Bringing fire

We have noted that in the world of the infant the solicitude of the parent conduces to a belief that the universe is oriented to the child’s own interest and ready to respond to every thought and desire. This flattering circumstances not only reinforces the primary indissociation between inside and out, but even adds to it a further habit of command, linked to an experience of immediate effect. The resultant impression of an omnipotence of thought—the power of thought, desire, a mere nod or shriek, to bring the world to heel—Freud identified as the psychological base of magic, and the researches of Piagest and his school support this view. The child’s world is alert and alive, governed by rules of response and command, not by physical laws: a portentous continuum of consciousness endowed with purpose and intent, either resistant or responsive to the child itself. And, as we know, this infantile notion (or something much like it) of a world governed rather by moral than by physical laws, kept under control by a super-ordinated parental peresonality instead of impersonal physical forces, and oriented to the weal and woe of man, is an illusion that dominates men’s thought in most parts of the world—to the very present. We are dealing here with a spontaneous assumption, antecedent to all teaching, which has given rise to, and now supports, certain religious and magical beliefts, and when reinforced in turn by these remains as an absolutely ineradicable conviction, which no amount of rational thought or empirical science can quite erase.

Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God, Volume 1: Primitive Mythology

In this mode of thought when good things happen it is because benign spirits have caused them to do so; when a bad thing happens a malevolent spirited has made it so. I think this is closely related to the fundamental attribution error which Arnold Kling distinguishes as the line of demarcation between the far left and libertarians in his TCS article today:

What I believe that Libertarians have learned is what social psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error. The error is to attribute behavior to a person’s character when this behavior is in fact based on context. In one classic experiment, the subject is asked to watch a person read a speech that the subject knows that the speaker did not write. Subjects attribute to the person the beliefs contained in the speech.

The Far Left believes that bad policies come from evil motives. In this view, villains, such as powerful corporations, oppose good policies, and political incumbents lack the strength and courage to overcome the villains.

I don’t honestly know whether Arnold is right or wrong. I’ve got to admit to a healthy skepticism about the three factors which he says that the far left and libertarians have in common (passion with social and political issues, frustration with political incumbents, and anti-elitism). In particular, I haven’t seen any notable anti-elitism from from either party. I just think they would prefer their elite to some other elite. For example I don’t see any particular anti-elitism in this statement of Brad DeLong’s:

I am, as I said above, a reality-based center-left technocrat. I am pragmatically interested in government policies that work: that are good for America and for the world. My natural home is in the bipartisan center, arguing with center-right reality-based technocrats about whether it is center-left or center-right policies that have the best odds of moving us toward goals that we all share–world peace, world prosperity, equality of opportunity, safety nets, long and happy lifespans, rapid scientific and technological progress, and personal safety. The aim of governance, I think, is to achieve a rough consensus among the reality-based technocrats and then to frame the issues in a way that attracts the ideologues on one (or, ideally, both) wings in order to create an effective governing coalition.

Quite the contrary. Is Brad not far enough left to share Arnold’s alleged anti-elitism?

My take on the other hand is that the main characteristic that unites the groups that Arnold characterizes as the “Far Left” and “libertarians” (whomever he might mean) is radicalism: extreme dissatisfaction with things as they are. And while the two groups might happily collaborate on tearing the house down I find it less credible that they’ll be quite so amicable in determining and constructing whatever structure they believe should replace it.

As I see it the major gap between the two is the role of government. I see no reluctance or hesitancy whatever in the Koses of the world to use the coercive power of government in achieving their ends. Libertarians (presumably like Arnold) are tempted in the opposite direction i.e. into believing in the complete incompetence and intolerable danger of government.

I see such as somewhat in the position of someone who, recognizing the danger of fire, has determined to eat his meat raw.

I don’t see any way of dragooning the Founding Fathers, for example, into that position. Thomas Jefferson, for example, practiced law, served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, served in the Virginia House of Delegates, was governor of Virginia, minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, and, finally, President of the United States. No particular antipathy to government there. James Madison served in the Virginia state legislature, the U. S. Congress, Secretary of State, and, finally, President of the United States. Both of these men were advocates for civil rights and practical believers in harnessing the power of government to improve the lots of their fellow-citizens. They saw no conflict between those roles.

0 comments… add one

Leave a Comment