Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Authoritarians

Imagine No Religion.

You think that's difficult? Try this:

Imagine No Government.

Such is the extent to which most people have been conditioned, that I am confident that less than 1% of even those most likely to read these words will dare to believe that I'm making a serious proposition.

Asking people to imagine how the world could possibly work without "the authorities" making decisions on our behalf and generally "taking care of business" is like asking the planets to stay in orbit around the sun without gravity to hold them in position. Or so we have been trained to believe.

Undoing that deeply embedded conditioning is far more than I can hope to achieve in one simple blog. But I can try, at least, to introduce you to three strands of the argument, one of which I wish to cover in some detail.

Strand One - Look Around You.

Do you see evidence of well managed successfully run society?

No, you see a continual series of cockups, conspiracies and catastrophes caused almost exclusively by those "in charge". And, if you've taken any interest in history, you'll be fully aware that this is not a novel situation, but the normal condition of humanity.

The degree of incompetence, ignorance and corruption which accompanies the efforts of the elite to remain in control is truly breathtaking. The only novelty in the current era is that we are finally beginning to see it in "real time" rather than having to wait a generation or two to read about it history books.

That we have made the obvious collossal technical and social progress which separates us from our Hunter-Gatherer ancestors, is a tribute to the sheer genius of humanity and its ability to overcome even the obstacle of inept Government. Human social progress in particular has rarely - if ever - been a result of intelligent planning and forethought.

Most of our progress has been made in spite of government rather than because of it. Indeed even the vast majority of so called "political progress" can usually be shown to be the necessary corrections by an incoming elite of the disastrous mistakes made by their predecessors. They usually survive long enough to create their own disasters and are in turn partially corrected and "improved upon" by their successors.

I and thousands of others are continually ranting about this strand of the argument (most of the entries in this blog have been about little else) and I will take up no more of your time with it today.

Strand Two - Democracy

Democracy is so poorly understood, that hundreds of millions of people actually believe they live in one. A few million think it's an evil force matched only by history's worst Tyrannies.

I spend a great deal of my time writing about that too, so, again, I'm not going to repeat myself today. For now, I will remind you of only one main principle. Democracy has NOTHING to do with elections.

Democracy is ONLY about We The People making ALL the IMPORTANT decisions. In all other systems - which we call Governments - the clue is in the name; they - the dictatorship or ruling elites "Govern". They dictate the laws, perhaps with the consent of a few hundred lesser governors, but nearly always without requiring the consent of the Governed. (With the sole and notable exception of Switzerland)

And as long as We The People continue to delegate our Authority with our craven demands for Leadership, we will continue to avoid even the option of implementing Democracy.

True, electing a dictator is marginally better than one who elects himself, but as the examples of Hitler and the soon to expire Bush regime clearly demonstrate, the elected ones are often no better than the alternatives. Who, for example is best placed to weather the current financial storm, the American "Democracy" or the Chinese "Democracy" (and note well how both call themselves Democracies)

Strand Three - Authoritarianism

This (if you hadn't guessed from the title) is my main focus today.

I think we are all born with what Authoritarians would probably describe as a "prejudice against authority". As young children,we have tantrums whenever we cannot get our own way and we spend our early years learning how to circumvent the controls put in place to prevent us doing our own thing.

Our later attitude to Authority is dictated by what happens to us in these formative years. If the need for constraint is patiently explained and any punishments proportionately and humanely administered, we may come to see that the Authority wasn't trying to bully us into submission. They were trying to protect us from harming ourselves or those around us and most of the constraints were sensible and necessary. As a result, we reach an age when the constraints are no longer necessary because we understand how the world works and how to conduct ourselves within it without causing harm to others, and generally, unless we really want to, without causing harm to ourselves. We learn to become Autonomous.

Conversely, if childhood constraints are applied without patient explanation and with the excessive use of brute force or emotional violence, we create Authoritarians. These are the emotionally and, usually, intellectually stunted individuals who believe what their parents obviously believed, including, most importantly, that Might is Right and that almost any means is justified by their Ends.

Authoritarians have been taught from a tender age that it is Wrong to Question Authority. Some of them grow up to become Authorities themselves and take the dimmest possible view of any challenges to their own Authority. Others grow up "knowing their place" and fully trained to submit to the whims of Authority almost regardless of what those whims might be.

I've always been subliminally aware of this split, but until recently, I'd almost regarded it as a personal prejudice left over from my childhood. I had one Autonomist parent and one Authoritarian. I think you can guess which one influenced me most!

And then I Stumbled across Bob Altemeyer, who turns out to be The Authority on The Authoritarians!

I think you should read that (free online) version first. It's well worth it. But there are a couple of reasons you might want to cheat and read this version (pdf 2.5mb) instead. It is my "commented" version. I've highlighted, in two shades, what struck me as the most important passages (the brighter being the more important) and that lets you zip through it in about a fifth of the time. Unless, of course, you stop to read my comments as well, which will take you back up to around half the time.

I think it is possibly the most important book you can read right now. Ever since I read it, most of my Stumbling comments have been influenced by it. All those Atheist evangelist sites trying to argue with Creationists; all the anti drug-war sites trying to argue with prohibitionists; all the moderate Muslims trying to argue with the Takfirists; all the opponents of ID Cards trying to argue with government...

All completely wasting their time. And once you've read The Authoritarians, you'll finally understand why.

I got close to it myself. When I asked (and tried to answer) the question "Are they lying, stupid or blind?"

Altemeyer answers that question definitively. The answer is Yes. They are often guilty on all charges. Because their Ends Justify their Means, they will rarely have any compunction about Lying. The Authoritarian followers and many of the Leaders really are often every bit as plain stupid as they look and they are all "blind" to the reasonably trivial reasoning processes most Autonomists picked up by puberty.

Unlike my "prejudiced" opinion, however, Altemeyer has carried out 40 years of thoroughly respectable and well documented research to back up his conclusions. And frankly the result is deeply disturbing.

In my essay on Militant Islamists, I make the point that, the most extreme elements - the Takfirists - are so distant from all avenues of reasonable negotiation that
...we are in a fight which will only end if either they (the Takfir type who insist on violence as a means of conversion) or we (the rest of the human race - including most Muslims) are permanently erased.
Takfirists are typical Authoritarians. Not even particularly extreme. Especially if you measure the kill ratio. The Takfirists have yet to kill even 1% as many as the Authoritarians they're fighting.

And if we can't reason with the Takfirists, how can we ever hope to reason with the other bigger, deadlier Authoritarians who control most of the rest of the planet?

As of now, I would argue that every major problem humanity currently faces can be rephrased in the form: "What can we do, or what should we do, about the Authoritarians?" They and their attitude ARE the root cause of nearly every major problem we face. Most problematic is their deliberate subversion of "reason" and their pride in remaining impervious to logic.

In the case of the Takfirists, I have accepted the need for a War, albeit somewhat more intelligently fought than the one we're in. But there is no way we can consider war against the global Authoritarian movement.
  1. they represent 25% of our species so we'd be talking the most massive bloodletting in human history
  2. they OWN most of the weaponry! and
  3. they're much better at killing and happier to do it, than we are.
So what CAN we do?

The only major advantage we've got is that we're a lot smarter than they are. The weapons we must deploy must make maximum use of that asset. What those weapons will be I cannot answer definitively, but I am doing my best to describe and develop at least one of them.

That - or something like it - will help us "manage" the problem.

In the long term, however, I suspect the only solution is to "outlive" them. If we make it to and through the Singularity, these concerns will seem trivial and transient. And, with luck and a following wind, that event may not be too distant.

We don't get Authoritarian Transhumanists. Think about that...


Michael L. Brandow said...

Your belief is that because the system we have has faults that it's better to run under no government at all.

The solution isn't to scrap government, it's to find ways to increase accountability for those in charge.

Logical fallacies notwithstanding, you're just playing to that same revolutionary twine that any upset person loves to sing and dance to: whenever something isn't going your way, blame anyone but yourself.

Find something more productive to do rather than thinking of tired ways to tear down the establishment that flushes your shit down the toilet and brings electricity to your home so that you can whine on the internet about how worthless the government is.

Harry Stottle said...

Greetings Michael,

"Your belief is that because the system we have has faults that it's better to run under no government at all."

And clearly your belief is that this means trying to make society work without "controls". It doesn't. What it requires, however, is truly Democratic controls and not the Authoritarian sham we have been conned into accepting.

I concede that you are much more representative of majority opinion than I am, but I argue that the prevalent misconception, which you obviously share, is due to about 2,500 years of Platonist conditioning. It teaches that "control" means having someone "in charge". Hence your next point:

"The solution isn't to scrap government, it's to find ways to increase accountability for those in charge."

This is the common cry of those forced to acknowledge flaws with the monitoring mechanisms for those currently "in charge". I have some considerable sympathy with that approach and have outlined, in some detail, my Trusted Surveillance proposals which could dramatically increase just such accountability and make it impossible for those "in charge" to lie to us or to hide the facts from us ever again.

However, while accountability is a reasonable requirement for a manager we hire to perform a task such as implementing a policy we've democratically agreed upon, it is not an appropriate control mechanism for the decision making process itself. Such is the nature of social decision making - particular its tendency to create the basis for social conflict - that merely requiring accountability amounts to an abrogation of our own responsibilities for those decisions.

For example, I concede that it may be necessary, when we receive intelligence that a suspected terrorist is about to launch a lethal attack, to interdict him in ways (including killing him) which are - in all other circumstances - a major breach of his expected rights and liberties. What I don't concede is that any person "in charge" can EVER be trusted to have such lethal authority delegated to them. Such life and death decisions MUST be taken by Democratic means, which in a case like that means a duly vetted Jury sworn to secrecy unless they identify abuse. (Juries incidentally, newly empowered and with the revised status I advocate also offer us a "Shortcut to Democracy")

Hence far from a tendency to "blame anyone but yourself" it is precisely "ourselves" I blame for continuing to duck real responsibility and instead falling into sheep-like lines and playing the game the Authoritarians want us to play which requires us to concede all our authority to them and let them screw up the planet as they will with the only penalty being the occasional risk of being booted out of office in favour of another Authoritarian.

I demand, instead that the Human Race grow up and start taking DIRECT responsibility for its actions instead of employing, imposing or electing dictators to make the all important decisions on our behalf.

Marc-Antoine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cactus said...

This would work if most of the people knew what they were doing; what about the underdeveloped/developing world (4 billion people +)? isn't necessary to implement policies that would promote education as a first step, and develop societies enough so that they can be autonomous (ie prevent brain drain by creating jobs, improve disease prevention/general healthcare etc)..? Such policies can only be effective and efficient if there is a functioning coordination amongst economic agents, which requires an efficient government to overview the lot don't you think? I feel like your views could eventually be applied to the western world and the almost developed societies, but not to the majority of people living on this planet.

Great post otherwise, thought provoking, and I very much enjoyed reading it.



Harry Stottle said...

"This would work if most of the people knew what they were doing; what about the underdeveloped/developing world"

This is not as serious an objection as at first it might appear. The first problem is that it rests on the assumption that what we've already got is somehow more obviously competent than what we would get otherwise. Given the last century or ten, I see no such obvious grounds for accepting that proposition.

However, the fix for the decision making process is the same in either case (authoritarian or democratic) and that is to apply formal rules to the evaluation of the propositions and the evaluation of their outcomes. You'll find detailed discussions of this on the forum but, in short, the most important "constitutional" change we could make would be to include a formal requirement to base policy on evidence, to review results on the basis of evidence and to automatically repeal decisions which, after an agreed reasonable time limit, have failed to deliver the results promised as measured by the agreed evidence gathering process.

ANY decision making process (including otherwise unrestrained democracy conducted by the great unwashed) that incorporates that concept into it's marrow is bound to be safer and, ultimately, more competent than any other. Why? Because that procedure guarantees that we learn from our mistakes. And, to date, the human race has a spectacularly poor track record of learning from its mistakes.