resources?
Yes, more than they imagine.
The danger to our government is not an occupying army; it’s severe institutional decay and sclerosis. This isn’t death by one large blow, but rather a thousand cuts. If you wonder why New York City can’t build subways, housing, or pick up its trash, it is because the government, the substrate, is floundering from sheer neglect. This problem isn’t new, and many band aids have been put on it over time, but the wound still festers.3
Properly addressing this threat will require more skill in the science of government than the revolutionary era.4 This means creating a current generation of citizens and politicians that surpass the Founders. Nothing less can reverse the terrible inertia of compounding governmental inefficacy. But this is renaissance, not revolution.
If you are reading this and wondering “But does that mean I have to try to solve the problems of government?” the answer is probably “yes.” You are not excused from maintaining the human accomplishment of self governance. Especially if you have time and resources to spare.
Issue the Adams Imperative after addressing its prerequisites
Of course, this can seem overly harsh to many people, and to state it that way puts them off. The imperative demands much of current New Yorkers, and simply stating it, even though it is true, is counterproductive for two reasons:
New Yorkers don’t have the necessary knowledge to act on the imperative5, and they don’t even know where to begin getting it, or what they need to get specifically. This produces feelings of helplessness and nihilism. You can confirm this by asking almost any New Yorker to explain, in basic terms, how their city government works. They will not know, they won’t know how to find out, and they won’t be alarmed about either thing.
Most people are under the unconscious control of a meme that prevents them from even understanding what “good politics” are.6 Their whole cognitive architecture doesn’t merely reject the idea of “good politics,” it treats the concept as a category error and a contradiction in terms. When you tell them to get involved in government/politics, you are unknowingly challenging this meme, and their mind and emotions will interpret it as a call to get involved in something horrible.
Before you issue the Adams Imperative, you must first address the two things above. The what is straightforward, the how is not (I’ll stick with the what for this essay):
Give people the knowledge they need to properly contextualize their governing system, understand its affordances7 (which will be different from the official and well-known affordances), and use those affordances to achieve specific political ends. In other words, teach them history, political theory, and political practice.
Defeat the anti-politics meme with a more powerful meme. This requires the rhetorical skill and operational knowledge to inspire and uplift, to show individuals what good politics are and the marvels they can facilitate. You cannot kill the anti-politics meme. You must outcompete it.
If you skip knowledge supply and meme fitness, and merely issue the Adams Imperative (tell people to “get involved” or “get out and vote” without a good enough “why” and “how”), you will be properly perceived as a moral scold. You will burn out, and your task will feel like a slog. You will be demanding ends from people who aren’t aware of the proper means, and that includes you.
Unfortunately this is how many (most?) contemporary political individuals and organizations operate. Their messaging campaigns alternate between moral hectoring, fear induction, and lesser-evil-ism. You can certainly get people to engage with you via those means, and sometimes you can herd a large-enough group of people to the polls, but you will not gather and uplift a generation whose skill exceeds that of the revolutionary era—which means you will not succeed in doing what needs to get done in New York City.
The point of this essay is to outline what needs to be done to properly answer the Adams Imperative in modern NYC. How to do these things will not only be a separate essay, it will be a new school.
“John Adams to Abigail Adams, 12 May 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-03-02-0258. [Original source: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 3, April 1778 – September 1780, ed. L. H. Butterfield and Marc Friedlaender. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973, pp. 341–343.] This quote was embedded in some historical context worth mentioning. In the revolutionary era, gentlemen and political elites (often one and the same) were supposed to forgo money-making and manual labor to engage in politics with an air of “disinterest” (which our current culture would call “lack of bias”). This is not what Adams was talking about here. Adams was definitely making the point that America, as a young country struggling to be born, had to focus on government first, especially when you consider this letter in conjunction with others he wrote.
Those who signed the Declaration of Independence all met different fates, several of them at British hands. Signing Their Lives Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence provides short biographies of all 56 signatories.
Beyond what New Yorkers have been able to witness with their own eyes for decades, J. Storrs Hall lays out the scientific and industrial casualties of institutional decay in his book Where Is My Flying Car?
That skill involved, among other things: creating a new form of government, revising it constantly to prevent collapse, generating new political philosophies to be implemented as soon as the ink dried, all while international rivals and the institution of slavery undermined and threatened the enterprise from every angle. But I think we can do better.
I explain the nature of this knowledge here. It is knowledge of a set of social technologies, and so the problem of people not knowing how to interact with their government is a problem of non-technological people needing to understand technology. This is a hard problem, but still nonetheless straightforward!
The anti-politics meme is so pervasive that its opposite is regarded as bizarre. Also, for reference, a “meme” is an element of a culture or system of behavior that’s passed from one individual to another, usually by imitation. This can be an idea, or a cat pic.
“An affordance is what a user can do with an object based on the user’s capabilities. As such, an affordance is not a ‘property’ of an object (like a physical object or a User Interface). Instead, an affordance is defined in the relation between the user and the object: A door affords opening if you can reach the handle. For a toddler, the door does not afford opening if she cannot reach the handle. An affordance is, in essence, an action possibility in the relation between user and an object.” From the Interaction Design Foundation. See also this Wikipedia page on affordances.