Over the years, I have developed an eccentric (in the sense of an “eccentric orbit”) interest in the underlying individual motivations of human beings that contribute to emergent social phenomena. In thinking about it now, I come to the conclusion that much of that interest is not in a simple fascination for such concepts as emergent phenomena in and of themselves, but in how such processes and their mechanisms might account for the state of affairs with regard to other subjects of interest to me.
Specifically (he said, leading into his actual thesis sentence), I find myself fascinated in social phenomena because I am baffled by the entrenched aggregate resistance to reducing authoritarian oppression in society — even to slow tyranny’s advance. People just refuse, in general, to allow themselves to care, or to do what must be done to see a peaceful end to tyranny.
The sad and sick thing about the descent of the United States into petty despotism on a tremendous scale is that it is not only possible to arrest it — it’s easy. People just aren’t . . . something. I don’t know exactly what. I’ve had a number of hypotheses over the years, some more plausible than others. I have come to some enlightening realizations over the years in the midst of my search for explanations for the apparently inexplicable behavior of humans in large groups, such as the recognition of the almost integral, fundamental manifestation of spite as a primary motivator in most humans. Not only have I recognized such, but I have ideas about why that is so — ideas that, incidentally, seem to fit perfectly with Richard Dawkins’ representation of evolutionary processes in his famous book The Selfish Gene.
Part of the reason for my intense interest in the possible explanations of human behavior that leads to oppression and tyranny is a desire to figure out how to circumvent, subvert, or redirect the underlying mechanisms of that behavior so that liberty can be maximized rather than minimized — preferably in my lifetime (he said, accidentally echoing the Free State Project‘s motto). Another, and probably significantly more driving motivation, is the need to turn my despair over the seeming intractable task of fighting the teeming mass of Leviathan, the apathetically self-destructive public, into something positive. That despair was perhaps best illustrated by the words of Henry David Thoreau (a writer to whom I have been compared by more than one friend):
Do what you will, O Government, with my mother and brother, my father and sister, I will obey your command to the letter. It will, indeed, grieve me if you hurt them, if you deliver them to overseers to be hunted by hounds, and to be whipped to death; but, nevertheless, I will peaceably pursue my chosen calling on this fair earth, until, perhaps, one day I shall have persuaded you to relent. Such is the attitude, such are the words of Massachusetts. Rather than thus consent to establish hell upon earth, — to be a party to this establishment, — I would touch a match to blow up earth and hell together.
I regularly — say, every two or four years — fall into a period of concerted effort to convince people that to vote for the lesser evil is to vote for evil. It would be so simple to turn the tide against that evil: all we need do is tell it, as a group, that its depredations and manipulations are no longer acceptable to us. It is still, within this nation, at least somewhat bound by the machinery of representative democracy, though those bonds are slipping ever more as time progresses.
There are too few of us able and willing, however, to take that action. I work to help that number grow, but it grows too slowly, and meanwhile the opposition’s power becomes ever more consolidated and focused so that it is ever more difficult to oppose it. We are losing leverage to the ability of the machinery of tyranny to apply the lever of apparent public apathy. We are outnumbered, outgunned, and undercut at every turn, so we must work all the harder to achieve any ends at all. Again, quoting Thoreau:
We have used up all our inherited freedom, like the young bird the albumen in the egg. It is not an era of repose. If we would save our lives, we must fight for them.
It is terribly depressing and discouraging work, however. Even when we succeed to some small degree to make a difference, we typically have no way of knowing. At least, I hope so — the alternative, that we simply never succeed any more than we’re aware, is too depressing and fatalistic to contemplate.
I hinted, earlier, at a new hypothesis to explain the distressing and relentless failure of humans in general to value individual rights and liberties. I’ll leave you with that last:
There are those who have suggested that people just don’t want to be free — that they want or, in some psychologically dysfunctional codependent sense, need structure imposed from outside of their own choices. They “need” nannies all their lives, are not happy without the nanny state. They self-infantilize at every opportunity. I tend to agree, to some extent, and have even been so honest with myself in examining this idea to recognize where such tendencies exist in my own character, and yet I fight for liberty. That alone does not explain the problem away: even as a member of humanity, thus afflicted by unworthy proclivities such as these, I am (at rare moments literally) enraged by the way humans will seek a nanny state to suit their tastes despite the harm they are doing others who have different preferences, by the way they are willfully ignorant of the malevolent forces in which they have a hand setting in motion.
There are, as well, those who have suggested that people fear for their safety and comfort when others’ motivations and actions diverge too far from their own. They seek a comfortable conformity, according to their own values, such that others must behave as they believe everyone should behave, and should believe as they believe everyone should believe. They do not understand divergence from their own thoughts and beliefs, their own ingrained value systems, and on some level regard any divergence as a form of depraved perversion. This must in large part be an outgrowth of a need for self-validation and a desire for their own values and preferred manner of living to be default, unquestioned, and thus easy to pursue. No, not to pursue — they want it to exist by definition within the palms of their hands, so that they need not pursue it. That’s not enough to explain the complete lack of respect for others: I too have felt that failing of character, that desire for others to just act the way I would, as I believe they should, in their personal lives. People who thought the way I thought they should would find me attractive, brilliant, and utterly intriguing, of course . . . and yet, I am not only opposed in principle to enforcing such a state of affairs, but am also mystified by anyone who could possibly believe beyond the initial impulse that such a state of affairs would produce any kind of a good world in which to live. People who do not come to the conclusion that such an idea is not a good one should really be ashamed of their own carefully constructed stupidities.
There’s a common thread running through these two, as well as several other trite and too-pat ideas:
They all fit the thought processes of someone with the “I’ve got mine” attitude. They all want something particular for themselves and, so long as they have it, they don’t give a hot damn what anyone else suffers — or, if they do, they don’t care whether anyone else likes what they get. They’re only concerned with whether they, themselves, get what they want. Their neighbors can go pike. It’s self-centeredness. They may as well be solipsists.
It’s not an explanation, but it certainly helps to predict the behavior of voters. Expecting that their stated motives will in some way give insight into their behavior is an exercise in futility and folly: simply assume that somewhere in the backs of their brains they’re thinking “I’ve got mine,” or that they work toward that day by trying to vote it for themselves so that others will do the real work, will prove far more accurate in the long run. It’s about self-centeredness. It’s all about them, in their own subconscious motivations. You don’t matter in their little world.
There are two possible approaches to solving that problem, as far as I see right now:
- Enlighten them to the unpardonable character of the “I’ve got mine” approach to politics.
- Manipulate that impulse to your own ends — presumably, the ends of greater liberty for everyone.
The second of those certainly appeals to the impulse to give people what they want, in this case a nanny state. We serve their desires for others to give them what they want in a manner that actually maximizes liberty. The first, however, seems more honest — at least at first.
I really don’t know what to do with any of this. I’m just structuring my thoughts enough to figure out exactly where my reasoning reaches a point of “Okay, what now?” Other than that, at this exact moment, I’ve got nothing.
. . .
Special thanks for helping me sort these thoughts out, though they do not know it (until now, at least), are due to:
- Alan Silverstein, author of Humanity’s Launch Window, for the timely loan of Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene.
- Tyler Cowen, author of Arnold Kling’s Principles — a post at Marginal Revolutions, for the spark for this post in an off-hand comment in that one.
- David Gross of The Picket Line, for his post of 31 January 2007 about his culling of some of the more interesting Thoreau quotes from the author’s journals and aggregating them in a single place, for the reminder of the intersection of my political opinions with those of Henry David Thoreau.
- AKA Cluebyfour, for his LJ post blogs, blogs everywhere, in which he not only introduced me (somewhat impersonally) to the two above-cited weblogs, but also paid me the compliment of listing me (quite personally) among the rare few weblogs he actually follows in syndication.