Evolution is a many-splendoured thing. Our long evolutionary history has prepared us well for many aspects of modern life. But in other aspects it bequeaths us problems. Nasty problems.
One example is our sweet tooth. Our ancestral instinct to eat plenty of fruit (or things that taste like fruit), in anticipation of subsequent times of lean, leads in the modern age to an epidemic of obesity. Oops.
Another example is our tendency to imagine intelligent agency where none exists – our so-called “hyperactive agency detector”. A rustle in the leaves; a cracked twig; a bolt of lightening – were these mere accidents, or the signs of a crafty predator? Better to be safe than sorry. But that hyperactive agency detector gave rise to numerous fantasies, worldwide, of ghosts and demons and supernatural deities. Double oops.
And yet another example is our tribalism – our innate apprehension of “the other”. We learned to fear alien groups of people who were noticeably different from our closer circle, and who might be expected, given a chance, to double-cross us or stab us in the back. Once upon a time, a rule of thumb “beware the outsider” was doubtless useful for survival. But in present times, that xenophobia can have all kinds of adverse consequences. Oops again.
What does this have to do with 21st century politics? Plenty!
Four versions of tribalism
As I’ll list shortly, four of the most destructive tendencies in modern social life have their roots in our apprehension of “the other”. In each case, our social harmony is warped by ideologies that reinforce our innate tendency to fear those who seem different from ourselves. In each of the four cases, an ideology tells its adherents that there are deep reasons why the leopard cannot change its spots – why, that is, the outsiders are bound to keep on behaving in dangerous, destructive ways. So the ideology exacerbates the mistrust.
Look at these strange folk, the ideology says. Look at him here, and her there. These specific individuals are undeniably bad. And the rest are all the same. We – the decent, normal people – need protection against the entire tribe of others. We need to take back control – so these ideologies tell us, in various different ways.
These ideologies find willing listeners. Our subconscious minds are grateful for intellectual rationales that can be adopted, that shore up our instinctual urges, regardless of whether these urges remain good for us.
The first case is nationalism, or its variant, racism. Some English are duplicitous, therefore all English are duplicitous – that is (more or less) what I remember my barber telling me, on more than one occasion, when I had my hair cut as a teenager in Aberdeenshire in the mid 1970s. Other nationalists of a different stripe might say, in retort: some Scots are mean, therefore all Scots are mean. Some African Americans are lazy and disrespectful, therefore all African Americans are lazy and disrespectful. Some Moslems are fanatics, therefore all Moslems are fanatics. Some Poles are welfare scroungers, therefore all Poles are welfare scroungers. And so on.
Stated in such bald terms, the ideology is evidently puerile. But it is typically dressed up with finer trimmings. The reason why the other is likely to behave badly, we are told, is because they are victims of their culture, and (in some cases) victims of their religion. The ideology asserts – correctly, in my view – that some cultures are inferior to others, and that poor cultures can be kept in place by tendencies within religious teachings. For example, when a holy book emphasises that women are deeply different from men, we should not be surprised if people enmeshed in the resulting culture give scant attention to female equality. And if that holy book elevates faith as a virtue high above honest doubt, it’s no wonder that the members of that culture are inclined towards fanaticism.
The key question is: how easy is it for people to step aside from the culture in which they were previously enmeshed? Ideologies of nationalism tend to be sceptical on that count. In that view, culture is deterministic, and diminishes the capacity of “the other” to change. Forget any hopes of multi-cultural harmony. Instead, build walls.
The second case is anti-capitalism. That’s a bit more sophisticated than nationalism, but not by much. This line of thinking goes as follows: some business owners are ruthless profit-seekers, therefore all business owners are ruthless profit-seekers. Anyone who claims to be a “conscious capitalist” or a “moral capitalist” is deluding themselves. Their prevailing culture – the system of shareholder contracts and imperatives to maximise profits – ensures that they cannot really change. Therefore the “decent, normal people” – the working class – need to seize power, seize the means of production, and (if need be) string up the recalcitrant capitalist class from the lampposts.
Yet again, it’s an ideology that can find ready adherents. Developed under the label Marxist-Leninism, it’s an ideology that has caused horrible upheavals around the world.
The third case is the widespread rigid displeasure at EU bureaucracy. Here’s the thinking: some EU bureaucrats are faceless self-serving empire-builders, therefore all EU bureaucrats are faceless self-serving empire-builders. As before, the argument runs from the specific to the general. A business leader finds his growth plans thwarted by ill-conceived regulations handed down imperiously from Brussels, therefore we have to take back control of all regulations handed down from Brussels. An innovative medical intervention is stymied by slow-moving EU healthcare review processes, therefore we have to take back control of all review processes from the EU. Perhaps we should even string up the leaders of that bureaucracy from the lampposts.
The key question in this case is: what stands in the way of intelligent reform of the EU bureaucracy? One answer is that the EU bureaucracy is part of a gigantic self-perpetuating system which is incapable of reform – much the same as Marxists claim that capitalism is incapable of meaningful reform. People with bad personal experiences of EU bureaucrats are, not surprisingly, sympathetic to that ideology.
What makes that line of thinking more likely to be accepted, alas, is the dearth of adequate positive communications about:
- The rich benefits achieved from EU membership (despite a steady stream of mistakes being made)
- The history of positive evolution of EU governance (despite the delays in some of these steps being taken).
Too many people have gained, in the short term, by spreading “bad news” stories (often wildly exaggerated) about EU governance. These stories have been good fun – ha ha ha – until they weren’t. Oops.
That takes me to the fourth case: rigid displeasure of government. It’s worth some extra attention.
The case for governments
What is the point of governments? Governments provide social coordination of a type that fails to arise by other means of human interaction, such as free markets.
Markets can accomplish a great deal, but they’re far from all-powerful. Governments ensure that suitable investment takes place of the sort that would not happen, if it was left to each individual to decide by themselves. Governments build up key infrastructure where there is no short-term economic case for individual companies to invest to create it.
Governments defend the weak from the powerful. They defend those who lack the knowledge to realise that vendors may be on the point of selling them a lemon and then beating a hasty retreat. They take actions to ensure that social free-riders don’t prosper, and that monopolists aren’t able to take disproportionate advantage of their market dominance.
Governments prevent all the value in a market from being extracted by forceful, well-connected minority interests, in ways that would leave the rest of society impoverished. They resist the power of “robber barons” who would impose numerous tolls and charges, stifling freer exchange of ideas, resources, and people. Therefore governments provide the context in which free markets can prosper (but which those free markets, by themselves, could not deliver).
What I’ve just described is a view of governments which is defended by the most frightening book I’ve read this year. The book is “American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper”. The authors are the political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson.
In describing this book as “frightening”, I don’t mean that the book is bad. Far from it. The authors’ characterisation of the positive role of government is, to my mind, spot on correct. It’s backed up by lots of instructive episodes from American history, going all the way back to the revolutionary founders.
But what’s frightening is another set of information clearly set out in the book:
- The growing public hostility, especially in America (but shared elsewhere, to an extent) towards the idea that government should be playing any significant role in the well-being of society
- The growing identification of government with self-serving empire-building bureaucracy
- The widespread lack of understanding of the remarkable positive history of public action by governments that promoted overall social well-being (that is the “amnesia” of the title of the book)
- The decades-long growing tendency of many in America – particularly from the Republicans – to denigrate and belittle the role of government, for their own narrow interests
- The decades-long growing tendency of many others in America to keep quiet, in the face of Republican tirades against government, rather than speaking up to defend it.
The risk ahead
I listened to the concluding chapters of American Amnesia during the immediate aftermath of the referendum in the UK on the merits of remaining within the EU. The parallels were chilling:
- In the EU, the positive role of EU governance has been widely attacked, over many decades, and only weakly defended. This encouraged a widespread popular hostility towards all aspects of EU governance
- In the US, the positive role of US governance has been widely attacked, over many decades, and only weakly defended. This encouraged a widespread popular hostility towards all aspects of US governance. The commendable ambitions of the Obama government therefore ran into all sorts of bitter opposition.
The parallels might run one step further. To me, and many others, it was almost unthinkable that the referendum in the UK would come down in favour of leaving the EU. Likewise, it’s unthinkable to many in the US that Donald Trump will receive a popular mandate in the forthcoming November elections.
But all bets are off if the electorate:
- Feel sufficiently alienated
- Imbibe a powerful sense of grievance towards “the others” who are perceived to run government
- Lack a positive understanding of the actual role of big government.
Dealing with the flaws
Given the three risk factors I’ve just listed, various counter-measures ought to be clear:
- Action is required towards the concrete factors that generate a sense of alienation. Rather than the fruits of economic success being channelled to a small fraction of society, with growing inequalities, we need powerful steps for greater inclusion and wider participation.
- Language that encourages grievance must be rooted out. Whenever pundits present distorted stories about “the other”, these stories should be strongly challenged.
- Education is long overdue about the positive role of big government – as a kind of “visible hand” that complements the famous “invisible hand” of the free market.
On the third point, I particularly like the formulation of Hacker and Pierson that the mixed economy was the most important social innovation of the 20th century:
The mixed economy spread a previously unimaginable level of broad prosperity. It enabled steep increases in education, health, longevity, and economic security.
That’s an insight with a lot of mileage.
However, none of the above three tasks is easy. They’re made harder by the deep-rooted tendencies inside the human spirit to tribalism – ugly tendencies that keep coming to the surface in contemporary debates over politics.
In turn, we’re often maintained in our tribal thinking by yet another legacy hangover from our evolutionary heritage. That’s the heritage of a human propensity for self-deception.
The poison of self-deception
Time and again, as I’ve read what friends of mine have written online in recent months, I’ve gently sighed to myself: these people are surely deceiving themselves. (And no doubt I am similarly guilty on many occasions!)
Indeed, as the giant of evolutionary theory Robert Trivers explains in his genre-defining 2011 book “Deceipt and Self-Deception: Fooling Yourself the Better to Fool Others”,
We deceive ourselves the better to deceive others, and thereby reap the advantages.
Our subconscious minds often work hard to prevent our conscious minds seeing the whole picture and thereby disturbing our equanimity:
However much we champion freedom of thought, we actually spend much of our time censoring input. We seek out publications that mirror or support our prior views and largely avoid those that don’t.
Trivers also provides this telling observation:
The great sage Thales once put the general matter succinctly. “Oh master,” he was asked, “what is the most difficult thing to do?” “To know thyself”, he replied. “And the easiest?” “To give advice to others.”
Towards a better intelligence
As a transhumanist, I look forward to a time in the hopefully not-too-distant a future when we’ll be smarter, not only rationally, but also emotionally.
But that I mean that our conscious minds will have a clearer understanding of the factors leading us to espouse various beliefs and ideologies. I’m sure we’ll all have some rude shocks in the process (me included).
With that clearer understanding, we’ll have a chance to resolve our political debates in a more rational way – a way that avoids unnecessary tribalism and alienation. Better humanity can provide the gateway to better politics.
Whence comes this better emotional intelligence? That’s perhaps the biggest question of all. Smart drugs may contribute. So might improved meditation techniques, or digital nootropics (such as helmets that modulate the brain via electrical stimulation). Enhanced communities of emotional support are likely to play a key role too.
Article by David W. Wood, Executive Director, Transpolita
The graphics images are from Pixabay (click to see the individual sources.)