Catherine Austin Fitts has a lovely post today about individual responsibility and how it is related to our world.
“Our task is to look at the world and see it whole.”
— E. F. Schumacher
“An entrepreneur who grew up on a small island once explained why small islands produced a much higher percentage of people who were good at starting and building successful businesses. He said it was because when a person grows up on a small island, you see how everything is connected. It is much easier to learn how to take responsibility for the whole — to see how all time and energy is precious and never to waste anything. People who grow up on small islands, he said, understand that “a penny saved is a penny earned.”
He had been taught from the time he was a small child to connect the behavior of individual people with how everything works around him. He said that he had learned to adjust his behavior so that it contributed to the system working in the way he hoped it would. His family, his school and his church all encouraged him to take responsibility for the whole in practical concrete ways. People who grow up on small islands, he said, understand that “what goes around comes around.”
My friend said that America is just a very big island, but most Americans do not know this — nor do they understand that the planet is also just an even bigger island. They cannot connect how the system works — particularly the aspects of the system they do not like — with their individual actions. They do not have even simple maps of how things connect. They do not understand their own power to vote with their thoughts, their choice of friends and spouse, their actions and how they spend their money every day. People who grow up on small islands, he said, “see the world whole.”
Most Americans look at our situation from their own individual points of view. From every degree of the circle, there is a different definition of what ails us, of why our system isn’t working, and what the solutions are. Often, what we perceive as our own individual problems are really just the symptoms each person experiences of the deeper problems that we all share. Too many times, the solution is to blame or attack someone, or to propose that more government or private capital be spent in a futile attempt to keep the wolf from the door. Without a simple map of where we are and how to get to a better place together, we have forgotten that we are in this together and at the simplest level, you simply can’t eat what you don’t grow.”
On a related note, Jason Brennan examines political behavior from a behavioral science standpoint.
Two Hypotheses about Political Participation
February 2017 – In Considerations on Representative Government, the great nineteenth century economist, philosopher, and early feminist John Stuart Mill advocated experimenting with more widespread political participation (Mill 1975). Mill hoped that participation would make citizens more concerned about the common good, and would entice them to educate themselves. He hoped getting factory workers to think about politics would be like getting fish to discover there is a world outside the ocean. As he said, “Among the foremost benefits of free government is that education of the intelligence and of the sentiments which is carried down to the very lowest ranks of the people when they are called to take a part in acts which directly affect the great interests of their country.” (Mill 1975, 304.)
20th century sociologist and economist Joseph Schumpeter tendered a grimmer hypothesis about how political involvement affects us: “The typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in away which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again.” (Schumpeter 1996, 262.)
Both Mill and Schumpeter were scientific thinkers, but neither quite had the data needed to test their hypotheses. However, we now possess over sixty years’ worth of detailed, varied, and rigorous empirical research in political science and political psychology. The test results are in. Overall, Schumpeter was largely right and Mill largely wrong. In general, political participation makes us mean and dumb. Emotion has a large role in explaining why.
Why It Matters
There are two major sets of reasons why bias-driven politics is dangerous.
First, it contributes to the growing political polarization in the United States. Americans have become more distrustful of each other on the basis of political differences. Legal theorist Cass Sunstein (2014) notes that in 1960, only about 4-5% of Republicans and Democrats said they would “displeased” if their children married members of the opposite party. Now about 49% of Republicans and 33% of Democrats admit they would be displeased (Sustein 2014, citing Iyengar, Sood, and Lelkes 2012). Sunstein says that explicit “partyism”—prejudice against people from a different political party—is now more common than explicit racism. In fact, it appears that “implicit” partyism is stronger than implicit racism too (cf. Iyengar and Westwood 2014).
For instance, political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood (2014) find that people are much more likely to discriminate against job candidates with different political viewpoints than they are to discriminate on the basis of racial differences. At least in some cases, for democracy to work, we need people to reach across the aisle, compromise, and work together. What the various biases discussed above tells us is that this is unlikely to happen.
Second, in a democracy, what we as a collective electorate believe about politics matters, even if what any individual voter beliefs does not. Individual voters do not matter at all, but voters as a whole matter a great deal. While many things—special interest lobbying, party politics, legislature preferences, bureaucratic autonomy, luck—influence and determine political outcomes, how voters vote makes a difference. Voters elect candidates with certain policy slants, and electing such candidates makes it more likely such policies will be enacted. Further, who makes it on the ballot in the first place is largely depends on what voters want.
But what voters want depends on what they know. Most citizens and voters have low levels of information; they are generally ignorant or misinformed (Somin 2013). But, it turns out, better informed voters have systematically different political beliefs from badly informed voters, and these differences in policy preferences are not explained by demographic factors, such as race, income, or gender (Althaus 2013). But, as this article has discussed, what voters know (or do not know) is not primarily guided by a dispassionate, reason-driven search for truth. Instead, our beliefs are largely determined by emotion-based biases.
In short, emotion-driven politics does not just make us biased. Rather, it makes us dislike each other and mistreat each other. It causes mutual distrust and diffidence. Further, it leads to us voting in ways that we would not vote if only we were better informed or if we processed political information in rational ways. Emotion-driven politics means we get worse political culture and worse government.