Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Are They Coming for Your Freedom?

In today's advanced industrial society no one is going to break down your door, invade your home, and run off with your freedom.

More likely, they will politely knock on your door, offer to remove something that's been cluttering up the salon, and wait quietly while you comply.

And you will allow this to happen if you have come to believe that your free will, as Dr. Helen Smith wrote yesterday, is "an illusion." Link here.

If you believe that free will is real and precious, you will defend it with all of your energy and resources. If you have been persuaded by science that it is fool's gold, you will happily hand it over to whomever offers to help you to get rid of it.

Beyond questioning the science that proposes to prove that free will is illusory, we should also ask ourselves whatg would happen if we accept the notion. As Dr. Helen wrote: "Have you noticed an uptick in studies that seem to say you have no or little free will? It seems that as more and more liberals desire to regulate behavior, the academic world is focusing more intently on studies that show free will to be an illusion."

For a recent report on the scientific research, see the Time Magazine article: "Think You're Operating on Free Will? Think Again?" Link here.

I am not going to examine the science in too much detail today. I would mention, however, that free will is one of the most complex and difficult problems in philosophy and theology. To imagine that an experiment will solve the problem once and for all seems fanciful at best.

In his comment on the Time Magazine article, Glenn Reynolds raises the best counterargument against this technocratic will to influence us to make the right choices. In his words: "I say it's another reason not to trust technocracy, since the technocrats will probably be acting less rationally than they pretend, and yet technocracy's claims of legitimacy are based entirely on technocrats' superior rational powers." Link here.

If you believe that we all suffer one influence or another before making a decision that may or may not be guided by reason, then why would the same principle not apply to everyone, even, and perhaps especially to those who want to make our choices for us.

Why would we assume that technocrats are more rational about our self-interest than we are? Would it not be more rational to believe that I have a better idea of what is in my own self-interest than you or Cass Sunstein?

The assault on human freedom is not new. And it is not limited to a academic research. Social critics have long railed about how advertising influences us to buy things that we do not need or want. We are, presumably, silly putty in the hands of Madison Avenue's creative directors.

Of course, if you are exposed to advertising and promotions by Tide and All, why wouldn't the different efforts to influence you cancel themselves out, leaving you with the opportunity to make a free choice?

And what is the alternative to a free market in detergent? Would the nudgers out there be content if there were one kind of detergent on the market, People's Suds. But when we are deprived of our rational capacity to exercise a free choice, are we not diminished and deprived... and therefore, less happy.

For now, no one is very worried about what detergent you buy. They are much more concerned about how you vote, and especially, how political advertising is going to influence your vote. The public debate about the recent Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, had revealed that many leftist politicians are horrified at the outsized influence corporate money might have on future elections.

Ignore for now the quantity of corporate money that has flowed to Democrats, left thinking people are convinced that corporations are natural-born Republicans, and that if they can speak their minds freely they will tilt elections away from the Democrats. And by extension, away from and against their natural self-interest.

The idea is not new. Thomas Frank wrote a well-known book about how Republicans have exerted a nefarious influence over the people of Kansas. You probably know it: What's the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.

Frank argues, amazingly enough, that if the people of Kansas knew what was good for them they would vote Democratic. Happily enough, Frank claims to know better than they do what is in their best interest.

He sees the Republican party representing corporate interests. According to his mythology, corporate interests necessarily repress the middle and lower classes, so therefore, those classes would vote Democratic if they had their wits about them, if they were making a rational and free choice. He must conclude that the minds of Kansans have been hijacked by the Republicans and they they have been induced to vote against what Frank believes to be their self-interest.

Frank's argument is an updated version of Socrates' idea, to the effect, that if you make a mistake, you did not do it voluntarily; you simply did not know any better. Mistakes require re-education, not taking responsibility and reforming the way you behave.

Frank is also mining a modern variation on an idea made famous by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. According to Rousseau's notion of the "general will," people all know what is good for them. Were it not for the complexity of modern institutions, we would all, unanimously, know exactly what was in our best interest.

This is a complex thought, and I am not going to do it real justice in a blog post. Nonetheless, in the words of Rousseau: "As long as several men assembled together consider themselves as a single body, they have only one will which is directed towards their common preservation and general well being."

Without there being any conflicting interests or differences of opinion, Rousseau adds, "the common good makes itself so manifestly evident that only common sense is needed to discern it."

He continues with the following formula for happiness: "When we see among the happiest people in the world bands of peasants regulating the affairs of state under an oak tree, and always acting wisely, can we help feeling a certain contempt for the refinements of other nations, which employ so much skill and effort to make themselves at once illustrious and wretched?"

What these political refinements be? Isn't Rousseau attacking parliamentary democracy, what with its disputations and debates, its differences of opinion, and its failure to discern the common good? Isn't he also attacking the complexities of the legal system with his image of a bunch of wise peasants sitting under an oak tree?

I would also say that he is promoting a reactionary impulse toward some kind of mythic primitive paradise where everyone things the same thing. If some common sense is all that's needed to discern the common good, then anyone who does not agree with the dictates of common sense must be a schemer, a conniver, and a saboteur of the common good.

But, ask yourself this, how much of Rousseau's influence is still present among those who feel that all members of a community must think the same thoughts and feel the same feelings. Can there possibly be a free community where unanimity of opinion is the order of the day? If your goal is unanimity you must root out dissent, and that includes shunning the peoples views clash with the will of the community.

Now that Thomas Frank has drawn our attention to Kansas, why not compare Kansas with New York. Not in terms of whether or not they vote the way Frank wants them to, but in terms of their freedom to think differently. I think we all know that in Manhattan, New York, there is less difference of opinion than there is in a place like Manhattan, Kansas.

Of course, New Yorkers pride themselves on being free thinkers. Many of them consider themselves to be the freest of free thinkers. And yet, if they all think the same thing, how can anyone really claim that they are really free.

Whether New Yorkers gave away their freedom of thought and speech or whether someone came along and took it while they were not even looking, the least we can say is that they have sacrificed their freedom to groupthink. The worst part is, most of them do not even know it.


Robert Pearson said...

Ah, Rousseau's general will. I wrote something about it back during the last Presidential campaign:

Jean Jacques Rousseau’s vision of the social contract, while also noteworthy, included an almost mystic notion of a general will. Such a concept created an unaccountable power elite to interpret and impose this will, by force if necessary.

This is the intellectual foundation upon which the politics of the Clintons, Reid, Pelosi and most of the modern Democratic Party is based. They are the elite, and they know better than the rest of us poor dupes what is in our interest.

Chavez, Castro and their ilk operate on the same principle. I am not saying that these American politicians are the equivalent of bloody tinpot tyrants, but their philosophical principles seem to be similar. When one reads that 60 percent of Americans support the Arizona illegal immigration law, for example, yet Obama's Justice Department sues to overturn it, what does that say about his actual trust in "the people" versus elite opinion?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, Robert, for offering your take on the general will. I agree with you that the Obama administration seems to have made it a basic principle.

I am happy to salute your for writing about it well before any of the rest of us put it together.