Sunday, February 2, 2014

Crowdsourcing the Panopticon

In "The Most Dangerous Superstition," by Larken Rose, the author claims that "[t]he distinguishing feature of 'government' is that it is thought to have the moral right to give and enforce commands. [...] What distinguishes a street gang from 'government' is how they are perceived by the people they control." That communicates the basic insight of the book. Rose denies the existence of authority, defined as this moral right to command, and a corresponding obligation of ordinary persons to obey. 

Government is not the ultimate problem, the problem is how we fool ourselves: "the primary danger posed by the myth of 'authority' is to be found [...] in the minds of those *being controlled*." "[T]he underlying problem is never the particular people in power. The underlying problem resides in the minds of the people being oppressed." "If the people continue to adhere to the myth of 'authority,' after any upheaval of a particular regime they will simply create a new set of masters to replace the old set." This myth resists efforts to debunk it: "Even the most heinous examples of man's inhumanity to man, committed in the name of 'authority,' rarely persuade anyone to question the idea of 'authority' per se. Instead, it leads them only to oppose a *particular* set of tyrants." 

The author wants to expose the psychological process that people use to rationalize the status quo and avoid dealing with the truth underneath the myth. "[O]nly a small percentage of the coercion of 'government' is implemented by the enforcers of 'authority'; most of it is implemented by its *victims*." Victims "lack the *mental* ability to resist" tyranny. We live in a crowdsourced panopticon, a prison where the inmates are the guards. "Large scale oppression [...] depends a lot more on mind control than it does on body control. Those who crave dominion gain much more power by convincing their victims that it is *wrong* to disobey their commands than by convincing their victims that it is merely *dangerous* (but moral) to disobey." Unfortunately, the book does not reveal any deep psychological principle that can help us avoid such error. Rose cites psychological research such as the Milgram experiment, but gives no hint how to overcome the tendencies he discusses. (Michael Huemer's book "The Problem of Authority" deals with similar topics as Rose's book, but takes a less strident tone, as is appropriate for an academic philosopher.)

He attacks the idea of the "consent of the governed": "If there is mutual consent, it is not 'government'; if there is governing, there is no consent. [...] Whoever has the right to make the rules for a particular place is, by definition, the owner of that place." This "logically implies that everything in the 'country' is the property of the politicians." "If the organization called 'government' stopped using any threats or violence, except to defend against aggressors, it would cease to be 'government'." What if governments took the consent of the governed seriously, allowing them some reasonable way to opt out?

Rose emphasizes the distinction between morality and obedience: "Morality and obedience are often direct opposites." That is, in some cases one must disobey authorities in order to act morally.

Rose denies the possibility of a gradual transition from tyranny to freedom: "If 'authority' outranks conscience, then the common folk are all the property of the ruling class, in which case freedom cannot and should not exist. If, on the other hand, conscience outranks 'authority,' then each person owns himself, and each must always follow his own judgement of right and wrong, no matter what any self-proclaimed 'authority' or 'law' may command. There cannot be a gradual shift between the two, nor can there be a compromise." From the standpoint of a particular person this is true, but society is composed of many persons, not all of whom will experience their epiphany at the same time. And even if we did, we would then face a Hayekian challenge of creating new voluntary institutions to replace the old coercive ones. Some people need more than a book full of interesting ideas before they will be willing to gamble on something new.  They need to see examples of people actually cooperating and succeeding without coercion. Supersaturated solution crystallizes, or seed sprouts and blooms?

Rose disregards politics: "Voting is an act of aggression" because elections "are about arguing over how everyone should be *forced* to behave" and what they must support financially. "There is a mind-bogglingly huge disconnect between what the average person views as 'civilized behavior' on an individual basis, and what he views as legitimate and civilized when it comes to the actions of 'authority'" and they "demand that 'government' do things they would never dream of doing on their own." "[I]f the goal is individual freedom, 'political action' is not only worthless, it is hugely counterproductive, because the main thing it accomplishes is to legitimize the ruling class's power." Anyone who plays the game of politics will "aggravate the problem by inadvertently legitimizing the system of domination and subjugation which wears the label of 'government'." 

But if voting can strengthen statism, shouldn't there be some opposite activity that weakens it? Let's call it Countervoting. What would it look like? It would reinforce a person's conscience, while weakening her desire to obey authority mindlessly. It would provide a way to hack the panopticon. Rose did not mention that idea in the book, Countervoting is my concept, but perhaps he would say reading his book is a form of Countervoting. But I want something just like voting, a ritual that naturally tends to move your mind toward autonomy, in spite of whatever thoughts you may consciously think while participating, just as I can think "government stinks" while casting my ballot.

Rose's prescription to cure society's illness is vague and negative: 
"The ultimate solution is negative and passive: Stop advocating aggression against your neighbors. Stop engaging in rituals that condone the initiation of violence and reinforce the notion that some people have the right to rule. Stop thinking and speaking and acting in ways that reinforce the myth that normal people should be, and must be, beholden to some master, and should obey such a master rather than follow their own consciences." "[W]hen even a significant minority of people outgrow the superstition, and change their behavior accordingly, the world will drastically change." Freedom seekers can "achieve it without the need for any election or revolution." 

What sort of behavior change does he mean? He gives us vague hints: "If people truly understood [...] they would simply stop surrendering their property to the political parasites."  But the "idea of disobeying 'authority' [...] is more disturbing to them than the idea of being a slave." Rose seems to recommend non-compliance and disobedience. He has demonstrated this himself, and spent time in prison for failure to pay income tax. This strategy may appeal to a brave few, but has little to offer early adopters. What if we could find some positive, active, reasonably safe activity to build people's confidence?

Noncompliance can come only after enlightenment. We must create a new paradigm while removing the old one. How do we build an alternative paradigm in people's minds? The language and behavior of the dominant paradigm work to reinforce it. How can we resist this indoctrination? Perhaps Rose thinks everyone should read his book and swear off obedience. But many will not read this book, and for reasons he discusses in the book, those that read the book who are not already convinced are not very likely to change their minds. (Jonathan Haidt's book, "The Righteous Mind," gives some theories about why this is true, where it comes from, and what Rose might want to try to do about it.)

We need more than disobedience, and less. We already have plenty of disobedience, in the form of black market participation, drug use and sales, illegal gambling, prostitution, and other victimless crimes. What we need is a way to get all those "criminals" to understand Rose's idea, to abandon the dangerous superstition of the title. But they won't read his book, they have political biases, and they are unlikely to act on an untested idea. We need a way for them to participate directly, to create temporary autonomous zones, to protect each other from violence, and then turn the TAZs into permanent autonomous zones. We need to sell them safety and freedom, show them examples of people living peaceful, cooperative lives without coercion. We need to crowdsource the free zone. Rose's book gives us little help with that, it is all theory, no practice.

Authority has already lost, according to Rose, because it is an illusion. "If the alleged 'authority' upon which the entire concept of 'government' relies is merely an illusion [...], then saying that society cannot exist without 'government' is exactly as reasonable as saying that Christmas cannot occur without Santa Claus. Society *already* exists without 'government', and has from the beginning." This sounds absurd, so what does he mean? He means that we have lied to ourselves about how society works, what society is. He means that the organization we call government is actually something else, a polite Mafia with good public relations. He means that when enough of us are willing to give it a try, we may find that cooperation beats coercion.

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