Your Papers, “Please?”

     As a thumb rule, one can say that any time a planet starts developing cities of more than one million people, it is approaching critical mass. In a century or two it won’t be fit to live on. [Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough For Love]

     When a place gets crowded enough to require ID’s, social collapse is not far away. [Ibid.]

     I have a busy day ahead of me – they’re getting busier as I get older and crankier, damn it all – so a quick reflection must serve until I’ve serviced all my obligations.

     Humans have this clustering impulse that’s hard to resist. It’s why we have villages, towns, and cities. There are distinct economic benefits from it. Also, while we may not need one another in the exact sense, the majority of us prefer to live among…well…the majority of us! We like one another’s company better than we like being utterly alone.

     Yes, of course there are exceptions. I’m one, so I’d hardly argue about it. But as I’ve said before, we call them exceptions because they’re exceptional. People tend to cluster, both for the economic advantages and because we simply prefer to have some company.

     But clustering has a positive-feedback aspect that’s tough to combat. I’ll save the social and economic analyses for another time. Let it suffice to say that a cluster acts like an accretion nucleus. It swells at an accelerating rate until it reaches a point where the pathologies it engenders cause it to collapse completely. Some of America’s larger clusters are in the process of collapsing right now.

     You know the names. Chicago. Los Angeles. New York City.

     In the strictest sense, the law does not require a resident of the Land of the Formerly Free to carry an ID. But just try to do anything more involved than grocery shopping without one. If a cop stops you and demands your driver’s license, refuse to produce it at your peril. He’ll find a reason to run you in. The laws were written to provide him with all the latitude he needs.

     That de facto requirement for an “official” identifying document is indeed a harbinger of trouble. Think about the premise: that who you are is of less moment than who some faceless official says you are, as certified by a slip of paper or plastic. What makes that slip of paper or plastic a necessity? Simply this: there are too many people clustered around you for all of them to know you personally!

     To Jones who doesn’t know Smith personally, Smith can look like a “mark:” that is, a target for exploitation. Exploitation swells with population density. Distrust replaces trust as the dominant social ethic.

     I’ve written before about our loss of the ethic of trust. No, it wasn’t entirely about over-clustering. But that did have an effect. Add the tendency of predators to gravitate to population centers. Further complicate matters with clusters’ “necessary” collectivization of certain supports to life. Then throw in demagogic politics:

     The day will come when a multitude of people will choose the legislature. Is it possible to doubt what sort of a legislature will be chosen? On the one side is a statesman preaching patience, respect for rights, strict observance of public faith. On the other is a demagogue ranting about the tyranny of capitalism and usury and asking why anyone should be permitted to drink champagne and to ride in a carriage while thousands of honest people are in want of necessaries. Which of the candidates is likely to be preferred by a workman? [Thomas Babington Macaulay]

     For the moment, there’s no escape. The land frontier is closed, and the realms above are, as yet, unreachable and uninhabitable.

     I’ll return to this later.