Most people today are quite sure of one thing.
A democratic state is always and everywhere good.
If we didn't have the tyranny of the majority, they argue, wouldn't we end up with the tyranny of the minority? If we reject democracy, won’t we end up with plutocracy?
Without government to protect us, we are sure to have corporations to plunder us.
Money and business, they point out, can be just as coercive as states and armies. Aren't armies often for hire by the money men? Didn’t Carnegie send in state troops to break up his unions and fire on his workers? Doesn’t Microsoft bribe governments in Asia, and didn’t United Fruit topple governments in Latin America?
There's no doubt that this argument has some merit to it. You can be quite sure that businessmen, like any other group of people, will get away with whatever they can get away with…. whenever they can. But, without being able to jiggle the levers of power on their behalf, few businesses would ever get to the size needed to do damage. Few would be able to inflict mayhem on the scale that even a government of middling incompetence can.
And besides, while many businesses do use fraud — and force — to swallow up their competition, a commercial transaction, in essence, remains a voluntary exchange between individuals. If you choose to buy neither Pepsi nor Coke, it is unlikely that either company will force you to drink their product. But refraining from pulling the lever for either Bush or Kerry does not rid you of the guaranteed presence of one of the two in your life for at least the next four years. What’s more, drinking Coke does not entail any other obligation on your part. You are not now compelled to eat at Burger King, wear Reebok shoes, or shop at K-Mart. It is an isolated act.
But think of the convoluted and improbable complications that have arisen just because enough people chose to vote for George W. Bush. It is no consolation to say that there would be an equal number of complications — even if different — if other people had had their way and elected Mr. Kerry to office. Voting for Bush or Kerry is no longer simply a matter of voting for Bush or Kerry. It is voting on the nature of Middle East policy, the proportion of the budget to be spent on arms, health or education, the character of the Supreme Court, the future of wildlife refuges, the health of the ozone, the size of the trade deficit, the status of the dollar — and an almost infinite host of issues, questions, policies and debates the outcome of which even experts who have spent a lifetime on them are likely to do not much more than guess at.
Now, it is true that businesses can be heavy-handed when they sell their products. A shepherd always tries to persuade his sheep that their interests and his coincide. Indeed, for some people, the art and science of sheep-suasion — advertising — constitutes the original sin of the modern economy.
And not without reason. Like Satan himself, the modern advertiser is armed with devilish knowledge of the human psyche far beyond the ken of the yokels of the Eden whom he is about to swindle.
Like Satan, he addresses his blandishments first to the female of the species. Notice how real estate agents know well to whom they should pitch their Jacuzzi-armed bathrooms and granite countertop-heavy kitchens? Just so, the advertiser is certain that the purchase of anything in the household — even a fig leaf — needs to be approved by the lady of the house first. He waves the apple — his advertising copy — under her nose before her husband’s.
In other words, when it comes to the market, even before the umpire allows it on to the field, sex is up and batting. Had it not been for his old lady, our thick-headed Adam might still be idling buck-naked, his feet up, enjoying the peaches and pears of paradise. As it turns out, however, Mrs. Adam has an eye on the social ladder. How could she let her spouse hang around neither toiling nor spinning, content with his rustic life among the apes, when all heaven beckoned?
But, for an “in” with the “better” crowd she needed something new, suggested the wily salesman. She needed to take a bite — of the big apple. We all know how the world's first ad campaign ended — with the two consumers locked out of their home, sweating their derrieres off in the fields to pay for their little binge. Adam got the workday and his better half got labor pains . . . and their soul was mortgaged to the devil for eternity
Which might be better terms than those facing homeowners who've hocked their houses in interest-only or adjustable-rate mortgages — where they might not have the luxury of eternity before lenders come calling.
So yes, modern advertising is the spawn of the devil, we haven't a doubt. Subliminal sales pitches nestled in TV jingles do their damage regardless of conscious choice. Yet, the fact still remains that it is the consumer who buys or does not buy. And should he fail to take the bait, no goons come knocking at his door or truss him up like a Thanksgiving bird. Let a soldier fail to show up for duty long enough, however, he is liable to be chastised, investigated… and court-martialed.
So you don’t want your minds turned into mush by advertising? There is a simple remedy — turn off the TV. But try turning a blind eye to the law and you are likely to find yourself in the pokey in short order.
And here one must confess a bit of bafflement. Day after day, ordinary folk complain about the stratospheric salaries of film actors, baseball players and CEOs. You'd think they would worry about keeping their money from adding to the outsize salaries. But what do they do? No sooner do they manage to scrape together a hundred dollars than they blow it on a movie or a baseball game or some flim-flam stock touted by Alf down at the garage.
What we are saying is that if Microsoft’s business ethics is . . . well . . . bugging you, you can always shuck Explorer and use Firefox. You can shelve Hotmail and try Gmail. Spurn Windows and woo Mozilla.
If Wal-Mart’s labor practices worry you, switch to K-Mart. If you think American workers are in pain, feel it yourself. Pay extra for their products.
But we notice that the complainers rarely put their mouths where their money is. They buy Chinese trinkets, but curse Chinese exporters; they bewail American consumption, and run up their credit cards.
It can't all be blamed on the wicked rich. It must be blamed in some small part on the wicked poor as well. If there are greedy advertisers — as there are, alas — there are also senseless consumers. And if you ban all advertising, you might as well ban politicians from campaigning and bishops from preaching.
But wait: You say that pounding the pulpit is a different matter from making money? Maybe so, but religion has its money-men as well, and if they can push their wares in the heart of the temple, surely honest money- changers in the market place should be given their moment.
Besides, even if all commerce was as rank as Gorgonzola, it is not the only thing that holds people together. There are a hundred voluntary associations, none of which have to do with the state — or with trade. There are churches, charities, reading groups, stamp clubs, sports leagues, sewing circles, scouts troops, fire-fighting brigades — none of which use force, fraud…. or even filthy lucre… to entice their participants.
Here, people cooperate, exchange, learn, debate, and act; and all without a gun being fired, a law being passed, or a single cop being hired. If men are such beasts to each other that they need Big Brother breathing down their necks in all weather, as statists argue, how do you account for ordinary civic life?
But the statists have been hammering out their arguments for a while now and they aren’t going to give in soon. The grip that holds people together, they answer, has to be something stronger than a handshake or things fall apart. The cords that bind should be stouter than heart strings; the glue of human society should be thicker than blood. Voluntary associations depend too much on good will, on feelings that can turn on a dime. The heart is too fragile to bear the weight of responsibility for man’s well-being. We had better turn in our handshakes for handcuffs and our heart strings for leg irons or the jungle will take over, they claim.
Homo homini lupus est (man is a wolf to man), as one of the greatest statists of all, Thomas Hobbes, noted in “De cive, Epistola dedicatoria.”
It's always surprising that the very people who claim to love humanity so much should love human beings so little that they would lock them up… for their own good.
“This is one of the paradoxes of the democratic movement,” wrote the journalist Walter Lippman in A Preface to Politics in 1914, “that it loves a crowd and fears the individuals who compose it — that the religion of humanity should have no faith in human beings.”
Lippman should talk. He himself had little faith in human beings. A meddler of the worst sort, during WWI, he became an advisor to President Wilson and assisted in the drafting of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which are four more than even God needed, as some wit observed.
From having started out as a newsman, Lippman soon despaired of the brain power of ordinary citizens. He thought they would never be able to have an informed opinion on important public issues. Most people, he argued, were blinded by partial truths or stereo-types — a word he coined himself. The average man was a spectator who strolled into a play mid-act and left before the end. He was a member of a herd. And herds required shepherds. The masses needed heroes — or villains — on whom they could pin praise or blame for anything they could not control or understand.
In Public Opinion, Chapter I, Lippman wrote:
“By the same mechanism through which heroes are incarnated, devils are made. If everything good was to come from Joffre, Foch, Wilson, or Roosevelt, everything evil originated in the Kaiser Wilhelm, Lenin and Trotsky. They were as omnipotent for evil as the heroes were omnipotent for good.”
Lippman understood the source of this tendency: The complexity of the real world.
“We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations,” he wrote. So we make a map of it. The problem however was “to secure maps on which their own need, or someone else’s need, has not sketched in the coast of Bohemia.”
That's to say, our pictures of the world are more or less fictions. From the madman’s hallucinations to the scientist’s models, we are all — to some degree or other — creating stories and images that correspond only partially to the changing flux of reality.
But then of course, when we act, we step out of this pseudo-environment into the real environment. In wartime, he observed, there existed “the casual fact, the creative imagination, the will to believe, and out of these three elements, a counterfeit of reality to which there was a violent instinctive response.”
From that, Lippman noted, arose Herbert Spencer’s tragedy of the murder of a Beautiful Theory by a Gang of Brutal Facts.
Lippman was also ahead of his time in understanding the nature of the press. Unlike the liberals, who thought it would remedy the defects of public opinion, he knew that it actually intensified them.
So far you can have no quarrel with the man. He could have stopped and decided then and there to become a haberdasher or grocer and one's respect for him would have remained intact; indeed risen. But instead, the virus of power bites into his innards. He looks at the herd and instead of simply avoiding it, he wants to chivvy it along. He wants to mold it, and turn it into putty in the hands of “a specialized class whose interests reach beyond the locality.” These experts and bureaucrats, whom Lippman called “elites,” one might as well call hacks.
If Lippman wanted a technique of government employed by a cadre of experts, he got what he wanted. Ever since his time, busybodies have been in charge of the American government. Political scientists and PR men have been massaging and managing it. We can see how that’s turned out.
Lippman was finally no better than the Marxists and materialists he criticized, and he fell a victim to the same errors they committed. Just as they condemned religious ideologues for molding the consciousness of the bourgeoisie with vain hopes of a Christian paradise, and then turned around and tried to mold the consciousness of the proletariat with even more preposterous hopes of a communist paradise, he too thought he could control the masses with propaganda.
At the heart of all these attempts is nothing more than monumental hubris. What made Lippman take upon himself a role God was by most accounts unwilling to assume? Even Christianity leaves our free will alone. Christ is content to stand at the door of our hearts and knock. But Lippman would like to pick the lock and make himself at home. In fact, he has made off with the TV and the computer while we're kept in deep slumber by his posse of propagandists and professional liars.
What Lippman discovered was that men can't possibly know all they need to know to think and act coherently within a large state. They become the target of demagogues and desperadoes. They are manipulated by editorialists and experts, politicians, and pundits, until at the end they can hardly recognize where their own ideas end and other people’s opinions take over. In short, Lippman has looked at modern man and found that a large-scale democracy is a contradiction that does not suit him. But then, rather than drawing the conclusion that such a state is inherently unworkable and should be thrown out, he does the very opposite. He decides to keep his imperial democracy…. and throw out man.
THE UNIMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST (IN INDIA OR SOMALIA)
So we need to ask: Is man really such a hopeless creature?
Admittedly, the evidence is all stacked against him. From Jacob onward, a human being is a liar and a con man. From Cain down, he is a murderer. But here let's make an observation. Goodness is very rarely newsworthy. Had President Clinton been spotlessly faithful to his wife, he would not have graced the front pages so often and entertained us all so endlessly. We would have yawned and turned off our TV sets instead of smirking. Goodness is boring, dull, uneventful.
And for that reason, we have a very biased view of human nature. Accustomed to reading gripping stories of treachery and mayhem, we usually fail to notice fidelity and kindness. Our eyes are always scouring the distant horizons for colorful scoundrels. The farther off they are, the less we can know of them and the more our imagination can fill in the gaps. The people we do know, on the other hand, are so close we can hardly see them. We know them so well we cannot reduce them to caricatures that entertain us. And so, entranced by reckless outlaws, we ignore thoughtful in-laws.
The truth is, ordinary people are neither good nor bad. They are, as we like to say, subject to influence. That influence tends to the good in the small circle of what a man knows first-hand, where he is among friends, family and a small community. It tends to the bad everywhere else, in the infinite circle of opinions and ideas at large in the big world with its pomposity and punditry He is ill-equipped to deal with them and they swirl around him in a miasma through which he can stumble only dimly. To tell the truth, even in his home, the best laid plans of men are surprisingly apt to go a-gley. How much more in the world!
How much less likely are we to figure out the road map for billions of people, when we can't figure it out for ourselves?
If there is a design in our lives, it is hardly one we spot ahead of us. It is more likely to sneak up on us from behind after we have lived through it. We look back and then notice a pattern in what we took to be meaningless chance. Our intellects, perfectly suited to master the physical world around us, are dangerously bad at understanding ourselves or others in the same way. In fact, when we try to, we are always rebuffed. Life seems to be impervious to logic and our lives turn out to be more the product of contiguous actions piled one on top of another like bricks in a wall, than the execution of any preconceived design.
The Scottish Enlightenment was quick to grasp this:
“Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design,” wrote Adam Ferguson. (An Essay on the History of Civil Society, Adam Ferguson, 1767: Part Third. Section II, p. 122 of the Duncan Forbes edition, Edinburgh University Press, 1966).
The patterns that arise naturally from our actions rather than from our conscious design create an order far more complex and sensitive than any artificial structure designed by a planning committee. “This type of spontaneous order — unlike the Zug-zwang of central planning — is the result of “natural processes,” as I write in a new book with Bill Bonner, Mobs, Messiahs, and Markets.
In the free market, for example, theoretically at least, each actor knows what he wants and he senses what others want. Not through second guessing …or second sight. Instead, he does it through the mundane everyday business of watching prices. The price quickly tells him all he needs to know at that moment to best negotiate his needs. Free markets make for the type of complex order that isn't ever predictable. Central planning makes for the type of simple-minded mess that always is.
Take a recent case in India.
“They landed up at my house and made me take this cow,” wailed Kamlabai Gudhe in Lonsawala, Wardha in the north Indian state of Maharashtra. (“Till the cows come home,” P. Sainath, Hindu Opinion, November 23, 2006).
Ms. Gudhe, a Dalit (lower caste) farmer, lost a husband to suicide in the summer of 2006. If that wasn’t bad enough, she was then the target of an act of governmental mercy. She got a cow.
“I said we don’t want this,” she remembered, when asked.
Other villagers had similar complaints:
“The buffalo I got through the government cost me Rs.120Rs.150 a day,” said one.
“I feed it the wheat meant for my son — who was the ‘beneficiary,'” added another.
That hasn’t stopped the bureaucratic Mother Theresas who thought up the aid program for poor farmers in which quality cow relief was the lynch-pin. The Maharashtra Chief Minister planned to bring in 40,000 new cows to the area in three years while the Indian Prime Minister guaranteed 18,000. Apparently, everyone had a say in the business, except the cows.
Or the villagers.
And now, the scheme turns out to be full of . . . well, bull. The villagers know nothing about rearing the beasts. And since there had to be someone to look after them, there was one less person earning a living in each household. Inflow and outgo became as mismatched as the US current account.
Or as Mother Gudhe put it succinctly: “This brute eats more than all us in this house put together. And we don’t get more than four liters of milk in a day from it.”
None of this was unforeseen, mind you. With admirable precision, if not tact, even the Planning Commission called it “insane.” They would know.
“It was not clever to give poor farmers costly cows in places where there is no water or fodder,” say the agricultural experts.
And the state supply of chow is so bad that even starved cows turn up their noses at it.
That might be because they weren’t from anywhere around the place. They were phoren — to use the Indianism for it. The Animal Husbandry Department, which started out looking for cheaper breeds, ended up with Jerseys — and half-breed Jerseys at that — each costing Rupees. 17,500. That’s a fortune for poor Indian farmers. Especially in a state where wheat production is in decline from lack of water. What does a starving farmer do with a ravenous cow?
The Jerseys might not be full-blood, but they have all of their appetite. They each need Rs. 50 of oil cake a day, green fodder, and someone to look after them. Then there’s the Rs. 30 for the bus ride to sell the milk. That adds up to almost Rs. 150 for maintenance, against earnings of less than Rs. 70 a day during the milking season. And nothing at all the rest of the year. Why, it’s almost as bad as a Neg Am mortgage…..
Nature can only take away your harvest or starve you.
It takes a bevy of hacks to make you have a cow over it as well.
To gain more support for that thesis we turn from the animal husbandry of central government hacks to the Infotech policy of warlords.
There is proof, after all, that Hayek's spontaneous order exists. Apparently, you can see it at work — in Africa.
Somalia is the only country in the world, they say, where there is almost no government. It is a pure free market, say some observers.
According to some others, it is also a Hobbesian jungle where “life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
You don't have to make up your mind about it. But is it?
Its true that since President Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991, the country has been without much in the way of a central government.
Rival warlords roam unchecked, pillaging and extorting. Famine has killed more than a million and sent even greater numbers fleeing abroad. Public education and literacy are low compared even to other African countries; there are few roads, and the country is forced to rely on foreign financial institutions for a number of things. Health care is out of the reach of most people.
A failed state, a third world hell-hole, a basket case, some would say.
Look what happens when you don’t have government, statists cluck. With dismay.
But if Somalia is a failed state, it's an odd sort of failed state; with Internet cafes all over the place, the cheapest web surfing in the continent, and cheap local and international phone calls. (“Telecoms thriving in lawless Somalia,” Joseph Winter, BBC, November 19, 2004.)
There is no formal banking system, but the money exchange services handle up to a billion dollars worth of remittances in a year. The main market in Mogadishu has everything you could want from food to electronics. The private sector offers other services efficiently too — such as, hospitality and security. Since the demise of the central government, the Somali shilling has become far more stable in world currency markets, while exports have quintupled. (“Stateless in Somalia and loving it,” Yumi Kim, February 21, 2006, Von Mises.org).
Look what happens when you don’t have government, crow anarchists. With glee.
But here, an about-face is in order. It's true that the government and the governing classes are a circus fit to have scorn and ridicule heaped on them. But that's because government as it is today in most countries is unwieldy, parasitic, inefficient, and murderous.
There is, however, another idea of government, with which no one can have a quarrel. It is the one you find in the Federalist papers and in the writings of the American Revolution.
“That government is best which governs least,” wrote Tom Paine.
For the Founding Fathers of America, government was an evil, but a necessary one. It worked best when it was limited to protecting life, property, and the rule of law — the minimum conditions needed for a society to flourish.
Anarchists will argue, of course, that you don’t need a government to do that. Private groups are perfectly able to provide security, defense and infrastructure. I am not ready to argue with them. I don’t believe I know enough of the matter one way or other. But one thing I do know is that both anarchists and statists are confused in their talk. They say state when they mean government, and they say government when they mean the rule of law. They confuse anarchy with chaos, and the absence of the state with the absence of law.
Somalia is stateless, but it is not entirely without laws; there is anarchy, but there is not yet complete chaos. Somalia may well be an example of how spontaneous order can take root even when the state collapses. The Law of the Somalis: A Stable Foundation for Economic Development in the Horn of Africa (2005) written by Michael van Notten, goes to the heart of the matter. Van Notten is a Dutch lawyer who married into a Somali clan and lived in the country for the last decade or so of his life.
Van Notten points out what western observers do not want to notice. Somalia might lack a government, but it’s not completely without governance. The country still relies on traditional Somali customary law, which, he points out, would not be able to work if a strong central government and Western-style democracy were imposed on top of it. In other words, Somalia’s free market doesn't operate in suspended animation, or in a vacuum. It rests — in a precarious, wobbly way, it's true — on the traditional law of the Somalis. And it does have a government — even if it's only the government of the Somali clans.
Somali customary law and clan government follow natural law closely. And whatever fragments of a genuine free market operate there do so only because of the norms of behavior springing from this indigenous system.
Van Notten makes another interesting point. He suggests that the terrible problems plaguing Somalia don’t arise from the free market or the lack of central government at all. Instead they are the result of the constant attempts to impose government, albeit unsuccessfully.
“A democratic government has every power to exert dominion over people. To fend off the possibility of being dominated, each clan tries to capture the power of that government before it can become a threat.” (Van Notten, 136, 2005, cited by Yumi Kim).
And the fear of domination is only kept alive by incessant U.N. efforts to intervene and impose a Western-style government in the country. Leave the clans alone, he says. Let foreign governments just deal with them.
The irony is that a real free market is not free at all. It is, and always has been, restricted — by laws, customs, traditions, morals, expectations. In Somalia or the West, you have to choose. It is either natural law or the law of the jungle.
THE GOLDEN RULES
We note in this regard the arguments of Peruvian free market economist Hernando Soto. De Soto thinks he knows why the ground rules in the West allow the market to work:
Every increment in production, every new building, product, or commercially valuable thing is someone’s formal property. Even if assets belong to a corporation, real people still own them indirectly, through titles certifying that they own the corporation as “shareholders.” (The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, Hernando De Soto, New York: Basic Books, 2000, p. 48).
Without these, says De Soto, you don’t have a free market, no matter how big a government you have. Otherwise, why is it that entrepreneurship, natural resources, and abundant labor have not saved developing countries like Egypt and Peru, or Kosovo and Colombia?
Without adequately documenting property rights, they cannot “readily be turned into capital, cannot be traded outside of narrow local circles where people know and trust each other, cannot be used as collateral for a loan, and cannot be used as a share against an investment.” De Soto, p. 6, cited by H. Perritt
While Western nations have sophisticated legal infrastructures that permit capital to be created, property laws in developing countries are so unwieldy that they actually pose a barrier to economic activity. Some of the statistics De Soto lists would be comical if they were not appalling (De Soto, pp. 18–27).
In Peru, opening a small shop with one worker takes 289 days. Registering it costs 31 times the minimum monthly wage. Getting a permit to build a house on state land takes 6 years and 11 months, and 207 procedures in 52 governmental offices. Obtaining legal title to the land takes 728 steps.
In the Philippines, formalizing informal urban property takes 168 steps and 13–25 years.
In Egypt, building on desert land, needs 77 steps, 31 different governmental offices and 6 to 14 years.
In Haiti, obtaining a 5-year lease takes 111 steps and 4,112 days.
The result of this bureaucratic obstacle course is that people live and work outside the law. And they pay the price. No one will lend them money except family members. So they end up specializing and producing for smaller circles. The result? Lower productivity. Capitalism, he argues, needs legal protections to work. It needs rules.
But here, I have a bone to pick with Mr. De Soto. He thinks the only rules that work for capitalism are western rules. In fact, the title of his book makes no sense at all in some ways. Capitalism Fails Everywhere Else? If so, why is Western investment capital flooding China? Not to finance socialism, we can be sure. No, the Communist Chinese have proved to be the biggest capitalists of all.
What that means is that no particular set of laws and institutions — as long as they protect the ground rules of exchange — can claim to be uniquely fitted to the growth of the free market. Instead, the laws that enable spontaneous order must arise — spontaneously — from each society in which it operates. They have to be the result of the unique history and customs of the people of that society. “Western” laws are not necessary to Chinese or Malaysian capitalism. Chinese and Malaysian laws are enough.
The reason is that the laws that get passed with pomp and circumstance in legislatures are not the laws that really govern society. They only look like they do. But ask yourself this. If they really did, why is it that the crimes committed by commissars in the Soviet Union, by the Gestapo in Nazi Germany . . . and by the American CIA . . . were all committed with the law books bulging at the seams?
It is not how many laws you have that matters, but how well those laws are obeyed — which is a matter of culture and history, of what people expect…. and what they are prepared to accept. And to know that takes the study of history and manners; it needs a knowledge of morals and religion. The usual smoke and mirrors sideshow supplied by the political class won’t do. You need to turn to the accumulated wisdom of case law and precedent, of customary law and conventions.
The free market arises wherever there have been such laws and systems — whether in Europe or Africa or Asia.
The spice trade of the Indies, for instance, operated for 500 years without Western laws, yet it corresponded roughly to free market capitalism. In Africa, buyers and sellers met under a tree, not a mall, but what they had was still a market where prices were arrived at by bargaining between buyers and sellers. Not set arbitrarily by the chiefs.
Africans might have used gold-dust salt before the Europeans brought in paper currencies, but they were still using money.
Today, in fact, some of us might think that gold dust look like the stronger currency.
How else can we explain the difference between statutory laws and customary laws like the Somali clan laws? One way to think about it is to see it as the difference between fiat money, like paper currencies, and a real store of value, like gold. You see, if there is nothing to back up the paper currency churned out by a central bank, then the country is in a bit of trouble. Pretty soon, people come calling for their loans with cudgels and pitchforks. It's happening right now in America.
The problem arises because statutory laws can be passed endlessly, even if they have little relation to how the masses of ordinary people actually think and act. That means you can have a country where theft and looting are the norm, that might still have very intricate laws on their books against theft and looting. The statutes won't do a thing to help.
Customary law, on the other hand, can’t be plucked like a rabbit out of a top-hat. It has to live…and breed… in the cozy warrens and nooks of particular, real communities with particular real values.
And because it does, people tend to accept it more often. It works more often.
It is a more sensitive and complex measure of a society that tells the stories, not of just those who happen to breathe now, but of the unborn…and the long dead. It reflects the fractal fellowship of generations and time. Not the unwieldy geometry of states and boundaries. It's the contrast between a dynamic and a static page on the web.
So, while the cogito ergo sum might look like a rock from where to tackle technical and physical problems, it is shifting sand when it comes to human ones. History and experience are outside the beat of unalloyed reason.
Which is why, when it comes to understanding how masses of men think, we are better off without naked logic. We are better off with the warm, colorful outfits in which practical wisdom and rhetoric trick themselves out.
MINDING THE CROWD
That, ultimately, is what the hidden persuaders in our democracies have figured out. They know that the masses of men — and that could mean rich hedge-fund managers just as often as poor villagers — don't really want to think for themselves. And, for the most part, can't.
What they want, as Lippman noted, is to simplify things.
Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda knew that… and knew how to use it.
A lie, simple enough, big enough, and repeated often enough, without explanation or reasoning, is all it takes to drive a crowd mad.
And so we get the pundits and the propagandists of the state. We get the real rulers of our democracies.
How it happens is easy enough to understand.
Take a fellow going about his own business. Ordinarily, he is unlikely to settle for less than a solid explanation for things that go wrong. If his car starts skidding, he takes it apart at the mechanic shop to find out why and he doesn’t get back in until it works. The penalty for careless thinking on the subject might be his life.
Of course, on many bigger issues, his life might also be at stake. If he lived in New York, for instance, any explanation for New York’s crime rate becomes rather personal. But while his car only affects him, New York’s crime rate affects millions of others. On the subject of his car, he confidently relies on his own hunches. On the subject of New York crime, however, he becomes diffident. It is not his problem alone. Some one else should think of it, he decides. Best leave it to the people who know. Experts. Pundits.
He opens the paper and reads the opinion column of Professor Tedious Pontificator at Princeton University. He has never been to Princeton University. But he has heard it’s very good. At any rate, it is very expensive, which is the same thing, in his mind. It is a reliable brand. He has also never heard of Professor Ponti. But professors, he has been told, are egg-heads. They know. So if Professor Ponti says that New York crime rates have gone down because of gun control, he figures, it must be true. Besides, the fellow has said so in the papers. It must be St. John’s Gospel. At any rate, he now has an opinion on hand rather like a concealed weapon that he can fire off at the nearest bystander.
“Dear,” he begins, putting down his paper and glancing across at his better half. “Did you know that New York’s crime rate has gone down because of gun control?” Here, he gets the first pay-off for his secondhand wisdom. With a single bleat, the poor sod has established himself in his wife’s eye as a man of the world, conversant with public issues. For a fleeting moment — since, in marital life, such moments are always fleeting — he glitters before her, even if it is only in Professor Ponti’s borrowed feathers. He too has become an expert.
But there is another payoff. By thinking like everyone else, the poor man trades in the uncertainty and loneliness of being an individual for the certainty and camaraderie of belonging to a group. What use would it be for him to be right if he was right all on his own? What would it profit him to gain his soul but lose the world? He decides he would rather have the world. Or rather, an instinct lodged in his brain drives him to it. Solidarity with his unthinking fellows is wired deeper in his skull than the fleeting pleasures of reasoning on his own.
In his heart and soul, man is a social animal and solidarity with his group — however wrong — is more important to him than being right alone.
In that moment, he catches the contagion of the crowd.
In that moment, democracy becomes demagoguery.
This article is an adaptation of an article published in Dissident Voice in December, 2006.
August 27, 2007