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Woo Woo and Political Cults — the Simple Formula for Success Part 2Carl Milsted, Jr on May 7 18:09:15
Originally published January 13, 2020
In Part 1 I presented a very simple strategic planning formula to compare possible courses of action. (Some might say simplistic formula, and they would be correct, but I’m trying to keep the math friendly.) I then applied the formula retroactively to my own political career as an illustration.
There is a major problem with this formula: it doesn’t really apply to the individual steps needed to carry out any meaningful political action.
Just what is the value of a clipboard of petition signatures? Or even ballot access? Of a congressional campaign that gets 3% of the vote? Or getting a candidate into a televised debates? Or even for winning a legislative office?
That is, there is no intrinsic value in these accomplishments by themselves. There is no payoff in politics until you positively affect a law or a regulation. (Unless you are corrupt…) But to get to the point of actually affecting how the government actions requires hundreds of steps, many of which are costly and uncertain.
Politics is a long slog.
This makes motivation difficult. Too much rational strategic planning can make the problem worse! The return on effort on the myriad small steps needed to achieve big goals can be vanishingly small until the endgame is reached. And the math needed to even attempt to calculate the value of the early stages is apt to frighten off your followers.
Why Woo Woo Sells
The problem is not limited to politics. Launching a successful business, getting in shape, mastering a complicated subject, and other long slogs all suffer from this problem. What is the value of the next step?
In all cases the value is minuscule and conditional. One healthy meal won’t make you healthy. One problem solved won’t make you a master of physics. One lesson won’t make you a decent pianist.
This is why we have a woo woo industry. This is why stores have bookshelves filled with books on how to suspend rationality: Positive Thinking, Affirmations, Visualization, Habits, Self Hypnosis, Ready Fire Aim…
This is also why we have colleges. Many subjects can be mastered by simply reading books and working some problems. Classroom time could be replaced by watching online videos. But people spend huge amounts on college regardless, and part of the reason is valid: college create artificial near term returns on effort. That single homework set won’t make you an engineer by itself, but it will avoid a bad grade and a stern look from Professor Crusty.
Our Built in Irrationality
Is Man a rational animal? Psychology says no! We are equipped with a host of cognitive biases. It’s enough to make one question both Natural Selection and Intelligent Design.
Except, as I just pointed out, irrationality works. Let’s examine a view biases in light of this insight.
The Planning Fallacy leads people to make wildly optimistic schedules and cost estimates. This leads to gigantic cost overruns, projects which don’t pay for themselves, and worse.
But it also allows us to embark upon audacious goals, where uncertainty is great. This can be useful at times.
The Sunk Cost Fallacy leads people to persist on a project long after evidence shows that the project should be abandoned. Once again, this is a source of wasted effort.
But it also motivates people to persist on long projects where the marginal value of each step is tiny, but the eventual benefits can be huge.
Herd Mentality. Staying motivated when you have control of all decisions can be hard enough. They problem magnifies hugely when multiple people need to be motivated. Motivation affects the probability of success, after all.
Assorted herd mentality biases can come to the rescue. Persist because others are doing their share. Go to a rally and get psyched up. Follow the charismatic leader.
It can also lead to disaster, like lemmings marching over a cliff.
The Power and Danger of Political Cults
For large groups especially, motivation and morale effect probability of success. We have wild nonlinearity. It can take mass quantities of woo woo, cognitive biases, and herd mentality to hold a political movement together long enough to get something done.
Irrationality is power!
Such magical thinking can also lead to repeated defeats, wasted efforts, and/or outright disaster.
In my case it led me to sticking with a non viable course of action for over two decades.
Let’s take a look at a couple of political cults in the light of the Simple Formula for Success: the Karl Marx’s version of socialism and Murray Rothbard’s version of libertarianism. We’ll look at how the irrational elements of both movements affect the various terms in the Formula.
First, review the Formula:
- Net Expected Value
- Probability of Success
- Gross Value if Successful
- Cost of Action
- Probability of Implementation
- Probability that Measure will work as advertised
The Cult of Karl Marx
Karl Marx can be hard to read. His ideas are based heavily on the crazy ideas of Hegel and some long discredited components of classical economics — the Labor Theory of Value, especially. When tried, his ideas have usually led to mass starvation, reigns of terror, and cults of personality that would make a Pharaoh envious.
Yet his cult persists, and it is growing among the younger generation in the U.S.
Let’s look at some components of Marxism and how they relate to the equation terms above.
A magically beautiful utopian vision. Marx promised to do away with inequality, poverty, and even government — paradise on Earth! He cranked up to eleven!
Historical inevitability. Through the authority of hard to read pseudoscience, Marx claimed inevitable victory. True Believers can thus estimate to be 1.0. The only uncertainty is when.
Defer all science. Marx claimed to have developed scientific socialism. Yet his theories are by design untestable until after worldwide implementation. This protects from dangerous questions. It also provides built in excuses for the enormous failures of Marxist states to date. The experiments weren’t big enough! The capitalist U.S. made the Soviet experiment fail!
Go full on negative. Marx focused the bulk of his writings on the shortcomings of Capitalism. Exactly what the Dictatorship of the Proletariat was supposed to do was kept intentionally vague. I have spent many an hour arguing with Marxists and they always dodged and weaved when I try to get them to define true Marxism. Always they move the subject to picking apart either my ideas or the status quo. The closest thing I could get to an answer was “Read this book…” Such dodging protects from even theoretical examination.
Dismiss all objections as bourgeois. Only capitalist pigs object to a bit of totalitarianism and mass murder on the way to Paradise. So much for the cost term ( ).
Marx’s followers added a few innovations to strengthen the cult.
Forget democracy, build a revolutionary cadre. Convincing an electoral majority to adopt radical ideas is hard. So start a violent revolution instead! Build a cadre of fanatics willing to do whatever it takes. Insert them into society’s true power centers. Why wait for the Proletariat to revolt? “We” can force the issue. Near term is thus boosted.
Kill the doubters and dissidents. Nothing like a good reign of terror to boost herd mentality in your favor.
Deconstruct and deny objective reality. “Everything is Illusion, Consensus Reality, blah, blah, blah..Therefore your arguments are wrong, or excuses for Patriarchy, or whatnot.” Welcome to the Marxist rot that has ruined the value of a liberal arts education. Turn young minds into mush and you can brainwash at will.
The Murray Rothbard Cult
The libertarian movement is composed of multiple factions: leftover classical liberals, isolationist conservatives who tolerate hippies, hippies who like capitalism, Objectivists, radical capitalists who believe that Public Choice theory shows that anarchism can work better than democracy, and the cult of Murray Rothbard.
Here I focus on the cultish elements of Rothbard’s writings, and how they prevent many Libertarian activists from thinking rationally when it comes to electoral strategy.
Rothbard’s writings are not as cult inducing as Marx. His writings are a mix of cult induction and often legitimate economics. Unlike Marx, Rothbard’s writings are readable; his prose sparkles at times. Unlike Marx, Rothbard presented a clear vision for his not-quite-utopian future. There is something there to pick apart, and detractors do.
But the cultish elements of Rothbard’s writings are powerful for those of us who love liberty. I was caught up in his spell for about a decade. Like Marx, he encouraged an Us/Them mindset, and he erected shields against scientific scrutiny of his theories and political strategies.
Rothbard went negative…a lot. At times he promoted his ideas in the positive and gave legitimate critiques of the alternatives. But such writings were also peppered with hand waving and ad hominem attacks. This tradition persists at the Mises Institute. (Rothbard was Ludwig von Mises’ student.)
Rothbard avoided experimental testing of his ideas. He argued that economics should be a priori theorizing, much like Euclidean geometry. To question this approach or his axioms of human action is to be guilty of SCIENTISM!! (I have been on the receiving end of such venom.)
All critics of pure libertarianism are thieves and worse. Taxation is theft, therefore if you advocate taxation you are a thief. With such a framing in mind, it is thus easy to dismiss critics of pure libertarianism.
Rothbard ruled out realistic electoral politics. Which is worse: slavery or the income tax? According to Rothbard’s axiomatic economics there is no way to tell! All we know is that initiating force is bad, and that there is a social welfare maximum if all force initiation is eliminated. The only moral system is complete and immediate anarcho capitalism. Anyone who argues for incremental measures is just as bad as the socialists.
The Libertarian Party persists despite a half century of electoral failure. The persistence, and possibly the failure, stem in large part from the cultish aspects of Rothbard’s writings. (I cannot know without experiment whether a more moderate Libertarian Party could have won elections. I can safely say that the extremism demanded by the Rothbard School repels the typical voter.)
Motivation without the Woo Woo?
Irrationality works…except when it doesn’t.
And those failures can be far worse than doing nothing.
Without Marx, the socialists would not have been nearly as effective at taking over countries.
On the other hand, we might well be seeing more successful communes and worker owned coops if communists did some actual science.
Likewise, if more libertarians respected political reality, we’d see either a broader libertarian themed third party or libertarians trying to influence larger movements.
Fortunately there are some radical libertarians who do respect reality and scientific scrutiny. The Free State Project, Charter Cities movement, and the Seasteading movement all focus on creating demos of various libertarian ideas. Scientific experiments! None of them require worldwide revolution or majority vote to allow testing.
In the next post I’ll look at some other ways to do creative politics without resorting to irrationality.
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