Belief and Choice

There is a certain sort of ideology which views belief as a fully conscious choice. That is to say, there are those who believe that a person could potentially wake up one morning and make the fully conscious choice to believe that elephants can fly (should it suit their fancy to believe such a thing). Belief, in this view, is as much a choice as deciding what clothes to wear.

I’ll leave the whole “free will vs. determinism” debate at the door; it complicates the terminology, and in this scenario we’re only talking about whether belief is a conscious mechanism. That is to say, we’re talking about whether the act of believing in information presented by another person is a simple decision. 

Take a moment, and try to believe something for which you have no precedent to believe.  You could try my earlier elephant example, or you could come up with something else. Either way, it must be something that does not already exist within your worldview. Can you do it? Is it easy? Or do you still know, on some level, why it doesn’t mesh with your reality?

When I used the words “your reality”, I am not, of course, embracing some sort of subjectivist New Age philosophy. I believe that objective reality exists, even if not all aspects of reality are easily comprehensible. When I say “your reality”, I’m talking about your internal model of the way the world works. I’m talking about the way you rationalize and support the things you believe. You might rationalize your attraction to the ground by invoking the well-documented concept of gravity. You probably base your views about personal success on the priorities you have developed over the course of your life. You support your religious beliefs (if you have them) with religious education and personal experiences.

All of this represents a large, complex intellectual infrastructure which composes and supports your view of the world. Lack the intellectual infrastructure necessary to believe in something, and you’ll find that it is very difficult to convince yourself to “just believe”. Conversely, if you possess the intellectual infrastructure supporting a particular belief, you’ll find that it is very difficult to simply throw that belief away. It is for these reasons that altering a deeply-entrenched belief is often a long, arduous, and only partially-voluntary process.

Example: 9/11 Truther Conspiracies. What sorts of things would you already need to believe if you wanted to believe in a 9/11 conspiracy? Well, first, you would need to believe that the government, for all of its bureaucratic incompetence, is capable of planning an attack on America in perfect secrecy. You’d need to disbelieve the overwhelming evidence that radical Islamists and political dissidents perpetrated the attack. You’d need to believe that the government was capable of perfectly coordinating its response to make it appear that they were just as surprised  as we were. You’d need to believe that the extensive evidence in the 9/11 Commission Report, written and reviewed by hundreds of independent experts, was fake. Do you see what it takes to believe such a thing? Your entire worldview must be very well-coordinated,  while simultaneously ignoring all opposing evidence.

Belief is not a trivial act. It’s act that requires an entire complementary worldview. People don’t believe (or disbelieve) ideas because they want to; they believe (or disbelieve) ideas on the basis of having (or not having) the intellectual infrastructure necessary to support the ideas. Certainly it is true that emotions and personal preferences play into belief, but liking or disliking an idea tends to only manifest as confirmation bias. That is to say, the like or dislike of an idea tends to make it easier to cement acceptance of an already-believed notion, deny an already-disbelieved notion, or seed doubt in a shaky belief. Preference alone does not change belief. It simply makes you more (or less) amenable to belief.

No doubt that the religious would like to believe that we could all choose belief in their respective religions if we just made the choice to accept their god(s). No doubt that conspiracy theorists would like the believe that the evidence is all obvious, man, you just have to accept it and draw the obvious conclusion! No doubt that scientists would like the believe that scientific concepts are universally (and easily) acceptable notions, for the same reasons as the conspiracy theorist. But none of this true. Until we all understand the psychological complexity of belief, we won’t be able to properly persuade others about controversial issues (or understand why they refuse to believe) without a great deal of frustration and argument.


The Central Fallacy of Anarcho-capitalist Libertarianism

hierarchies aren’t new

Since the Agricultural Revolution around 8000 BC, human society has been aggressively consolidating. Consolidation, framed as a human socioeconomic dynamic, gives rise to both large governments and large corporations, and the speed of the phenomenon largely depends on cultural and economic considerations. Furthermore, it is readily apparent to the conscientious historian that consolidation occurs continuously and, most importantly, accelerates in the presence of  high speed communication and transportation technology.

The nature of socioeconomic consolidation is such that if the anarcho-capitalists’ dream state were created, a dominant corporation or organization would eventually assume the role of government, except in unstable situations (Somalia comes to mind). It is naive to think that maintaining a conceptually anti-government position will result in any lasting benefit to individualism in the face of the almighty Corporation, and such positions are the reason I have never been able to take hardcore libertarianism seriously. The fact that I’ve never met a radical “anti-statist” libertarian with self-consistent views probably contributes to my view of such arguments.

If all governments were significantly downsized or eliminated, then private sector entities would eventually consolidate enough power to simply act as a replacement. It’s how the United States was founded, actually; most of the Continental Congress was composed of Plantation owners who consolidated their power into an organization which they formally incorporated (through treaty recognition as well as popular assent) as a federal republic. Plantations being, of course, the large economic power structure of their day, which, in the absence of any strong government influence, managed to keep the African slave trade operating for 50 years after every other Western nation had banned it.

When we further considering the existence of the government-market complex known as the Revolving Door, it becomes even clearer that that anti-government overgeneralizations have serious holes. Corporate influence from KBR/Halliburton, Chevron-Texaco, BP, and Shell Corp all essentially made the decision to enter Iraq using former employees in the PNAC crowd like Richard Cheney. In other words, the effective push for war was carried out by members of the corporate market but mediated by the government. It’s not a conspiracy- there’s surprisingly little organizationally centralized influence on the decision-making process. Instead, an emergent phenomenon caused government-market assets to all move in one direction, similar to how a disorganized flock of birds makes an emergent decision on which direction to fly.  The phenomenon is essentially based on the group dynamic which results from the mixing of similar individual priorities. The powerful result is the leaderless unity of business and political-class alpha males.

Authority emerges naturally, the state being no more artificial than the idea of an economic organization

A tempting aspect of human nature is the tendency to want to “scapegoat” a single, centralized entity- it makes assessing blame easier to contemplate. But very rarely can one simply make a throwaway assertion that person/government X is directly responsible for terrible atrocity Y. Most of the time, government serves as a structure which mediates market/popular sentiment, not the other way around. An understanding of both dynamic systems and game theory would greatly aid in understanding who/what to blame- and it’s typically not the government, but instead the socioeconomic system which underlies the government. What about IRS agents, policemen, and presidential cabinet members? In other words, “The State”? They’re all citizens too, and their attitudes reflect prevailing sociocultural ideas i.e. ideas about government legitimacy, economic value philosophies based on how they grew up (typically either egalitarian or rational egoist), views on strict hierarchy-based executive management, etc.

In the end, it is fairly clear that radical libertarians are attacking a symptom instead of the core problem. The problem is not the concept of government, except insofar as governments allow individuals to consolidate. Neither is the economy. One might as well condemn human society in general- after all, it is easily arguable that Nazi Germany was founded upon and enabled by the support of mob behavior. Government is just an incorporated ruling mob, a title given to a group of alpha males who would have already been largely dominant without the formal title. Attacking just the government or just the economy only amounts to an attack on a line in the sand.

The problem with anarcho-capitalism

A few days ago, I came across a rather stunning comment on the Facebook “Your Say” application, which is often trolled by both Right and Left wing extremists (with the vast majority being extremely far Right). The gist of this comment, as far as I can tell, was that the poster’s state had severe budget issues, and that he hated Obama’s “socialism” because his state taxes were “killing” him. The man concluded with a statement about how Obama is destroying the Free Market by giving “socialized pay-outs to druggies and bottom-feeders”.

My response to his post is as follows:

I don’t know where you live, but we have some severe budget problems here in Indiana too…but I fail see how you connect those fees back up to Obama, who is in charge of the federal government, not the city, county, or state governments. 75% (9 out of 12 trillion dollars) of the National deficit is the fault of the Bush, and honest to God, I can’t understand this sudden fervor against Obama when the deficit was slowly filling for 8 years. I mean, I’d be all for joining these tea party movements against Obama, but I can’t out of principle, since they have demonstrated their utter partisanship by only protesting during a Democrat majority.

I think the fact that the richest 1% of Americans are wealther than the bottom 90% seems to contradict your last statement. We’ve not all just gotten lazier, you know. We’ve been victims of corporate lock-in.

Let’s use a recent issue that I have specifics on as an example..texting. We have only four primary cellular providers here in the United States (“free market” my ass) that all have increased their rates from 10 cents to 20 cents since 2005. In Europe (which actually has real market competition), the rate is almost always below a dime because of the fierce competition and lack of large monopolies in those countries.

The same goes for the following market sectors: Agriculture/farming (Archer Daniels Midland monopoly), Internet Service Providing/Cable Providing (Comcast/Timewarner/AT&T), Defense Contracting (Boeing/Lockheed/N-G/General Dynamics), Software Development (Microsoft/Apple), Retail (Walmart/Target/Kroger/Home Depot).
In a healthy economy of days gone past, there would be thousands of small companies on that list after each market sector, not just ~ 4 or fewer. This is what the “free market” has done to us. We really do need to rebalance the playing field in order to survive economically.

Additionally, I do not deny that a great number of leechers are drug addicts. Which is why we should test for drugs before we allow people to take advantage of our social support programs. But simply assuming that all such people are leeches is fallacious in the extreme.

I support social support programs and policies to increase Wall Street regulation to promote competition. I do not support bailouts or thrown-together health care plans. However, I do not think such things can automatically classify our current Administration as “socialist”, particularly as compared to the previous one. Only time will tell.