The Game's Still the Same

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Audiophiles are sometimes considered an odd breed. Perhaps, they’re seen as obsessives or as ultra-competitives who lose all perspective when chasing a minute improvement in sound quality. There are several credible psychology-based explanations as to why a person would spend thousands of dollars to squeeze out a little better sound from his or her system.

Or so they seem to someone who hasn’t spent some time listening to classical music. I listen to it on the radio from time to time, and I have heard harmonies, played on strings, that sound like static or something close to. The overtones are close enough to static to make me wonder if something is wrong with the radio or the antenna. The uncertainty resulting from hearing a sound that may, or may not be, static is enough to make the purchase of a better radio tempting.

Once this bit of information is added, the behavior of the classics-loving audiophile, and avid classical music collector, makes sense. Without it, though, we have to resort to mythification in order to explain that supposedly irrational behavior. Although those myths are rationalistic in form, they still are myths, and are revealed as such once the crucial datum is seen (or heard).

The psychologizing myths used to "explain" the behavior of audiophiles seem homely, but the process involved is exactly the same with any myths that are used to cover up ignorance with certitude. One of the most pervasive in our society, itself pervaded by the actions of the State, is the explanation of why other people are not like us. Instead of humbly accepting the fact that one person cannot get into another person’s head, a fact that makes other people’s valuations, plans, intentions, etc. unknowable to us except through at-times-problematic inference, all-too-many people construct myths that usually posit an imaginary person, a corporation sole, that’s an agglomeration of everyone but acts on its own. This mythification underlies the six-pronged pitchfork that Professor Jack D. Douglas calls The Myth of the Welfare State.

His book opens up with a question that offers a blinding glimpse of the unassimilated obvious: the term "welfare state," as applied to the current set-up in the developed world, is a vacuous term. "What state has ever been presented by its rulers and other supporters as a u2018dyswelfare state’?" (p. 7; italics in the original). When this point is assimilated, the term "welfare state" begins to look a lot like "sleepless wakefulness" — or like an advertisement.

What is being advertised is, of course, the State as a means of solving individual problems. Since the substitution of force for persuasion doesn’t change the relevant facts, this hope is ultimately illusory. The Myth of the Welfare State is a comprehensive consumer-protection guide countering that oft-urged "miracle cure."

Prof. Douglas shows that, as society grows more complex, people rely more and more on situational planning, implemented iteratively, and more and more on mythification to substitute certitude for plain ignorance. The prime myth extant in Western civilization is the myth of modernism: the belief that the data of human behavior in the distant past are irrelevant to understanding and living in the present. Since we don’t use steam power anymore, so the pretext goes, we don’t need the wisdom of (say) Adam Smith anymore. The myth of modernism is a sort of seniority demand, projected over the span of the human race itself: since we have greater technological seniority over our great-grandparents, their views on human nature need not be taken seriously by us.

Like many myths, this one works by force of analogy. The typical analogy drawn is to hard science — another absurdity if studied closely, but prestigious enough to be largely unquestioned. Just as the pollen in the water moveth to the laws of the Brownian motion, so it is that the "statistical physics of society" bestoweth knowledge that only the foolish bother to question. Anyone who pushes the point finds out that doing so threatens the dominance needs of a lot of today’s worthies.

Prof. Douglas shows that dominance — the need for raw control over other living organisms of the same species as us — is the chief drive that leads to so much rationalistic mythologizing. The dominance drive is such that its intensity grows in a roughly exponential way (if you don’t mind me resorting to an analogy of my own). Satisfaction of dominance needs encourages a greater striving for more dominance over others. The difference between dominance and the sex drive in this respect can be seen in the focusedness of those at the top of each heap. The more sex-favored a person is, the more promiscuous (multi-focused) he or she tends to be. The more power-favored a person is, the more u2018faithful’ he or she is to the cause of further dominance-seeking. Just as the most notorious lovers tend to be deplorably scatter-goaled, so it is that the greatest power-seekers are terribly single-minded. Those rare societies where there is a balance of power between individuals leads to little dominance-driven activity in that corresponding society. It’s only when a stable imbalance of power arises that the former placidity of said individuals turns into overbearingness and servility, adjusting for cultural lag effects.

The fact that political power, or the use of the State by individuals seeking to impose values upon others, is the most complete form of dominance explains the otherwise paradoxical observation that partial dominance feels "less free" to the dominated than total dominance does. De Tocqueville’s law works in reverse: as conditions deteriorate, including deterioration in liberty, it becomes easier to become inured to further deteriorations. The supposedly rapacious businessperson, the figure that is the Great Satan of the post-capitalistic myth of political modernism, was galling because his or her dominance is full of holes. In a free economy, the supposedly rapacious businessperson can only make specific threats and wreak specific havoc upon his or her fellow citizens. In an unfree economy, the rapacious government official has far more scope to wreck other people’s lives. Given this logic of tyranny, it makes sense to rebel against the domineering of the businessperson — and to greet the more total domineerance of the government official with quiet compliance and a fixed smile. The reason why the trashing of the business class was so successful over the last hundred-or-so years is the fact that you can fight Commerce Hall, in ways that City Hall cannot be. Most people know it, giving any anti-capitalist movement added power through apparent feasibility.

The brute fact that political power is far more efficacious in dominating others than "market power" will ever be, not only explains why anti-libertarianism is so successful, but also explains why there are more than a few capitalists who are ready to leap on board an anti-capitalist crusade. Why be satisfied with a partial, loophole-ridden dominance through "market power" when you can get the real stuff by joining forces with the State? Dominance is addictive; like many an addiction, it takes on a supreme value that makes wealth and even comfort pale in comparison. History is full of "great men" who have tenaciously renounced wealth and even most creature comforts in order to clutch hold of the naked thrill of dominating their fellow human beings. The myth of modernism in political economy obscures the fact that many of them have either been poor or lived poor — that economic stoicism can be as useful as the more known variety as an aid to gaining and/or keeping power over one’s fellow human beings.

Once through The Myth of the Welfare State, you’ll be much wiser with respect to the process of dominance-seeking; I’ve barely offered a peek at its contents. I first read this book shortly after it came out in paperback in the early 1990s, and have returned to it many times since. If you like to measure the price of a book by the number of hours spent reading it per dollar spent on it, then you’ll conclude that Prof. Douglas’ magisterial tome is quite the bargain.

Daniel M. Ryan [send him mail] is a Canadian with a past. He’s currently adding value while adding pounds.

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