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The Boiling Frog Syndrome

by Steven Yates

Just recently my father drew my attention to Ric Edelman's financial planning website, which has a wealth of information and strategies on the subject. While exploring the site I ran across what Edelman called the Boiling Frog Syndrome. He introduced the idea to explain how the American public has come to accept a certain amount of inflation as normal, despite the ease of producing sound arguments that inflation works against our best efforts to plan and build wealth over the long term. Here is Edelman's account of the Boiling Frog Syndrome: “If you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, he'll jump out. But if you place a frog into a pot of lukewarm water and slowly turn up the heat, it will boil to death. And so it is with inflation. We've grown accustomed to inflation over the past 25 years, but that doesn't mean we don't continue to be hurt by its effect.”

In other words, if people become acclimated to some policy or state of affairs over a sufficient period of time, they come to accept the policy or state of affairs as normal. It struck me that we have on our hands a principle that can be generalized beyond explaining the acceptance of the slow devaluing of our currency. The Boiling Frog Syndrome explains how the American public has come to accept breaches of Constitutional government that would have provoked armed resistance a hundred years ago. The public has grown accustomed to these breaches, and to the federal government conducting myriad activities that are nowhere authorized by the Constitution and accepts them as normal.

The principle is one of gradualism, or what might be called piecemeal social engineering rather than calls for the kinds of revolutions that led to the Soviet Union and Red China. Most people will instinctively resist abrupt, revolutionary change. Nor can they really accommodate it. Large scale revolutions attempting to change all the institutions of society at once make it impossible for anyone – including the revolutionaries – to plan rationally. This is why, with very rare exceptions such as our own War for American Independence, they tend to leave everything worse off than it was before.

Anyone who has studied systems theory grasps what is operating here. Systems theory (sometimes called cybernetics) is the general science of organization. It attempts to understand the behavior of complex, integrated structures involving multiple and often interdependent components and their responses to both internal and external sources of potential disruption. System is a very general concept. What counts as a system can be a cell in an organism's body or a business corporation or the U.S. economy – and every other kind of organization in between, including an acting person. A central aspect of systems theory is to reflect on the primary need of all systems, which is to maximize stability or equilibrium. Systems of whatever sort automatically attempt to enhance their own stability or equilibrium by influencing their environment (everything outside their boundaries). This may mean coordinated actions with other systems, it may mean acting directly on some potentially disruptive agent in the environment, or it may mean adjusting its own internal function so as to minimize the potential for disruption. In sum: systems, to maintain or enhance their own stability, must be able to anticipate and prepare for potential sources of destabilization from outside, where the source is a disease source or other harmful agent affecting the health of an organic body or a revolutionary army that threatens to disrupt a country. And they must be able to deal with sources of potential disruption from inside, from violent criminals to power-hungry politicians.

Thus revolutions tend to bring about bloody dictatorships rather than improved social systems by forcing abrupt change on entire, complex societies (political arrangements, economic relations, etc., at multiple levels) and they destabilize everything. Relations that have formed over generations are suddenly broken apart. Human beings, like all systems, dislike instability intensely. In practice, they will turn to the first person who promises to restore stability to the system, and that person is usually a dictator who clamps down on the entire society from the center.

But there are other ways of changing one kind of socioeconomic system to a fundamentally different kind of system that minimize or localize abrupt, destabilizing change. Gramscian "revolutionaries" have learned this lesson well – although they do not speak the vocabulary of systems theory, of course. They have learned to get what they want by pursuing their goals gradually, one step at a time, through infiltrating and modifying existing institutions and other systems rather than overthrowing them and trying to create new ones from scratch. Clearly, a central-government initiative calling for abolishing the U.S. Constitution would have provoked an armed upheaval at any time in U.S. history, and it is at least possible that anything this abrupt still would. U.S. citizens, that is, would jump out immediately if thrown into that pot of boiling water. But if the haters of Constitutional government proceed in small increments, they eventually gut the Constitution almost unnoticed – particularly if they carry out their initiatives in multiple components of U.S. society (so-called public schools, the banking system, the major news media, the legal system, etc.). Moreover, Gramscians have found that the road to centralization is much easier if "paved with good intentions," expressed in pseudo-moral language and portrayed as a source of stability to come. Myriad small disruptions in the lives of individuals and local communities can be rationalized as the price to be paid for the utopia just over the horizon. "You can't make an omelet," so the saying goes, "without breaking a few eggs." So systems accommodate and incorporate these small steps, absorbing the disruptions as best they can and not allowing them to threaten the system's overall stability. But when a system absorbs these small steps instead of repelling them, it incorporates them into its basic functioning and its transformation to a different kind of system with entirely different arrangements between its components has begun. Or in terms of the Boiling Frog Syndrome, the frog is in the pot, and the temperature of the water has begun, very slowly, to rise.

Among the earliest steps toward the transformation of the U.S. from Constitutional republic to politically correct police state seem to have occurred with federal intrusions into education prior to the War for Southern Independence. These, of course, were very minor by today's standards, but met with skepticism even then because of the lack of any mention of a federal role in education in the Constitution. (And speaking of the War for Southern Independence, it seems useful to observe, somewhere along the line, that there is room in systems theory for understanding how systems may split apart, disintegrate or dissolve, when facing uncontrollable internal or external sources of disruption. Lincoln's war alone, it is now clear, changed the character of the American system in fundamental ways.) However, the water in the pot was still relatively cool and comfortable overall – in comparison to what was to come, of course. Those who wanted power would turn up the heat very slowly, and their actions conform quite well to the idea that one can modify systems very gradually and change them into entirely different systems simply by acclimating their components (the American public) each step along the way. Those who wanted centralization would begin agitating for a central bank, for example, even though the Framers had warned against central banks. The power-hungry would begin agitating for more U.S. involvement overseas, despite George Washington's wise admonition that we avoid "foreign entanglements" in which we have no legitimate stake. The power-hungry would start calling for more federal interventions in the economy generally, usually promising enormous payoffs. Since someone would have the pay the bureaucrats entrusted to administer the intervening, we soon saw a call for a progressive income tax – something that would have provoked an armed revolt had it occurred during the generation following the country's founding. (A far lesser tax provoked the "whiskey rebellion" of the early 1790s, after all!)

The temperature of the water was slowly rising, and while the frog's brows may have risen somewhat, he was not sufficiently alarmed to jump out of the pot. We soon had the Federal Reserve and the Internal Revenue Service – and found ourselves smack in the middle of the first World War. All of this was before 1920. The American system was slowly being transformed, its components incorporating rather than repelling the changes. The temperature of the water was rising, and would rise still more during the Roosevelt era, as federal expansion occurred – always in relatively small steps instead of all at once. The American system continued to incorporate the changes, and few members of the public sensed that anything was amiss (indeed, courtesy of "public schools," most were "learning" to welcome the transformation in progress).

Following the Roosevelt Era which gave us the Social Security system and so much more came the Civil Rights Era, which began essentially with the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan. Supreme Court decision. This decision was based for the first time not on the Constitution or any legal precedent whatsoever but what has since been shown to be a poorly controlled sociology experiment. With that decision, the temperature of the water in the pot went up perhaps ten degrees. With the coming of affirmative action programs and radical feminist activism, it went up perhaps ten degrees more. There was unrest, but not organized resistance; the system absorbed and incorporated the changes. Assisting the changes were slowly escalating rates of taxation. More Americans were working longer and harder in order to feed the increasingly bloated Uncle Sam. As taxes climbed, one breadwinner per family of four slowly became a thing of the past; women were forced into the work force whether they wanted to be there or not. All these things became accepted, incorporated into the mainstream. The water had begun to get uncomfortably warm, but the frog stayed in the pot.

Since then, we have seen the so-called "war on drugs." We have seen the Ruby Ridge massacre and the Waco holocaust, among myriad other evidence of federal wrongdoing. We have seen foreign interventions that have succeeded only in harming the general population (e.g., Iraq) or destabilizing regions (e.g., the Balkans). From January 1993-January 2001 we saw in action the most corrupt presidential regime ever, alongside the rise of public apathy in which people, like frogs in pots of warming water, were largely contented because they found all the new technology fascinating and perceived the economy to be doing well. The adoption of an entire philosophy by a society helps enhance a sense of stability in the mainstream, even if the philosophy is a calculating, hard-line materialism.

So where are we now? The water in the pot has gotten pretty hot. It has probably begun to steam. The frog that would have jumped out long ago, had he been thrown in abruptly, is still accommodating these slow increases in temperature. Will our frog eventually awaken in alarm to the truth of his situation, that if he stays in the water he's about to be cooked alive, or will he remain in a state of warm contentment until it is too late? The Boiling Frog Syndrome, I submit, is more than simply a warning about the true nature of inflation and its effects on long-term financial planning (although it serves its purpose there quite well). It is a general warning about the times we live in today, and we had better start paying attention.

We who write for LewRockwell.com and other (more or less) underground publications bemoan this society's abandonment of Constitutional principles, and are all-too-aware that we are a minority. Even mainstream so-called conservatives of the National Review stripe hate our guts. They would ignore us completely if they could. (Never mind what the extreme leftists think!) None of this changes the fact that we now live in a vastly different political system from the one the Framers created; it has been transformed very slowly, with the potential disruptions minimized and then incorporated, changing the basic function of the system. As with inflation in Ric Edelman's account, we have been – are being – harmed by these changes no matter how slowly and gradually they have been brought about, no matter how much acceptance they have won, or comfortable the masses are. Over the past 140 years, we have gone very slowly from being a mostly free people to a mostly enslaved people – with the primary source of slavery being the tax system. We continue to speak the language of freedom. But to paraphrase Goethe, no one is so completely enslaved as the person who thinks he is free. Some of us write passionately on behalf of the secession stirrings occurring in various places around the country, but by and large the public seems content with the status quo and doesn't sense any danger. While there have been plenty of warning signs, all more or less independent of one another, so far, there have been no catalysts, no major sources of disruption that can be obviously blamed on the purveyors of centralization, and which could therefore capture the attention of the critical mass of people necessary to propel a successful secession movement. Something more than what we have seen so far is going to be necessary to awaken this critical mass.

Let us hope that what finally awakens the American public is not the boiling of the water with all of us still in the pot!!

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