Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Power of Nightmares (in Five Fits)

I. Anti-Conservative Intellectuals

The UK, fortunately, has its free-marketeers, like the fine folks at the International Policy Network who run the annual Bastiat Awards (for writing about the market), which I’m attending one week from tonight. The UK also has plenty of socialists, though, most of them more blatantly anticapitalist than their U.S. counterparts.

Documentarian Adam Curtis is an interesting case, and — like murderer and respected leftist author Antonio Negri — he is a very popular proponent of the idea that conservative/capitalist ideas are not merely wrong but a kind of sinister global conspiracy.

Curtis is actually more philosophically interesting than Negri (who is ultimately just a garden-variety academic deconstructionist type who thinks capitalism is crowding out all other forms of discourse — ha!). Curtis, however ineptly, tries to trace the conservative ideas of the current era, like a contagion, to specific intellectual sources. He does so in TV documentaries such as The Power of Nightmares, which makes the (recently highly influential) argument that Leo Strauss’s ostensibly dark and (ironically) Machiavellian view of politics inevitably inspires conservatives to seek foreign foes to combat, leading to things like the (recently won but decreasingly “relevant”) war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan (which is similar, but no doubt is soon to be depicted as redeemed and purified by Obama’s involvement).

I have no strong foreign policy positions — and will weep no more than crocodile tears while at conservative gatherings if Obama surprises us by completely dismantling the military-industrial complex. What I find more interesting is Curtis’s argument that evil conservatives have been so successful in foisting individualist thinking and economic rationality upon our culture that they have undermined what would otherwise have been our natural inclination to form communes or organize into groups and generally engage in what the left likes to call “solidarity.”

II. A Game Theory Theory-Game

I’m not knocking group activities or denying that modernity can leave individuals lonely, rootless, and alienated (old-school socialist Richard Sennett thinks, perhaps rightly, that modern society is even beginning to valorize the sorts of sociopathic individuals who prefer fleeting business relationships to stable friendships, etc.). I just think the welfare state has done more than capitalism to displace old-fashioned organic communities (ask the thousands whose neighborhoods were destroyed and replaced with public housing projects in the mid-twentieth-century in Manhattan by Robert Moses’ arrogant urban planning schemes).

One of Curtis’s most interesting and radical arguments is his strategically brilliant ad hominem attack on game theory. Seemingly an objective discipline — a science, you might say — examining how self-interested agents interact, game theory appears to be a fairly value-neutral intellectual bulwark for the kind of incentives-based economic thinking underpinning libertarian arguments, right? But Curtis argues that it is no coincidence that game theory was developed in part by a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic (as depicted in the movie A Beautiful Mind, of course). It’s a science, he argues, based on the unnecessary assumption that everyone around you is a self-interested calculator who is out to get you.

Now, given that many individuals — few of them diagnosed schizophrenics, though many no doubt semi-autistic-seeming math majors — have worked to develop game theory by now, it’s hardly fair to try and dismiss the whole field on the basis of one man’s illness (it would be a bit like trying to dismiss astronomy on the basis of finding out Galileo was gay or something). But Curtis, I will concede, may be onto something, a little bit: As game theory itself teaches us, expectations affect behavior, and as social conservatives are always saying, trust is one of the most important elements of our social expectations.

If you think it unlikely that the strangers across the road will mug you, you are more likely to spontaneously chip in and help them build their shed (thus all the mutual-aid stories out of communal settings like the annual Burning Man festival). Likewise, as plenty of Manhattanites could attest, if you think everyone else at a party is likely a jerk who will insult you given half a chance, you may be less likely to reach out and make friends — and if you’re a particularly insecure sort of person (possibly an award-winning artist), you may even decide to strike preemptively by being the first to say something snide. A downward spiral of spreading social discord follows, and a world of jerks is created.

This may be about where things now stand (but you’ll forgive me if I’m too capitalistically concerned about the stock market right at the moment to expend great energy trying to increase human solidarity or fix other highly nuanced aspects of the culture — I try to be nice, though, and everyone’s invited to those monthly debates I host if you want to say hi).

III. Grasping Around for Explanatory Tools

With the stock market in tatters, we’ll be seeing more and more columns crowing that this was always the inevitable fate of go-go, run-amok capitalism (some of them probably written by economist, Gore-like liar, would-be psychohistorian, and now Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman). The UK’s Guardian had a less-than-humble headline proclaiming that this is leftists’ big chance to create a whole “new world” (Sarkozy, who in many ways I like, said much the same thing). Naomi Klein, a highly intellectually-dishonest critic of Milton Friedman even at the best of times, is happy to make it sound like capitalists want disaster, suffering, and even torture (like that endured by some people at the hands of communists, as noted in my entry yesterday) inflicted on the masses (and she stretches the record in countless ways to make it sound, through guilt-by-association, as if free market advisors are responsible for every nefarious deed committed by governments from China to Chile). Now we’re seeing the bitter fruits of free-marketeers’ always-sadistic efforts, she says.

By contrast, though, Reason magazine reminds us that even outright “Social Darwinist” Herbert Spencer wanted not a world of oppression and crushing of the weak but rather the evolution via markets of increasingly civil and humane societies. Trade instead of coercion, voluntarism instead of forced redistribution.

One left-wing acquaintance of mine, the same journalism prof who got Howard Dean and John McCain mixed up, was persuaded by a Klein book (which the prof and some reading group/thinktank pals read) that free-marketeers are oblivious to economic reality, to which a friend of the prof, also a New York journalist, countered that he believes free-marketeers know the facts but are so heartless that even the fates of their own grandchildren do not move them to curb their cruel policies. Needless to say, I rejected both these positions and, despite valuing civility, may have used the word “bullshit” while doing so.

But perhaps the market does in some ways corrode character (despite recent anthro studies suggesting that the less people are exposed to the market, the less charitable and trusting they are toward outsiders — in much the same way that less-globalized, less-cosmopolitan societies tend to be more oppressive and violent ones). A fun range of opinions on the capitalism/character question was recently elicited by the Templeton Foundation from an array of interesting intellectuals (and I love the brief but explanatory headlines they gave the individual position statements).

On top of all my other political and moral calculations, I worry about simply becoming a bore (and thus being rude) by harping on the good aspects of markets all the time (when I could be talking about something you really want to hear about, like Star Trek) — but the current economic and political climate makes it all the more important, as I’ve often said, for pro-market people to stay focused on economics and explaining markets to people who might be inclined to fumble around using other means of picking their political allegiances and policy positions, as if the world of incentives, material goods, and human agents can be explained without economic reasoning.

Absent econ, we get conspiracy theories masquerading as legit political theories (as in the cases of Curtis and Klein) and the constant, almost childlike effort to find symbols and shortcuts for picking good guys and bad guys — checking whether a political candidate likes gays, sounds like a cowboy, went to a church like yours, speaks movingly of the poor, etc., etc. Palin, like her or dislike her (I noticed that about half the women at a costume party I glimpsed at a bar a few days ago were dressed as Palin — and it’s likely none of them like her), has clearly become primarily a living symbolic battleground for people hoping either to show she’s a dangerous fringe figure or hoping, perhaps just as futilely, to read into her charming fondness for guns and oil a predictable anti-regulatory, anti-tax, government-shrinking agenda — when in truth we can count on no such thing. Symbolism comes cheap and easy, whether it means invoking Jesus or rolling up your shirtsleeves to show that you’re down with the proletariat.

(One symbolic thing we can count on is people making Palin-themed porn, though — and if Palin’s widely deemed to be so hot, I feel somewhat cheated that libertarian-Republican MTV VJ Lisa “Kennedy” Montgomery, who looks almost as much like Palin as Tina Fey does, hasn’t been more of a national sensation — but then, as perhaps the first person to interview her after she started at MTV, for Chronicles magazine of all things, and as someone who shares her fondness not only for liberty and conservatism but for Star Trek and alternative rock, I have long wanted to see Kennedy prospering. Or naked.)

IV. Political Doom Foreseen

If Curtis and Klein are allowed to turn their own paranoia into accusations of sinister conspiracies out in the world, may I share my own worst political fears at this halfway mark in this blog’s “Month of Horror”?

Current polls as summarized by (right-leaning) RealClearPolitics put Obama 100 electoral votes ahead of McCain, around 260 vs. around 160 — with virtually all of the 100 or so remaining “toss-up state” electoral votes leaning Obama, which may portend a 200 electoral-vote margin of victory for Obama. McCain would have to win back all the toss-up states to make up his current deficit. There is simply no way this can happen, barring the unveiling of photos showing Obama torturing a kitten (such as Dewey, the foundling Iowa cat whose biography is right up there on the bestseller list with Naomi Klein right now — and who caused me, for a disappointingly brief moment, to think someone had written a biography of the philosopher, the politician, or at least the library scientist).

Palin did all right in her debate and in one month can exit the national scene with her dignity relatively intact, but exit she will, and McCain with her. McCain will be lauded by the newly-inaugurated President Obama for his past service to the nation, etc., and he may well look forward to working closely with increasingly powerful Democrats in the Senate, since that, not promoting free markets, is what McCain does best, after all.

Perhaps, in the current fiscal crisis, we can hope that cost-cutting — not Keynesian “investment” schemes — will be a favorite emergency economic tool of the center-left technocrats likely to fill an Obama administration. And if they start the budget-cutting with a curtailment of various military operations, no sane conservative should complain. We are not in a position to complain about anything that cuts government expenses in the current situation. And conservatism has no more public credibility with which to make demands. For a while, we can only wait and hope and maybe one day rebuild.

The conservative movement in its mid-twentieth-century form is already over, and the triumphalist tone that became its default mode in the early to middle Bush years will seem as oddly archaic and ignorant soon as people touting endless prosperity in 1928.

Libertarianism, which might have positioned itself to offer much-needed economic advice at this juncture and thus risen to prominence at last, has squandered the past decade focusing on “lifestyle-left” hipster issues and (largely non-economic) opposition to Bush on military and security matters. Libertarianism will thus be remembered as an odd footnote to the now-ended conservative era, its economic warnings largely forgotten by leftists convinced their own policies are and always were the only viable alternative to Bush-style conservatism: tax and spend vs. deficit-spend, as if no other option can even be recalled.

We can see in the eventual Islamicization of Europe and the eagerness of Chavez and Ahmadinejad to work together the outlines of a more long-term left/Islamic alliance, in which the relatively collegial left/right relationship that for the past century existed between liberalism and conservatism will be displaced by a relatively collegial quasi-left/quasi-right relationship between, on one hand, European-style socialism (around the world, including in the U.S.) and, on the other hand, the more traditionalistic Islamic world, to which the Western socialistic-technocrats will now look when in need of “values” inspiration, much as Bill Clinton borrowed from the Christian right in small ways.

V. Looking Backwards

Maybe this is the end, then. Maybe we have finally lost. Civilization’s long, painful, but upward-tending arc since early modernity has peaked, and ahead there is only poverty and terror, with environmentalists chiming in to cheer every time industry suffers a setback, standards of living decline, or modernizing trade is prevented from reaching another developing nation.

At least there will in time be the release of death, you might despairingly think — though had things gone only a bit differently, we might have escaped even that, living in a high-tech bioengineered world of immortality and wonder. Instead Europeans now vandalize genetically-engineered crops while police look on with indifference, and Al Gore gives his explicit blessing to law-breaking directed against CO2-producing technologies, which is to say virtually all of industrial civilization.

At what point could the disaster to come have been averted? I think there were three points at which we might have arrested humanity’s impending self-destruction or stagnation:

1. The Enlightenment could have put a greater emphasis on restricting the state as a necessary corollary of market economics. Because it did not, most intellectuals — even, in time, the “anarchists” — would come to see the state as a wonderful means of expressing their world-altering desires, just so long as chaotic commerce and entrenched traditionalism did not reign unfettered.

2. Liberalism might with relative ease have avoided its drift (largely caused by mere philosophical speculation rather than social necessity) toward a partial embrace of socialism in the late nineteenth century, hewing in a more principled fashion to individualism.

3. Twentieth-century conservatism might have avoided its overemphasis on “cultural” issues such as religion and patriotism, which marginalized economic concerns or reduced them to a footnote in the story of the Cold War, leading to conservatism’s twenty-first-century embrace of statism and thus loss of political purpose.

And even as recently as the past few years, Congressional Republicans might have rallied in support of Bush’s Social Security privatization plans and started a trend toward downsizing the state instead of accelerating its bloat. Now it’s too late. Government’s duties are perceived to be total, the market a nuisance to be tamed. Comedy, music, journalism, drama, all unthinkingly reflect allegiance to the state’s anti-market efforts. To be good is to be anti-capitalist in the minds of most Americans — and even more so in the minds of most people of the wider world, who love Obama precisely because they (unfairly, I realize) imagine him to be some sort of socialist or Muslim, like them.

So, it’s a tiny band of free-marketeers vs. the united people of planet Earth, and to quote the name of an amusing musical act: People Are Wrong.

With such a powerful social consensus, though, it does little good to plead truth, logic, and evidence. Most people aren’t even aware that bias, cherry-picking of evidence, and media distortion are pervasive facts of life (the recent trend toward popularizing such psychological insights — and popularizing behavioral econ — might be our best long-term hope of improving the culture, even if these things do not at this point have obvious free-market effects: nudges, tipping points, freakonomics, etc., might provide some useful intellectual architecture for sound, incentives-based thinking in future decades). People will always find ample seeming-confirmation of the premises they want affirmed. The market is bad, government is all, compassionate politicians will save us. Or so people who know no better must “hope,” as they can no longer imagine leaderless people saving themselves.

But if all this is getting you down, in the interests of “solidarity,” feel free to join us at the back of the second floor at Merchants NY (62nd and First) tomorrow night (Thur. the 16th, 6:30-on) for a monthly gathering of the non-leftist Manhattan Project. And we’ll drink.

P.S. And if we survive tonight’s presidential debate, tomorrow’s drinking, and the New York Post opinion editor’s wedding on Friday, Friday night (10pm Eastern) brings the one-hour ABC News special John Stossel’s Politically Incorrect Guide to Politics, in part about the fact that beneath the rhetoric, the difference between the Democrats and Republicans is barely discernible — another depressing but necessary step in assessing where things stand before figuring out how to move forward.


Jacob T. Levy said...

1) Things are bad right now. But there’s simply no way that they’re as bad as they were during the long crisis of, say, 1914-1953 [interrupted by a few good years in the 1920s in some places, but not everywhere]. If the post-1980 or post-1989 era was possible after things had gotten that bad, I see no reason to think that it’s somehow now impossible to ever see improvement.

2) Game theory is far from automatically market-friendly, and indeed was resisted by Friedman’s Chicago School for quite a while. The strategic behavior of game theory disrupts the harmonious pursuit of self-interest in the traditional model– it makes status, power, and relative advantage important. The harmony model relies on non-tuism (not anti-altruism, but the idea that your preferences aren’t affected by how your trading partner fares– you don’t wish them poorly but you don’t care if they do well.) Game theory is relentlessly tuistic– it’s concerned with the other actor, all the time, and often in a zero-sum or negative-sum way.

Todd Seavey said...

Fair enough, but my underlying thesis, which I should have stated more clearly, is really just that there are so many intellectual perspectives at this juncture in history for which anticapitalism seems an easy, intuitive default that it’s hard to see most mainstream thinkers (intellectual or non-intellectual) fumbling their way to capitalist modes of thought anytime soon.

That is, whether you’re an Australian or Iranian politician, you see this juncture as a repudiation of capitalism. Whether you’re the Pope or a hippie-like artist in NYC, you see the present moment as a repudiation of capitalism. Whether you’re Barack Obama touting “trickle-up” redistribution of wealth or even a Wall Street-bashing Republican presidential candidate (McCain or Huckabee, take your pick), you see markets as annoying and unfair.

And now, if you’re the Nobel committee, you send the public to Gore to learn science and Krugman to learn econ (I realize the work Krugman won for was pro-market, but as with Harold Pinter’s post-win anti-Bush ravings, the public likely won’t notice that).

Game theory-type thinking may not jibe with every detail of econ proper, but I do think things are sufficiently dark intellectually right now that _simply getting people to think about incentives and consequences_ would be a step forward.

Right now, people think politics is simply a matter of deciding how it seems things “ought” to work and then vowing “yes we can” make them that way — and anyone who tries throwing econ consequences, real financial/legislative history, or frank observations about the self-interestedness of government politicians into the dialogue is seen as a nasty naysayer, possibly even a corrupt corporate tool, closet racist, paranoid populist, or other form of nutcase.

There is little room for market-based thinking among the intelligentsia — whether in DC or the Middle East — right now, and that does not bode well for the foreseeable future.

But who knows? Sources tell me environmentalism, for example, has largely ceased to excite the young on campus these days — blandly institutionalized as it has become — and perhaps even now there is a rising generation of more-libertarian thinkers who will eventually put into action the ideas I’ve for so long watched lie unused in an intellectual ghetto, the way we are now seeing green, multicultural, and anti-market ideas of a generation ago triumph on an institutional level. I may underestimate the potential out there.

For things to really change, though, we need a culture where capitalist ideas are so widely respected that it would seem odd for a likable TV character to say, for instance, “I’m not going to let corporate greed keep triumphing over doing what’s right” — and we are a hell of a long way from that line seeming odd or wrong to most of the populace.

Gerard said...


Our man is guaranteed at least 34 electoral votes.

Check it out

Jacob T. Levy said...

Notice the date on that story. The case has been considered and rejected.

Gerard said...

I know.

Still, it’s a comforting thought.

Gerard said...

FWIW, I don’t see Obama’s potential downsizing of the Armed Forces-assuming it occurs-as beneficial in the long run. Notwithstanding the dubious value of costly, long term military occupations, American intelligence and military assets-and this is only my personal opinion-still need to be concerned with frustrating the strategic goals of Iran, e.g. cannibalizing Lebanon and installing its client, i.e. Hezbollah, as chief political intermediary, among other powerful enemies.

AFRICOM has already been neglected by the Bush administration, to say nothing of our horrible policy of empowering individuals like Raila Odinga in Kenya. I can’t even begin to imagine how much damage an Obama presidency would inflict upon our foreign policy after the disastrous last quarter of the Bush administration, e.g. forsaking John Bolton, embracing the Clinton approach to nuclear disarmament in the DPRK, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

This is the one area where McCain clearly outshines his opponent. Unfortunately, it’s probably also the area of least concern to the American public.