I have long held that the greatest tragedy, among countless misfortunes that recur in the long and agonizing human story, is not when evil triumphs over good, or when oppression overcomes freedom, or even the wretched loss of ten billion potential might-have-beens. No, the most devastating defect in our character -- a trait that held us down ever since the caves -- is the very same twist in our natures that makes us such fine storytellers.
I am talking about our incredible penchant for -- and creativity at -- self delusion and rationalization. The lengths that we all go to, in order to convince ourselves that we are the smart ones, virtuous and right... often in complete denial of blatant evidence to the contrary. It is the one magical act that all of us can easily perform, at near genius level.
Elsewhere I talk about the organic mechanisms of reinforcement that make us addicts to this sort of blithe, self-righteous assurance, while dismissing all opponents as vile or stupid strawmen. Indeed, I can step outside myself and watch these very tendencies play out -- the same smug assumption of privileged knowledge and superior perception -- even as I type these words. Well, we are of the same clay. This ecumenical allure tugs at even the wise. Even the shy.
Can we escape the bewitchment of solipsism and seductive self-hypnosis? For millennia, the prescription in every culture was to accept, with utter fealty, whatever mythic system was taught by local authority figures. Parents. Lords. State and church. This method replaced (or overlaid) some individually vain "realities" with shared/consensual ones. But while mantric uniformity helped to maintain peace within some communities, it absolutely guaranteed conflict against others.
Above all, the top aim was to make sure no one asked: "Isn't it just a little suspiciously pat and convenient, that my bunch just happens to be 100% right, and my opponents are so completely deluded?" One nation and culture after another imitated the same obstinacy that we see in countless individual neighbors. A steadfastness that is often portrayed as admirable, even -- especially -- in the face of contrary evidence.
Are we screwed, then? Betrayed by an utterly consistent human character flaw? Doomed to repeat the same patterns over and over, with only minor variations of cult and incantation?
Fortunately, a slim ray of light appeared. Gradually, over time, a completely different approach took shape. Instead of clutching a consensual delusion (to augment your private ones), this new method called upon human beings to adapt their subjective perceptions to evidence. By referring both to objective reality (experiment) and the cross-checking feedback of other people, we can catch a relatively high percentage of our mistakes and misperceptions.
It isn't magical. The process requires deliberate effort, overcoming our own egos, as well as humanity's greatest paradox.
If "criticism is the only known antidote to error" (CITOKATE), then suppression of criticism must be the greatest single cause of error, not only in daily life, but especially among the leaders who have been entrusted with statecraft. Name a nation or time when a society's need for cleansing information and argument did not inherently conflict with the most driving need of leaders and oligarchs - to stifle dissent and maintain confidence in their rule.
Especially their own sense of confident superiority and right-to-rule, whether they were emperors, aristocrats or commissars. This conflict of interest runs so deep, it is very likely biological. Don't all of us descend from the harems of kings, who gained reproductive advantage by seizing and holding unaccountable power?
Despite countless, contradictory definitions we've heard it seems to me that the core endeavor of the Enlightenment Experiment is quite simple -- to find ways out of this trap. To escape the paradox of criticism. All of our great accountability arenas - science, markets, justice and democracy - have their roots in this realization... that no man is trustworthy to declare what's true. As Richard Feynman said - "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool."
CASE STUDY OF A MODERN CULT: THE CATO INSTITUTE
Alas, the paradox only gets worse, the higher your IQ! In every walk of life we are surrounded -- especially at all extremes of the hoary/insipid "political spectrum" -- by bright fools who wallow in sanctimonious just-so stories, blithely dismissing contrary evidence, always ignoring the suspiciously pat convenience of just-happening to be oh-so right.
Take for example* the erudite, "freedom-promoting" scholars of the Washington DC Cato Institute -- purported to be the key think tank for studying and propounding principles of libertarianism. Let me zero in on them, because right now they offer a marvelous case study illustrating our problem -- the mountain of rationalizing human nature that we must still overcome.
Why pick on Cato? I mean, other than the fact that they wear they IQs on their sleeves. You see, these passionate and articulate champions of the free market have lately found themselves in a difficult situation. A real bind.
Year after year, members and affiliates have maintained a marvelous high wire act, claiming surficially to be nonpartisan - to find equal fault between "Republicans who oppress freedom of the bedroom and Democrats who oppress freedom of the marketplace." And yet, as donations poured in from well-heeled private sources, a funny thing happened to the production line of scholarly documents and position papers. It veered right.
Oh, occasionally (for credibility's sake) Cato fellows would fire a very general - and very soft - fusillade in favor of abortion rights or against Alaska's pork "Bridge to Nowhere." Still, as the propaganda wheels turned, there appeared to be one guiding principle behind almost every missive produced by the Cato Institute.
We, who style ourselves as the defenders of a free market, shall obsessively and relentlessly ignore the market's greatest enemy. We will never mention or acknowledge the blatant fact that, for 5,000 years, the most deadly foe of free enterprise has always been conspiratorial aristocracy.
Indeed, the Cato Institute has long promoted the worst social, economic and political conflation of modern times. A delusion that Adam Smith warned against. The notion that ownership of capital is the prime correlate with wise market capitalism. A very different concept, fundamentally, than saying that markets are themselves wise at allocating, rewarding or promoting innovative goods and services.
Just scan Cato's sage and scholarly thinktank documents propounding upon the inherently superior wisdom of markets. Apparently, "pre-selecting outcomes" is a sin when it is done openly, by a nation's broadly-inclusive and constitutional deliberative process. Even (especially) when it is shown that intergenerational costs cannot be accounted-for without some regulated market tuning, this kind of accounting is dismissed as an impossibly utopian and unachievable, due to the limited knowledge and predictive power of governing bodies.
Point taken. Score one for Hayek. And yet, "pre-selecting outcomes" is somehow portrayed as perfectly okay, when it is performed by much smaller clades of secretively collusive owners, scheming in small groups to allocate resources, labor and capital as capriciously as the feudal lords of any other era. Eras that, though less trammelled by well-meaning social tinkering, somehow managed to be far, far less successful than our own.
Somehow, under those conditions, nobody speaks about "limited knowledge and predictive power." The secrecy that nearly all economists call poisonous to markets, is somehow portrayed as just fine when it is used by a few golf buddies to manipulate those same markets and squeeze out all players who aren't in-the-know.
While the obsolete, ridiculous and long-discredited spectre of socialism continues drawing ire and alarm, the Cato and its allies keep on shrilly pointing at "government" as the sole and inherent foe of enterprise, never allowing attention to drift toward those who (increasingly) control government for their own enrichment. Aristocracies who exercise extreme influence over law and regulation, ensuring that government favors elites, in ways that Adam Smith cogently denounced during his own era.
THE "FALL" OF THE GOP... WITH AN EXCUSE...
Take the most recent "Cato's Letter," issued quarterly by the Institute, this time featuring an article by Tucker Carlson (host of MSNBC's The Situation) entitled - "The Decline and Fall of the Republican Party."
Wow. With a title like that , you might think the Catoins have seen the light! That they've realized, at long last, how deeply one of our great parties - and through it, nearly all of our government institutions - is suborned by a narrow cabal of native and foreign elites. That most insatiable subset of aristocrats, imbued with a deep sense of righteous privilege, who have engaged in one of the most reckless campaigns of kleptocratic mismanagement in all of history.
Have the Catoins decided - belatedly - to rise up and help us all deal with the cakocratic fecklessness. The rampant deceit, corruption, willful ignorance, indolence, violence, and anti-scientific dogmatism that has threatened civilization at all levels?
Well... um... not quite.
In fact, the Cato guys pretty much had to issue some kind of denunciation at this point in time. The national wave of revulsion toward today's GOP has risen toward tsunami proportions. The henchman defections that I have long called for are starting to trickle and stream from a myriad cracks in the neocon edifice. Soon, when whistleblowers start feeling safe to emerge, these cracks will grow so wide that Karl Rove will no longer be able to patch his coalition with liberal... oops... I mean generous... dollops of culture war. Under circumstances like these, it is not surprising to see Cato join in, if only to hold onto a little residual relevance.
But the line they are pushing! Ah, that's where things get really cute. Hang on and watch closely. It is better than a streetcorner game of Three Card Monty!
OFFERING EXCUSES FOR THE "LESSER OF EVILS"...
For starters, it seems that the most dogmatic administration in living memory has failed because it was not dogmatic enough.
Oh, but it gets even better. For, according to Tucker Carlson -- the great sin of the Republican Party is that (horrors!) it has sunk down almost to the dissolute, immoral, spendthrift, corrupt and despicable level of Democrats!
Shudder. That low? Mea maxima culpa! If the far right does not renew itself soon, it is in serious danger of drifting down to the level of... liberals.
Talk about blame shifting legerdemain! Didn't I say these guys were bright? Prepare to hear this line more and more, as the political season advances. Let me paraphrase some more.
Yes, the neocons and their fellow travellers have proved to be disgusting, greedy and incompetent. But you must still rationalize holding your nose and continuing to vote for them, because democrats are inherently worse.
Clever, for sure. Only there's a problem with this line. It doesn't match the facts at any level. Not even when you lean upon the insipid crutch of left right cliches. Because the neocons' long road into hell did NOT take them into Democratic territory. In fact, they did it by heading - at warp drive - in diametrically opposite directions.-
by massively increasing secrecy in government, rather than reducing it. (The unambiguous trend across the nineties.)-
by massively increasing deficit spending, rather than reducing it. (Ditto.)-
by massively increasing pork barrel graft, rather than reducing it. (In fairness, the decline of pork in the nineties may have resulted from divided government, with President Clinton forced to co-habitate with the very different (and somewhat lamented) neocons of Newt Gingrich's wave.)-
by undermining America's alliances and status in the world in favor of cowboy adventurism, rather than building worldwide consensus and acceptance of mature U.S. leadership.-
by rejecting all sources of objective evidence or criticism that might conflict with doctrine, relentlessly undermining both science and the autonomy of skilled professionals, demolishing or repressing advisory panels and suppressing independent thinking in the intelligence and military officer corps.-
by crippling the Border Patrol in a blatant effort to emphasize and promote illegal immigration, in preference over legal immigration (the democrats' preference.)-
by systematically demolishing government contract-vetting and purchasing procedures, finding every excuse to grant sole-source contracts on the basis of whim or crony connections.
Will a Catoin ever do the correlation - that more actual deregulation of major industries took place during the Carter and Clinton administrations, than was ever proposed during the sum total of the Nixon, Reagan, Bush and Bush tenures? Never. Cognitive dissonance -- an inability to perceive that which conflicts with comfortable assumption -- will keep that from ever happening.
This list could go on and on. But the core point is clear. Tucker Carlson and the other court savants -- nay, courtesans -- of Cato and the right never look to any of these factors. In calling up an image of today's fallen GOP as nearly as bad as democrats, their sole criterion is to wag a finger and make tsk-tsk noises at the hemorrhaging federal deficit, while propounding that these conservatives have failed us, by becoming -- in effect -- liberals.
But even that tunnel-vision selection of a single litmus test fails utterly! Because it rests upon an obsolete cliche, frantically ignoring the Clintonian surpluses of the nineties... along with every other possible way of looking at a sick elephant.
SO, WHY DO I BOTHER DENOUNCING THESE BRIGHT FOOLS, ANYWAY?
Up to this point, I have been describing truly grotesque hypocrisies, putting shame to any pretense that these Cato guys are "libertarians," let along honest intellects. Their current program -- promoting clever mantras to help keep in power the most outrageously anti-market and anti Enlightenment clade of cacocrats in US history -- beggars any explanation short of complete sellout or frantic rationalization.
Nevertheless, having just colorfully vented my indignant wrath, I must recall that a truly honest man contemplates limitations to the validity of righteous anger. Especially righteous anger. So let me admit that the Catoins do have one policy difference between neocons and liberals that they can legitimately point to with favor -- from a quasi-libertarian perspective.
Tax Cuts. At the surface, one can at least envision why they'd like this Bushite obsession. For although democrats have transformed into the new puritans, calling for budgetary responsibility and fiscal prudence (as well as waste-not notions of efficiency) there is no doubt that they would begin doing this by rescinding some of the cuts that have amounted to flat out gifts to a narrow and increasingly powerful aristocratic class.
Yes, rightists offer reams of arguments for why the rich should get to keep vastly higher fractions of their passive rents (read what Adam Smith said about this!) than any average working stiff may keep from the sweat of his brow. We've all seen these incantations, so I'll not confront them here. Instead, let me counter with a challenge that is far more general, again turning our gaze to the vast majority of human generations:
While you ignore 5,000 years of human history, I look across that time and see a single failure mode that killed nearly every opportunity, almost every chance for fair market competition, every level playing field, every renaissance of freedom and fair play.
That historic foe of enterprise was not socialism or "big government"... though we should stay wary of those newer failure modes. No, across more than fifty centuries, it was nearly always some cabal of privileged owners who gave into a deeply human and completely natural temptation, to use their status and power to cheat. To stop competing and instead crush competitors, often using state power as their favored tool.
Saying this does not make me a socialist or fomenter of class warfare, any more than a physicist who mentions gravity is trying to bind people to the ground! The historical fact that I describe is blatant, irrefutable and absolutely true. Any theory of modern society must take it into account, coming up with imaginative, realistic ways to foster competition and markets without letting the winners thereupon abuse their power and maintain it by cheating.
Do your theories do that? Or do they conveniently always seem to come up with rationalizations for following the Old Road? For flattering and sucking up to new, would-be lords?
THE DISMAL STATE OF DISPUTATION AND DISCOURSE
Do I expect any kind of answer to this challenge? Of course not. (See my paper on "Disputation Arenas" for an idea about how the very idea of "challenges" may improve the level of argument, in times to come.)
Indeed, at one level, I don't even care. Because the objects of my ire are irrelevant. Because their old-fashioned ways doom them to triviality. And because -- fortunately -- the Enlightenment ain't dead yet. Indeed, it has stronger allies than its enemies can even begin to perceive.
For example, I would wager that a majority of the wealthy in America and the West "get it" far better than those bright suck-ups at Cato do. From Warren Buffett to Paul Allen, from Steve Jobs to Jeff Bezos, the guys who made fortunes through the true delivery of goods, services and capital can see what kind of society made all of their opportunities possible. They realize what the parasitic cacocrats have done to America, and they do not like it one bit.
Like the abused professionals of the officer corps, like those henchmen who are starting to turn whistleblower, like thousands of bright sons and daughters who roil in shame over the selfish shortsightedness of their fathers... these market heroes will step forward when we need them most. They will stand up for a civilization that is not about left and right, after all. Or about insipid rationalizing cliches.
What are markets and enterprise and creativity and freedom really all about? They are about maximizing opportunities for individual human beings to argue and invent and reciprocally-criticize and come up with the solutions that we'll need, in order to cross the next century successfully.
Fortunately, this Enlightenment still has friends. Enough (possibly) that we still have a very good chance of making it.
* For the record, I could as easily have chosen some collection of bright fools on the left. There are so many, you could not shake stick at them all in a century. But this is not the direction where the greatest threat to freedom lies.
** See my own papers on libertarianism, and its potential - still only a glimmer - to serve as a third force in American political life.