Monday, June 15, 2009

Ontological Inertia

I have been thinking, fairly recently, about something called ontological inertia. Inertia itself is a fairly basic concept; it can be simplified into the bold statement that a body in motion will remain in motion unless a force acts on it to counter that motion.

Similarly, ontological inertia is the claim that things which exist will continue existing unless a force acts upon them to counter that existence. Now, this might seem perfectly obvious to you; well and so. Oddly, most people are not so lucky. This is perhaps reinforced by television, where concepts like 'status quo is god' are reinforced again and again to the point where they pervade our cultural psyche. We are trained, essentially, to believe that everything will return to the way it was magically, and things will continue along the way they were.

But, you might cry, I don't think that way!

Well, perhaps you don't. Earlier this week, I overheard a group of people speaking about Iran. One of them mentioned that because Iran was not a democracy, they had no moral legitimacy. Specifically, they argued that since Iran was able to overthrow its monarchy in a revolution in 1979, it should have established a 'democracy' in its place as opposed to a theocratic republic.

It's difficult to establish exactly why the people in question thought this. Perhaps they thought, as many do, that a democracy is the 'default' state of government; and that if you overthrow tyrants and totalitarianists everywhere, magically democracy will appear overnight. However, then they went on to proclaim that since the current Islamic Republic continues, the people must be in favor of it continuing and therefore were guilty of its operation.

This is a more difficult proposition. I have, on various occasions, agreed with it; from a political-science point of view, after all, it makes a great deal of sense. When looking at populations on a large scale, it is an effective view of modelling population behavior.

But it doesn't tell the whole story. In fact, the vast majority of people in Iran could be very unhappy with their government, and yet still have it continue in operation, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, they could agree with the form of government, but disagree with the leader. This argument could be extended to US president George W. Bush, who, during the end of his tenure, had approximately 68% disapproval ratings and yet was not forced from office. In that case, one could argue that they are supporting their system of governance but not the leader by supporting the government.

The second is perhaps more pervasive. If you walk into a room with perhaps 100 people, and ask them how many of them feel comfortable with the ambient temperature, chances are that the majority of them would prefer it hotter or colder, ideally. Perhaps they'd like the lights dimmer, or brighter. When I personally conducted this experiment on a class of students, out of 35 of them, exactly four were satisfied with the ambient environment of the classroom. That means close to 90% disapproved- and yet, of this 90% who disapproved of the ambient environment, not one took steps to alter it. You could argue that the effort required to alter the environment would be significant; but it wasn't that. In fact, the main reason why nobody changed the environment was that it did not cause them sufficient discomfort for them to want to expend the effort at all. Even if it was an effort as simple as walking over to the wall and changing the thermostat, they did not want to exert that effort.

Governments possess a significant amount of ontological inertia. The government exists, but to overthrow the government requires not only that the government be extremely unpopular, but requires that those people who are unhappy with it be willing to exert sufficient effort required to overthrow it- a non-trivial amount of effort, in fact, one that becomes even less trivial in environments where the government is operating to continue its existence, as most do.

The result is that plenty of places on this planet have governments that their people are unhappy with, and those governments continue operating. They may not be the best, but they are, essentially, 'good enough'- and good enough is generally entirely sufficient for most people.

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