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Monday, July 25, 2016

Have We Become a Nation of Servants?

Do we elect officials and then merely return to our lives of servitude?

Imagine you have been asked to watch a video of two teams passing a basketball and count the number of passes made by one of the teams. Now, suppose that in the middle of the action, a person wearing a full-bodied gorilla suit steps into the center of the scene for a full nine seconds, thumps her chest, and walks off. Would you notice the gorilla? Based on a famous replicated experiment by psychology professors Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, over half of us would not notice the gorilla.

When people devote their attention to a particular area or aspect, they tend not to notice unexpected things.In their book The Invisible Gorilla, Chabris and Simon explain the phenomenon of “inattentional blindness” as an “error of perception [resulting] from a lack of attention to an unexpected object.” Chabris and Simon further explain that “when people devote their attention to a particular area or aspect of their visual world, they tend not to notice unexpected objects, even when those unexpected objects are salient, potentially important, and appear right where they are looking.”

We are so busy considering what we think is important, that we literally overlook other very significant events. Most of us may not see the “gorilla,” but that doesn’t mean the gorilla isn’t there.

The “Gorilla” in This Year’s Election

No matter whether Trump or Clinton is elected this year, the cause of liberty is certain to take more blows. Following every pronouncement Trump and Clinton make keeps us fixated on the “ball” being passed while we ignore the “gorilla.” What Trump or Clinton believes may be important, but what we believe is even more important. What we believe is the gorilla.

Do we believe that politicians can and should control the economy, or do we believe that the attempts to control are counterproductive, misguided, and have unintended consequences? If a critical mass of us believes that politicians can and should control the economy, we will cheer policies such as a $15 an hour minimum wage.

Do we believe in getting something for nothing? If so, we will have a sense of entitlement and our politicians will keep growing entitlement spending, which already consumes 64% of the budget, until the nation is bankrupted. As Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy writes, “Entitlement assumes: this is mine. I’ve earned it.” How many times, for example, have we heard public employee unions dismiss any call for reform of their bloated and unsustainable pensions with exactly those words?

Do we believe in a win-lose static world? If so, politicians who promise increasing tariffs on imported goods will be appealing.

Do we define ourselves by superficial characteristics such as the color of our skin or perceived nationality?  If so, politicians will pander to our primitive tribal allegiances.

We are not victims of the beliefs of politicians, we are victims of our own collective beliefs.

If a “Stalin” had been born in the United States in the 1930s, would there have been demand for his services as a politician? There well may have been people with Stalinist thinking in the United States who dreamed of achieving political office; however, we never heard of them because the number of Americans who would have been open to collectivizing farming and starving farmers was negligible. In short, as was the case for the Russians, our collective beliefs are the seeds of the government we reap.

Václav Havel was a playwright, philosopher, and the first president of Czechoslovakia after communism was overthrown. In his book The Art of the Impossible, Havel wrote,

Consciousness precedes Being, and not the other way around, as Marxists claim. For this reason, the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human modesty, and in human responsibility. Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better.

“Consciousness precedes Being.” Simply, change occurs from the inside out and not from the top down. American revolutionary Thomas Paine in his pamphlet Agrarian Justice put it this way: “An army of principles will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot.”

The Great Man Theory Has Us Looking in the Wrong Direction

The great man theory is exemplified in the words of the 19th Century Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” If history is shaped by great man, what role does that leave for the rest of us? We must follow the plans that the great ones have designed. Then, how much room is there for order to emerge that is the product of human action but not human design?

The less a nation is directed by conscious design, the more it can provide a model of genuine greatness.In his essay The Founding Father of Fascism, Jeffrey Tucker explains why believing the great man theory of history creates a mindset that threatens freedom. “The less a nation is directed by conscious design,” Tucker observes, “the more it can provide a model of genuine greatness.” Start looking toward the immeasurable creative power inherent in the market and stop looking for the great man.

Believing that all will be well if the right person obtains office is a vestige of the great man theory. Many still believe in the great man theory. Why else would so much time and effort, not to mention passion, be spent on who becomes our political leaders?

Tocqueville’s Warning

In his classic observations of the new nation, 1835’s Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville expressed profound admiration for the American people. He observed the deep level of knowledge that Americans had about their system of government:

I have scarcely ever encountered a single man of the common people in America who did not perceive with surprising ease the obligations entailed in the laws of Congress and those which owe their beginnings to the laws of his own state, nor who could not separate the matters belonging to the general prerogatives of the Union from those regulated by his local legislature and who could not point to where the competence of the federal courts begins and the limitation of the state tribunals ends.

Why would Americans be so informed about their government? As Joshua Charles writes in his book Liberty’s Secrets, America’s founding is unique among nations; we are a nation founded on principles and not on nationality:

Never before had a people through reason, debate, and deliberation decided for themselves and their children upon a form of government most conducive to their happiness and prosperity. For the vast majority of human history, such matters had always been decided by force, accident, or birth – some were fit to rule, others fit to obey.

Tocqueville foresaw that if despotism came to America, it would not be of the old-world European kind; it would seemingly be more benign, an “all-powerful government, but one elected by the citizens;” deadly, nevertheless, to freedom. Look around us today. Presidential executive orders, congressional legislation, and ruling by bureaucratic fiat are shifting more and more power to the federal government. Sadly, a critical mass of the public is comfortable with this – as long as the power is used in the direction that they favor.

Democratic voting to elect our powerful masters is no guarantee of freedom. If Tocqueville was writing today, he might pen this same observation about the voting public in this year’s election: “Under this system, citizens leave their state of dependence just long enough to choose their masters and then they return to it.” If American-style despotism deepens, Tocqueville forewarns that it will:

Spread its arms over the whole of society, covering the surface of social life with a network of petty, complicated, detailed, and uniform rules through which even the most original minds and the most energetic of spirits cannot reach the light in order to rise above the crowd. It does not break men’s wills but it does soften, bend, and control them. Rarely does it force men to act, but it constantly opposes what actions they perform. It does not tyrannize but it inhibits, represses, drains, snuffs out, dulls so much effort that finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as shepherd.

In a powerful and prophetic passage, Tocqueville wrote as if he were admonishing us today: “It is, indeed, difficult to imagine how men who have completely given up the habit of self-government could successfully choose those who should do it for them.” And then the punchline: “A liberal, energetic, and prudent government can [never] emerge from the voting of a nation of servants.”

Are we willing to challenge our misguided beliefs? Only when we decide to examine our beliefs and stop being a “nation of servants” will our political leadership change.

  • Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. 

    To receive Barry's essays subscribe at his Substack, Mindset Shifts.

    His essays also appear at the American Institute for Economic Research, Intellectual Takeout, Learn Liberty, The Epoch Times and many other publications. Barry’s essays have been translated into many languages, most frequently Spanish and Portuguese. He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership.

    Barry holds a Ph.D. in economics from Rutgers University and a B.S. in mathematical statistics from CCNY.