I was working on an essay today about the "Right to Die" (which will soon be posted), when it occurred to me that one of our most prominent political problems is likely not political at all, but rather an expression of one of the more inexplicable aspects of our modern culture. Many times I have written that our political problem is not so much politicians taking power away from the people, as the people demanding that politicians tell them what to do. We can try to limit government as much as we want, so long as the voters respond to every potential problem with demands that the politicians "do something", those laws will be meaningless1
. Our problems do not originate with overreaching politicians, but with people who demand they do everything for us. But, while that is a perfect description of the problem, the question remains, why do the voters behave this way?
It is hardly an inherent human trait, at least not one that exists in all cultures at all times. In fact, even in the remote past, when individuals did not recognize that they possessed any rights beyond those granted by their lords, citizens asked less of the state than they do today. And in our own past, one has only to read deTocqueville's description of the almost pathologically independent American to realize our ancestors would have rankled at a government just a fraction as intrusive as ours. Even a few generations past, there was not the universal outcry for the state to jump in and solve problems, even when it was something as serious as a natural disaster. The state may have involved itself in fires and floods, but throughout most of our history, whether the state eventually involved itself or not, the citizens took it upon themselves to recover from a disaster, and did so without crying out for government to come rescue them. Things we think today as "natural" government functions were, for much of our history, nothing of the kind. Were we to be sent magically back to 1900, or 1850, we would find those around quite stunned at what we expect the state to do for us2
That is where I began to notice the role our culture plays in our attitude toward the state.
At one time, it was recognized that each man, each family, would make choices about their lives. They would probably be guided by their faith, and by the norms of society, but in the end, they would make decisions on their own. It was recognized that each family would have slightly different ways of doing things, and that some would excel in one area and some in others, but that was accepted as part of life.
At least until the philosophy of positivism began to rear its head3
. Positivism was the extreme of rationalism, and an extreme which ignored some very simple facts. (As we shall discuss later.) Positivism appeared in many intellectual movements, but the basic concept was always the same. Given the proper research, we could establish a rational approach to some aspect of life, which would allow us to live optimal lives. In addition, it carried a second, more ominous, message, that those who deviated from this ideal were living a much inferior life, and should do all they could to reach the optimal existence4
. Fro mental health to scientific schools of industrial management to "mental hygiene" movements to "dear Abby" type newspaper columns and guidebooks on every imaginable topic, the early to mid 20th century was the heyday of positivist activities, all attempting to turn rational thought to producing the ideal society.
However, as with many abstract ideas, that sound quite impressive and persuasive, when we turn to the actual implementation, it becomes much less impressive. For example, the many varieties of mental health movements that sprung up. No, not those movements intended to help those who cannot fit into society, but rather those catering to the "worried well", the millions who spent years, even decades, in therapy, seeking an expert to tell them what they should want.
And that is the problem with positivism, it assumes there is a single right answer, a single right way to live, a single set of desires that is rational. And that simply is not so5
. Personal desires are givens, and trying to create a single framework above them results in most people being less happy, rather than more. But positivism managed to convince us that we were doing everything wrong, and we needed to turn over our affairs to experts, to technicians of life, who would tell us how to live, what to want, how to get it and so on. All of culminated in the most absurd of modern phenomenon, the "life coach", someone who claims to know better than you how you should live every aspect of your life.
Of course it is absurd to think someone can live your life better than you. Only you know what you want, and when, anyone else is working on, at best, outdated second hand information. But, while we recognize this as absurd, we don't when we imagine a few hundred men in congress can do the same, can run the economy better than millions of buyers and sellers. Somehow, we imagine these experts know better than we do what we want.
And that is the logical outgrowth of positivism, as watered down over the decades through the therapeutic culture, the self-improvement culture, and, eventually, the life coach culture. We have reached the point where we think there are experts out there who know what we really want, and to whom we must turn for fear that otherwise we will lead an imperfect life. And, in many ways, our state has become the political embodiment of the same idea. We worry that the economy, if left to the free market, will have ups and downs, will not constantly grow, will have too much unemployment, may be unfair, and otherwise will be imperfect, and so we turn to the experts, who know the economy better than those actually exchanging goods, in order to avoid the risk of anything less than perfection. And, much like life coaches and therapy sessions, we get the same imperfections, and worse, strung out over decades, just at higher costs and with a lot of jargon tossed into the mix6
That is politics in the life coach culture.
1. See "What
", "Doing Something
, ""Doing Something" Revisited
" ", "Don't Blame the Politicians
", "Solving Problems We Created
", "Government Quackery
", "The Basics
", "Tyranny Without Tyrants
" and "The State of Nature and Man's Rights
2. See ""...Then Who Would Do it?"
", "Of Wheat and Doctors
", "Government Quackery
", "Volunteer Fireman, Barn Raisings and Government
", "Collective Action and Government
", for several discussions of how we often forget what was once considered a private rather than public responsibility.
3. Positivism figured in my suicide essay in the shape of the mental health movement. I make no secret of the fact that I find modern conceptions of mental illness flawed. ("Mental Illness
", "Statistical Artifacts
", "The Power of Words
", "Insufficient Skepticism
", "Bad Economics Part 11
") But even for those who accept some or all of the philosophy, the earlier stages of the mental health movement, the more explicitly positivist, must seem bizarre. From Skinnerian ideas of conditioning away all bad behavior, to the ideas of scientific child rearing, there were many outright positivist beliefs in the mental health/mental hygiene movement that were quite bizarre.
4. In this philosophy it is easy to see the origins of many aspects of modern liberalism. ("Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences
") For example, the concept that there is a single ideal answer, and that it can be discovered. Not to mention the arrogant assumption that those not living by this right solution are in need to guidance, which leads to both liberalism's missionary zeal, as well as its tendency toward authoritarian solutions.
5. See "Absolute
", "It Doesn't Matter to ME...
", "Slippery Slopes
", "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism
" and "The Limits of "Scientific" Management
6. See "Forget Perfection
", "Utopianism and Disaster
", "Government Quackery
", "The Basics
", "Employment A to Z
" and "Accepting Misfortune
Whether or not you agree with my wholesale dismissal of the illness model of mental illness, I think we can all agree that at some point, prolonged therapy sessions go from being a means to cure someone's problems to a surrogate for religion, or perhaps simply a hired friendship, doing much less to make one mentally fit, and much more to curing loneliness, or making one feel he is doing something productive, is bettering himself. And it is on those grounds that I group the therapeutic culture under the positivist banner.
I would also point out, while I dismiss positivism, that doe snot mean I dismiss science. Positivism is not science, it is the cult of reason, the belief that we can make everything bow to objective, absolute rules. And that works fine for inanimate objects (in most cases anyway, I leave it to subatomic physicists to argue whether it is absolutely true or not). But with volitional beings, there are many subjective, irrational preferences and valuations we need to accept, and positivism, in its cult of rationality, refuses to do so.
Ironically, positivism is actually less empirical, objective and rational than other philosophies, as, in the case of human valuation, it refuses to accept the evidence and adjust theories to fit, instead it postulates humans are the way it wishes they were, rather than as they truly are. That is a very irrational position, especially for a theory claiming to be supremely rational.