Sunday


dragged

From time to time we need to be reminded (that is to say, we need to remind both ourselves and others) what it means to live in a free and open society, as the discipline of liberty is a stern one, and it is easy to go slack and to find oneself becoming tolerant of all kinds of compromises to one’s freedom, not to mention the freedom of others, which is relatively easy to sacrifice. Every day a thousand details compete for our attention, and these practical exigencies of life are often sufficient to distract us from our true interests in the long term, and in the big picture.

History does not stand still. Those in possession of the apparatus of state power are always seeking new ways to get the public to go along with the fashionable governmental programs of the moment, while citizens are always seeking ways around the controls that government attempts to impose upon them. It is a cat-and-mouse game — à bon chat, bon rat. Descartes, who lived during the period of the consolidation of the nation-state (and who fought as a solider in the Thirty Years’ War, the settlement of which was part of this process) adopted a motto from Ovid, bene qui latuit, bene vixit: He who hid well, lived well. This is a prudent maxim for any who are subject to state power.

The continual flux of one’s individual perspective, and the continual movement of history, together tend to obscure rather than to clarify where our true interests lie, and so we would do well to recur to classic formulations of liberal democracy (in the sense in which Fukuyama uses that term), and there is no more classic formulation of individual liberty in liberal democracy than is to be found in John Stuart Mill:

“…the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection… the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter I, “Introductory”

Mill’s uncompromising assertion of individual sovereignty is one of the high points of specifically western civilization, with its emphasis upon the individual and individualism. Uncompromising though it may be, it is not, however, absolute: the prevention of harm to others is not defined, and therefore subject to interpretation. An individual or a group that is bound and determined to exercise control over some other individual or group will twist their interpretation of the world until they they proved to their own satisfaction that the actions of the other individual or group are invidious to the public good, and therefore, under classic principles of political liberalism, they are justified in bringing coercion to bear in forcing the individual or group to conform to social expectations.

Mill’s assertion of individual sovereignty is also, in a sense, unexpected. For Mill in this passage, how we exercise state power matters. This way of thinking about Mill’s conception of liberty is really quite remarkable in view of the fact that Mill is probably also the most famous utilitarian, and therefore as a utilitarian is committed to a teleological (or consequentialist) ethic. But this passage is much more in the spirit of deontology than teleology. In my last post, Teleological and Deontological Conceptions of Civilization, I sought to show that teleological and deontological systems of ethical thought that have been applied to the individual also can be applied to social wholes, and here Mill, among the greatest of the representatives of utilitarian teleology, presents a case for a thoroughly deontological conception of the state and its power (i.e., mankind taken collectively).

What are we to make of individual sovereignty in an age of choice architecture? I can imagine the advocates of choice architecture making the argument that “nudging” rather than forcing citizens to adopted preferred behaviors in order to arrived at preferred outcomes is ultimately to recognize the sovereignty of the individual, and not to infringe upon that sovereignty any more than is necessary. But what is this necessity? What is the necessity of state power in industrial-technological civilization? State power in our time is primarily technical, so that its necessity is also understood as a technical requirement.

I have noted in several recent posts (Religious Experience in Industrial-Technological Civilization among them) that in industrial-technological civilization the organizing principle is technical; it is procedural rationality in its many forms that is the basis of social organization. (The term “procedural rationality” originates in the work of economist Herbert A. Simon — also known for his work on bounded rationality — though I am using the term in a wider signification than that employed by Simon, intended to include all decision making undertaken in complex contexts employing available empirical evidence in a theoretical framework that recognizes bounded rationality.)

Rationality is more constrained for some than for others; the technocrat of procedural rationality imagines that those in possession of state power have more and better information available to them than the subjects of state power, who suffer from a more tightly bounded rationality than their leaders. Therefore those with less bounded rationality and possessing greater horizons have a political responsibility to transfer their greater knowledge to the population at large through the power of the state. Choice architecture seems to be the least coercive way of doing so. (Choice architecture is not limited to state power: one could argue that the private enterprises that make it very easy to sign up to receive a good or service, but make it almost impossible to stop the delivery of said good or service, are practicing a kind of choice architecture, but these unsavory business practices are occasionally reviewed by the courts, and when found to be sufficiently coercive the courts may provide legal redress to aggrieved customers.)

The publication of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness in 2009 by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, was an event of some significance in Anglophone political circles, as it was immediately seized upon by policymakers as a legitimation and justification of their “expertise” in social organization — precisely the expertise in procedural rationality that is central to industrial-technological civilization. This was unintended intellectual flattery of the first order. The great unwashed require experts to shape the finer aspects of their lives, rough-hew them though the ignorant masses may. Delivered from their miserable choices to preferred outcomes to which they are nudged, the people should be grateful to their leaders for their enlightened intervention.

In the context of social organization through procedural rationality, the inevitable rise of expertise in technical matters comes to dominate society at large. The process begins with the mere details of how life is organized, but the nature of state power is to grow without bounds (see below on the slippery slope, here applied to state power), and as procedural rationality steadily expands its scope, the state approximates what Erving Goffman called a total institution:

“The common characteristics of total institutions derive from the coercion of inmates to conform to an internal regime. They are stripped of their former identities and obliged to accept an alternative selfhood, designed to fit the expectations of staff. This transformation is effected by procedures and practices including the breakdown of the divisions separating work, sleep and play. All activities are tightly scheduled and geared to serve institutionally set tasks. These can be carried out only by obeying rules and regulations that are sanctioned by privileges and punishments administered by staff whose authority is sustained through the maintenance of a distance from inmates.”

The Social Science Encyclopedia, Third edition, Edited by Adam Kuper and Jessica Kuper, VOLUME II L-Z, LONDON AND NEW YORK: Routledge, 2004, “Total Institutions,” pp. 1031-1032

The state as a total institution could be employed as a definition of totalitarianism. “Nudge” politics is very long way from being totalitarianism, or even the thin edge of the wedge of totalitarianism, but there are dangers nevertheless of which we should be aware.

At what point does choice architecture become coercive? How narrow may an individual’s options be made before we are willing to acknowledge that that individual’s life has been compromised by the institutions with the power to shape the choices available to the individual? How much can the life of the individual be compromised before we recognize this as a form of coercion? If coercion is held below the threshold of violence, is it more morally acceptable that coercion that is openly violent?

Ultimately, state power is about violence; it is not always or inevitably manifested as violence, but as violence is the ultimate guarantor of state power, any politicized question is ultimately about violence. Everyone is familiar with Max Weber’s definition of sovereignty: “The state is the human community that, within a defined territory — and the key word here is ‘territory’ — (successfully) claims the monopoly of legitimate force for itself.” While such a state does not always employ force, it can employ force if necessary, and here the only necessity is political necessity, as defined by the sovereign state. As noted above, today this is a technical necessity governed by technical requirements, and in so far as the human condition is made rigorous, technical necessity leaves no aspect of life untouched.

A common but commonly unstated theme in such discussions is the doctrine of tacit consent. Everyone today, in virtue of being born on some particular scrap of geography, is the subject of some territorially-defined nation-state that seeks to enforce the territorial principle in law. Thus every human being alive today has been judged to have given their tacit consent to the state power of some nation-state or other. What is the basis for this claim? Along with John Stuart Mill, one of the godfathers of political liberalism is John Locke, whose Second Treatise of Government was an important influence on the American founding fathers, but Locke was willing to assert a sweeping doctrine of tacit consent that I find problematic at best, an invitation of inter-generational tyranny at worst:

“Nobody doubts but an express consent of any man entering into any society makes him a perfect member of that society, a subject of that government. The difficulty is, what ought to be looked upon as a tacit consent, and how far it binds — i. e., how far any one shall be looked upon to have consented and thereby submitted to any government, where he has made no expressions of it at all. And to this I say that every man that has any possessions or enjoyment of any part of the dominions of any government does thereby give his tacit consent and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as anyone under it; whether this his possession be of land to him and his heirs for ever, or a lodging only for a week, or whether it be barely traveling freely on the highway; and, in effect, it reaches as far as the very being of anyone within the territories of that government.”

John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, section 119

Here Locke appears unambiguously as a theorist of the territorial principle in law (also assumed by Weber in the quote above), as no one who came from interpenetrating ethnic communities, each ruled by their own law (i.e., the personal principle in law), would ever assert that lodging for a week in some territory subjects the individual to the law of the government that claims sovereignty over that territory. In this way, we can see Locke as one of many political philosophers who contributed to the formulation of the theory of the nation-state at a time when the nation-state remained yet inchoate.

The slippery slope of political obligation in the context of tacit consent would imply that every citizen of a nation-state that engages in genocidal persecution and warfare is at least an accessory, if not a willing and active participant, in such moral outrages (cf. Genocide and the Nation-State). Throughout the twentieth century, in fact, this was the conclusion that was derived in fact, if not in theory. Thus the destruction of a wartime enemy’s population was justified because that population facilitated the prosecution of the war, even if their employment had not changed since the war in question began (i.e., even if they are not employed in war industries). They have, after all, given their tacit consent to the nation-state in which they reside. This kind of political reasoning brought humanity face-to-face with annihilation in the twentieth century, and we can be glad that, whatever the horrendous depredations of that century, it did not ultimately follow through to the bitter end the political logic of its time.

For a logician, a slippery slope is a fallacy, and the logician is right: there is no logical way to derive a transition from the thin edge of the wedge to the thick edge — but if there is a sledgehammer pounding down on the wedge, the likelihood of the thin edge leading to the thick edge is quite high. Life is not logical. Psychologically a slippery slope is very real, very treacherous, and every consummate manipulator (if you live long enough, you will meet many of them) knows how to exploit human frailty with a slippery slope. (This is why we say, “in for a penny, in for a pound.”) Indeed, any logical explication of the slippery slope fallacy ought to be presented with an explication of the cognitive biases of availability cascade, bandwagon effect, illusory correlation, and irrational escalation. We could, in fact, name a new cognitive bias — say, the slippery slope effect — which is the likelihood of individuals to allow themselves to be led down a slippery slope despite this slope being a logical fallacy.

While logicians recognize the appeal to a slippery slope as a fallacy, the logicians have no answer to the paradoxes of the heap, also called sorites paradoxes, which consider the problems inherent in vagueness. Well, it would not exactly be right to say that logicians have “no answer” to sorites paradoxes, only that there are many logical theories for dealing with sorites paradoxes, but none of these theories are universally accepted, and the paradox appears so frequently in human experience that its paradoxicality cannot be wished away. Where exactly the transition from choice architecture to coercion occurs admits of no easy answers.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Tuesday


European People's Party leader Jean-Claude Juncker.

European People’s Party leader Jean-Claude Juncker.

A great deal of contemporary political stability — much more than we usually like to think — is predicated upon the careful management of public opinion and the engineering of consent. The masses that constitute mass society in an age of mass man have the vote, and as voters they play a role in the liberal democracies that populate Fukuyama’s end of history, but we must observe that the role the voters play in democracy is carefully circumscribed. (A perfect example of this is the lack of transparency built into the US electoral college, adding layers of procedural rationality between the voters and the outcome of the process.) There is always a tension in liberal democracies predicated upon the management of public opinion of how far and how hard the masses can be pushed. If they are pushed too hard, they riot, or they fail to cooperate with the dominant political paradigm. If they are not pushed hard enough, or if they are not sufficiently fearful of authority, again, they might riot, or they might not work hard enough to keep the wheels of industry turning.

So political elites don’t push, they nudge. The nauseating paternalism of the “nudge” mentality among contemporary politicians (which, instead of being called “engineering consent,” which is a term that carries unfortunate connotations, is now called, “active engineering of choice architecture”) derived the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, seeks to apply the findings of behavioral economics to public policy decisions — with the proviso, of course, that it is the people in charge, the people who make public policy, who know best, and if we want a better world we need to give them a free hand to shape our choices. Unfortunately, the working class masses are not in a position to actively engineer the choice architecture of political leaders, although it is at least arguable that the political elite need an engineered choice architecture far more than the masses.

The European Union has been testing the boundaries of how far the European masses can be pushed (or nudged) to cooperate in bringing about the vision of a unified Europe, and with the Euroskeptics winning in many different regions of Europe, it appears that the European masses are pushing back by failing to cooperate with the dominant political paradigm. The political class of the European Union has just been handed a sharp rebuke that is a reminder of the limits of engineering consent, and they have been remarkably open and honest about it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted on the BBC on the need for economic development, “This is the best answer to the disappointed people who voted in a way we didn’t wish for.”

This European openness about the failure of Europe’s political class to effectively engineer the consent of the governed for the political and economic programs planned by the political elite is an important corrective to the American tendency to see conspiracies and secret cabals behind every unexpected turn of events. In Europe, the politicians have been honest that they wanted one result, and the people gave a different result. French President François Hollande was quoted as saying he would, “reaffirm that the priority is growth, jobs and investment.” Why are Merkel and Hollande united in seeing the need for jobs and economic development? Because they know that workers making good wages and who see a future for themselves and their families will mostly let the politicians have their way. It is when times are not good that voters push back against the grandiose dreams of politicians that seem to have little or no practical benefit. Europe’s political class is well aware that if the European masses have growth, jobs, and investment that they will be far more compliant at election time.

However, Hollande also said of the Eurozone financial crisis (now apparently safely in the past) that Europe had survived, “but at what price? An austerity that has ended up disheartening the people.” This latter statement demonstrates the degree to which Hollande fails to understand What is going on even as the ground shifts beneath his feet. One must understand that when European politicians talk about “austerity” what they really mean is resisting unchecked deficit spending, which would then be justified on Keynesian grounds. (I earlier called this the Europeanese of the financial crisis.) It isn’t “austerity” that has disheartened the people; it is Europe that has disheartened the people, the Europe of the European Union, but this realization is almost impossible for true believers in the European idea.

The tension between the masses in representative democracies and their putative political representatives has become obvious and explicit with this EU election in which “Euroskeptics” have been the most successful candidates. This tension can also be understood by way a very simple thought experiment: If you really had a free choice to elect whomever you liked as your political leader(s), are the political representatives you have now the ones you would choose? I think that any honest answer to this question must be, “No.” And this leaves us with the further question as to how these “leaders” came into power if they are not the choice of the people. The answer is relatively simple: these where the leaders that the political system produced for the consumption of the public. The public isn’t happy with its leaders, and the leaders aren’t happy with the public, but they are stuck with each other.

There is a limit to the extent to which the disconnect between rulers and ruled can grow before a social system becomes unworkable. Early in this blog in Social Consensus in Industrialized Society I suggested that two paradigms for the social organization of industrial society had been tried and found wanting, and that we are today searching for a further paradigm of social consensus to supersede those that have failed us. The mutual alienation between political elites and working masses in the liberal democracies of today is a symptom of the lack of social consensus, but in so far as these classes of society feel stuck with each other we have not yet reached the limits of the disconnect.

However, this mutual alienation tells us something else that is interesting, and this is the continued role of mythological political visions in an age of apparent pragmatism. The alienation that lies at the root of what Eric Voegelin called “gnosticism” in politics is here revealed as the alienation of the leadership of a democratic society from the people they presumptively represent (Hollande said of the EU that it had become, “remote and incomprehensible”) and of the people from its “leadership.”

Gnosticism is a worldview in which secret knowledge is reserved for initiates into the higher mysteries. Here is one of Voegelin’s definitions of gnosis:

“…a purported direct, immediate apprehension or vision of truth without the need for critical reflection; the special quality of a spiritual and cognitive elite.”

Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections, Collected Works Vol. 34, Columbia University, 2006, Glossary of Terms, p. 160

How does the claim to gnosis reveal itself in our pragmatic, bureaucratic age? Gnosis is necessarily distinct for each of the political classes, each of which has created its own political mythology in which it is an unique and indispensable historical actor on an eschatological stage. For mass man, gnosis takes the form of “consciousness raising,” whether being made aware, for the first time, of his status as a worker (proletarian), his race, his ethnicity, or any other property that can be employed to distinguish the elect. Access to official secrets is the special privilege and the secret knowledge of the elite political classes — the elect of the nation-state — so that to compromise these secrets and the privilege of access to them is to call into question the political mythology of the elites.

The creation of universal surveillance states is part of the this development, since the efficient management of mass man is predicated upon knowing the masses better than the mass knows itself — knowing what the mass wants, what will placate its tantrums, how hard it can be pushed, and, then the masses push back, how they can be most effectively distracted, mollified, and redirected. The extreme reaction to the revelation of official secrets as we have seen in the hysterical responses on the part of the elite political classes to Wikileaks and the Snowden leaks are the result of challenging the political mythos of the ruling elite.

In Europe, residual nationalism, ethnocentrism, and communism still resonate with some sectors of the electorate, and all of these can be be the focus of a purported gnosis; it is precisely the fragmented and divided nature of these loyalties that has kept Europe a patchwork of warring nation-states, and which threatens to torpedo the idea of a unified Europe. In the US, the intellectual lives of the workers have evolved in a different direction, which has resulted in an entirely new political mythology born out of a syncretism of conspiracy theories. (Political conspiracy theories also play a significant role in Africa, Arabia, and parts of Asia; perhaps they will yet come to the European masses.) The elite political classes are contemptuous of the conspiracy theories that excite the masses, even when these conspiracy theories verge uncomfortably close to the truth, but they are jealous in the extreme of their own “secret” knowledge obtained through surveillance. Thus we experience what Ed Snowden has called the Merkel Effect, wherein a member of the elite political class is subject to the very surveillance to which they have subjected others, and it is regarded as a scandal. The masses, on the other hand, are often defiant when their conspiracy theories are subject to rational examination, calling into question their own “secret” knowledge of how the world functions.

It is important to note that both the rise of conspiracy theories on the part of the masses and the rise of surveillance on the part of elite classes are parallel developments. Both classes of society are seeking forms of secret knowledge — that is say, this is the perfect illustration of Voegelin’s thesis on the role of gnosticism in contemporary political societies.

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Some past posts in which I have considered Europe, the European Union, and the Eurozone…

The Dubious Benefits of the Eurozone

Will the Eurozone enact a Greek tragedy?

A Return to the Good Old Days

Can collective economic security work?

Poor Cousins

Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone

The Economic Future of Europe

An Alternative to the Euro

The Old World in Turmoil

The Evolution of Europe

The Idea and Destiny of Europe

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Grand Strategy Annex

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