Complexity in Politics

Datepalm on Observation Deck provides a surprisingly good, brief overview of a fundamental philosophical difference in 19th Century political philosophy, for the lay audience.  That fundamental difference being individualism versus socialization.  Datepalm summarizes:

 Our ambitions, our desires, our sense of right and wrong, is an inevitable, inescapable product of society. How we live shapes what we think about everything. What we want, what we think we want, what we hate, what we fear – none of it comes from some unique, personal place, but from a particular constellation of lived experience and social conditioning. Consciousness is derived from praxis.

Praxis is a neat and awesome word and i’m sad it seems to be dying out in English as some jargony academic term. It means something like the summary of the experience of day to day life. All of it – the job you have, the technology you use, the relationships you take part in, your class, your gender, everything. That day to day living, the years and years of it, shapes you.

If we accept that no individual has the ability to independently struggle free of the circumstances of their life (the rightwing approach) we’re left only with the option of collectively changing those circumstances.

And let me re-summarize:  the left-wing (of the 19th Century) believed that humans were the products of their society.  This was a materialist, atheistic or agnostic philosophy, and it led them to believe that we should work on creating societies that produced the best possible humans.  The right-wing (of the 19th Century) believed that humans were endowed, probably by their Creator, with free will and individualism, and that who you were as a person came down to choices you made, via a god-given free will.  It was a point of view that was intertwined with and informed by Christian theology.

So.  I keep emphasizing that these are 19th Century philosophies.  Why?

First, because there’s an elephant in the room that neither philosophy really addresses, and its initials are DNA.  In the last 30 or so years, we’ve demonstrated pretty conclusively that biological attributes affect and inform all kinds of things about your life, certainly including your preferences and your aptitudes.  But by the time scientific study of human genetics had come around, both the left and the right-wing philosophies were mature and to some extent dogmatic.  While syntheses of the original 19th Century philosophies and modern discoveries do exist, they co-exist with essentially unchanged dogmas dating back to the time of Marx and before.

The other modern “discovery” that is less clear-cut and well-defined, but which I think we now understand much better than we did 150 years ago, is chaos/complexity theory.  An understanding of intractably complex systems allows us to say, “Hey, maybe there isn’t a dualistic soul or free will as understood by traditional Christian theology, but none the less, the collision between society, genetics, and the highly idiosyncratic environment that a person grows up in and the complex people who influence them can none the less result in someone who has unpredictable responses to life.”

That last point is subtle and important, so I want to go over it again.  The 19th Century was the pinnacle point of the time when everything was ultimately understandable.  Certainly, the people of the 19th Century understood the concept of “complexity,” but they didn’t have a thorough understanding of its scope.  The idea that a butterfly might flap its wings in Brazil and cause a storm in Europe was alien to them.  They didn’t have the concept of quantum mechanics, the discomforting idea that the physical world fundamentally doesn’t necessarily obey neat, simple laws.  It was natural, in the 19th Century, to imagine that you could engineer a society that would produce nice humans.  It was an extension of the idea that you could engineer an engine that would produce the right kind of motion.  More difficult than making an engine, certainly!  But still just an engineering challenge.


Only an idiot would deny that society influences every person in the society.  Often in relatively straightforward ways.  To take an idea that Datepalm mentions, modern American society elevates celebrities.  They are regarded as interesting, and their lives are regarded as desirable (for the most part).  Lots of people dream of becoming celebrities, and some build their lives around becoming celebrities.  Or another idea that Datepalm also addresses, masculinity and femininity: everyone understands that certain behaviors are masculine and others are feminine, and that it is transgressive to act in feminine ways when you are male, or masculine ways when you are female.

But those kind of fairly straightforward social influences live alongside far more complex — probably intractably complex — complexes of individuality.  While many people — maybe a majority — to some degree idolize celebrity, other people just don’t.  Or they regard celebrities as intrinsically dishonest and untrustworthy.  Or they kind of like to imagine being on the red carpet or being rich and beloved, but understand that the loss of privacy makes the reality much less attractive.  Or they have yet stranger and more ambiguous feelings about celebrities.  And, similarly, with regards to masculinity and femininity, surely here in the 21st Century I don’t need to go on and on about the ultra-complex ways that people interact with gender.  And then lots of things just don’t have straightforward big-picture society implications at all.  My wife and I are moderately enthusiastic ice-skaters.  Why ice-skating and not, say, soccer?  I don’t think that you can answer that in any way that’s not intensely individual.

On a purely philosophical level, if you are so inclined, you can wave all that stuff away.  If your point is one of materialistic philosophy, you can say, “People are products of their environment.  If that environment is a very complex micro-environment, and if that environment includes genetics, so be it.”  But if you’re talking about applying a philosophy on a policy level, you can’t just wave that stuff away.  There is a philosophical difference between individualistic free-will and individualistic micro-environments.  But there is no policy difference between individualistic free-will and individualistic micro-environments — in both cases, people are individuals, and are not amenable to society-wide engineering.

How does all this apply on a policy level?  Traditional socialized (anti-individualistic) philosophy has two major outgrowths:  the first is paternalism.  Basically, the idea is that since any given person is helplessly in the grip of their environment, you can make decisions for them that will be for their own good.  And indeed since people are fundamentally not that individualistic, you can make a society-wide decision (say, “people should save 10% of their earnings every month for their retirement”) and that decision will be basically more or less good or bad for everyone.

The second, rather more sinister policy implication of socialized philosophy is basically idea engineering.  This says, “People are the product of their environment, so we should only expose them to ideas that will make them good people.”  While it’s possible to do this in a light-handed, well-intentioned way, you can see how it can easily spin out of control into censorship and propaganda.

But the key take-away here is that, now in the 21st Century, you can reject those policies without belief in a dualistic soul or mind/body division.  Even if you’re exactly as materialistic as a dyed-in-the-wool marxist, it’s logically tenable to say, “None the less, people are individuals, and it is impossible for government or society as a whole to make choices that are good for everybody.  Because what ‘good’ is depends on the person.”  You can reasonably believe that we should give people choices about their lives, not because the person necessarily has great self-understanding or a god-given right to make their own choices, but because people are different enough from person to person that broad policies just aren’t going to fit everybody.

And similarly, you can believe that when you try to instill the “right” beliefs in everybody, you aren’t laying down simple rules in the way a 19th Century engineer would make a motor run better, but rather you’re hurling inputs into an intractably complex maelstrom of individuals, and that you have no more hope of getting “good people” out the other side of that maelstrom than you would have getting any individual butterfly to flap its wings in order to get rain in Kansas.


The yet-more-important takeaway here is that neither extreme is correct.  People aren’t the interchangeable cogs in the clockwork of society that 19th Century left wingers thought them to be.  But neither are people utterly unique and individual.  It is possible to make choices that are good for everybody (or, at least, very, very, very close to everybody), and indeed we have tons of those.  “Don’t murder people.”  That’s a choice that’s good for close-enough-to-everyone-as-makes-no-difference.

Tyler Cowen recently posted on the fallacy of “devalue and dismiss.”  He says that if you’re a smart person, and you see some idea or philosophy, that it’s easy to think, “Okay, but what about X?  If that idea or philosophy were true, wouldn’t we have not-X?  But instead we have X!”  And you’re right, but what you should do then is devalue and downgrade, not devalue and dismiss.  That is, you don’t buy that idea wholesale, but just because you found one or two exceptions doesn’t mean that you throw out the idea in its entire.

As I said above, only an idiot would deny that society does shape all of us, and that some of the ways it shapes us are straightforward and perhaps amenable to old-school 19th Century engineering.  Traditional materialism doesn’t have all the answers, and its strongest claims are wrong, silly, or indeed dangerous.  But throwing your hands up and saying “individualism” doesn’t have all the answers either, and its strongest claims are wrong, silly, or indeed dangerous.

Political moderacy, it seems to me, is not really about “agreeing with the other side some of the time,” it’s about “not believing the strongest forms of your side’s philosophies.”  And that kind of moderacy is, I think, an important thing to hold onto in a world of increasing polarization.


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