Monopolize the Pretty Lies

Why do dictators deny people the right to speak freely?  The obvious response is, “The truth hurts.”  Dictators are bad, so if people can freely speak the truth, they will say bad things about the dictator.  This simultaneously wounds dictators’ pride and threatens their power, so dictators declare war on the truth.

But is this story right?  Consider: If you want to bring an incumbent dictator down, do you really want to be hamstrung by the truth?  It’s far easier – and more crowd-pleasing – to respond to a pack of official lies with your own pack of lies.  When the dictator claims, “I’ve made this the greatest country on earth,” you could modestly respond, “Face facts: we’re only 87th.”  Yet if it’s power you seek, you might as well lie back, “The dictator has destroyed our country – but this will be the greatest country on earth if we gain power.” Even more obviously, if the current dictator claims the sanction of God, the opposition doesn’t want to shrug, “Highly improbable.  How do you even know God exists?”  Instead, the opposition wants to roar, “No, God is on our side.  Our side!”

What then is the primary purpose of censorship?  It’s not to suppress the truth – which has little mass appeal anyway.  The primary purpose of censorship is to monopolize the pretty lies.  Only the powers-that-be can freely make absurdly self-aggrandizing claims.  Depending on the severity of the despotism, you may not have to echo the official lies.  But if you publicly defend alternative absurdly self-aggrandizing claims, the powers-that-be will crush you.

Why, though, do dictators so eagerly seek to monopolize the pretty lies?  In order to take full advantage of their subjects’ Social Desirability Bias.  Human beings like to say – and think – whatever superficially sounds good.  Strict censorship allows rulers to exploit this deep mental flaw.  If no one else can make absurd lies, a trite slogan like, “Let’s unite to fight for a fantastic future!” carries great force.  Truthful critics would have to make crowd-displeasing objections like, “Maybe competition will bring us a brighter future than unity,” “Who exactly are we fighting?,” or “Precisely how fantastic of a future are we talking about?”  A rather flaccid bid for power!  Existing rulers tremble far more when rebels bellow, “Join us to fight for a fantastic future!”

George Orwell has been a huge influence on me.  When you read his political novels, you often get the feeling that dictators fear the truth above all.  If only Winston Smith could take over the Ministry of Truth and tell all Oceania that it needlessly lives in poverty and fear.  In the broad scheme of things, however, unvarnished truth is only a minor threat to tyranny.  After all, rulers could respond to ironclad fact with a pile of demagoguery: “Smith is slandering our great country!”  “He’s a willing tool of Eurasia!”  Or even, “We’re not rich because the greatest country in the world is too proud to sell itself.”  The real threat to the regime would be a rival set of demagogues offering Utopia after a brief bloodbath sends a few wicked, treasonous leaders straight to the hell that they so richly deserve.

Doesn’t this imply that free speech is overrated?  Yes; I’ve said so before.  While I’d like to believe that free speech leads naturally to the triumph of truth, I see little sign of this.  Instead, politics looks to me like a Great Liars’ War.  Viable politicians defy literal truth in virtually every sentence.  They defy it with hyperbole.  They defy it with overconfidence.  They defy it with wishful thinking.  Dictators try to make One Big Political Lie mandatory.  Free speech lets a Thousand Political Lies Bloom.

Yes, freedom of speech lets me make these dour observations without fear.  I’m grateful for that.  Yet outside my Bubble, dour observations fall on deaf ears.  Psychologically normal humans crave pretty lies, so the Great Liars’ War never ends.

Open This Content

Experimental Anarchy

All science is anarchic.

Science follows rules, but not rulers. If there is a ruler controlling it, dictating what the results must be, it’s not science.

Those who want you to think of anarchy as chaos and “everyone doing what they feel like” are denying reality.

Actually, they are lying. It might not be their fault; they have probably been lied to and didn’t question what they were told. But it’s still a lie. And they are perpetuating the lie instead of questioning the assertion and putting it to the test.

Open This Content

You Can Fight City Hall, but You’ll Almost Certainly Lose

One of the chief reasons why almost every regime in the world has converged to a system of participatory fascism is that this system creates or retains a great variety of institutionalized opportunities for the state’s victims—who compose the great majority of the people—to challenge the state’s exactions and to “make their voices heard,” thereby gaining the impression that the rulers are not simply oppressing and exploiting them unilaterally but involving them in an essential way in the making and enforcement of rules.

These opportunities help to allay public resentment and anger, assuring people that they have had “their day in court,” and thereby serve to prop up the regime and its ongoing exploitation. These official avenues of protest and resistance are, however, rarely of any real avail. The oppressed citizens and other residents are protesting the actions of legislatures, government executives, bureaucracies, and courts run by the very people who are engaged in the oppression and plunder. The opportunities for voicing feedback are, in effect, ways in which people are allowed to request that the slave master stop beating them or reduce the severity of the beating. Rarely do the petitioners win, and even when they do, the costs of making their appeals, especially through the legal system, guarantee that they will be impoverished in the process.

Heads you lose, tails you lose. I promise you that in making the foregoing statements, I am speaking not only from my scholarly engagement with the matter but also from my personal experience, some of which grinds on seemingly endlessly even as I tap out this cri de coeur.

Open This Content

We’re Undecided Now, So What’re We Gonna Do?

Nobody asked but …

Reading, er listening to another audio book as written by James Bamford, Body of Secrets (subtitle: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency, from the Cold War through the Dawn of a New Century).  This is a belated follow-through on a published citation from Radley Balko.  I recommend the book highly both for the content on the stated subject, but more importantly for me, the implications about the basic nature of the state and its bureaucracy.  Sometimes Bamford supplies a heavy load of detail, but I honestly could not omit any of them.

This is a paraphrasing of Bamford’s account of the NSA during Nixon’s years — Nixon issued a directive approving of the most aggressive delineation of the USA’s meddling powers.  Some such as the NSA were delighted because it reinforced what they were already doing, while others such as the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover were outraged because it revealed what they were already doing.  Five days later AG Mitchell talked Nixon into rescinding the directive as problematic under the Constitution.  Most in the cloak and dagger community were unaware of either directive.  Why?  Bureaucrats and their bureaus are born out of the spoils system, not out of concepts of good governance.  The ideation of any plan is to serve a special interest, to intervene where we have previously chosen, through logic or care or neglect, NOT to intervene.  Write it down!

The concern arises that 99 and 44/100ths% of the agenda of agencies are out of the control of anyone.  There is a “set it and forget it” syndrome with them all.  I have been in close proximity to the state, man and boy, for over 7 decades (haven’t we all, for varying lengths of time?), and I have never seen a bureau go out of existence.  Please tell me I am wrong, please, I beg you.  Though many instruments of the rulers are obsolete, they are no longer connected to their founding justification, and/or were never connected to their founding justification.

Obviously, the chief attribute of any society of human beings is to foul its own nest.

— Kilgore Forelle

Open This Content

Does Ideological Dystopia Await Us?

Imagine a world in which the great majority has no respect for facts or for truth of any sort, where ideological convictions rule almost everyone’s understanding of the world, where truth has become an endangered rhetorical species on the brink of extinction.

In such a world, facts would still exist, of course, and true propositions would still stand in stark contradiction of false ones, but hardly anyone would care.

The scientists would have been co-opted to support the prevailing ideological narrative, along with the news media, the schools and universities, and all the organs of respectable opinion. People who dissented from the orthodoxy, especially on such sensitive matters as global warming, abortion rights, and discrimination against various state-defined victim classes, would be convicted of hate crimes or some such thing and packed off to prison.

Too dystopian for your taste? No matter. This future is, I think, one with a substantial likelihood of coming to pass.

Some of us thought that the internet would save us from the lies and self-interested distortions of rulers and their running dogs. But experience has shown us that the internet is a powerful engine for transmitting mistakes, innocent and not-so-innocent, as well as outright lies and genuinely fake news. So cyberspace has become not a forum for sorting out truth and falsehood, but a battleground of ceaseless ideological combat where truth seekers, if any remain, stand little chance of sorting out true reports from false reports and propositions.

Some continue to maintain that truth will ultimately triumph because it conforms to reality, whereas falsehood does not. But I’m not convinced. Masses of people have often plunged over the cliff for the sake of ideological commitments, and they may well do so again, all the advanced technology notwithstanding. Indeed, that technology may be the high-speed train that takes us there.

Open This Content

Nationalism, the Ideological Delusion at the Heart of Protectionism

Every economic entity, whether it be an individual, a family, or a firm, faces a constant choice with regard to how it will secure the goods and services it desires in order to carry out its economic plans: make or buy?

Most individuals and families give little conscious thought to their making this choice. Yet they make it all the same. Many individuals do many things for themselves, such as house cleaning, home maintenance, personal care of various sorts, meal preparation, and so forth. They do not pause often to consider whether they would be better off to purchase these things, although they might purchase them, and some individuals do. One can hire housekeepers, groundskeepers, meal providers, and many other services. In some cases, provision of these services amounts to a large industry catering to individuals and families who have decided that buying is better than making, that market transactions are better than self-sufficiency.

In contrast, business firms commonly give serious, explicit attention to how they should answer the make-or-buy question, and many specialize in a narrow range of activities, relying on market purchases to provide every item they can buy at a lower cost than that at which they could make it for themselves.

When someone decides to buy rather than make, it is normally the case that no one objects or attempts to impede the transaction. In some cases, local providers of certain goods and services have tried to shield themselves from the competition of providers in other states, but in many, if not all, cases the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such state-level protectionism is contrary to the Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Clause. As a result, the United States of America has long been a vast free-trade area, and this condition explains in no small part how Americans have succeeded in lifting their level of living steadily over the past two centuries, notwithstanding the transitory inability of various suppliers to meet the “outside” competition successfully.

In regard to competitors located outside the national boundaries, however, the situation has often been seen as different and as warranting government action—tariffs, import quotas, prohibitions of trade in certain items, special regulatory, licensing, or documentation demands laid on imported goods or importers, and so forth—aimed at keeping American producers free of foreign competition.

Along with the demands for such government restriction and penalization of international purchases has grown up or been imported from elsewhere a doctrine—protectionism—aimed at making such selfish and predatory use of government power appear to be broadly beneficial to the nation as a whole, not simply to the domestic providers who cannot meet the foreign competition. Although protectionism has had a multitude of promoters through the ages, from the man in the street to the occupant of the White House, it has always been a bogus doctrine, making claims that cannot be upheld by solid economic theory or sound economic history. Analysts going back to Adam Smith, James Mill, and David Ricardo have debunked protectionism’s claims, as have many economists in the following centuries.

Yet it lives on, and even now it is thriving ideologically and politically in many quarters, and the question is, why? What accounts for the fact that a doctrine few people would invoke to justify government interference with competition from outside the neighborhood, the city, the state, or the region nevertheless seems to many people to make sense at the national level?

To ask the question is almost to answer it. People who would balk at city, state, or regional protectionism will not only tolerate national protectionism, but actually hail it as a godsend for overall national prosperity. The doctrine of nationalism, a dangerous brew in which Americans have long indulged to great excess is the cause of this bizarre public sentiment. If you told the people of Cleveland that the city must practice protectionism against all other cities, states, and regions, they would account you crazy. But if you tell them that the entire nation must put protectionism into practice, many of them will swallow the proposal with gusto.

What is this mystical magnetism that nationalism exerts on so many Americans? It is the wholly superstitious conviction that some special, deep, and overriding solidarity binds them to a particular group of almost 330 million strangers, people they have never met, never will meet, and with whom in many cases they have practically nothing in common. Indeed, in many cases, if any given American were to meet with a great many of his “fellow Americans,” he would find them altogether odious. On the other hand, he might find, should the occasion arise, that he has much in common with many Canadians, Guatemalans, and Kenyans. (I myself have done so in all these cases and an abundance of others, so my example is scarcely far-fetched.)

In history, nationalism has served as a powerful means whereby ambitious would-be national leaders have forged groups of unrelated and sometimes hostile people into a unitary political entity with the enlarged force that resides in sheer numbers. Nevertheless, the substantive moral irrelevance of nationalism arises from, if nothing else, the mere accident of one’s having been born within the boundaries that contentious rulers happen to have established in their struggles with the rulers of adjacent territories. Genuine, morally defensible loyalties cannot be justified on the basis of accidents beyond one’s choice or control.

Yet, however morally irrelevant nationalism ought to be, it is in practice often of life-and-death importance, and during recent centuries, hundreds of millions of persons have regarded it as so important that they would fight and die in loyalty to the political leaders of “their” nation-state or gladly send their sons to be slaughtered in the same cause. If it is potent enough to cause men to march in legions over the cliffs into oblivion, it is certainly powerful enough to prop up the economically and morally bankrupt practice known as protectionism, and it does so quite commonly throughout the world.

Open This Content