Somewhere in the Clinton years I began to sour on official conservatism. Part of it was the odious carbuncle Newt Gingrich becoming the leader of the Right. If that loathsome human toothache was the Right, I was going to be something else. Part of it was the general incoherence of the official Right. How can you be in favor of small government, but in favor of an exotic tax code designed to alter behavior?
The other thing that bugged me was the hoard of B-school and J-school strivers taking up positions in the official Right. Naturally, they set about making culture into science! and loading up their language with meaningless jargon. Hearing a guy like Paul Ryan say, “proactively leverage other’s high standards in infrastructures” generates warm thoughts of Gavrilo Princip.
Anyway, I slowly came to the conclusion that the whole Right-Left dynamic was just a myth. One of things about working in Washington, even briefly, is you learn quickly that politics is nothing like you see on TV. Two people on a show ripping one another apart will be at the bar after the show yukking it up like old pals. That’s because they are old pals. The Right-Left narrative has simply become a convenient framework for the reality show called politics. This has been true since the 80’s.
Once you free your mind, if you will, of that framework through which you are expected to see your world, you have to make sense of what you see. If the Right-Left construct is just a version of good cop/bad cop where the people in the media hustle the rest of us so they can live above their utility, then what’s really going on in the world? How do things really work?
One way to understand the world is to think about the primary modes of thought that dominate the age. If you want to understand the Mongol Empire, for example, you have to learn something about the Mongol worldview, how they organized themselves and why they believed that was the correct way to do things. Just knowing what they did is not going to tell you why they did them.
In America, there are two dominant modes of thought that are not exactly in conflict, but they are incompatible. The primary mode of thought is best illustrated by an example from business. Every company in America of any size has some sort of quality initiative or business process improvement program. Big companies have whole departments to improve performance throughout the organization.
The basis for this is the belief that the human errors can be mitigated by arranging things in just the right way. For instance, you can stop Jose from putting the wrong stuff in a box by implementing software systems that physically prevent Jose from making that error. Jose’s machine supervisor stops him before he can sin against the firm by making a shipping error. Ideally, Jose gets eliminated completely and a robot does the job.
Everything and everyone in the company gets this treatment. If you read through the literature of the Six Sigma Cult that was popular at General Electric, it sounds like a pagan purification ritual. The financial incentives for reducing errors quickly give way to spiritual incentives. Being right 99% of the time is less fulfilling than being right 99.9% of the time. The last time I checked, salvation in Six Sigma comes at 99.999999% accuracy.
This scales up to social advocacy. Progressives, for example, are obsessed with the people they see as failures or victims, the human error rate. The former are people that, through poor choices, fail to have self-actualizing careers, achieving their full humanity. The latter are people who are prevented from fulfilling their potential due to structural impediments like racism, sexism, interstellar conspiracy, etc..
This is the crux of the dominant mode of thought and it even has a name, Positive Liberty. In politics, you see this with Obama’s health care plan. They fully believe that abundance can be had if they arrange the parts of the public health system a certain way. It’s also on display with the myriad of Conservative tax schemes. Arrange the incentives the right way and people will make the “correct” choices. The tax code becomes the enterprise software of the economy.
As an aside, what fuels the semi-sexual fantasies of the robot future types is the belief that the robots will remove human error and therefore human sin. Once the robots are in charge, there can be no more human error. The Christian conception of God and Heaven is perfection. You see how that works? Perfect the human condition, and you have created Eden. Alternatively, the robots slaughter everyone and the human stain is removed from creation.
There are few people in public life that reject this mode of thinking. Almost all of the so-called conservatives accept this as a premise. Progressives not only believe it, they view anyone who does not accept this world view as a mortal threat to civilization. The debate, therefore, in modern American politics is over how the central planners arrange things and whether or not to punish the refuseniks.
The revealing character trait of people who subscribe to this mode of thought is the refusal to ask why things are as they find them. If they talk about the “why” of anything, it is as a jumping off point to debate their preferred “solution” that they believe will solve some aspect of the human condition. “Why are the prisons full of blacks? Racism! Now, let’s talk about how we fix that.”
Thus concludes Part I.
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