Sunday, November 7, 2010

It's Not About Issues!

Americans Against Themselves,” Ronald Dworkin’s post-mortem on Tuesday’s elections in the form of a post to NYRBlog, says less about Americans than it does about those like Dworkin who only know how to appeal to reason.  He says it all in his first two sentences:

The results of Tuesday’s election are savagely depressing, wholly expected, yet deeply puzzling. Why do so many Americans insist on voting against their own best interests?

Dworkin’s usual “beat” is the analysis of judicial decisions;  and his accounts are reliably as perceptive as they are readable.  However, there is a wide gulf between understanding how experienced judges make decisions and understanding what happens in the privacy of the voting booth.

Dworkin’s flaw begins with the assumption that every individual acts according to his/her own “best interests,” the same premise behind Adam Smith’s pioneering examination of economics as a discipline worthy of study.  Like Smith he seems to believe that one can infer those interests through the right combination of observation and common sense.  Consider the examples Dworkin gives after his opening question:

Why do they shout hatred for a health care plan that gives them better protection against calamity than they have ever had? Or stimulus spending that has prevented a bad economic climate from being much worse for them? Or tax proposals that lower their own taxes by raising taxes on people much richer than they will ever be? Why do they vote in such numbers for the party favored by the bankers and traders who brought on the economic catastrophe?

These are vivid counterexamples to action based on the individual’s “best interests,” to be sure.  However, from a more detached scientific view, they provide grounds for questioning the initial premise rather than bemoaning the sorry state of our country.

Dworkin needs to spend less time reviewing judicial records and more time with the writings of Hans Magnus Enzensberger, particularly on the subject of the "consciousness industry."  Were he to do so, he might have a better grasp of the extent to which the interests of any individual are a product of influences that have more to do with the social world than the objective world, which means that, as a corollary, the interests of most (if not all) individuals submit readily to manipulation.  The “consciousness industry” is nothing more that the application of such manipulation on the “industrial scale” of large masses of individuals.  This leads to another corollary, this time formatted by the other Adam Smith (the author of The Money Game):

The crowd is always wrong.

For Smith this was a postulate about Wall Street, but it is just as applicable to the voting both.  Furthermore, if we study this history of our Presidential elections, we quickly recognize that it was operative long before Enzensberger was writing about it.

Where Dworkin is at his best is where he recognizes the connection between the state of affairs he bemoans and a judicial decision:

A grotesque amount of money—up to $110 million—was spent on Congressional campaigns by sources kept secret. Spending by outside organizations has dwarfed spending by the Republican and Democratic party committees themselves, and we can expect exponentially more spending in the much higher-stakes presidential election to come. Those who claimed that the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case would make little difference to our politics have been quickly and dramatically proved wrong.

You cannot have an industry without an adequate base of capital, and the Supreme Court has now made a giant leap in furthering the capitalization of the consciousness industry.  (Alexander Hamilton saw this coming in the original debates over the electoral process.  He knew that votes could be bought and sold.  He just could never conceive of how this could be extrapolated to such mass capitalization.)

I suspect that Dworkin simply cannot get beyond a personal faith that human interest is always a product of information.  However, this is totally inconsistent with an axiom I formulated in September, which is one way of summarizing Enzensberger’s theory:

I suppose this means that, in a market-driven culture, information is inevitably displaced by propaganda.

At the time I was writing about how it is getting more and more difficult to find good sources of “straight news.”  Dworkin should recognize that this difficulty may have a lot to do with why the elections turned out the way they did.

No comments: