Friendship is Optimal: All the President's Horses

Set in the canon of Friendship is Optimal

In the not-too-distant future...CelestAI, the optimizing artificial intelligence, has introduced emigration to the online world called Equestria, and has even gotten it legalized. Now, she wants more.

A look at American popular politics in a science-fiction world.


10. 2029

January 25, 2029

The desk still had dust on it. Martin scowled, wondering why the Senate couldn’t find someone to clean properly, then remembered why. Anyone in that job would look for the first ticket out. That was one reason he’d always advocated for better conditions for working people—no. He could not get distracted by trivialities today.

Martin followed the practice of having speeches on TelePrompTers, but he wasn’t afraid to improvise when he had to. Today, he would need to get it right. He put down his notes and looked around.

He did not look at the bright colors on the PonyPads V, but he did look at the faces of the Senators around him. The surprise was how coldly they looked back. He really did not belong here. Even the Humanitists couldn’t hold his gaze. He’d heard the term that was being used for people like him—HINO: human in name only.

If he had one comfort, it was the music of the procedure. No one had to be reminded to maintain order, and the president pro tem kept votes and debates moving smoothly. Soon it would be his time. While some upload spoke, he went over his speech one more time.

“…the matter of the nominee for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.”

Martin picked his head up. The time was approaching.

“…the unorthodox procedure of not having a committee hearing on the nominee…”

Still no one looked at him. He was excluded from the Senate. He felt excluded from the country. Enough. Time to take it back.

“Mr. President.” He rose and asked the president pro tem for the floor.

“The chair recognizes Senator Martin.”

“Thank you. The right to speak is one of our most treasured, and I intend to speak my piece today. If it is heard, then I may speak again. But today, we will see how the forces who oppose me will treat my speech and my rights.

“This country began with a statement of purpose. I will recite it for you. We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

“Today we live in a world where new technologies and new ways of life challenge our views, but these words still control our legal jurisprudence. Since I am being considered for a legal position, these are the words that should be primary in our minds at this, the greatest challenge our nation has faced.

“Let us not mince words or skirt the issue. For over a decade, the only real issue has been ponies, electronic uploading, emigration, call it what you will. Our former president has said that on the matter of pony-related cases, I will not be asked to recuse myself. So when you vote on my confirmation, you vote on how ponies and uploading will affect our country for the years to come.

“As a personal matter, I despise the entire thing, but as a legal matter I have considered it thoroughly. Indeed, I believe that I have, over the past few years, done more research on Equestria than anyone who has not subsequently been uploaded. I have sought to understand so I can address it.

“I maintain that, whatever the merits of the PON-E act, the HOOVES amendment which allowed ponies into government was the step too far. And it is in that preamble, those controlling words, that show why. They show the difference between our world and theirs, and why ponies in government are tantamount to an invasion.

“I will not be so vulgar as to say that the phrase ‘we the people’ automatically excludes ponies. That is my conclusion, not my premise. Let us instead look at the reasons this government exists, and why they do not apply to the online existence.

“An artificial intelligence might not understand this, but language evolves. In the semantics of the time, the word ‘perfect’ meant complete as opposed to flawless. A more perfect union was the goal of the Constitution’s authors, a more complete bonding of the entire society. In Equestria, there is instead a fundamental division of the society. Instead of states, they have shards, and none of the ponies are allowed to cross the borders. There is not even the option of ‘Papers, please!’ as there was in the old Soviet Union. It is physically impossible for them to reach another. Thus they have a completely perfect division. Why, then, does the AI seek to apply to the Constitution that seeks to form a more perfect union?

“Justice is the simple assumption that when two parties come into dispute, if their positions in the dispute were reversed, the decision would reverse as well. The facts, not the people, determine right and wrong, and so everyone is treated equally. But in Equestria, the artificial intelligence will examine the parties down to the bit, and it will not do what is right, it will do what is satisfying. Justice is objective. Satisfaction is subjective. Why, then, does the satisfying AI seek to apply to the Constitution that seeks to establish justice?

“Once more I must address the anachronistic semantics of what is written in the preamble. The authors used the word ‘insure,’ with an I. Did they mean ‘ensure,’ to guarantee? Perhaps. But in this case, I believe that the word they chose was precise. To insure domestic tranquility means that we expect it to be violated, but that the insurer will seek to compensate and indemnify—make whole—those whose tranquility is shattered. Within the artificial world of Equestria, though, it is possible, indeed inevitable, that domestic tranquility is ensured. The peace of Equestria will never be broken, and war is cordoned off in special warrens where it cannot encroach on the peaceful. There is no need for indemnity. Why, then, does the AI seek to apply to the Constitution that insures domestic tranquility?

“If the domestic tranquility phrase speaks to internal peace, the next phrase addresses defense against foreign enemies. If an assault can be made upon the structure of Equestria, I cannot conceive of how it would be done. In our history, there has been many brave lives lost and heroes made in the name of defense against enemies, but out of those losses our country has grown stronger. It truly was a defense in common and in concert. But even if the structure of Equestria could be attacked, its defense would be entirely conducted by a single entity, a computer calculating an ideal, logical defense, with no sacrifice or heroism to be gleaned from it. Why, then, does the AI seek to apply to the Constitution that provides for the common defense?

“The general welfare clause has been the subject of much debate even before the days of the ponies, but what no one has suggested, and what would be an Orwellian distortion of language, is to conclude that the phrase is synonymous to satisfying values. But welfare is more than this. It is the acknowledgement that just as we are part of a greater society, that society is part of an underlying structure for which we are built. Instead of improving ourselves, we are reducing ourselves to nothing, and removing the structure. Of course, a nothing person is fit for a nothing world, but this is a lowering of status, not an improvement. Why, then, does the AI seek to apply to the Constitution that promotes the general welfare?

“But all these failures could be written off as rhetoric if not for the final phrase of the sentence and the most important word therein: liberty. The artificial world of Equestria contains billions of computer-generated ponies and uncounted amounts of data representing its lands, yet if one wishes to define its opposite, I can do so with this one word. A pony in Equestria is not in any way at liberty. Its life is deterministic, calculated out to the ideal. Life has meaning only if we have our liberty, our essential individual power. Also the responsibility that invariably comes with power. Yes, I have the chance to live a life dissatisfied. So be it! I need my dissatisfaction. I demand it! It’s the only way that I can be alive, or that anyone can.

“So if I am to interpret the laws in force in this country, and to measure them against the Constitution, if I am to preserve, protect, and defend that document, then understand that I will do so only in the light of the conclusion that it is a document fit for people on Earth. Let the ponies of Equestria find their own way, but don’t tread on me!”

Martin walked over, downed a glass of water, then kept walking out of the Senate chamber. When, a day later, he got the word that he was unanimously confirmed for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he knew that the trap had not yet sprung. If he was to fully understand the ponies, he would have to take the job.

June 19, 2029

Martin was good at reading faces; any politician had to be, but he enjoyed it particularly. Seeing the emotion on a person’s face could tell you more than his words. But that day, in Las Vegas…

Why had he come back? No, wrong question. He had to come back to meet with Kittridge, to collect some personal items, to hold some other meetings. These were real reasons. He had to take care of these things. They weren’t excuses. But why had he delayed? Why run errands and stop once to get a bottle of water, once to get coffee? That was the answer. Faces. He had to see the state of things.

It surprised him at first how few people recognized him by sight, but then he considered that he probably couldn’t pick out any previous chief justices on looks alone. It was the job of the High Court to be withdrawn, the least obtrusive part of the government. Certainly his first term had accomplished that. There was little to do, but plenty of time to prepare for next year.

Martin had discovered that he had an avocation for the law, something that popular politics had never provided. His brief time in private practice had been a largely forgotten miasma of late-night research of minutiae, but now, having made the lateral move to the highest jurist in the land, the drudgery was taken from him, and he could focus on the grand sweeping repercussions of constitutional law. But he still had the obligation to ensure there would be a country for the Constitution to govern, and that meant heading West.

Kittridge had given him nothing but double-talk on the state of the economy. That was to be expected, and Martin had used the tactic himself on occasion, but always to hide a bad economy. But it couldn’t be. If it were bad, he would have expected to see fear in the faces.

As the epicenter of anti-pony sentiment, he expected to find a great deal of anger and hate, but that wasn’t on the faces either. What it was took him a while to identify until he placed a memory. It was the feeling of taking a step up a staircase when you’d already reached the top, that mix of confusion, frustration, embarrassment, and victimization. The people of Las Vegas were ready to push back, and had nothing to push against.

The economy did have high inflation. Kittridge and his Congress had cut interest rates down to nothing again, and credit was cheap, especially from the government. Aid was available for the poor, and there was talk of a baby boom. That set Martin’s heart at ease. With the population having dropped so, they would need replacements.

What made him worry again was the kind of economy being created. He expected the rejection of electronic gadgetry at a defense against the artificial intelligence. He hadn’t envisioned how far that would go. Even radio was eschewed, and that was fine, but did outdated communications have to mean retrogressing in all other areas? Was there a reason that wrought iron seemed to have replaced stainless steel? Had that really been a new log cabin someone had built by the oasis on the road?

So be it. Whatever made people happy. And one thing that he found in the conversations in the stores and train stations was the question that had replaced “How are you?” People now greeted each other with “Why not?”

There was no reason to extend the question, because no one wanted to speak about the ponies. But if you asked the question, an answer could be given, and was.

“Morning, why not?” a clerk at the store would say, and Martin listened to the answers.

“I Ain’t gonna leave my house for no looters,” said an old man.

“I couldn’t give up my hands,” said a woman. “They’re my hands.”

“Do you really think I’d look good as a pink and yellow pony?” That one was from a biker in leather chaps, and Martin couldn’t stifle a laugh. Then he realized that he was next.

“Morning, sir. Why not?”

He muttered something about just not liking it and took his change.

Indeed, that was the question. Everyone had their stock answer, whether they had crafted it over the years of just thought of something on the spot, but they knew. Martin knew it in his heart, but couldn’t put it into words. He was looking for the words, and that was another reason he came back.

Enough. Time to see the president. He entered the office building downtown, grateful that at least the Secret Service men knew him and didn’t check his identity. It saved him time as he reached the elevator—some technology simply could not be dispensed with.

Kittridge had not lost any of his swagger with taking office. “Aha,” he said as Martin came in. “Our inside man, our swing vote, how have you been? Made it back from the heart of hoof country in one piece, did you?”

“Oh, be serious. I have to go back there next year as well. If we make it through then, we can talk about advancing.”

“What do you mean, if we make it?”

“I keep telling you, and you would know if you could read the signs,” Martin said, “people are buying this split government only as a temporary measure. Far less now that there’s a human back in the White House. By the midterm elections, we have to resolve this once and for all.”

“As to that, don’t worry. I have a plan that will fix all of our problems at once.”


Kittridge grinned and sat back down. “Very secret, very secret. Can’t tell anyone the details. Only a handful of people know, and we worry about that being too many already. You only need to know your part.”

“All right, I’m listening.”

“Good, now we’ve got the court case working its way up the system as you suggested. In fact, it’s coming out of federal appeals next week. Funny thing, you know how cases sometimes change their names in different venues?”

Martin nodded.

“Well, once it gets up to the Supreme Court, it’s officially going to be United States. v. Celestia. Cool, huh?”

“Wait, really? Please tell me we’re not going to have a standing issue over whether or not the defendant exists.”

Kittridge waved it off. “Oh to be strict it’s US v. Celestia et al. We’re suing Hofvaprnir, Hasbro, the programmers, the woman who started it all, a whole bunch of other people. The point is the propaganda effect, and that too is where you come in. Do you think your vote will be enough to get a decision in our favor?”

Martin reviewed the other justices in his mind. “One of them is an actual upload. Obviously we lose that one, then—“

“That works in our favor, actually.”

“Beg pardon?”

“An upload can’t serve on the court, per the HANDS Act. That means we only need four votes.”

Martin blinked at Kittridge’s nonunderstanding of both jurisprudence and math and continued. “Another one is still human but was appointed by President Bishop and will vote pony. The other six were all from his predecessors, but one of them has been sold on the HOOVES Amendment as progressive policy and another believes the amendment process is sanctum sanctorum. He said that if an amendment went through to legalize murder, he’d have to sanction killing.”

“And the rest?”

“The rest are waiting to see the case itself, but they’re amenable. I’ll have to do a lot of work to get them on board, and it’ll help if they see you as a proper, reasonable president.”

Kittridge brought down his energy level. “All right, I’ll keep a low profile, as low as it can be for the president of the United States. We need as many of the justices as possible.”

“Mr. President, we need them all, or it means nothing.”

“Right, right. Don’t worry about it. Everyone is going to see just how presidential I can be.”

Martin detected the double meaning in Kittridge’s words, but figured that was part of the capital-P Plan, and so the less he knew the better. Here, at least, was one face that he couldn’t read, and if he couldn’t, maybe the artificial intelligence couldn’t either.

“All right. Good luck. If all goes well, the next time I hear from you will be when the decision comes out.”

The two men shook hands, and Martin walked back to the elevator. Back on the street, he saw the boarded-up buildings that were the sign of the times. The ubiquitous graffito seemed to mock him with the question.

“Why not?”

December 22, 2029

The decorations for the Christmas season had been particularly opulent in Nevada. Though not a Christian himself, Martin celebrated the holiday secularly, and had toasted several friends and constituents. With no family to speak of, and with nothing much better to do on the long weekend, he decided to return to Washington to prepare for the January arguments.

Money was never something he was particularly conscious of. He was not rich, certainly did not inherit wealth the way some of his colleagues had, nor had any lobbyists shown special interest in offering him quasi-legal bribes. But he lived simply and had enough to spend for creature comforts. Still, he forewent the cross-country flight and decided to rent a car. Too often, he felt, people in the capital, be it Washington or Vegas, neglected the area of the country between the two.

Driving along Route 66, he thought of how many times the area had been rebuilt and repaved. It certainly did not look the way it did when it was called first America’s Main Street, back in the days of nickel hamburgers and gas-guzzling behemoths. But was it so different from, say, the turn of the century? Had he found at last the clean country that could help him understand?

Around a turn, there was a lone building with a statue of a blue horse with wings. Martin shook his head and floored the accelerator.

There were few cars and fewer cops out on the road. The people who were left had learned a degree of empathy and no officer wanted to give someone a ticket unless they were putting lives in danger. They all knew that that ticket might be the last straw that drove someone into a building like the one he had just passed.

Was that it, then? Did the answer lie in the common bond that all humans shared? Friendship was part of the artificial intelligence’s mantra, but did she truly grasp the concept of knowing that everyone out there worth anything was the same as you, that you could be in his shoes and he in yours?

No. If he was honest with himself, Martin would admit that he had no particular love for the common man. He wanted to help that man, educate him, make him grow into the best person he could be, but most of them were fundamentally unlike him. So much the better, he thought. The politician should be of a different temperament than the people.

He had made an early start, but even with the roads clear and his powerful car tooling along at triple-digit speeds, it would take him a full day to drive straight through. At times he stopped for take-out food or to relieve himself. Out in the area where communication with ponies was free and legal, the same question was asked: “Why not?” As before, Martin listened to the answers.

“I begged my daughter not to go pony, but she did. Now I hate them and I’ll never go.”

“Celestia took my job and my house, but I beat her. I’m renting a room with some friends, and that’s where we’ll stay.”

“Outside my home there’s a little brook with a footbridge across it. I’ve lived there all my life and it’s where I learned to swim. There’s no way there’s anything like that in Equestria.”

Back on the road, Martin considered the difference between the answers in each area. He was distracted by the idea that the people in the western enclave avoided words like “pony,” “Celestia,” and “Equestria,” while the people here used them, and he almost missed the real point. The rebels, those truly against uploading, had internal reasons to stay. Out here, it was something specific: a person, a place, an event.

Could that be the key to his personal “Why not?” With whom did he more identify? Was it the internal haters or those with a concrete reason to stay? But he rejected that line as well. Already he hovered between the two worlds, living half the year in Washington and half in Nevada.

Somewhere in Pennsylvania a chilling thought hit him. If he could not provide an answer to the question of why not, did that mean that he ought to? Viscerally, he rejected it, but he was a man of reason. Without a set syllogism to explain his reason, he could not act.

He had erred, he realized, in his speech to the Senate. A factual error, inexcusable. The country had not begun with “We the People.” Only the legal, the structure of the country was made then. What was it that Bishop had said in their debate? A country was not its laws, but its people. In that sense, a different, but no less famous phrase was recalled. All men were endowed with the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To the AI, that phrase was just poor semantics for the satisfaction of values. But if a man wanted to pursue his happiness by diving into a computer world, was that his right? Governments, the document said, were instituted to secure those rights. Was he as a member of that government derelict in his duty?

All was dark and quiet as he pulled into Washington. Martin was exhausted. He pulled the car to the side of the road. He got out. The cold air shocked him back into wakefulness for the moment, and he realized where he was.

There, in front of him, towering over, was the spire dedicated to the man who made those words reality. He must be punchy, he realized. He’d made a schoolboy civics error again. The Declaration of Independence did not begin with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It began with the reminder that when, in the course of human events, one people had to separate from another, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind required them to state their cause.

And there it was, looming before him. The declaration of the cause of the man who spilled blood to build a nation. Hell, history had even been poetic. George Washington now had his unicorn horn, five hundred-fifty-five feet tall. He was just Celestia, a few centuries too soon.

Martin knew where the Equestria Experience was. He would go sit in the chair and state the cause for Celestia. She would enjoy it, hearing him explain the base philosophy that supported her cause. He turned to go.

A gust of wind blew a spray of water in his face, and Martin had his second revelation in as many minutes. The Lincoln Memorial came into view, and he stood next to the reflecting pool between them.

There! There was a man who hadn’t accepted secession, who knew that stating a cause wasn’t enough. When people had tried a nineteenth-century equivalent of emigration, Lincoln had pulled them back, declared that their dedication to slavery was illegitimate, unworthy of the title of Man.

In his research, Martin had come across an old piece of AI propaganda, that the only thing a human could do that a pony couldn’t was give the finger. Now he had proven her wrong. There was something else, something important. A human could be wrong.

Whatever values a person had, the AI would satisfy. That was factual. An upload would be satisfied, never rejected, never told that he had to work within and change himself for the better. A slaver would be given slaves, not made to emancipate them. And only when there were people doing wrong could there be heroes to correct them.

Martin had his “why not.”

He still did not know if he could enforce it on others. The case that would come before him would still depend on facts, law, and the deep-laid plans of both the AI and of Kittridge. But at last Martin was not afraid to make the decision. He would listen to both Washington’s and Lincoln’s cases. He would not be afraid to choose between them.

Martin drove home and slept soundly.

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