Author Archives: Paul

Apology to Accidental Apology in Previous Post

Two friends have commented on the tanning bed example in my previous post. In light of their good points, I’ll highlight the example’s weaknesses and add some information to clarify.

1. It reads as an apology or justification of tanning bed use. If you know me, you know that I’ve used tanning beds before so it’s easy for it to appear this way. Perhaps you don’t know me but were tempted to assume the same.
2. The argument might have been more clear if I quantified it. Let’s say 10 minutes in a tanning bed delivers the UV ray equivalent of about 30 minutes of real sun. My point is that 40 minutes per week in a tanning bed is probably equal in cancer risk exposure to 2 hours per week in the real sun. However the sunbed user/cancer link makes it seem like tanning beds cause cancer in some special way.
3. I think a lot of people, perhaps most, assume that tanning beds cause cancer in some special way. I think this based on my own personal experience. If people noticed I was sunburnt, they would typically chuckle or make a comment about needing to use sunblock. If I was tan at a weird time, say day 13 in a row of Georgia summer rain, and I explained that I went to a tanning bed, I might get different reactions. Sometimes they would outright chastise me for it, other times they would passively ask “aren’t those really bad for you?” Other times yet they would say “oh,” and I assume at least some of the “oh”s are in place of a comment about the dangers of indoor tanning. I don’t think tanning beds are good for you, but neither is getting baked by real sun.
4. The example could have been even more illustrious if I pointed out that the demographic who uses tanning beds is the demographic most likely to get skin cancer: fair-skinned people.
5. There’s a general weakness in the example because I’m speculating about something that might or might not be true. This makes it confusing because I’m asking readers to imagine a hypothetical situation while delivering a persuasive argument as to why the hypothetical situation might be real.
6. I thought it was a good example because it has all the components I wanted to include: a clear G (indoor tanners), an elusive X (obsessive tanners), an A caused by erratic behavior, and a familiar correlation that’s often assumed to be causality.
7. A better example might have been divorce rate. “50% of marriages end in divorce.” That well-known statistic is based on the marriage rate being twice the divorce rate. The site below (I’m having hyperlink issues) states that the divorce rate is 41% for marriage #1, 60% for marriage #2, and 73% for marriage #3. So while a young couple getting married may be thinking that there’s a 50% chance they’ll divorce their partner, the truth is those odds are lower. The extremist group—people who get divorced 2 to 7 times—are raising the divorce rate data for everyone.

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.divorcelawyersformen.com/blog/divorce-rate-us-2018/amp/

Thanks DT and MK.

Tribalism Sucks

In an earlier post, I outlined what I called the extremist group fallacy. This is a logical fallacy in which group G is observed as having an attribute (or exhibiting a behavior) A, but in actuality A is attributable only to a subgroup of G. That subgroup is X: the extremists.

G is an easily identifiable group, whereas X is elusive. X has or does A so much that it elevates the rate of A for G. Therefore statistics show that G disproportionately has or does A more than the rest of the population P. These statistics may mislead and let observers conclude that being in G causes A (causality fallacy is at play as well). It could be that if we remove X from G, the remainder of the group (G-X) actually has A just as much as P.

Here’s a made-up example: tanning bed users (G) are observed as having higher rates of skin cancer (A) than the rest of the population. This makes us want to conclude that tanning beds cause cancer. In actuality, tanning addicts (X) will naturally seek out tanning beds because the real sun just isn’t enough to satiate their addiction. So they are an extremist subgroup within G who, due to their excessive UV exposure no matter the source, are very likely to get skin cancer. Tanning beds are blamed as causing skin cancer, but the real culprit is extreme and obsessive tanning.

Extremist subgroups and their annoying or erratic behavior cause a lot of problems. They get a lot of attention from the media because of their behavior. They become an unlikable caricature of their group, which foments tribalism. Here are some examples:

When people dislike this group (G): They may actually dislike this behavior or these attributes (A) exhibited by an extremist group (X):

conservatives corporate greed, racism, evangelicalism
liberals militant progressivism, political-correctness, Marxism
Christians corrupt leadership, self-righteous judgmental people
atheists smug elitism, amorality
millennials entitled, naive youth with fragile egos

In these cases, the extremists are a minority within the group—a very loud minority. It’s so easy to overestimate the predominance of X within G.

How do you mitigate this?

I don’t think you can do it by statistically educating people, because people only believe statistics that support their preexisting worldview. There’s one way to help people realize that their caricature of a group is inaccurate: force them to interact with those people.

Accountability as a Social System

Here’s a social hypothesis. A strong feature of hunter-gatherer societies was/is personal accountability; in “modern” society we’ve lost this.

Accountability is a modern term. It refers to the scope of culpability and answerability in regards to actions or property.

So why would hunter-gatherer societies have this? Dunbar’s number is a hypothesis suggesting that humans have a cognitive limit of only being able to maintain about 150 social relationships. It’s believed that pre-agricultural societies were often about this (but also much smaller or larger). Small societies are too close-knit to get away with chronic shirking or cheating. Everyone knows each other so the group members hold each other accountable.

Beyond 150, it becomes hard to keep up with everyone. New methods of maintaining social order and stability are needed, so laws emerge and hierarchies solidify.

Laws aren’t perfect. They attempt to assign accountability en masse. Inevitably they will incriminate some folks who have good (pro-social) intentions and fail to incriminate some folks with bad (antisocial) intentions. I talk about pro-social and antisocial intentions in this post.

Large, “modern” societies are thus fated to lose the personal accountability that once existed in small, preagricultural societies. The perfect social system should seek to maximize personal accountability. Morality is too subjective to accomplish this.

One thing that might increase accountability in our society is information technology and systems. The prospect of being held accountable for all of your actions recorded in information systems may seem uncomfortable. But then again, living in a small society in which everyone knows everything about us is also uncomfortable to us “moderns.” Maybe we’ve gotten too comfortable with our sense of privacy.

Here’s another hypothesis: if people knew they’d only be judged based on their intentions as pro-social or antisocial, they’d be less squeamish about losing privacy. You fear a loss of privacy because 1. you fear your non-antisocial (but nonconforming) behavior might get misinterpreted or 2. you’re actually doing something antisocial/wrong. If we could guarantee that people are judged on intentions, we could all be more comfortable in being held accountable via information systems.

Personal accountability might be the single most important characteristic for a society to have. If every adult is held accountable for his or her actions and property, freedom and fairness come in tow. They are free to reap the rewards of their actions and are held liable for negligence or aggression.

Thank you CD for talking it out and suggesting that kindness (translated as pro-social) is as important for society as accountability.

A Nihilistic Idealist

A friend commented that the ideas summarized in my last two posts were nihilistic. For the record, said friend was not intending to be critical. “Nihilism” often has negative connotations. It’s associated with the idea that life is meaningless and lacks intrinsic value. Some people are turned off by this idea because they feel their continued existence depends on meaning and value. I don’t feel that way so I wondered: am I a nihilist? If so can I continue to be a utopian idealist?

Let’s focus on moral nihilism, which roughly captures the essence of popular nihilism. Moral nihilism is the position that nothing is morally right or morally wrong. Instead, things just “are.” The concepts of “right” and “wrong” in this context are human inventions. Some people hear this position and draw fallacious conclusions. One might be: if there is no such thing as right and wrong, then killing your neighbor ought to be legal.

The fallacy here is that killing your neighbor is antisocial. Functional human societies evolved an understanding that antisocial behaviors (like murder) diminish society, so it’s best to discourage and punish those behaviors. Functional societies also understand that pro-social behaviors (like helping others) boost society, so it’s best to teach and reward those behaviors. Intentions matter too. If you clearly intended to do something pro-social but screwed up, society may cut you some slack. A moral nihilist holds that there is no such thing as right and wrong, but they understand a society’s attempt to remedy antisocial behavior.

So on the question of “is it ok to murder your neighbor,” the answer “no, it’s wrong” is actually telling us “no, society agrees that it’s antisocial.” It may even be telling us “no, for I believe that society ought to agree that it’s antisocial.” The terms right and wrong are problematic because they claim absolute answers to relative questions. They also tend to be “ought” statements disguised as “is” statements. Human genocide would certainly seem “right” to local plant and animal populations that are suffering because of their human neighbors. The word “pro-social” doesn’t swap here. As terms, pro-social and antisocial clarify that orderly human society is what we agree we want. These terms acknowledge our anthropocentrism.

Now the question is exposed: Can a nihilist can still wear the team human hat?

My position is this: a nihilist can hold that human existence lacks inherent meaning or value whilst wanting to maximize human potential and minimize suffering. A nihilist can laugh because “one day we’ll all be dead and none of this shit will matter,” yet still attend town-hall meetings or make prudent investments.

So yes, I think I can be both a nihilist and a utopian idealist. I’ll take it a step further. (1) Ascribing meaning to existence and (2) believing in moral standards probably inhibit one’s ability to contemplate perfect society. Being a little nihilistic clears some of the self-righteous clutter.

Free-Will Part 2

I have three close friends with whom I am occasionally in “debate.” Overall, they feel that the Trump Presidency is unusually and exceedingly bad. By “debate,” I mean I play devil’s advocate and they question my motives and/or get riled up.

One is ravaged by Trump’s incompetence and apparent racism. Another knows that Trump will be brought down any day now because.. Russia. (He’s believed this for a year and a half and even lost a bet with me that it would happen by 12-31-17.) The third sees the administration as the harbinger of 21st century authoritarianism. (To be fair, friend 3 is a hardcore libertarian and pulls the authoritarian alarm a lot.)

I have a kinda sorta newish perspective on free-will, which I explained in this post. I knew this perspective was related to my Trump non-stance with my friends, but I couldn’t put my finger on how or why. My perspective is that there is no free-will. More than you could ever be persuaded to believe, we spend life drifting from one manipulating stimulus to the next. I’m writing this post because I think I understand now why my perspective on free-will is related to my being underwhelmed by the Trump phenomenon (or any other president or mainstream political movement).

Chapter One: My friends don’t care as much as they say they do.

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simpler authored a new book entitled The Elephant in the Brain. Kind of like the proverbial “elephant in the room,” we are scarcely aware of our actual motives (sitting there like a giant elephant), or we pretend they’re not there. For example, we often say we went to college in noble pursuit of knowledge. Our behavior instead says we do it for the superiority and salary potential that comes with having a degree. If we really wanted to pursue only knowledge, wouldn’t it make the most sense to audit preferred classes and not worry about the degree?

Robin Hanson was recently guest to a live podcast on Waking Up with Sam Harris. An audience member asked if this means that people don’t actually care about things like climate change. Hanson responded:

You’re involved in politics not to produce outcomes but instead to show your allies that you are with them. From your personal life you have almost no personal influence on the world. You’re not going to change climate change or the outcomes, but you will change how the people around you think of you, and that matters to you. So your goal primarily is to assure people around you that you’re with them.

This is demonstrably true. Here is a discussion on the finding that behaviors like recycling and conserving energy are about recognition, not helping Earth. Similarly, think about how quickly the term SJW (social justice warrior) became a pejorative. The act of diagnosing and avenging “oppressed people” is presumed disingenuous.

Chapter two: My friends don’t know what they’re talking about and neither do I.

Let’s first talk about “fake news.” Of course, news fakeness is on a spectrum from blatant malicious fiction to well-intentioned happenstance fact selection. Facts themselves can also be framed in such a way as to persuade readers to certain conclusions. In addition to news “fakeness,” news networks and media effectively spoon-feed us the issues they want us to care about. Research supports that our perceived importance of something increases with exposure to that something (Mere Exposure Effect). We believe we are smart and independent thinkers incapable of being manipulated. The proven fallibility of the human brain suggests otherwise (check out my last post if you disagree). Of course, we can easily point out when others have been manipulated or believed “fake news” but regard ourselves as immune.

Scott Adams has a great post about the punditry problem. News networks and media feature pundits to talk about policies and why political figures did what they did. This fills airtime efficiently and brings in better ratings than reporting only what happened. Adams explains that presuming the motives of others is effectively mind-reading, and mind-reading is hallucinating.

Back to Hanson on the podcast: he pointed out that there’s this societal norm that we need to have an opinion on everything. To my delight, he even goes on to suggest something that sounds like intellectual blasphemy: only have an opinion when you’re an expert. He also advises to “try to live your life in a way where you don’t have to rely on things being true.”

Conclusion: Put this all together.

My friends, millions of others, and I are:

-Convincing ourselves that we genuinely care about issues and policies, whereas we’re actually motivated by tribalism and portraying ourselves as dutiful and keen.

-Taking persuasive interpretations of events and hallucinations of motives to be facts or truisms.

-Under the illusion that we choose which issues we care about instead of accepting that the media (in its broadest definition) feeds us issues to care about.

Thought experiment: imagine a utopian society so lovely that your current existence is tantamount to slavery by comparison. The very fact that you can imagine such a society suggests that there is something subjective or relative about how you judge your day to day existence. My day to day existence seems normalish, so I am underwhelmed by the Trump phenomenon for now.

This post will make you question free-will

I’ve read (listened to?) two great books lately that have overturned the way I view the world. They are Win Bigly by Scott Adams and Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini. I’ll summarize what I gained from both books.

People fancy ourselves rational most of the time and “impulsive” sometimes, but about the opposite is true. We are almost never objective, and almost always victims of our own tainted perceptions. Here’s some quick examples to make the point.

1. You can ask people to draw either short or long lines on a piece of paper. Immediately after the exercise, the group who drew long lines will, on average, estimate the length of the Mississippi River to be longer than the group who drew short lines.

2. You can feed people a dish, and if you tell them it was made by a restaurant called “Studio 97,” they will, on average, estimate the cost of the food to be higher than if you told them it was made by “Studio 17.” This is an example of the phenomenon of anchoring: the 2-digit number in the name of the restaurant pulled the perceived value of the dish in its direction. I heard that the role of anchoring in negotiation was examined in Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal.

3. When you ask a group of individuals if they are “dissatisfied with their social life,” the number of people who answer “yes” should be the same as the number of people who answer “no” to “are you satisfied with your social life?” But nope. The question itself primes people to think of the suggested scenario, which temporarily overstates that scenarios prominence in their lives, making some of them more likely to answer “yes” to both scenarios. Even worse, people who answered that yes they are dissatisfied with their social lives are then more likely to agree that they are unhappy. Consider that for a moment: you can momentarily convince some people that they are generally unhappy by asking them questions a certain way.

4. Individuals who just finished playing a violent video game are less likely to help a stranger than those who weren’t playing a game. Individuals who just finished playing a pro-social video game (in which the objective of the game is to say, save a princess) are more likely to help a stranger. So are individuals who just got done playing a video game in which they had to work together with another player. This is an example of the phenomenon of priming: the brains of the video game players were primed either pro-socially or anti-socially, and the effects of the mindset continued after the game.

In addition to anchoring and priming, our brains are also vulnerable to repeated exposure. The more we hear or see something, the more it Trumps everything else in our brains. Whether we view it favorably or not, we start overestimating its importance.

In Win Bigly, Scott Adams identifies two cognitive fallacies that take the cake:

1. Confirmation bias. This is when your brain filters out information that goes against what you believe to be true and remembers everything that confirms what you believe to be true. What you’ve believed to be true all along is validated because your brain overestimates and even over-exaggerates the evidence of it. For example, you believe your coworker is a dimwit, so you mentally note each and every mistake they make but miss their steady stream of successes.

2. Cognitive dissonance. This is when your brain can’t filter out information that goes against what it believes to be true, so instead your brain invents a story that allows the two to co-exist. For example, the above-mentioned coworker receives a promotion, so you start to speculate that they must have some connection with someone high-up or they did something dirty to get ahead.

The problem is that these two are a deadly combo. Once you speculate your coworker cheated the system somehow, confirmation bias will take over. The Sherlock Holmes in you will start noticing all sorts of shit that supports your theory. Because you know you’re smart and you have lots of evidence to support your theory, you assume your theory is fact. When your nefarious coworker tries to help you, your brain again has to do gymnastics to resolve the dissonance.

You may think that these scenarios are rare and that these fallacies don’t apply to you, but they probably do.

At the end of his book, Robert Cialdini tells a story in which he, out of academic curiosity, attended a seminar on a get-rich-quick pyramid scheme. The trip involved a rough, noisy, 2-hour bus ride in which they shouted the benefits of the program and many people signed up. Then they got off the bus and attended the short seminar, where nothing new or interesting was discussed, and got back in the shitty bus to go back. The bus ride was the seminar. The pyramid schemers knew that more attendees would sign up if their ability to think critically was compromised by distractions and a minor yet nonetheless present feeling of danger. Cialdini closes the book by giving a soft admonishment that life in the 21st century is kind of like that shitty bus ride; distractions abound.

Consider the number of situations every minute of every hour of every day that compromise our cognition. Do we really think for ourselves? Do we really make our own decisions? Do we really have our own beliefs? You may be thinking “ok sure, but I know what I think and I know what I believe.” Just remember: never underestimate how cunning your own brain is at deceiving you. Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias are constantly at work.

Epilogue: I recently watched the now famous “Goobacks” episode of South Park. Cartman uses anchoring for negotiation.

Woman: Yes?
Cartman: [sweetly] Hello ma’am. We’re going around town and offering snow-shoveling service. Would you like your driveway and sidewalk shoveled for eight thousand dollars?
Woman: Oh well, I certainly could use some little snow-shovelers, but eight thousand dollars seems a little steep. How about ten dollars?
Cartman: Ooo, ouch, ma’am, please, let go of that tight grip you have on my balls! Ten dollars, you’re breaking my balls, ma’am!
Woman: How about fifteen dollars?
Cartman: It’s a deal! All right, guys, let’s get to work!

(Taken from season 8 episode 6 script)

Bureauplacency

There’s something uncouth about chopping up two words into their etymological roots and mish-mashing them together with the expectation that the new word will somehow mean more than the original words. There’s also something funny and cute about it.

I should know better. I remember when my father taught me that “auto” meant self and that “mobile” meant moving. That made sense to me, so I was irritated when I first noticed the section labeled “auto parts.” Is it the section for self parts? Obviously not. “Automobile” is irreducible. You can’t just use a piece of a word and expect it to mean the same thing.

Yet I committed this crime when I coined proprietism. “Propriet” came from “sole-proprietor.” The root actually means “owner,” which technically makes proprietism a system of owners rather than a system of sole-proprietors. Put that way, it’s not an egregious misnomer.

But maybe there’s more to word mish-mashing than that. “Automobile” is probably the most common noun that starts with “auto.” I doubt the first people to hear “auto parts” thought that the parts were automatic or for automatons. The same could go for proprietism. I *think* sole-proprietor comes to mind quickly enough.

Maybe that’s the case with this new word I made up: bureauplacency. I think “bureaucracy” comes to mind, and so does “complacency.” Have you noticed bureauplacency before? It’s the phenomenon of taking for granted superfluous layers of professional human intervention.

I’ll give an example. My HOA charges $75 per month and has over 300 properties within its domain. There’s no fitness center and no pool. The charge is to cover the landscaping of everyone’s front yard. Don’t get me wrong, my neighborhood is well manicured. My front yard however, which is average or large compared to most front yards in the subdivision, is probably about 200 square feet. I think if that 200 square feet were my sole responsibility, I could make it look good for less than $75 per month.

Let’s say that in two years, I spend $250 manicuring my microyard. I would pay my HOA $1800 in that same time period. So the approximate cost of bureaucracy is about $1550 over two years, or about $65 per month.

You know that feeling you get when you’re watching a movie and you know there must be a plot hole, but you choose to enjoy the movie rather than expending the energy to think about it? I think we do that with bureaucracy. We get a feeling that something should probably cost half as much as it does, but we say “eh screw it.” As long as we’re not getting suckered more than everyone else, we’re complacent. We know the service we’re getting is insured. They are certified and registered with the government. They have owners and lawyers and managers who keep track of little things and yadda yadda yadda. We get bureauplacent.

I get it though. I’m a manager. There’s lots of things an HOA can pull off that the homeowners wouldn’t be able to coordinate amongst themselves. My invention of the term is not to foment uprising against bureaucracy. A little awareness of the phenomenon however, might be good for us.

The Worst Teacher Ever

A niece of mine told me about her “worst” teacher. This teacher developed an economy within the classroom involving a paper currency. Students had to pay rent on their desks and pay to use the restroom or water fountain. They had to earn the money by doing homework and participating in class. I think by “worst,” my niece meant “least fun.” I think she even understood that there was something valuable in that teacher’s method, even if she, as a child, didn’t get it.

I’m not much of a critic of the education system because my knowledge of it is limited to my experience through it. But I have wondered if it could be better. I do think the traditional curriculum are important, but I also think there must be a failure somewhere. I think that based on my own personal experience.

My experience is that most college graduates, including myself, are almost never ready for real life. College graduates often are wary of or totally clueless doing things like interviewing for a job, managing their income, or even renewing their license tag.

I loved my liberal arts education from Presbyterian College. My college’s slogan was “Are you interested in everything?” PC, as we called it, truly did attract students with a huge appetite for academic knowledge. The college delivered on its implicit promise. PC taught me how to think and how to be an active and caring participant of free society.

A former manager of mine, with whom I still work, teases me about how terrible my interview was. I struggled to come up with specific answers to his targeted questions about my work habits. I concealed my nervousness with a relaxed facade, but it was too much so I reeked of apathy. Years later he mused out loud why a college education in business didn’t prepare me for what a company wants to hear in an interview. I love my alma mater so I had to let a pang of defensiveness pass before responding. “I guess they taught us the theory of a company rather than how to get a job at one.”

Beyond liberal arts colleges, I think most educational institutions fall short of arming children with the knowledge and skills to navigate the adult world. So what do we need? I personally think how to eat and exercise are probably the most important things to learn. That could be expanded into why and how your body works. We also need hands on games to teach kids how hard money management is. Most of all, we need teachers like my niece’s worst teacher.

Afterthought: I’ve noticed that college graduates understand the concepts of hard work and good work. I assume this is the skill ingrained by 16 years of homework, studying, and taking tests to get to the next grade level. Many people can at least keep a job with that skill, but they may be confused why their good work didn’t automatically graduate them to “the next level.” That’s because advancing professionally requires more than just good work. Advancing at a company means navigating personalities, being collaborative, and developing a 6th sense for creating value.

The Immortal American Spirit

Americans. What is it about us that makes us so anti-establishment and distrusting of elites? So “I’m going to do it my way?” Is it the constitution? Is it our first two amendments? Kurt Andersen has a theory.

In a recent podcast, Andersen spoke with Sam Harris about what makes America so unique in this regard. From the first colonists onward, America attracted a certain type. It drew people seeking the gold of El Dorado, or the Garden of Eden, or a place to pursue their religion, or an economic utopia. In short, America attracted people susceptible to advertising and willing to risk death in order to pursue their fantasies. The title of Andersen’s book is Fantasyland.

Selection pressure put it right into our DNA: the entitlement to interpret reality one’s own way. After generations, it’s evolved into entire ideologies. Today we have four major American ideologies oriented around a subjective interpretation of reality. For the sake of completeness and crystallizing the concept, I will mention them here. They are:

1. The conspiracy right (wary of a secret world government)

2. The conspiracy left (wary of hegemonic global corporations)

3. The evangelical right (wary of the antichrist and Satan’s work)

4. The post-modernist left (wary of categories like ethnicity, gender, and religion as tools of oppression)

But it’s not all dark. There is an upside to an entire nation feeling entitled to their own personal interpretations of reality! We Americans have a knack for self-reliance and self-invention, which makes us the most entrepreneurial people in the world. In business school we learned about how American tax laws are oriented towards the entrepreneur. It’s also easy to hire and fire people here. New companies are arguably the largest driving force in our economy.

This is why proprietism fits so well within American culture. Proprietism is the entire economy as sole-proprietorships, blurring the lines between worker and business owner. A proprietor has more freedom than an employee, but still needs sufficient rapport and acumen to stay in business. Proprietism is the perfect middle-ground (or high-ground?) between a capitalist and a socialist society. It keeps the free-market and meritocracy asupects of capitalism, without the concern of society being torn asunder into bourgeoisie and proletariat. The free-market is obviously essential to American society, and meritocracy is extremely important to Americans.

But there clearly must be limits to how unequal a society can be. Sam Harris illustrates this point by asking whether it would be beneficial for anyone to live in a society where a small group of trillionaires live in utopian fortresses while the rest of us toil about and fight for survival outside. Proprietism also “egalitarianizes” society by decentralizing ownership in a balanced way. Contrast that to a socialist society which promises to indiscriminately redistribute income and wealth from those who don’t need it to those who need it. Who decides who needs money and who doesn’t? Politicians.

Proprietism may not be the perfect system for all cultures, but it is deeply compatible with ours. It’s the ultimate manifestation of our “frontier spirit” inherent within American Exceptionalism.

Ideological Tectonics

The ideological repertoire represented by American Democrats and American Republicans is in constant flux; a “democrat” in 1960 could have vastly different political views than today’s democrat. I think it’s likely that we’re on the cusp of a major political shift, but it’s not clear exactly how it’s going to play out. I see two possibilities.

The first is that libertarianism rises from the “center” and steals voters from each side. I believe there’s already enough closet libertarians out there to outnumber hardline democrats and republicans, but the libertarian party lacks the internal cohesion and the momentum required to breakthrough as a formidable alternative. Gaining that solidarity and numbers would require no less than a highly proficient and charismatic leader to be the “one.”

The second possibility is that both parties will fracture and we’ll either have a four-party system or they will reconglomerate as two new major parties, which may or may not carry along the nomenclature of “democrat” and “republican.”

As of now, the right has been fracturing into establishment republicans (also known, ironically now, as neoconservatives), and the alt-right.

Neoconservativism is a kind of evolved liberalism; they were originally called “liberals mugged by reality.” They believe in free market and civil rights, but they stick out for strongly self-identifying as Christians and patriots, both of which have an impact on their ideology.

The alt-right was born of Internet-age nihilism; they see civilization as a grand and perpetual culture war, and seek refuge in the trenches dug by American paleoconservatives. They believe in one human right above all others: free speech.

Less widely understood is that the left is facing an internal bifurcation as well, and interestingly, free speech plays a role in this one too. The split has to do with the belief held by some leftists that freedom of speech, press, and expression should not be granted to those whose speech can be interpreted as oppressive. The leftists who oppose this asterisk to free-speech like Sargon of Akkad and Mark Lilla are contrasting/distancing themselves from the proponents by calling themselves “liberals” instead of “progressives.”

Psychologist/philosopher Jordan Peterson sees progressives as followers of postmodernism, broad philosophy that (quoting the Wikipedia article) “asserts to varying degrees that claims to knowledge and truth are products of social, historical or political discourses or interpretations, and are therefore contextual or socially constructed.” In other words, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and religion are all social constructs, and an individual who speaks about the social construct of which they are a majority member is acting oppressively, because he or she is perpetuating his or her dominance in those categories by speaking about it.

To me it seems that the alt-right and progressives would be unlikely to ever form an alliance, because the alt-right is, in a lot of ways, a defensive reaction to identity politics of progressivism. Liberals and the alt-right have a little more in common, given that they hold the first amendment in high regard, but there would be a lot more issues they would have to reconcile before cooperating. The same essentially goes for a liberal-neocon super-party of moderates; the two would have to agree on a number of social issues like gay marriage, legalization of marijuana, and immigration, but they might more easily come to a consensus on regulation and globalization. I therefore maintain that the most likely shift in the American political landscape would be the rise of a libertarian-minded third party.