Airplanes were not invented by discussing how to improve each component of an automobile—the chassis, wheels, and doors. Similarly, the United States’ core principles, institutions, and laws were not devised by discussing how to make monarchs more just and socially conscious. Radically better solutions are generated by putting aside the present, clarifying long-term goals, and envisioning possibilities. It involves starting with the end in mind, not with what already exists.
Today, people across the political spectrum seem dissatisfied with how society functions. That has been true well before present leaders were in office, or before the latest fatalities that stem from hundreds of years of injustice. We want change, but we lack alignment, and we keep debating how to improve the individual components of society—the chassis, wheels, doors, police forces, unions, tax rates, social security, Congress. That’s worthwhile and necessary work, but don’t the challenges and opportunities also merit exploring radical transformations of the whole system? If the US Founders were alive and saw how much the world has changed, what would they think about how much our principles, institutions, and systems have remained the same? Toward the end of the Constitutional Convention, George Washington said he did not expect the Constitution to last for more than twenty years. Two years later, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison saying “no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law” and suggested re-evaluating the Constitution every nineteen years. Constitutional amendments assume a static foundation that I think the Founders would reconsider two hundred and thirty years later in this very different world.
Aside from our existing dialogues, shouldn’t we also ask ourselves what kind of society we want to be part of? For example, would we want to be part of a society striving to achieve equal opportunity? Equal opportunity is not mentioned in the US Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution or amendments, or the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Our founding documents call for something different, equal rights, which is like ensuring that the same rules apply to all players of Monopoly. Unfortunately, because of prior injustices, segments of the population have joined play well into the game and now have unequal access to education and capital, resulting in increasingly equal rights but very unequal opportunity. Would we want to seek equal opportunity? Or what else? It is hard to achieve something without explicitly stating it as a goal.
A practical matter
One may perceive the re-imagining of the goals and structures of society as a purely intellectual exercise, but it is not, for three reasons. First, well-funded projects to create new societies in presently unpopulated places already exist, from Elon Musk’s efforts to populate Mars to seasteading projects to form sovereign states on artificially made islands. These projects may sound insane, but so did manufacturing food, flying across oceans, and walking on the moon. History is filled with examples of humans gaining powers previously unimaginable. These bold new projects involve technological challenges, but don’t they also present societal design challenges and opportunities? Wouldn’t all future generations benefit from more of us reflecting on alternative ways to organize human life? It is not about creating utopias. An individual cannot be perfect, much less a group. But it is about creating better societies than we presently have, much like our societies are better than the monarchies that preceded them. These projects create opportunities for innovation because they allow groups to ideate and opt into true social contracts negotiated by the people involved. Today we are limited by an imposed, inherited social contract that maintains the status quo, allowing us only to patch what breaks along the way.
The second reason to ideate future-back rather than present-forward is that the process generates more innovative ideas that can still be feasibly implemented in the present world. “Make homes shared spaces” or “have the closest car take you” can turn into Airbnb and Uber.
Third, like pandemics, civilizations have risen and fallen for thousands of years. At some point ours is likely to collapse and a new one to emerge, which could happen sooner than we might think. Future societal entrepreneurs will create stronger, better societies if they can draw upon more innovative ideas generated in our present civilization. After all, the US Founders built on ideas generated by thinkers in monarchic societies who envisioned a radically different way to organize human life. Shouldn’t we pay it forward?
We can do the same as those past thinkers in service of future generations. Distinct, diverse groups of people with aligned interests and values can design possibilities for future societies. For example, one such group might choose to design a society for justice, equal opportunity, and an all-inclusive “we” (technically called an in-group). That design team may come up with a society with free trade, but with private wealth accumulation lasting a lifetime rather than an eternity, reasoning that (i) free trade allocates resources to those who value them most or can use them most effectively; (ii) wealth accumulation creates incentives to contribute to others, which societies without private property have been unable to achieve; and (iii) removing inter-generational inheritance equalizes opportunity, ensures all children start life with something rather than nothing, eliminates insecurities for people with handed-down privilege, and promotes an all-inclusive in-group. In this society, each person’s life’s work is for the benefit of everyone in the future generations.
Another group might prioritize local community control and equitable access to resources, following David Brooks’ recent suggestions that “First, the neighborhood is the unit of change… Second, the people in the community have to be in charge. They need resources from outside, but only local control does the trick. Third, spending money on preschool, apprenticeship and other human capital programs really works.” In this society, local communities have the resources needed to innovate and take care of themselves.
Yet another group could choose to eliminate concentrated political power, reasoning that it causes legislators to make important decisions based not on what is best for the people, but on political gain, alliance-building favors, the protection of powerful groups, or bribery. In addition, the decisions are often uninformed, since legislators are unable to become experts given their wide-ranging purviews. In reality, they rarely find the time to even read the proposed legislations before voting. Instead, the design group could decide to institute jury-duty-like temporary committees of well-informed, randomly selected citizens that anonymously come together to dive deep into an issue, debate, decide, and then dissolve. In this society, ready citizens take turns diving deep into an issue and making specific policy decisions.
The previous examples are just that, examples. Other groups might choose similar or different core values, principles, and goals, and come up with a variety of approaches. Any interested person could join any society that resonates. Those new societies could interact with present ones using the existing interoperability protocols of trade and international relations, and they could serve as prototypes for the rest of the world to observe and learn from, like the United States served as a prototype from which the rest of the world learned and then emulated. But even if a new society never emerges from the design exercises, the ideas generated could contribute fresh perspectives for policy reform.
Couldn’t we benefit from more future-back thought and dialogue? Re-envisioning societies may be the greatest opportunity to contribute to future generations of humans and other species. What would you design for? If you are interested in joining a diverse group of people (in multiple dimensions including ideological, socioeconomic, demographic, geographic/international, etc.) to first empathize with one another, and then think, collaborate, learn, and design together, contact me at email@example.com. During the COVID-19 crisis I also encourage you to join The Aspen Institute’s Pursuit of Happiness Hour zoom discussions every Wednesday.
 Ginsburg, Douglas H. Voices of Our Republic: Exploring the Constitution with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Alan Dershowitz, Sandra Day O’Connor, Ron Chernow, and Many More. Skyhorse, 2020.
 Jefferson, Thomas. “To James Madison.” 6 Sep. 1789. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-12-02-0248