Furthest Right

Voting with our feet

To us of an old-school conservative bent, you don’t get problematic government without problematic citizens.

While most of our fellow Americans think that we’re in the grips of some vast conspiracy, military-industrial complex, corporate takeover or media domination, we see a clearer truth:

Most people cannot manage their own affairs past the next paycheck, and their incompetence invites “managers” who then rule over them.

For all of known history this is how civilizations have risen to a hierarchical state. Most people can handle a few things, but get lost beyond that, so they pick leaders.

Normally, this is benevolent. But when the leaders start turning back to the people and saying, “But what do you want?” democracy becomes less a prospect of delegating responsibility and more a prospect of using proxies to achieve our selfish desires at the expense of the majority. It becomes a parasite.

Of course, our public fiction is that people are intentional and therefore, have a clear logical reason for their votes.

That’s not the case:

First, remember that people do not know themselves. That is to say, their self-reports on what influences them, what motivates them, how they make decisions, what they will do in the future — they are not reliable. People often have no idea why they do the things they do, or what would induce them to change what they do. They are very frequently wrong about such things, as about a million psych experiments have shown. Just as we are often mysteries to one another, we are often mysteries to ourselves.

If poll answers aren’t reliable reports about the inner states of respondents, what are they? This is the second part: It’s better to see poll and survey results as social evidence. A poll is itself a kind of record of social behaviors. Answering a poll question is an act, not a revelation.

In this light, the perpetual quest to increase the numbers on those polls is not a matter of trying to change people’s internal states, it’s a matter of trying to change their poll-answering behavior. That turns out to be a very, very different way of approaching the problem. When we think about changing internal states, we think about education and persuasion — i.e., we think about putting more information into the internal process, to make it come out correctly. But when we think about changing behavior, we remember that information alone is inert. This is a robust finding consistent over 40 years of social science: information alone does not motivate behavior.

Remember, answering a poll is a way of asserting identity. Beliefs tend to be reverse engineered, as it were: People tend to construct an identity around what they (and their tribe) do. That suggests that they will only construct a different identity when they start doing different things. – Grist

This is more significant than we’d like to admit: people vote by their identity, which they associate with a social group, which in turn is a measurement of their social status.

So if you want people to do something, make it seem like it’s what the hip kids or the Mercedes drivers do. They all imitate it, whether it’s gangster rap, Perrier or even voting Democratic.

This explains another troubling trend we find in democracies:

Here in the United States, one thing that strikes me about my most liberal friends is how conservative their thinking is at a personal level. For their own children, and in talking about specific other people, they passionately stress individual responsibility. It is only when discussing public policy that they favor collectivism. The tension between their personal views and their political opinions is fascinating to observe. I would not be surprised to find that my friends’ attachment to liberal politics is tenuous, and that some major event could cause a rapid, widespread shift toward a more conservative position. – Econlib

People talk liberalism, but act conservatively, because for thousands of years the behaviors we now call conservative have been evolving. They are simply a smart response to the problems of being alive.

This brings us to our central point: our methods have become detached from our goal.

While the founders of this country were liberal in method, they based that on a conservative goal — and a conservative status quo:

Nathaniel Hawthorne, who came along a couple of centuries later, bears some of the blame for the most repeated of the answers: that Puritans were self-righteous and authoritarian, bent on making everyone conform to a rigid set of rules and ostracizing everyone who disagreed with them. The colonists Hawthorne depicted in “The Scarlet Letter” lacked the human sympathies or “heart” he valued so highly. Over the years, Americans have added to Hawthorne’s unfriendly portrait with references to witch-hunting and harsh treatment of Native Americans.

But in Hawthorne’s day, some people realized that he had things wrong. Notably, Alexis de Tocqueville, the French writer who visited the United States in 1831. Tocqueville may not have realized that the colonists had installed participatory governance in the towns they were founding by the dozens. Yet he did credit them for the political system he admired in 19th-century America.

After all, it was the Puritans who had introduced similar practices in colony governments — mandating annual elections, insisting that legislatures could meet even if a governor refused to summon a new session and declaring that no law was valid unless the people or their representatives had consented to it. Well aware of how English kings abused their powers of office, the colonists wanted to keep their new leaders on a short leash.

Why does it matter whether we get the Puritans right or not? The simple answer is that it matters because our civil society depends, as theirs did, on linking an ethics of the common good with the uses of power. In our society, liberty has become deeply problematic: more a matter of entitlement than of obligation to the whole. Everywhere, we see power abused, the common good scanted. Getting the Puritans right won’t change what we eat on Thanksgiving, but it might change what we can be thankful for and how we imagine a better America. – NYT

Our modern political system misinterprets itself by confusing its methods with its goal.

It’s like asking a carpenter, “What do you do?”

“Well, I hammer,” he says.

Why do you hammer?

“It’s just what I do,” he says.

That makes no sense as a dialogue; he should be hammering to make a house or furniture. Instead, he’s imitating past actions in the hope that his future will turn out the same. He has lost sight of his goal.

In the West, we’re recovering from the 1600s when religion took over from the aristocratic system and empowered us all with equality. In doing so, we took the focus from having goals to the utilitarian notion of making us all happy.

Since that is impossible and we barely if at all know what we want, it is no surprise our society is careening out of control.

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