Wednesday, May 30, 2007

At the End of the Road to Serfdom

I am beginning to realize that one of the functions of "rehearsing" ideas involves trying to cast them in the form of propositions that might serve as "laws" (which, for the most part, are descriptive, rather than prescriptive). Four such laws have emerged in my recent writing. The first was the Fundamental Law of Economics (which I had actually be "rehearsing" for over half of my life):

People are willing to share poverty, but they would prefer to keep wealth.

This was quickly followed by the Fundamental Law of Business:

Survival comes before quality.

I then moved from the economy to politics by proposing a variation of a definition introduced by Carl von Clausewitz:

Terrorism is protest by other means.

Most recently I have been focusing my attention on the problem of a general lack of will, leading to the following proposition:

Comfort is the enemy of will.

We are now in the wake of two recent news items that are particularly disconcerting where questions of not only will but also our very sense of national identity are concerned. The first (which actually gave rise to that fourth proposition) was the failure of the Congress to hold to its opposition to the Iraq war through its control of the military budget; and the second was Cindy Sheehan's decision to "retire" from her personal (not to mention sincere) efforts to oppose that same war. There have been a lot of reactions to both of these stories, many of which have involved agonizing over the extent to which we have "lost our democracy." Well, the truth is that we never had one. The Founding Fathers were well aware of the shortcomings of a simplistic majority-rule approach to government. Instead, they drafted a Constitution around principles of fair representation and separation of powers. This was then followed by the first ten amendments to that Constitution, which basically embodied the principle that majority rule always needed to be attenuated by minority rights. The real question that is at stake is whether or not voices of opposition have a right to be heard, not only in theory but in the practice of an electoral system through which those voices can be embodied as candidates who stand for votes. It is not about whether or not we are "losing our democracy" but about whether we are losing our right to talk about change (and then turn our talk into action).

Cast in the framework to talking about change, we quickly encounter a corollary to that proposition about will (which basically addresses that capacity for turning talk into action):

People who are comfortable do not want change, since that may lead to discomfort.

This "law" was first presented to me by a seat companion on a flight from Santa Barbara to Chicago. She told me that psychiatrists had begun to talk about the "Santa Barbara syndrome." This was a particular form of depression that grew out of the premise that "life was perfect in Santa Barbara." The primary symptom was the total lack of ability to take any significant action, since that action might lead to having to leave Santa Barbara and thus abandoning the state of perfection one had attained! My own corollary generalizes on this little lesson. There are lots of places you can be comfortable; but, once you are comfortable, you want to "freeze" it into a "permanent state." As Isaiah Berlin has observed, this is the "tragic flaw" (Aristotle's language, not Berlin's) of utopianism. More recently Russ Feingold has picked up on the corollary in his argument that Congress was more interested in "political comfort" than in the will of their electorate.

However, the corollary gives rise to another law that looks at change from the other side of the coin:

People who are uncomfortable do not have a voice.

This is because, regardless of what happens on any given Election Day, a voice is only heard if the mass media choose to let it be heard. Since the mass media are controlled by the comfortable, it is in their best interests to mute the voices of the uncomfortable, since those voices may induce the changes that they fear and abhor. Nevertheless, it is in the best interests of the mass media, since they are businesses, to do a very good job of deluding the uncomfortable into thinking that they do have a voice. As a matter of fact, they are far better at this than any candidate from any political party! After all, promoting that illusion sells soap (or insurance, not to mention any number of pharmaceuticals about which you should “ask your doctor"). Furthermore, since its primary “virtue” appears to be in marketing, the Internet is no better in this regard than any of the other mass media!

The irony of that last sentence is particularly relevant on the heels of the address given by Eric Schmidt to the Seoul Digital Forum on the theme of the Internet as “a powerful force for democracy.” Most of the irony resides in the extent to which his own company, Google, has both committed and supported non-democratic or anti-democratic activities in the name of its own prosperity (as Sumner Lemon observed in his IDG news report published by InfoWorld). Whatever the virtues of the Internet may be, the “powers that be” appreciate the extent to which it can sustain illusions of democratic and representative practices, because even those illusions reinforce its marketing power. The populi have no more of an effective vox on the Internet than they have in their letters to (now almost defunct) newspapers; they just see themselves “in print” more readily. Hayek warned that both Europe and the United States were headed down “the road to serfdom;” and we seem to have arrived!


Anonymous said...

When I clicked on this article via EdHat I expected it to be some trite nonsense, but instead I found something quite profound. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Yes indeed, quite profound. I've struggled with this concept for 20 years at least. I gave up many significant career ops to stay and now I find myself wondering if it was all worth it. I'm sure it is what drives the NIMBY attitude for many of us. It is the onslaught of new developements and the unknown impacts the scare the crap out of me that what I sacrificed for will soon be lost to the ravages of the barbarians at the gate. Never thought of it as depression but it probably is. To bad I can't afford a psychiatrist due to the expense of living here. (laughing so hard it hurts)

Anonymous said...

"Life in Santa Barbara is perfect"? Puh-leeze. I have never seen a more self-absorbed community. It reminds me of the fable about the Emperor's New Clothes - everyone so eagerly telling one another how "perfect" it is here, no one notices that the Emporor is naked. Individually, there are lots of nice decent folk, nice weather (if you don't mind a couple of months of gray skies when most places are enjoying Spring and Summer sunshine, not to mention the near constant threat of wildfires and, of course, the ever-present threat of "the Big One" which - let's face it - will come one day as it has several times before).
Let's be honest - the town doesn't have a decent newspaper, the lone TV station is amateurish to put it politely. Gang violence is rampand and growing and there are serious drug and alcohol abuse problems among the teenage and college student populations.
There is next to nothing open late at night, other than a couple of rowdy bars on lower State Street and forget about trying to go to a movie after 8PM most nights. Although there are a couple of good restaurants, most are located in shopping centers and lack atmostphere.
Santa Barbara is, at the end of the day, a sleepy bedroom community, inhabited mostly by an aging and/or retired group of people - half the population has lots of money, the other half does their gardening and housecleaning.
We moved here two years ago so our son could attend school and I can't wait until he graduates and we can get out of Dodge. (I must not be the only who feels this way - ever notice there are more "FOR SALE" signs per square inch in this town than almost any place on earth). It's been tolerable but I long for some real energy and intellectual stimulation - that feeling of excitement when you step out the door in the morning to start your day. This place has none. That may not be for everyone and I would never presume to impose my values and predilections on anyone but I am tired of people constantly telling and asking me how wonderful this place is. If you like it here, just shut up and enjoy it. As for those who still have functioning brain cells, wake up, open your eyes, look around before it's too late - life in Santa Barbara is far from "perfect".

Stephen Smoliar said...

Writing as an already ex-Santa Barbarian, I should have explained that I was told about the "Santa Barbara syndrome" in the early eighties, possible even before Reagan was inaugurated. I suspect there was a connection between that obsession with perfection and a lack of cognitive (I shall not even go as far as "intellectual") stimulation. Things felt a lot safer than they now seem to be. However, there was definitely a sense of the soma-induced motto of Huxley's Brave New World: "Everybody's happy nowadays."