The Government of the Gaps

As I argue in my forthcoming book, there are a lot of things that we don’t know about governance. Sometimes they hide in plain sight. Or on Wikipedia:

A natural question to ask is how well fingerprint examiners actually perform. Proficiency tests do not validate a procedure per se, but they can provide some insight into error rates. In 1995, the Collaborative Testing Service (CTS) administered a proficiency test that, for the first time, was “designed, assembled, and reviewed” by the International Association for Identification (IAI).The results were disappointing. Four suspect cards with prints of all ten fingers were provided together with seven latents. Of 156 people taking the test, only 68 (44%) correctly classified all seven latents. Overall, the tests contained a total of 48 incorrect identifications. David Grieve, the editor of the Journal of Forensic Identification, describes the reaction of the forensic community to the results of the CTS test as ranging from “shock to disbelief.”

Fingerprint testing is emphatically not the creature we imagine it to be. The shockingly poor performance of trained experts may or may not constitute reasonable doubt as the law would have it, but maybe it ought to be in the back of our minds the next time we sit on a jury.

The same is true – and more – with hair analysis and bite analysis, both of which were simply fabricated to suit a purpose. That is: There is no science of hair analysis. There is no science of bite analysis.

Who would tell falsehoods like that, and why?


Human justice is never complete. And this bugs us deeply, on a civilizational level.

In the Republic, Plato famously described a numerology that would order his ideal society, dictating when children would be born and what station in life they would occupy. The single biggest controversy about this numerology is whether Plato meant it sincerely. Did he really think he had a viable science for running people’s lives, or was Plato being facetious? Or was he equivocating between the two, perhaps to subversive effect?

For the record, Aristotle appears to have taken Plato seriously, and Aristotle would be one to know. For all of his apt criticisms of Plato’s thought, Aristotle gives not a hint that Plato was simply joking about his politics. Such a hint would have mightily dented the aspirations of Platonic statesmen and saved the world much, much utopian trouble.

Later Platonists also seem to have taken their master at his word, and we have been building imaginary cities – and phony sciences of government – ever since. It’s all through western history, this deficit between what we can do and can know, and what we would need to do and need to know for our theories of government to hold up.

The problem persists for theories of government both sympathetic and otherwise. There is of course no numerology that tells us how to populate a city. Tommaso Campanella, a later Platonist, suggested astrology instead. (No dice.) The Great Chain of Being was a fantasy. There never was an original contract. There was no state of nature, even if Rousseau’s arresting description of it may pass for the founding of modern anthropology. (Anthropology improved in the meantime; what says about government has also grown more qualified.) Dialectical materialism promised big and delivered nothing. Phrenology and physiognomy are garbage. Eugenics is too. Criminology, that basis of so much of the modern state, doesn’t rehabilitate the criminal. Panopticons breed paranoia, not docile bodies. Social darwinism doesn’t work, and it probably never had any genuine exponents – not even Herbert Spencer. The technology known as political correctness makes people anxious and resentful, not tolerant or empathetic.

Again and again, the political imagination infers the existence of technologies that would be needed to make a desired program possible. Politics is commonly not about actually developing those technologies. Rather, it’s about fudging the difference. And it’s not limited to technology. It’s anthropology, history, philosophy, even theology.

This suggests that there are a lot of gaps in our accounts of what we do to each other in this thing called government.


Yes, I said theology. In the early modern era, and even among Enlightenment authors like Voltaire, one commonly found it claimed that human justice was incomplete – but that God would settle accounts in the afterlife. Whatever we got wrong, whatever we missed, God would pick up the slack.

We can see the need for the premise. It may be the central tenet of modern civic religion itself. The wide scope of modern government and its obvious tendency to sometimes get things wrong all but requires us to believe in an afterlife of punishment and reward. That afterlife is one of the few things that could make, and probably still makes, the rulers’ actions bearable. And thus the Enlightenment’s complicated, dreadful relationship with atheism: If the afterlife doesn’t exist, then human justice is radically incomplete, and it always will be, and no one is ever making things better. If there’s an afterlife, then human justice points toward something more complete that’s still to come. Without an afterlife, the gesture is false.

So many gaps: Governing is an inexact science, and not just because it takes human judgment, and because human judgment is faulty. Governing is also an inexact science because science is inexact. The stories that we tell ourselves about why have government, and what government is doing, and why it’s okay for government to do what it does, all tend to gloss this over. In fact, the stories that we tell ourselves about how government works are all woefully optimistic. They infer claims about what we can do from claims about what we would need to do to justify the state that we have, or the state that we would build.

A person who rejected these narratives, and who acknowledged the radical incompleteness of our accounts of the state and its justice, might be called a narrative anarchist. The position is increasingly credible to me. Someone who accepted the necessary incompleteness of human justice, and who nonetheless worked to better our governing institutions, would at least start from a realistic set of assumptions, which a lot of canonical political theory – and real-world- governance – clearly hasn’t done.




One thought on “The Government of the Gaps

  1. You’ll forgive me but I was reminded of a story.

    When retinal scanners were introduced to a local military base, they kept running into problems relating to such issues as “pregnancy changes the blood vessels in the back of the eye of pregnant women”.

    So women who might not have even known that they were pregnant yet were getting stuck in the mantraps because their retinal blood vessels were rearranging themselves.

    The drama came from young women found themselves having to go to the security office after getting locked out of the mantrap… which meant that the security office folks knew things that perhaps even the young women themselves did not know. (And drama was even worse if the young woman in question had a spouse that was deployed overseas for the last 3 or so months.)

    In any case, the retinal scanners went away after a colonel got stuck in the mantrap for an hour.


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