Raging Against Each Other’s Machines
“There’s never been a true war that wasn’t fought between two sets of people who were certain they were in the right. The really dangerous people believe they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do. And that is what makes them dangerous.” — Neil Gaiman, American Gods
The longer I listen to people talk about political issues, the more obvious it appears to me that politics has an ideology problem. In the inimitable words of our Benevolent Robot Overlord, “politics is the mind killer”. Daniel Kahneman has demonstrated that our rationality is impaired, with logical deliberation often taking the back seat to emotion. We use emotive reasoning and simple heuristics as our primary modus operandi in punching through the complexity of the real world. Jonathan Haidt finds that intuitions frame our fundamental moral evaluations and understanding of the way the world ought to be, and are therefore the cognitive source for our basic political alignments. The combination of bounded rationality and intuitive reasoning creates a cocktail of moralistic, emotive thinking that limits our intellectual scope and creates social division.
Our feelings group-select us into tribes that share similar moral foundations, building identity (“I’m a conservative, and I stand for x”) but leaving us close minded to people who don’t speak our moral language. The resulting process from working from ideals makes us conceive of what is always a messy exercise in figuring out how to live with one another and coordinate social life, into a contest for dominance over institutions and encourages divisiveness. Politics breeds both abstract moralism and tribal thinking, encouraging groupish vindictiveness.
Thus, we get the common stories found in abundance all over social media. Our comrades on the political left imagine “The Right” as composed of corporate shills, religious bigots, and warmongers who hate racial and sexual minorities, the poor, and the environment, and want the world dominated by greedy businessmen, religious fanatics and militaristic imperialism. Conversely many right-wing (com)patriots will castigate “The Left” as a bunch of communist hippies who are soft on criminals, terrorists and dictators, want to instigate economic policy a la the Soviet Union, and support damaging deviant social behavior alongside multicultural relativism that undermines fundamental traditional conventions and sanctity in a radical effort to end civilization. That contrarian army of individualists, the libertarians, attack both left and right as little more than fascistic, totalitarian apologists for the coercive boot heels of the near-criminal state-industrial complex: everyone is culpable, from drug wars to drone strikes. By contrast, left & right frame libertarians as selfish greed-preachers who don’t care about the good of society. Lefties think that they are heartless corporate apologists that happen to like the gays, while right wingers portray them as pot smoking, prostitute frequenting anarcho-crazies that have good ideas about tax reform.
It’s a basic part of the system. Public goods are by definition an all encompassing form of service provision, with a one-size-fits-all result. Winning a seat in political life is zero-sum: if your guy wins, mine loses. The production of policy is produced and influenced by the messy aggregation of votes that function more strongly as reaffirmations of personal identity than they do the sober analysis of social science. Voters are incentivized towards increasing their irrationality as a systemic feature. If we compare the kind of low information, motivated reasoning engaged in by most voters, with the sort of meta-cognitive capacity that would be required for choosing good policy outcomes, we are inclined to the conclusion that democracy is a farce to the extent that the goal of the system is to achieve beneficial outcomes via popular consensus.
As a social equilibrium, we are encouraged to engage in the kind of signalling that prizes maintaining group affiliation and values affirmation over deliberative thought. In other words, politics isn’t about policy. A significant amount of social activism isn’t about caring, but about showing that you care. Representationalism rules. “We” stand for all the good things. Rather than acting in ways that really affect systemic incentives and create positive change, people tend to engage in “folk activism”, transmitting values to reaffirm our group identity, and playing games of status to put themselves higher in the hierarchy of value. These activities feed the furnace of ideology, and frequently result in damaging initiatives. If we think about activism as a market, the demand for beneficial activism is far lower than activism that is bought by people interested in tribalism and mood affiliation, which leads to an automatic growth in supply for tribalist activism, and so on.
Dr. Nonideal Theory: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tradeoffs
”A lady said, “What’s your solution?” I said, “There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.” She said, “The people demand solutions!” –Thomas Sowell
How might we confront this problem? There appear to be two potential avenues. The first is institutional. By breaking down politics into smaller, more diverse, less coercive units, we can make fewer things items of social conflict. Public policy becomes a little less zero sum. Institutional choice and localizing alternatives realigns some of the system away from the problems that plague centralized institutions. Option two is intellectual. Since I tend to identify as a libertarianish type, there is a great temptation to simply say that getting politics out of things will solve all of the problems. Intellectual honesty commands me to recognize that this is a consistent issue in thinking about all social organization, not easily solvable even if the whole world became followers of Robert Nozick. So the question becomes individualized: how can we weigh off our different mental investments? In contrast with the absolutism I’ve been describing, this is about ‘trying on concepts for size’, not about declaring x to be superior to y. However, given the systemic nature of the problem, radical change appears to be required.
A plausible solution is to reconfigure ideology towards framing the world through the lenses of our utopia, rather than forcing it to conform to the stuff in our heads. Given how complicated the world is, forcing absolute conformity to our ideals is usually a terrible idea. Don’t immanentize that freaking eschaton, and avoid at all costs the thickets of the nirvana jungle. Should we wander in, be ever wary of the Beast of Perfection. If we want to achieve some measure of success, compromise is key, and a significantly consequentialist attitude is king.
Consider the debate over the minimum wage. An ideologically pure version of this discussion would be, on the socialist left, that pro-market right wingers are stooges for business who don’t care about the exploited wages of the poor, and that We Lefties Stand For Rights of Labour Against Capital. From the free market right, that the left is ignoring the economics of price controls, and furthermore Hates Freedom, because they are ignoring the right to free contracting between sovereign adults.
Suppose that instead, we built the conversation in terms of moral tradeoffs. The discussion could look something like this: Social democrats and many liberal egalitarians would say that it is morally concerning and unfair to workers to be compensated at low levels, and so the state should artificially raise the wage of the bottom quartile of the income distribution to compensate for potential employer exploitation (markets could be monopsonistic, such that a significant percentage of workers are being paid below their true marginal product). They would also claim that it is a positive expansion of freedom for those who can earn the new wage, since people with more money have greater purchasing power. They would concede that this will lessen open contracting capacity (since it restricts the mix of benefits vs. wages), as well as create unemployment (because of the law of demand) but would prefer the tradeoff of a slightly higher wage for a certain aggregate of workers in situations with potentially disproportionate levels of bargaining power between labour & capital.
Libertarians and many conservatives would say that contracts ought to be freely negotiated, and that it is a form of unfair treatment and a restriction of liberty to declare the terms and tradeoffs of negotiable agreement (mix of benefits, wages, and/or taking employment) especially for the least well of members of society. They would emphasize that the minimum wage creates unemployment for people with a marginal product below the level at which the wage is set, restricting their freedom to contract and treating that section of the workforce unfairly, cutting down on their positive freedom and purchasing power. They would concede that lowering or getting rid of the minimum wage makes wages and hiring entirely dependent on competitive pressures ensuring that people are valued according to marginal product, but prefer that more workers have a fair chance at employment, as well as the freedom to bargain for a wider mix of wages and benefits.
Note that both sides are using similar but slightly different kinds of moral reasoning. They both think that moral respect for individuals requires that institutions be arranged in such a way as to make sure that people are treated correctly. Right wingers are appealing to ideas about freedom of choice to bargain for and contract employment, and fairness in being able to do so on an equal basis. Left wingers are appealing to ideas about fairness to be guaranteed certain wages, and freedom of choice in expanding the purchasing power of certain workers. None of these are entirely mutually exclusive, but they do involve an emphasis of one over the other.
Free market types want people to be free and equal, but would prefer we do so by building the structure of social organization so that workers themselves are the primary agents of their own well being and choices, and would rather arrange the interaction of private institutions to ensure that that autonomy and fair treatment will be maintained. A simple version of their value ranking would be: 1] Freedom; 2] Equality. Socialist types have a similar mix, but are more concerned about the possibilities of exploitation, and distrust absolute respect for free choice and fair treatment absent interference from above by state mechanisms. A simple version of their ranking would be: 1] Equality; 2] Freedom.
Notice that this isn’t just a classification of the banners under which we ride our noble steeds for Justice, our hair streaming in the wind whilst we thrust the lances of Truth. What the right is saying is that they opt for a distinct set of moral tradeoffs. They would prefer that private actors have higher degrees of control over their domain, with the imperfections that come from ensuring compensation only from competitive pressures, in order to allow actors to make more individual choices about their dealings with one another, and prevent what they view as an unfair form of paternalistic management that raises costs and restricts contracts. The left would prefer that we attempt to guarantee an absolute level of market wages for a certain aggregate of workers, because they would rather ensure an absolute footing of bargaining power for at least a certain percentage of people, and be guaranteed that specific benefits are assured for those workers.
As David Schmidtz points out, although justice is about giving people what they are due, what that involves is both contextually bounded and in correspondence with a number of different moral conceptions, such as desert, equality, or need. These intuitions track unevenly onto real world institutions, and may combine together in complicated ways. This means that moral theories are more like maps of a neighbourhood, and less like airtight syllogisms of logic. Respect for people (or nonhuman animals) as being morally important means that the systems people work within are required to deal with a number of different moral issues that carry different amounts of weight in the calculus about what sort of policy we ought to favour. Serious political theory is required to taking certain rankings of values, build specific ones as primary, and mold them into a (relatively) optimum institutional set. If anything is problematic about the common kinds of political debates we seem to have, I think it is that they deny the inherent trade offs taking place, and the difficulty of imposing simple heuristics and intuitions onto a world which is far more complex than those processes will allow for.
“Ideology is a virus.” ― Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
”There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” –David Foster Wallace, This Is Water
A shift in attitudes is required. Rather than having arguments on the basis of one overarching intuition, the social equilibrium would change towards building and signalling a multi-intuitional mix, and making the ranking of intuitions a high status activity.
On micro level, we need a little more postmodernism in the mix. By this, I’m not suggesting walking around with a black beret (kick-ass as that sounds) and a worn copy of one of the most incomprehensible books ever, declaring social constructs all over the place. I mean that relativizing positions and being more skeptical about simple, one-directional narratives is ultimately the only way to start edging, like primeval amoeba, towards the evolutionary apex that is the multicelled organism of critical thinking and epistemic humility. Discovery processes and emergent systems can allow us to more easily figure out what is valuable through evolutionary processes of competitive experimentation in ideas. This might lead us to better understanding of the different items of value found in different political perspectives. Intuitions are useful, but limited. Evolution distributes a randomized and complex mix of emotional leanings and neural-cognitive filters across the population, with different feelings as pieces of the ongoing puzzle we call the achievement of justice.
Stylistically, this requires realigning social identity towards a state of fluidity. It entails a shift in the use of ideology from dogma to conceptual framework. Ultimately, more of what we want can be accomplished by adopting some form of consequentialist ethics, in which the goal of the system is built around maximizing specific goods, directed and bound by rules. The tradeoff game mandates compromising on the terrain of the world, and applying things appropriately.
In the words of the Great Literary Bandana God himself, this is water. Ideology is a byproduct of our attempt to interpret and analyze reality using the evolved cognitive tools with which we are equipped. We can’t think completely without it, but we can recognize that this is the baseline that we work from. Given this recognition, a positive role for ideology might be understood as a set of framing mechanisms– the water requires a submersible for navigation through the murkiness of the deep. Any kind of thinking about social organization requires making some kind of model of ranked moral priorities, about which parties can reasonably differ. The obvious inherent difficulty is that maintaining this version of belief, as opposed to a set of axiomatic propositions approaching near-religious dogma, goes against the grain of our instincts towards over moralizing.
We want to say that our top ranking explains the whole picture, when in reality, it’s just a weighted first variable in our moral calculator. We need to do a better job at not only listening to the other side of an argument and grokking that point of view, but also at understanding the complex relationships between conceiving of ‘’The Good’’ and thinking through seriously the way things pan out in the world, regardless of where you end up on the political spectrum. The axiom here is: prize ideas, before ideology. As an informal social equilibrium (excluding the possibility of a grand mass revelation of The True Nature of Reality) we should be shifting towards making values ranking a high status activity in a world where complexity reigns and we continue to fumble around, trying to figure out what it all means.