Religious Objects of Exasperation

There are a few topics in American politics which touch off firestorms, even while topics of similar importance and complexity can be discussed with some level of calm and distance. There are probably topics of similar difficulty in other countries, but I will stick to what I know personally here.

These topics are well known to most Americans, simply because of all the shouting. I think there’s a reason for all this shouting, and it’s because of conflict between objective reality and dogmatic belief by one side or the other, and the other side’s exasperation with the nonsensical dogma.

The way this usually comes about is that at time n a policy or opposition to a policy enters the consciousness of a political faction for perfectly good reasons, and it comes a defining characteristic of that faction. “We are A, and therefore we believe X.” At the time this defining characteristic is taken up, it’s not even a bad idea – or at least, the jury on whether it’s good or bad is still out.

Over time though the facts on the ground change. New evidence comes in, or the underlying social reasons for the policy go away, etc. The belief however doesn’t change, because of how it’s tied to the identify of the faction. “We are still A, and will remain A, and therefor we cannot stop believing X.”

Now I want to emphasize that this is not even irrational. The psychological identification with causes or beliefs is a part of human nature, and I think it’s useful. Forming groups of belief in greater goods is what allows society to happen at all. If we couldn’t join religions or feel patriotic towards a nation, we would be stuck with the bloodline-clans of hunter-gatherers as the most sophisticated form of government. Agriculture and markets would be impossible, let alone science and culture.

This psychological trick works pretty well when the self is identified with timeless goods, like love, or very abstract and flexible institutions, like the British Monarchy. The trick gets stupid though when it identifies with specific policy ideas (or policy oppositions) which may be proven wrong at at least sub-optimal within a decade or so.

Unfortunately though, our political parties have gotten in the habit of writing really detailed policy platforms during election season, and some number of these policies end up getting tied to their identify. Inevitably some of these ideas prove to be wrong (humans, amirite?), the faction refuses to admit it, the other faction eventually gets fed up with their stupidity over the point, and the firestorms I mentioned before get kicked off on a regular basis.

On the American Right the two most obvious examples of this stupidity are opposition to reasonable climate change regulations, and creationism. The science for evolution being a real thing is overwhelming. The science for global climate change isn’t as well supported as evolution, but it’s good enough we should be talking about reasonable precautions. Even if the risk of catastrophe is only 25%, a 25% chance of total social collapse is worth spending money on to avoid! We can dicker over the details of what to do about it, but total opposition just isn’t reasonable at this point.

As for the Left, I could make a list of these dogmas, but the impetus for this post was the City of Los Angeles passing a bill to bring the minimum wage up to $15 over the next five years. This is … dumb. The economic case against the minimum wage is at least as strong as the one for AGW, in my opinion. Yes, helping the poor eat and having a roof over their head is great – but why choose the minimum wage as a policy level? It’s not even in the Top 20 of ideas to help the poor, due to its numerous downsides (which are both theoretically sound and empirically observed). Of course the answer is because “supporting a minimum wage” has become an identify issue for the Left, and they won’t hear anything against it.

What’s to be done about the above? Well, my advice to the Right is to offer real bargains for getting rid of the minimum wage. Trade to get rid of it, by offering real welfare policies that are well funded in exchange. You’ll never convince the Left to let the poor fend entirely for themselves (nor should you; where’s your empathy?), but you can probably find a few willing to try superior methods. You don’t have to convince the entire Left to go with it – just enough of them to reach 51%.

But my advice to everyone (left, right, libertarian, green, or bacon) is this: don’t identify who you are with any policy, belief, or cause that’s less than 500 years old. You can’t avoid being a member of a community of belief, and you don’t want to avoid this either (society is good, mm’kay), but unless you eventually want to find yourself on the wrong and stupid side of an argument, carefully choose the timeless values you identify with. You’ll find friends in every corner of the world and every political faction, and when new facts come to light you’ll be able to integrate them well as they don’t threaten your identity.

Society itself will benefit from this advise too – since we can more quickly adopt the well-supported policies, and also stop yelling at each other over stupid and inane crap. I hope you’ll do your part to make this rational and polite future come to pass.

3 thoughts on “Religious Objects of Exasperation

  1. acarter

    Your use of the word religion here seems appropriate. People like using the same ideas because of what they believe to be an immutable truth.

    A somewhat related factor to consider is that the level of the political debate in the U.S.(and likely many other countries) is not particularly sophisticated. This is a trait that it shares with everyday religion. Both politics and religion can lead to deep, nuanced, meaningful and satisfactory discussions, but that’s not normal. Normal people like things to be simple, and to confirm their pre-existing beliefs. Life is already complicated enough without discussing counter-intuitive yet effective ways to combat poverty. This lack of ability to engage a topic effectively is actually how the Republicans are losing the demographic battle. Abortion and immigration are both very complicated, but the ham-fisted, stubborn approach of the party to these issues will end up costing them more than it gains them. Thanks for writing.

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