Tuesday 30 December 2003

Conflicting visions

Listen, here’s the thing about politics: It’s not an expression of your moral purity and your ethics and your probity and your fond dreams of some utopian future. Progressive people constantly fail to get this.

Tony Kushner, Mother Jones interview (via Scott Rosenberg)

At last, someone (a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, actually) gets to the essence of why I have such a low regard for “progressive people”—even though I strongly support so many of the policies they espouse.

It’s also why Scott Reynen could write six weeks ago:

reading jonathon delacour’s revelation that he’s “conservative” makes it clear to me that the old left-right axis is almost entirely useless. i generally consider myself “liberal”, but i generally agree with jonathon’s opinions, as expressed in his weblog. so either i’m not really “liberal”, or he’s not really “conservative”, or those words aren’t really important. i strongly suspect the last option

My position on the political compass: Left LibertarianScott made this observation in the context of discussing the Political Compass test, which indicated that he is a “left libertarian”. I took this test eighteen months ago and was also judged to be a left libertarian (although, as you can see from the illustration, I only just slip into that quadrant).

Out of curiosity, I took the test a couple of weeks ago and got exactly the same result.

In his post, Scott took issue with the test’s libertarian vs. authoritarian axis:

while putting “libertarian” at the opposite end of the spectrum as “authoritarian” is something libertarians like to do, i think it’s ridiculous. “authoritarian” is not the opposite of “libertarian”. dictionary.com defines “authoritarian” in part as against individual freedom. the problem is that “libertarian” means both advocates maximizing individual rights and minimizing the role of the state (as dictionary.com recognizes) and “member of the libertarian party”.

In my case, the “libertarian” label is especially meaningless, given that I support maximizing state involvement or intervention in a whole range of sectors, such as:

  • universal health care and pharmaceutical benefits;
  • competition/anti-monopoly and consumer protection laws;
  • environmental safeguards;
  • public transportation;
  • communications and cross-media regulation; and
  • publicly-funded broadcasting.

Anyone reading that list would automatically assume that I’m “liberal” rather than “conservative”. I was initially surprised, however, that when I took the Christian Science Monitor’s Neocon Quiz I turned out—like Joe Duemer—to be a liberal on foreign policy too (the possible categories are Isolationist, Liberal, Realist, Neoconservative).

On reflection, it was clear why I hadn’t been scored as a Realist, the position that would more accurately reflect my views on foreign policy: the Quiz assumes that you’re an American whereas I answered as a non-American, whose foreign policy interests don’t necessarily coincide with those of the United States. Had I answered as an American—or had the Quiz taken into account that non-Americans also use the Internet—I have no doubt that my responses would identify me as a Realist.

That’s the problem with quizzes like this—they don’t map well to the real world.

Scott continues:

i think there’s a real need for something to move us beyond thinking of politics in terms of “left” and “right”, but i don’t think the political compass is a solution. rather than adding another axis, i think we need to get rid of the axes altogether. a new axis just doubles the number of ways in which you can be “with us or against us”.

I’m not sure we can “get rid of the axes altogether” though I think there’s a better way to look at the problem. Before I get to that, however, let me quote from another (more recent) post by Scott Reynen:

a few days ago i unsubscribed myself from yet another conservative weblog. in principle, i believe it’s possible for someone with a liberal bias such as myself to have a reasonable discussion with someone with a conservative bias. but in practice, i’ve found it difficult to find someone with a conservative bias who doesn’t equate my liberal bias with terrorism. of course, the same problem exists with overtly liberal weblogs, which too often equate conservatism with fascism.

maybe this makes sense outside of america, but here i just don’t get it. whether you are a liberal or conservative american, roughly half of the country is in the opposing camp. i don’t understand what sort of views would support the painting of half of all americans as evil. maybe it makes those who agree with the writer feel better about themselves, but isn’t it more important to be changing the minds of those who don’t agree with the writer? isn’t it a safe assumption that the american government will continue to (albeit poorly) represent both liberal and conservative americans, and will thus be required to find some middle ground? is there no longer a middle ground in american politics?

The polarization to which Scott refers has been skilfully exploited by conservative governments in Australia and the United States, both of whom have nurtured a “politics of terror” as the easiest way of maintaining their grip on power. And polarization works since it’s simpler to see things in terms of black and white, rather than in shades of gray. As for “changing the minds of those who don’t agree with the writer”, Burningbird outlined the method:

You want to change minds? Find your way into the kind of mind you want to change, and speak the language it can understand. That’ll change minds.

and then pointed to a superb example, David Brooks’ support for gay marriage:

The conservative course is not to banish gay people from making such commitments. It is to expect that they make such commitments. We shouldn’t just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity.

I know from experience how difficult it is to find your way into the mind of someone you love, let alone the mind of someone with whom you profoundly disagree. And equally difficult to find the language to speak your mind in terms that their mind can understand.

As for whether “this [polarization] makes sense outside of America”, it does—though not in quite the same way.

One thing that needs to be said is that “liberal” and “conservative” are not the same in Australia as in the United States. For a start, the main conservative party in Australia is called the Liberal Party, which governs in a coalition with the National Party. So, in our case, the Liberals are the conservatives (and the Australian Labor Party represents what Americans would regard as liberal values).

More importantly, the Australian political spectrum is skewed to the left, compared to the Republican-Democratic axis in the US, as shown in the following illustration:

Comparison of where Australian and American parties lie on the political spectrum

I accept that not just Edward R. Tufte but Australians and Americans of every political persuasion will find fault with my diagram, since it is not merely graphically inept but, more importantly, it is based on nothing more than my entirely subjective analysis of US and Australian political differences. That’s OK, you can use the comments to register your criticisms or make suggestions on how it might be improved. Do not, however, point out that I should have used color more imaginatively—namely red to represent the left and blue for the right. For reasons best known to themselves, Americans use red for the (conservative) Republicans and blue for the (liberal) Democrats. (I’d love to hear Edward Tufte’s view on that.)

Putting to one side my diagram’s shortcomings, I’d argue that similar diagrams—generated by replacing Australia with almost any European, Asian, and South American country—would show a greater or smaller degree of skew compared to the left/right spectrum in the United States. The amount of skew doesn’t really matter since the point I’m trying to make is that when Americans and non-Americans talk about “liberal” and “conservative” they’re not talking about exactly the same thing. Just as I’m a “liberal” on foreign policy when I answer the questions as an Australian, whereas I’d be a “realist” if I answered them as an American.

In my own case, if I were forced to join an Australian political party, I’d opt for the (left) Labor Party. But I’d join the right-wing faction of the Labor Party since the left-wing of the party is populated by Kushner’s progressives, accurately (though unkindly) summed up by conservative columnist PP McGuinness:

It has always been the case that Labor has had a substantial proportion of its membership much preferring the luxury of a highfalutin moral stance in opposition to the inevitable compromises, and sometimes the dirty hands, of practical government.

These are the people for whom [party president Carmen] Lawrence now speaks. Most of the people who usurp the high moral ground do so from a comfortable economic base—they have good jobs (often in the public sector) which give them plenty of leisure, they attend dinner parties with their ilk and sing choruses of hate directed at anyone who challenges their right to govern the world.

They put one hand on their hearts to declare their concerns for the poor and disadvantaged while putting the other hand in the public purse for themselves.

The fact that I would choose to align myself with the hard-headed (and, by the standards of left wing, hard-hearted) pragmatists of Labor’s right wing goes some way to explaining how I can appear to be simultaneously “liberal” and “conservative”, since—as the JD button indicates—it places me close to the conventional political center in Australia but on the left of the Democratic party in the US.

The one thing you can take away from this is that it all depends on your frame of reference.

But there’s another way of looking at the problem, and that is to replace the liberal-conservative axis with what Thomas Sowell calls unconstrained and constrained visions of the nature of human beings. This makes a lot more sense to me and it provides a better understanding why “liberals” and “conservatives” hold their respective positions.

In his book A Conflict of Visions, Sowell compares the unconstrained vision expressed by William Godwin with the constrained vision of Adam Smith. Whereas Godwin argued that although human behavior appears to be motivated primarily by self-interest, this egocentric behavior “arises from a combination of circumstances and is not the necessary and invariable law of our nature”. For Godwin, the underlying nature of human potential suggested that “man was capable of directly feeling other people’s needs as more important than his own, and therefore of consistently acting impartially, even when his own interests or those of his family were involved”. Moreover, “Godwin regarded the intention to benefit others as being ‘of the essence of virtue’, and virtue in turn as being the road to human happiness”.

For Smith, on the other hand, “the moral limitations of man in general, and his egocentricity in particular, were neither lamented… nor regarded as things to be changed. They were treated as inherent facts of life, the basic constraint in his vision… Instead of regarding man’s nature as something that could or should be changed, Smith attempted to determine how the moral and social benefits desired could be produced in the most efficient way, within that constraint”. In other words, “one of the hallmarks of the constrained vision is that it deals in tradeoffs rather than solutions”.

Sowell sums up the conflicting visions in these terms:

The constrained vision is a tragic vision of the human condition. The unconstrained vision is a moral vision of human intentions, which are viewed as ultimately decisive. The unconstrained vision promotes pursuit of the highest ideals and the best solutions. By contrast, the constrained vision sees the best as the enemy of the good—a vain attempt to reach the unattainable being seen as not only futile but often counterproductive, while the same efforts could have produced a viable and beneficial tradeoff.

Those who see the potentialities of human nature as extending far beyond what is currently manifested have a social vision quite different from those who see human beings as tragically limited creatures whose selfish and dangerous impulses can be contained only by social contrivances which themselves produce unhappy side effects.

Running through the tradition of the unconstrained vision is the conviction that foolish or immoral choices explain the evils of the world—and that wiser or more moral and humane social policies are the solution… By contrast, the constrained vision sees the evils of the world as deriving from the limited and unhappy choices available, given the inherent moral and intellectual limitations of human beings.

In my Ozu anniversary post I quoted Donald Richie’s belief that “you are what you do, and nothing more nor less; the sum total of your choices, your actions, is the sum total of yourself”. Thus it should be clear that my antipathy towards the unconstrained vision of human nature is based at least partly upon a conviction that intentions count for nothing, that only actions have value.

Although it would be foolish to deny the existence of altruism, the capacity to “directly [feel] other people’s needs as more important than one’s own”, everyday observation suggests that, for the most part, we are no more capable of acting impartially when our own interests or those of our family are concerned than were those who enthused over Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in the years following its publication in 1793.

As a young man and a new recruit to the Labor Party, Paul Keating—in my view Australia’s greatest Prime Minister since John Curtin led a Labor government during World War II—used to meet each week to discuss politics with Jack Lang, the former Premier of New South Wales, who was dismissed from office by the State Governor (representing the British Crown) when, in an attempt to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression, he refused to pay interest owed to British banks. Despite his commitment to Labor ideals and social justice, Lang revealed himself as a believer in the constrained vision when he gave Keating this invaluable piece of political advice:

If you’re ever in any doubt as to which horse to back in the Political Stakes, put your money on Self Interest. There’s nothing certain in politics, in racing, or in life itself—but you can be sure of one thing, Self Interest will always be in there, trying its hardest.

This kind of tough pragmatism is anathema to many progressives, who would prefer to maintain their political ideals and their moral purity—even at the cost of remaining ineffectual. But Tony Kushner gets it right in this exchange with the Mother Jones interviewer:

MJ: You’re saying progressives are undone by their own idealism?

TK: The system isn’t about ideals. The country doesn’t elect great leaders. It elects fucked-up people who for reasons of ego want to run the world. Then the citizenry makes them become great.

One of the great Labor leaders in New South Wales was Neville Wran, who was Premier from 1976 to 1986. One of his ministers was asked why Wran had been so successful. “It’s simple,” he replied, “Neville doesn’t believe in anything.”

Which, of course, is not exactly true. What Wran didn’t believe in was ideology for its own sake, and he certainly didn’t believe in “the highest ideals and the best solutions” beloved of proponents of the unconstrained vision. But he definitely believed in “viable and beneficial tradeoffs”. In other words, Neville Wran believed in Deng Xiaoping’s dictum:

“No matter if it’s a black cat or a white cat; if it can catch rats, it’s a good cat.”

I’ve already argued that, in the absence of actions, intentions count for nothing. In the same way, ideals are useless unless they are tempered by a regard for consequences. As Camus said, “It’s better to be wrong by killing no one than to be right with mass graves.”

“In the constrained vision,” writes Thomas Sowell, “whatever artifices or strategies restrain or ameliorate inherent human evils will themselves have costs, some in the form of other social ills created by these civilizing institutions, so that all that is possible is a prudent trade-off.”

There is, underlying this statement, a “thoroughgoing rejection” of what Andrew O’Hehir calls “the accepted liberal narrative of material and political progress”, a rejection I warmly endorse.

In an earlier post about the decline of romance, I quoted a passage from Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. It’s worth quoting again:

Ada could hear in Ruby’s breathing that she was yet awake, and so she said, Do you remember that song of your father’s about the mole in the ground? Ruby said that she did, and Ada asked if Ruby thought Stobrod had written the song. Ruby said there were many songs that you could not say anybody in particular made by himself. A song went around from fiddler to fiddler and each one added something and took something away so that in time the song became a different thing from what it had been, barely recognizable in either tune or lyric. But you could not say the song had been improved, for as was true of all human effort, there was never advancement. Everything added meant something lost, and about as often as not the thing lost was preferable to the thing gained, so that over time we’d be lucky if we just broke even. Any thought otherwise was empty pride.

As I wrote back in March, 2002, that passage floored me, crystallizing beliefs I’d held unconsciously for years:

  • Everything has a cost.
  • Our gains rarely, if ever, outweigh our losses.
  • The past is precious.
  • Progress is an illusion.

In this light, both my “liberal” and my “conservative” beliefs flow from an acceptance of the constrained vision of human nature.

As I see it, universal health care and pharmaceutical benefits, anti-monopoly and consumer protection laws, environmental safeguards, public transportation, communications and cross-media regulation, and publicly-funded broadcasting are all viable and beneficial tradeoffs that balance the interests of individual, corporation, and government.

Experience shows me that, while free and open markets offer the most effective way of improving living standards, corporations can rarely be trusted to place (for example) the well-being of the environment ahead of the interests of their shareholders. Equally, individuals can not always be trusted to act in the best interests of themselves and their families. The Happy Tutor put it well:

What 95% of the people may tell the pollster is that they love God and want to be happy with him in Heaven, rather than burning in hell with Satan for all eternity. But with their earthly wallet and mortal attention what they buy is violence, perversity, fleshly pleasure, vanity, pride, pain, and death—all that Satan sponsors.

And until we inhabit a Utopia in which nations consistently place the interests of others above their own, I’ll continue to believe that the high moral ground is a poor vantage point from which to conduct foreign policy. Again, the Happy Tutor is correct when he says:

That is why when True Believers rise in political, religious, military or military circles they are so dangerous, for they are at war not only with Terror, but with their own illicit and unacknowledged fascination with evil.

But True Believers exist at both ends of the political spectrum and I fear those on the left as much as those on the right. Both make a claim to virtue and both are equally dangerous; for, as Adam Smith pointed out:

Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience.

I’ll finish as I started, with a quote from Tony Kushner:

I have said this before, and I’ll say it again: Anyone that the Democrats run against Bush, even the appalling Joe Lieberman, should be a candidate around whom every progressive person in the United States who cares about the country’s future and the future of the world rallies. Money should be thrown at that candidate. And if Ralph Nader runs—if the Green Party makes the terrible mistake of running a presidential candidate—don’t give him your vote. Listen, here’s the thing about politics: It’s not an expression of your moral purity and your ethics and your probity and your fond dreams of some utopian future. Progressive people constantly fail to get this.

I, on the other hand, will probably vote for the Green Party, in the Senate at least. The trendy inner-city electorate where I live is largely populated by progressives who relish the freedom to indulge their moral purity at little or no personal cost. What an irony that my parliamentary representative, who has an absolutely safe seat, is a leading member of the progressive-left Labor faction that I abhor.

The Senate is a different story entirely. Australians have long shown a preference for a hung Senate in which neither of the major parties (Liberal/National and Labor) have sufficient seats to exercise control and must therefore negotiate with the smaller parties to have their legislation passed. Currently, the balance of power is shared by the Greens, the (centrist) Australian Democrats, and a couple of Independents. I’ve usually voted for the Democrats in the Senate but the party is unraveling. So, as a way of countering the gradual shift to the right in Australian politics, I may well vote for the nutty, naïve, Utopian Greens.

But a vote for the Greens in Australia will have quite different consequences from a vote for the Greens in the United States. As I said before, it all depends on one’s frame of reference. Any American who votes for Ralph Nader, however, deserves another four years of George W. Bush.

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Fascinating essay, Jonathon. Strangely enough, I, too, ended up in the same quadrant as you on the Authoritarian-Libertarian quiz, though a little further towards the bottom and a little further to the left.

Considering how often I agree with what you write, I find it a little strange that our underlying philosophies are quite different. I'm one of those "idealists," read Emerson-Thoreau, who tends to believe that people are corrupted by society, not that society's rules prevent them from expressing their evil nature.

I have too many ideas to put into your comments, but maybe your essay will inspire a further discussion of these ideas in our blogging community.

Posted by Loren on 30 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I dunno about progress as illusion.

If you were one of those enfranchised by the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution on August 18, 1920, I doubt you'd have found physically visiting the ballot box in the next election to be merely illusory. I think you might well have seen it as a fundamental and very concrete change.

Progress, in other words.

Posted by tonio on 30 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

wow - i had no idea about the skew in political leanings between different countries.

i agree with most of what you wrote here, though i've only very recently realized that politics is "not an expression of your moral purity and your ethics and your probity and your fond dreams of some utopian future." what i don't agree with is your statement that progress is an illusion. i guess that puts me at the opposite end of the constrained/unconstrained spectrum. i'll probably write more about this when i've thought more about it, but here's my quick summary, based on the existentialist belief we seem to share, that "intentions count for nothing, that only actions have value":

not only do i think only actions have value, i think all actions have value, and as we're always acting, we constantly have more value. wrong actions create history lessons that we can learn from. and right actions create a better world. granted we don't always learn from history, but i think we do often enough that even the most harmful actions produce more good than the most virtuous actions produce harm.

so am i understanding you correctly in thinking that "progress is an illusion" means you would look at life 100 or 1000 years ago and see it as basically as good as life today? is it only my bias towards modern life that makes me think we have things much, much better now?

Posted by scott reynen on 31 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Scott, early in the morning, I'm finding it difficult to wrap my head around your statement that "even the most harmful actions produce more good than the most virtuous actions produce harm". I guess it depends on whether you are talking about actions being "virtuous" or "harmful" according to some "objective" standard or whether you are talking about the intent being "virtuous" or "harmful".

Although my exposition of the constrained vision stressed the unintended harmful consequences of "nominally" virtuous actions, I agree with you that harmful actions can produce good. I would also argue that if a good result comes from a harmful intention, then that result is in no way inferior to a good result that arises from a virtuous intention.

I had no expectation that the propositions in my essay would be well received since the idea that "things are getting steadily better" (aka "progress") is almost an orthodoxy in a community where processors are always getting faster, more capable, and cheaper while new versions of software add new features and remove the deficiencies of previous versions.

Doc Searls illustrates this point perfectly by writing (this morning):

"I have the new 54G model, and it has significantly less range, for the 802.11b clients that use it, than another 802.11b unit I've had for several years. It's not a huge deal, but it's surprising. One expects new generations of products to be better in some respects and equal in others; but not worse."


It's not that I "look at life 100 or 1000 years ago and see it as basically as good as life today" but rather that wisdom and customs and ways of behavior from a 100 or a 1000 years ago, which were superior to anything we have now, are irretrievably lost. All the improvements brought by science, technology, law, free markets are counterbalanced by such losses. The quotation from Frazier's Cold Mountain is crucial here:

"Everything added meant something lost, and about as often as not the thing lost was preferable to the thing gained, so that over time we’d be lucky if we just broke even."

I accept that for anyone with an unconstrained vision of human nature, this is inconceivable and, accordingly, impossible to accept.

Tonio is correct in asserting that the 19th Amendment, which enfranchised American women, was "a fundamental and very concrete change" yet the right to vote is now so little valued in the United States that four out of ten Americans did not bother to vote in the 2000 Presidential election.

In my time, I've seen a massive improvement in our material wellbeing and a corresponding decline in the care and civility with which we treat each other. Parents work intolerably long hours to give their children more of everything, except for the one thing children need most: love and attention.

As I wrote in the post on romance to which I referred in this entry:

"In [Germaine] Greer’s 'progressive' narrative, a tight-knit crowd marches resolutely towards the future harboring an ill-disguised contempt for the past. Yet no-one seems to notice the mood or behavior of their companions: that the women are harried and discontented, the men alienated and resentful, the children troubled and neglected. Feminism promised women they could 'have it all' -- family, career, love, romance, material success —- and, best of all, that these riches, this new reality, would come at little or no cost."

Feminism also argued for an end to the objectification of women and yet women are more objectified than ever while the sexualization of children continues unabated.

Africa has been liberated from colonialism and is ravaged by war, corruption, and AIDS. Communism has been largely discredited and dismantled and Russia is controlled by mafia hoodlums...

So, when I say that "progress is an illusion" I'm not saying that nothing has improved, just that the gains are outweighed by the losses so that the best we can hope for is a steady state.

Posted by Jonathon on 31 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Meaty post. Fecund. Ripe.
I'm on a New Year's program of seriously attempting to avoid obscurity and inflated language. But this is pulling me in like Charybdis.
A steady state in this context is a dynamic thing. We get the illusion of stasis from birth but it's not there, ever. We move, things move, all is change always. Freezing that just freezes whatever process is engaged at the moment.
'We' aren't what 'we' were 100 or 1000 years ago, no more than what I am is what I was 30 years ago. Same name same general biology, but it's all changed. Somewhere before the chimpanzee and the modern man was both, somewhere in time, and that thing was as real as the two of us now. The shift was more gradual than the hour hand of a clock, though the record looks like action viewed from here.
What we're stuck on seems to be the objective/subjective dilemma. Things are good for one, bad for another, and nobody but the fundamentalists has a universal scale to weigh it on. We chase meaning into quark-scale holes and it disappears.
Objectively what does it matter that Elizabethan english was so much richer and more vital than current American standard? The loss, the difference, is deeply disturbing to me, but how can I put that above the utility and pragmatic fitness that creates this dumbed-down artless speech? It seems that somehow we have to say 'because'. Because it matters, I insist it does, before reason, beyond argument.
And yet harm and good are too often anthropomorphic judgements. I don't want to spend the paragraphs necessary to draw the connection but I'll say adamantly there is a direct connection between that simplistic view of harm and good and the man who ran down into a meadow last year, because he and his family had been watching a fawn graze there, and a young black bear had come up on the fawn and was enthusiastically fixing it for lunch, and the man, bravely I guess, began kicking the bear. This is in a park, a nature preserve. Harm to one, lunch to another.
Viewing that honestly from outside leaves no place for moral argument. From inside means there can be no truly objective philosphy. We switch modes without recognizing it I think. What's lacking is connection, and an accurate whole-system point of view that isn't heartless.

Posted by msg on 31 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I wrote a critique of the Nader is to blame for Bush hypothesis. Which also touches on some of the left/right issues you raise here.

Posted by Kerim Friedman on 31 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Sorry, I didn't read the part about URLs... Here is the link:


Posted by Kerim Friedman on 31 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I've read some quite extensive texts about the idea of progress, particularly in the context of the evolution of complex systems. While it is certainly true that evolution looks more like a random drift than any sort of march toward perfection, there is also an undeniable arrow towards higher levels of organization. We don't really have the intellectual tools to fully make this case, and it may turn out to be an illusion.

Something added and something taken away. Humans are doing well by any quantitative measure, but if we crowd out the rest of the ecosystem we're still screwed. Even if we do straighten out and survive the crisis, countless species or already extinct and will never return. If we don't, the planet will shrug us off and continue to evolve new forms. On the other hand, the fossile record seems to show that there were a couple of very productive eras where all of the basic organism types originated, so this loss could be permanent and irreversable. More questions that answers, but that's what makes it interesting.

Posted by Gerry on 31 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

You've taken on some pretty heavy lifting here Jonathon... I'm not sure how I can help, but I think I want to.

I've been enjoying reading The Psychology of Persuasion, although it's kind of a perverse enjoyment. The "constrained" view of human nature, while it can be overstated - if barely, is the most accurate.

I think in some way, we must differentiate somehow two different creatures - at least as an abstraction - in order to to gain some insight into the pitfalls of progress and progressive thinking. There is the human being as an individual, which is the subject of the unconstrained vision, and the most idealized one as well. And there is the human being as a member of a larger group - any group. They have markedly different behaviors, though our constant and necessary association in groups overwhelms the notion of the idealized individual.

Beliefs of the sort that label one a "liberal" or a "conservative" (although this is true as a general statement for any sort of belief) exist as organizing principles for a group, and for no other purpose. The belief that "progressives" are in favor of "progress" is just such a belief - it exists to attract, support and retain members to the group of "progressives" - not for the purpose of actually realizing "progress." To the extent that "progress" may be said to have been a result, it's less a result of intention than simply the happy consequence of selection bias or selective attention.

Groups compete with one another, and they seek advantages to do so. Women are a group, and they compete with men for access to the full range of opportunities and benefits that society offers. Women gaining the right to vote was the result of a number of groups competing with each other against the dominant group that held as its belief that women should not be enfranchised. Now, there were women in both camps, such is the nature of group cohesion. Women as a gender-based group is less cohesive than other culturally, politically or religiously based groups. But some of those other kinds of groups saw advantage in promoting the idea of women gaining the right to vote.

This could get very long and tedious, let me try to sum up:

Beliefs do not exist to serve individuals as individuals. If they did, we wouldn't seize upon them so readily and use differing ones to bludgeon each other as the "red" vs. "blue" phenomenon exemplifies. Beliefs exist to serve groups. Human beings as members of groups are different, highly constrained, creatures than human beings as unconstrained, idealized individuals.

I am wondering what the effect may be if, at some point, we begin to understand this and incorporate this belief into our organzation of groups?

Posted by dave rogers on 1 January 2004 (Comment Permalink)

The rhetoric of your presentation, with its appearance deliberative caution would seem to be belied by your embrace of totalizing dogmatic positions:

"Everything has a cost.
Our gains rarely, if ever, outweigh our losses.
The past is precious.
Progress is an illusion."

Why would you wish to practice the empathy of understanding others when you so richly always and already understand so much?

Posted by tom matrullo on 1 January 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I'd like to offer an alternative to all this polarization that's going on. I came across this a while back when I heard a very short NPR piece about Leszek Kolakowski (he had received some award that I've now forgotten). I had to know more, so a little googling turned up this page about Kolakowski

Of particular interest to this discussion is a short piece where he talks about integrating principles from three important idealogical orientations: "How to Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist" http://www.mrbauld.com/conlibsoc.html from an essay collection, "Modernity on Endless Trial"

Finally, I'd like to point out that the American Revolution never would have happened without someone thinking, "Things would be better if". Certainly the results are mixed, but I wouldn't want to go back either.

Also, I had to take the political compass test for myself, and found some other interesting material on the site. In particular something called Iconochasms: http://www.digitalronin.f2s.com/politicalcompass/iconochasms.html
The first item is quite prescient, and the rest are very interesting too.

Posted by Gerry on 1 January 2004 (Comment Permalink)

msg, thanks for your observations. You correctly draw attention to the objective/subjective dilemma -- the man, the bear, and the fawn analogy is excellent. I wasn't aware of that incident but I know that my response would have been: "Wow, the bear is acting just like a bear should." I agree that we "switch modes without recognizing it". As for the "accurate whole-system point of view that isn't heartless", is there a current point of view that comes even vaguely close to what you have in mind?

Kerim, I read your post on the "Nader is to blame for Bush hypothesis", but ultimately was not convinced by your argument -- firstly, because I don't think the fact that, in a number of states, Nader's vote was too small to influence the result is as relevant as you suggest. I think that Nader's campaign was damaging (and decisive) because he acted as a distraction that prevented potential voters from taking Gore seriously. Secondly, because I was more persuaded by the avalanche of anti-Nader comments on the Calpundit post to which you linked.

I should mention that my thinking is certainly influenced by the fact that in Australia we have preferential voting which allows someone like Nader to direct his preferences to the other candidates. This gives the "progressive" voter the moral satisfaction of voting for a candidate who has no chance of winning a seat in the House of Representatives but ensures their vote is not wasted since the progressive candidate will almost certainly direct his or her preferences to the party of the left (in our case, the Labor party). The preferential system also means that it is easy for candidates from small parties or for independents to gain a quota which will see them elected to the Senate. For as long as I can recall, this has given the small parties a decisive voice in how the country is run.

The fact that Nader couldn't "direct his preferences" to Gore automatically makes me far less sympathetic to his candidacy and also makes it impossible for me to regard him as anything other than an egotistical spoiler.

Thanks also, Kerim, for the entry on Fascism to which you link in your Nader post:


and for your links to Eschaton's post and the PDF essay by David Neiwert (Orcinus).

Gerry, thanks for the links, particularly to the pages about Kolakowski. I've added "Modernity on Endless Trial" to my Amazon shopping cart (both "Towards a Marxist Humanism" and the British edition, "Marxism and Beyond", are out of print so I'll wait until I've read "Modernity on Endless Trial" before deciding whether to locate a secondhand copy of the other book. I'm hoping "Modernity on Endless Trial" contains the essay "The Epistemology of the Strip-Tease" since I'm working on some essays about the sex industry.

Dave, I agree with you that "human beings as members of groups are different, highly constrained, creatures than human beings as unconstrained, idealized individuals". How is it though that both groups -- those who accept the constrained vision of human nature and those who argue for the unconstrained vision -- follow such similar patterns of behavior?

Or, perhaps the point is that -- to the contrary -- in the ways that really count, they don't behave similarly at all. I'm thinking here of the tendency of those on the left to indulge in bickering and infighting whereas those on the right are frequently more willing to sublimate their differences and work towards a common goal. What must happen for a group of progressive individualists to sacrifice their individuality and form an effective alliance? It's not as though those on the left are incapable of organizing, acting cooperatively, and achieving their desired goals (the Chinese and Vietnamese Communists come immediately to mind). Does charismatic leadership make the difference?

Something else that puzzles me is that the constrained and unconstrained visions find support in countries as dissimilar as Japan (where the interests of the group rather than the individual are emphasized) and the United States (where the reverse is true). This obviously requires a lot more thought.

Posted by Jonathon on 1 January 2004 (Comment Permalink)

"How is it though that both groups...follow such similar patterns of behavior?"

It's because "patterns of behavior" are what we truly have in common. Those patterns are part of our genetic code.

The unconstrained vision is mostly just a belief that is used to attract and retain members. Both groups exploit the unconstrained vision, though in different ways. For example, I would say that in America the Right and Libertarian groups exploit the unconstrained vision in the context of "others" to suggest that individuals need little help from the state, and that such help is essentially contrary to the unconstrained vision. The Left sees the unconstrained vision as applying to "self" and uses it suggest that government should help others, as the unconstrained vision allows the Left to rise above narrow self-interest.

In neither case is the unconstrained vision truly actualized by any of the constituent members, it's just a supporting idea in a system of ideas that bind the members of the group.

The unconstrained vision is nearly impossible to achieve in reality, as we generally lack the cognitive resources necessary to genuinely realize the vision. We are simply not as intelligent and self-aware as we would like to be in our idealized unconstrained vision.

Even in the United States, the notion of the individual as superior to the group is far more a fiction than a reality. I think America's ethnic and religious diversity helps to disguise many of the overt features of the groups we are most familiar with, so it isn't always clear that when we believe we are behaving in ways that would seem to be consistent with the view of the individual as superior to the group, we are actually subordinating the interests of the individual to the interests of the group. I would suggest that virtually all consumer marketing exploits this feature. The rugged individual who buys a pickup truck though he works in an office may believe he's expressing his individuality by driving a vehicle that may be inconsistent with the stereotype of an office worker, but he's really just serving the larger interests of a number of groups: The vehicle manufacturer, the manufacturer's marketing firm, the financing company, the auto insurance group, and the larger group of the American economy, which relies on consumer spending for two thirds of its economic activity.

It's possible for someone who buys a pickup truck to be a person who is acting in a manner that is consistent with the unconstrained vision, but I believe those examples are the rare exception rather than the rule.

I think it's kind of ironic (and irony is the fifth fundamental force of the universe), that Neville Wran was so successful because he didn't believe in anything. People who don't "believe in anything" (although this is certainly an exaggeration) are freer to act in ways that are more consistent with the unconstrained vision than idealist "true believers." The "true believers" are often actually authority-seekers, something else we're endowed with by are genetic heritage.

Posted by dave rogers on 1 January 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Argh! "by _our_ genetic heritage."

See, we're mostly on auto-pilot, even when we're typing.

[Homer]Stupid brain![/Homer]

Posted by dave rogers on 1 January 2004 (Comment Permalink)

"I don't think the fact that, in a number of states, Nader's vote was too small to influence the result is as relevant as you suggest. I think that Nader's campaign was damaging (and decisive) because he acted as a distraction that prevented potential voters from taking Gore seriously."

I argue that Gore, not Nader, was responsible for people not taking Gore seriously. The fact that Gore did so badly in his home state, and in States were Democrats did well at the local level indicates that Gore, at the very least, shares a large portion of the blame.

But more is going on here than just that. The reason I see our posts as related is precisely because of that graph you have showing the difference between where the center of the left right continuum lies in the US and in Australia. Clinton was successful because he moved to try to re-take the center. But Nader, I believe rightly so, argued that this only served to further move the center to the right. Part of my post's argument is that this might have helped the democrats in the short term, but has had disastrous long-term consequences. And I think it was stupid of Gore to continue to play this game. As much as Gore tried to distance himself from Clinton, he continued to follow this same policy. This allowed people to be confused by Bush's compassionate conservatism, not seeing it for what it really was.

Even if you believe that Nader cost Gore the vote by openly pointing out that the emperor had no clothes - it was something that peopel were bound to notice sooner or later.

I believe that Nader has actually been good for the Democratic party. They have completely switched their approach. For the first time you see the Democrats actively reaching out to traditional supporters who are non-voters rather than centrist swing-voters:



You also see folks like Dean, who are actually quite centrist (even "conservative" I would say), taking a tact that is 180% from that followed by Clinton and Gore.


Many of the people who voted for Nader, would probably otherwise have not voted at all. There has been much written (I can't find it now but Calpundit has written a nice entry on this) about how the costs to Bush for pretending to be in the center ("Compassionate Conservatism") were far less than for Gore. Bush's core supporters knew they had his allegiance. This is shown by the enormously high voting turn out by the Religous Right, versus the historically low voter turn out by young people and minorities. The non-voting of the Democrat's core supporters is also what cost them the recent California referendum/election. I'm glad the Democrats are starting to wake up to this fact and to try to reach out to these voters rather than continuing to chase the ever swinging center, which seems to swing more and more to the right each election.

Part of the reason people don't vote is the constant shifting of the center to the Right, as I discussed above. Part of it is also an issue you raised in your comment - the "winner take all" aspect of the American electoral process. Minority voters living in conservative districts are perhaps right to feel that their vote doesn't count. Some states have instituted voting reforms, and there are some very good proposals being put out by an organization called Fairvote:


I personally think ideas and values are ultimately more important than voting procedures - but that doesn't mean we should try to make the voting procedures more democratic. America's electoral system was built as a compromise to ensure that Southern Slave states would retain power despite their limited number of eligible voters. Here is one instance where the "original intentions" of the founders needs to be called into question!

Posted by Kerim Friedman on 2 January 2004 (Comment Permalink)


did you read Burgess' "The Wanting seed"?

That's the novel where he outlines his theory of how societies and governments oscillate between the views of Saint Augustine and the heretic Pelagius.

It seems to me that the Pelagian-Augustinian axis is not so dissimilar from the "unconstrained-constrained" axis.

Posted by Jonas on 2 January 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Dave, your explanation of how both the Right/Libertarians and the Left exploit the unconstrained vision in terms of either "others" or "self" is right on the money as is your argument that American individualism is frequently an ideological construction rather than a cultural given.

And Wran's "not believing in anything" had another substantial benefit -- it allowed him a degree of independence from the Left and Right factional groups that usually control Labor Party politics.

Kerim, thanks for taking the time to respond to my comment and amplify your own. Now that I have a clearer understanding of your argument, it's difficult not to agree with you that Nader's influence in 2000 was less than I'd imagined. Nor had I realized the (positive) impact his candidacy has had on the Democratic Party.

It's ironic -- though hardly surprising, given that one of the themes of my essay was that "it all depends on one's frame of reference" -- how much my own view of the US situation is informed by the fact that I live (and vote) in Australia where there are no "supporters who are non-voters" because VOTING IS COMPULSORY! (Needless to say I'm a strong believer in compulsory voting.)

Jonas, thanks for the recommendation. Burgess' "The Wanting Seed" has also gone into my Amazon shopping cart.

Posted by Jonathon on 2 January 2004 (Comment Permalink)

hmm. i'm still not sure. re-reading it, i recognize that my comment about the positive effects of negative actions may have sounded like i was talking about intent, but that's not what i meant, so let me try again.

every action has multiple effects. some are positive and some are negative. if we could add these together, we'd have an overall value of the action. and if we could add the values of all actions together, we'd have the collective value of all human actions. i'm not making any claims as to how high this value is, but i don't yet believe it to be zero.

i don't see much solution to the problem of subjectivity (my positive action is your negative action), but i'm assuming there is such a thing as value. jonathon must be assuming the same when he says "only actions have value", but he thinks this value ultimately cancels itself out on a wider scale (if i'm understanding him correctly). and that doesn't seem unbelievable to me, as i don't think the collective value is particularly high (i think progress is slow).

finally, what about people who believe the value is negative - people who believe we aren't progressing or staying about the same, but actually regressing?

Posted by scott reynen on 5 January 2004 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour