I am not an anthropologist, but I’ve been mulling over some thoughts that came to me after watching a show on gorilla behavior. It has changed my thinking about society rather dramatically.
I have thought for a number of years that proper education and enlightenment would lead to the inevitable adoption of free market principles. If we are truly rational beings, how could society, over time, not accept what is true and beneficial. In chemistry, physics, and biology, we seem to be progressing all the time. However, I have now come to reject this concept as it applies to politics and propose that we are in never-ending oscillations between shades of freedom and tyranny.
Underlying many of our motivations, as is the case for gorillas, is the desire for status. It is not just a desire to be rich, but to be richer than our friends and neighbors. Wealth and status can be gained through virtuous means like hard work, through immoral ways such as theft and murder, but also through manipulation. The homeless man on the street is not stealing from passersby, he is merely manipulating people to give him money.
This manipulation is a constant force around us. A pretty girl will get a boy to do favors for her. A slick salesman will sell an item for far more than the going market rate. A politician will tell tear jerking stories to get votes. For those who seek power, but live in a civil society, manipulation is the most powerful tool at their disposal because violence is rarely tolerated.
At given points in time, societies around the world endeavor to pursue a new course. Much like England and it’s Magna Carta, and the U.S. with it’s Constitution, weak societies decide to try something different that improves on previous frameworks that don’t seem to be working anymore. If these new frameworks are truly better, the society will flourish and thrive. Clearly, America’s framework has worked spectacularly by growing a small group of colonies into a singular world power.
What works for societies are limits on individual power. There is no mistaking the strong correlation between free markets and high growth/high incomes around the world. Individual freedom to calculate one’s own actions leads to the best outcomes. However, this framework of individual freedom does not allow for the kind of power that certain individuals wish to wield. Manipulation is the pathway back to that power.
When one individual is able to successfully manipulate others to give them power, still others who desire power or status will adopt these techniques and employ it themselves. The manipulators, over time, must destroy the logic and tenets of the framework of individual freedom. Slowly, but surely, these manipulations begin to weave together a narrative that does reject freedom and offers some “more perfect” alternative. Successful manipulators use these narratives to get elected to office in a democracy.
Young and old, smart and dull, all start to fall sway to the romance and the Utopian possibilities promised in the narrative. A whole army of intellectuals will dutifully build a "science" around it, unknowing that they are greater victims of manipulation than the dullards they pity. The masses begin to reject old traditions and the fundamentals of individual liberty. The manipulators compete endlessly to perfect the power of the narrative and raise their status.
Finally, the day arrives when the old ways appear to fail (usually because it has been corrupted by a weaker narrative) and the new way is given a chance. It’s not that the narrative is invincible, but all that needs to happen is the appearance that it “works.” Under Mussolini, the crippling strikes by communist labor organizations ended and things “worked” much better. Under Hitler, the hyperinflation and sky-high unemployment of the Weimar Republic ended and things “worked” again. Under Hugo Chavez, oil prices soared and more than mitigated the horrible economic policies he has instituted.
The narrative that gave credence to government power does fail eventually because an oversized government is the downfall of a civilization. Communism failed. Monarchies failed. Jimmy Carter’s Statism failed. All led the pendulum to swing back to something different, and often times the manipulators got their just desserts.
Hopefully, our current leaders get stuck holding the bag when the music stops.