Thursday, June 7, 2012

Authority and Politics

“Politics makes strange bedfellows” is the non-explanation for peculiar alliances often found in politics. A current example worth considering is between business elites and creationists. At first glance this doesn’t make much sense. Wouldn’t business leaders want a scientifically literate workforce for competitive reasons? A standard explanation is a short-sighted pandering for votes. But why this particular combination? A different understanding can be reached via a longer historical view. Historically the same combinations appear over and over, in diverse places such as the factions in the Spanish Civil War, back to the origins of what we today call “conservatism” and “liberalism”.

The common attractor combining many otherwise disparate interests is the argument from authority plus essentialism. As discussed earlier essentialist arguments about “noble blood” were originally used to defend the authority and property of kings and aristocrats. The church, which supported the “divine right of kings”, justified both its power and theology through argument from authority and an essentialist worldview. American conservatism, while of course not supporting monarchy, has often served to defend the privilege of old and new aristocracy. This then is the commonality between aristocratic business elite and creationists: both see their interests advanced by the more general acceptance of essentialism and argument from authority. In general the “conservative” wing of politics will accumulate all those groups dependent on essentialism and argument from authority. Also note a "strict father" often argues from authority, matching Lakoff's metaphorical model of the family in politics and religion.

The historical tie between conservatism and argument from authority is natural. In the past almost all argument was done via appeal to authority, so an ideology that is trying to preserve systems from the past will naturally be more bound to use this type of argument. In practice this often becomes circular: old authorities are cited to “prove” that old sources and methods are best or authoritative. This type of argument only began to be discarded during the enlightenment, and amusingly some of their progress came from ignoring sources in the recent past and instead going back to older Greek sources. One can also imagine a dark post-apocalyptic future where the scientific method [or constitutional representative democracy?] is nearly forgotten, and the golden past that is surreptitiously cited and preserved is our scientific present. In that scenario I would call myself a “conservative”. For now we use the expression “reality has a liberal bias”, because science has shown that essentialism has no scientific basis and appeal to authority does not prove anything.

David Brin often discusses this in terms of time orientation. Conservatives seek absolute truths in the past, in old books and cultural norms. Liberals seek provisional truths in the future, in new scientific experiments yet to be performed. Evolution as scientific method is a mixture of old and new, preserving what works while trying new experiments.

Appeal to authority is of course not limited to the conservative side. Marxism, while starting from flawed economic/scientific premises, quickly solidified into doctrinaire arguments from authority of a few documents and leaders. On the libertarian side, Ayn Rand’s objectivism also started from flawed essentialist assumptions, and quickly became driven by argument from authority.

Breaking out from the control of the argument from authority is difficult. As discussed, many institutions depend on it, and others question whether most people are capable of functioning civilly without it. And almost by definition this cannot be taught. Every individual must figure it out for themselves. Like the immortal dialog from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”:
Brian: Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't need to follow me. You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves! You're all individuals! 
Crowd: [in unison] Yes! We're all individuals! 
Brian: You're all different! 
Crowd: [in unison] Yes, we are all different! 
Man in crowd: I'm not... 
Crowd: Shhh!