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Sympathy for the Devil You Know

May 18, 2010

Though this may have been obvious since Aristotle, it seems as though large, democratic crowds are more inclined to solve problems by concentrating power in the hands of the blameworthy and self-interested political actors that may have contributed to those problems by abusing that power.  An anecdotal survey of situations across a variety of contexts demonstrates that individuals, or a smaller circle of thoughtful elites, are almost necessary for actual reform in the face of significant institutional problems.  Israel’s politics keep entrenching itself in warfare rather than a long-run solution because the extant establishment decries any reformists that threaten the military state.  For Russia, the overconcentration of power in the Kremlin takes individuals like Gorbachev and Medvedev to willingly dissipate that power.  For America, we need to shift the power out of the hands of powerful factions and interest groups and into the hands of representatives who are not beholden to such constituencies, and can therefore make decisions on the basis of independent judgment rather than shuffling of benefits.

In the context of a democracy, institutions are unlike individuals in that they have a much broader ability to amass power and expertise, and they have their own unending self-preservation biases to answer to, rather than actual problems they might care about or desire to solve.  That bias for self-preservation usually translates into dramatic overstatements of the relative importance of a given goal and the mission creep that gives that institution the broader authority to address the threat that that institution has played up.  Bruce Schneier, a very down-to-earth expert on computer security threats, puts this problem of “worst-case thinking” quite nicely:

“My nightmare scenario is that people keep talking about their nightmare scenarios.”

There’s a certain blindness that comes from worst-case thinking. An extension of the precautionary principle, it involves imagining the worst possible outcome and then acting as if it were a certainty. It substitutes imagination for thinking, speculation for risk analysis, and fear for reason. It fosters powerlessness and vulnerability and magnifies social paralysis. And it makes us more vulnerable to the effects of terrorism.

Worst-case thinking means generally bad decision making for several reasons. First, it’s only half of the cost-benefit equation. Every decision has costs and benefits, risks and rewards. By speculating about what can possibly go wrong, and then acting as if that is likely to happen, worst-case thinking focuses only on the extreme but improbable risks and does a poor job at assessing outcomes.

Second, it’s based on flawed logic. It begs the question by assuming that a proponent of an action must prove that the nightmare scenario is impossible.

Third, it can be used to support any position or its opposite. If we build a nuclear power plant, it could melt down. If we don’t build it, we will run short of power and society will collapse into anarchy. If we allow flights near Iceland’s volcanic ash, planes will crash and people will die. If we don’t, organs won’t arrive in time for transplant operations and people will die. If we don’t invade Iraq, Saddam Hussein might use the nuclear weapons he might have. If we do, we might destabilize the Middle East, leading to widespread violence and death.

Of course, not all fears are equal. Those that we tend to exaggerate are more easily justified by worst-case thinking. So terrorism fears trump privacy fears, and almost everything else; technology is hard to understand and therefore scary; nuclear weapons are worse than conventional weapons; our children need to be protected at all costs; and annihilating the planet is bad. Basically, any fear that would make a good movie plot is amenable to worst-case thinking.

Fourth and finally, worst-case thinking validates ignorance. Instead of focusing on what we know, it focuses on what we don’t know — and what we can imagine.

When our institutions fail to solve the problems they were created to solve (often by making the problem appear larger and larger to preserve the institutions’ necessity), democracies fall easy prey and quickly agree to grow that institution.  The thought seems to be that we haven’t done enough of the wrong thing to actually get it right, rather than taking a step back and assessing the validity of the approach.  This is often because the democratic distribution of powers is also a total abnegation and delegation of responsibility, expertise, and oversight.  We end up with a situation where no one really knows the nature of these problems apart from the ones who may in fact be responsible for their creation.  Thus, democracies feel the need to turn right back to the problem’s source and almost beg them to act benevolently for once, since they are in the seemingly exclusive position to do anything about it.  Ross Douthat gives a pretty good litany of examples of institutions that have actually benefited from their own failures through the receipt of additional funding, expanded powers, or simply by virtue of unchecked and unpunished failure.

The C.I.A. and F.B.I. didn’t stop 9/11, so now we have the Department of Homeland Security. Decades of government subsidies for homebuyers helped create the housing crash, so now the government is subsidizing the auto industry, the green-energy industry, the health care sector …

This is the perverse logic of meritocracy. Once a system grows sufficiently complex, it doesn’t matter how badly our best and brightest foul things up. Every crisis increases their authority, because they seem to be the only ones who understand the system well enough to fix it.

Readers of this blog will know that I’ve made this argument before with respect to the bailouts, but the irony of the bailouts is that such all-too-obvious examples almost seem to parody the point.  And yet our democratic monolith keeps on lumbering down its path toward reconcentration of political and economic power.  And as I’ve questioned before, when do we stop calling that a democracy?

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