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IEET > Security > Eco-gov > Rights > Neuroethics > Economic > Vision > Psychology > Sociology > Fellows > David Brin

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Political Delusions - Do we just rationalize our emotional decisions?


David Brin
By David Brin
Contrary Brin

Posted: Mar 25, 2016

I’ve long maintained that humanity’s greatest gift and greatest curse are one and the same - our prodigious talent for delusion.  For believing things - passionately - that are belied by both logic and evidence. This is the wellspring of great art. Indeed, as a novelist* I cater to the desire of my own customers to - temporarily and knowingly - believe they are experiencing other realities and the thoughts of credible characters, engaged in barely plausible adventures.

This gift is what we study at UCSD’s Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination.

Alas, the same gift has brought us endless pain. Across time nearly every human culture was dominated by narrow castes of men who ruled according to fiercely-protected delusional systems, crushing voices that might speak up with criticism, or alternatives, or inconvenient truths. Those mostly-feudal societies were very badly governed. All of them combined never accomplished the tiniest fraction of what we have, in just a few generations. We who finally found a (tentative and contingent) way out of the Delusional Trap. 

Gradually, we developed enlightenment methods to reduce the severity of delusion, not by changing human nature but through the simple but daring method of competition. You may not be able to see through your own beloved errors, but your rivals often will! Indeed, they’ll willingly (if irksomely) point those errors out to you. And you’ll return the favor! This is the magic of our five competitive “arenas”: markets, democracy, science, courts and sports. 

Alas, cheaters will always try to ruin these arenas and take us back to olden ways. And so I present to you some of the modern hallucinations that are shared by our fellow citizens.  

Make no mistake, your deluded neighbors are not your foes! The real enemy that threatens your nation, world, species and children is the all-too human drive to clutch (desperately) to reassuring mirages.

Delusion #1 – that authoritarians are your friends.

One of the top cognitive scientists in the world, George Lakoff, scrutinizes the appeal of Donald Trump, showing how finely tuned his positions are, to the “strict father” foundations of American conservatism.  

Consistent with Lakoff’s assertion is this other research suggesting that the #1 predictive trait deciding whether you or your neighbor support Donald Trump is Americans’ inclination to authoritarianism.  People who score high on the authoritarian scale value conformity and order, protect social norms, and are wary of outsiders. When authoritarians feel threatened, they support aggressive leaders and policies. Authoritarianism and a hybrid variable that links authoritarianism with a personal fear of terrorism were the only two variables that predicted, with statistical significance, support for Trump.  

(How ironic that “red” Americans in the volcanically re-ignited Confederacy) proclaim quivering fear of terrorists, when a majority live in rural or suburban zones that are utterly-utterly safe.  While “blue” Americans (the Union) largely dwell in cities that are great big terror-targets. Yet, New Yorkers famously stood atop the 9/11 rubble, faced east and shouted: “Iz dat all you got?”)

Sure, this much seems obvious. Though I find it hard to believe that Cruz and Rubio supporters are one scintilla less authoritarian than Trump-lovers. And mind you, in my experience, yearning for authority also separates the generally non-authoritarian liberals in America vs. the much smaller but significant clade of actual leftists. The latter share with the right more traits than…

But that’s a separate discussion. For after we deal with the immediate crisis at-hand.

== The Trillies (Alas!) Aren’t Smart ==

Delusion #2: Because you are rich, you think that means you’re smart.

Yes, even if your wealth was inherited, that just tempts you to insist that IQ is genetic! This is the rationalization embraced by all feudal oligarchies, across time. So, so convenient and self-serving… and human. And so, so disproved by the blatant historical record of 6000 years, across which insipidly stupid governance was the norm. Indeed only when those flat-fair competitive arenas finally were set up, did that dismal record start to shift, and human civilization really begin to take off.

So, is it that simple?  Oligarchy = dumb and enlightenment arenas = smart?  Well, first, those arenas (markets, democracy, science etc) take real effort to maintain. Left unattended, they’ll soon get warped by cheaters… as is happening right now.  It is our job to do another fine-tuning… the kind of gentle, moderate “revolution” last achieved by our parents in the Greatest Generation, led by their beloved hero, the living human they adored above all others, Franklin Roosevelt.

But what if we fail? The way those brief, enlightenment experiments of Periclean Athens and Republican Florence were snuffed out? If we are doomed to go back to oligarchy, is it too much to ask that our new lords at least try to find ways to govern better? To rule with less self-serving delusion?

In Existence I portray an event taking place in the year 2040, high in the Alps – a meeting of the “trillionaire clans,” at which the top planetary aristocrats (and their hired boffins) ask: can we do feudalism better, this time?

It’s a vital question that I never have seen asked, by the forces which are now striving so hard to re-establish the normal human pattern – oligarchy. The facts are blatant, and yet I have to repeat-reiterate them here, for utter clarity.

 The fundamental truths about feudalism are:

(1) that it dominated 99% of human societies and thus seems inherently hard to avoid.

(2) Almost all of those owner-oligarchies governed very badly, bringing progress, science, justice, creativity and adaptability to a near standstill.

(3) The last 200 years offered up an alternative – open/competitive/cooperative/flat-fair enlightenment systems e.g. science, markets, democracy – that has achieved many orders of magnitude more than all feudal societies, combined.

(4) If the Enlightenment Experiment is doomed (as the oligarchy’s boffins keep telling us), then shouldn’t the New Lords be earnestly exploring how to do feudalism much better than before? Is there any hope of getting Medicis and Tangs and Plantagenets - who at least tried - instead of the more typical, stunningly delusional Bourbons, Hapsburgs, Murdochs, Kochs, Hohenzollerns and Romanovs?

Alas, that doesn’t seem likely. There are no such meetings. (I’d have ways of knowing.) Only unsapient reflex-gatherings to scheme short term power grabs and rent-seeking. And those gatherings must seem desperate, right now, as the steed they had been riding—confederate culture warriors—has broken loose from their control.  Like the dismayed Junkers lords of Germany in 1933, they are blinking in dull surprise that the beast they cynically whipped into hydrophobic froth has been skillfully yanked away from them by a savanarola-hypnotist.

I could have told them. I tried to. Others have tried. For example, former Treasury Secretary Robert Reich makes this clear in his most cogent missive yet, suggesting to the GOP-owner caste that they have made a series of devastatingly short-sighted and foolish mistakes.  

What Reich leaves out is mention of one portion of the billionaire clade... maybe a quarter of them - who actually got rich by developing great new products and services. In other words the real entrepreneurial capitalists. Almost all of whom are now… democrats. (With a few libertarians.) They already know what Reich wrote here. Given the stunning disparity in outcomes across democratic vs republican administrations, no sapient person who actually believes in competitive enterprise and Adam Smith would touch the GOP with a ten parsec light saber. (Oh, Reich has endorsed Bernie Sanders. Interesting “establishment” figure.)

As Machiavelli wrote, when he surrendered the dream of the Florentine Republic to work for the Medicis…. If we must be ruled by domineering lords, may they at least be smart ones?

Apparently, there’s not much chance of that..


David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."
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