Category Archives: General

Humans Are Pack Animals Who Pretend To Reason

We think we’re soooo smart.

Humans. We think we come up with our political positions through reasoned analysis, and then join the political party that’s aligned to our beliefs. We’re ideologically honest and consistent. We’re dispassionate referees looking at evidence and argument and making informed choices.

And we’ve always been at war with Eastasia, right?
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The truth is that this is all a bunch of bull. We’re pack animals. Human reason has done amazing things for us as a species, but we’re still pack animals imbued with an “us vs them” mentality, and that continually trumps the weak “reason” we rely upon.

I was struck by this by two posts I’ve read recently. The first, of course, was Kevin’s post from yesterday. It was a great post about the cultural and religious differences between the South and the rest of America. Two passages are directly relevant to what I want to discuss today:

Another interesting thing about Southern culture is how it tends to leave its mark on surrounding cultures. There are reasons why in particular heavily Catholic south Louisiana, pre-dominately Catholic Hispanics in Texas, and the Catholic Cuban-American community in Miami are more conservative than Catholics in New England and the Midwest. Those Southern values of individualism, hard work, personal responsibility and family values have rubbed off on those communities.

Here’s an exit question: do you think many secularists replace religion with a belief in the state and social justice and that’s why they’re hostile to limited government? Let us know in the comments.

In the first passage, he points out that seemingly disparate groups (Catholics in the South vs Protestants in the South) frequently find themselves having more in common that what should be clearly defined allegiances (Catholics, regardless of location). To me, this suggests a more fundamental principle at work–we align our beliefs to feel comfortable with those around us, not based upon objective reason.

His second passage suggests the hubris of human reason. He’s asking whether secularists “replace” religion with belief in the State, and this explains why atheists tend to fall on the left side of the spectrum.

As for that second passage, let me quote Warren @ Coyote Blog, about how political forces must align opposite to each other–highly polarized, in fact–by simple explanations of group dynamics:

So here is my theory to explain many party political positions: Consider an issue where one party is really passionate about something. The other party might tend to initially agree. But over time there is going to be pressure for the other party to take the opposite stand, whether it is consistent with some sort of party ideological framework or not. After 9/11, the Republicans staked out a position that they thought that Islam as practiced in several countries was evil and dangerous and in some cases needed to be subdued by force of arms. In my framework, this pushed Democrats into becoming defenders of modern Islam, even at the same time that domestic politics was pushing them to be critical of Christian religion as it affected social policy (i.e. abortion and later gay marriage). Apparently, the more obvious position of “yeah, we agree much of the Islamic world is illiberal and violent, but we don’t think we can or should fix it by arms” is too subtle a position to win elections. I fear we have gotten to a point where if either party is for something, they have to be in favor of mandating it, and if they are against something, they have to be in favor of using the full force of government to purge it from this Earth. And the other party will default to the opposite position.

Expecting most partisans to be ideologically consistent is expecting pack mentality to be trumped by reason. The fact that it rarely is suggests that being a member of a pack is such as strong emotional evolutionary drive that people will reason themselves into other positions rather than fight the orthodoxy.
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You see this consistently in politics. When Bush was in power, Republicans dismissed concern over warrantless wiretaps as the ravings of civil libertarians who were more worries about the feelings of terrorists than the safety of our nation. Put Obama in the White House, and suddenly it’s government spying on our most treasured private secrets! When Bush was in power, the anti-war left was in the streets, demonstrating about our illegal war. Put Obama in the White House, and the left goes silent while suddenly the right slams Obama for his actions on Libya.

In these cases, we’re more worried about solidarity with our pack than adherence to ideological consistency. Now, that’s not everyone. There are outliers. There are still hawks on the right that want Obama going into the Middle East guns a-blazin’. There are still those on the left more willing to cheer Edward Snowden than Obama on government intelligence. But it’s amazing how quiet those folks are today.

Most people, however, are blind to this inconsistency. They find rationalizations to change their position to become consistent with the position of their pack. They smooth out outlying positions by segmenting themselves into one part of their political party (i.e. they’re a Conservative, not a Republican, or they’re an Environmental Democrat, not a class warrior). But over time, it’s amazing how closely their beliefs tend to mirror those of their party.

So, back to Kevin’s question: do secularists replace religion with the State?

I think they do, but not consciously. Going back to Coyote’s point about people defining themselves in opposition, what you’ve seen in the Republican party is that Republicans have become “the party of the religious conservatives”. Secularists look at that party and say to themselves, “I am not like them. I am not a member of that pack.” They seek out alternative packs. For some, who are much more stridently in favor of small government, they end up in the libertarian camp. For most, though, they end up falling in with Democrats. Democrats seem so much more like themselves.

Why are Democrats the secular party, despite the fact that they’re overwhelmingly Christian just like the Republicans? Well, as Coyote states, when the other party tries to own religion, you take the opposite position. Republicans are loudly the party of the “traditional Christian values”. Democrats may still be Christian, but they don’t wear religion on their sleeve quite so heavily.

So those who are turned off by religion jump in with the Democrats. From there, the cognitive dissonance of identifying with leftists on religious grounds works its magic until they slowly start coming around on other issues. They start seeing Republicans as not as compassionate as their new comrades. They start believing that because their new friends view “compassion” as being in favor of government redistribution of wealth, they start to believe in redistribution. In short, they start aligning with the people who surround them and actively distancing themselves from those against them. To quote Kevin, those leftist values have “rubbed off on them”.

The same thing happens the other direction. After 9/11, there was a serious rift in the Democratic party between those who were more security-oriented and those who weren’t. Republicans already owned the “strong national defense” brand, and many Democrats started to break with their old party on that front. What happened? You end up with people like Dennis Miller, who was a leftist prior to 9/11, ended up on right wing talk radio. Was he always a conservative in disguise? No. But the issue of high importance to him [fighting terrorists] caused him to change pack, and he couldn’t handle the cognitive dissonance of not accepting the pack’s other beliefs as well. Christopher Hitchens is another good example. He broke with the Democrats over Islam, and over time started finding himself more and more in agreement with Republicans on other matters. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful thing.

Even libertarians are not immune. We like to believe we’re free-thinkers, and we certainly consider the circular firing squad to be our favorite pastime. But the libertarian purity tests have the aggregate effect that we end up defining ourselves as far to the extreme as possible to distance ourselves from “the Coke/Pepsi parties”. As a result, people end up describing themselves as “small-l libertarians” or “libertarian-leaning Republicans” because we’ve defined our brand to be so extreme that many are not willing to associate with our pack. I was once told–by Eric, the founder of The Liberty Papers, no less–that I seemed “too normal” for libertarianism.

Going back to Kevin’s points about religion, this is also the case with atheism. So many people who don’t believe in god call themselves agnostics or “spiritual”. Atheism as a brand has a reputation defining itself as anti-religious, and that brand’s reputation is heavy on defiance, non-conformity, and anger. People are scared of that brand, don’t see themselves as part of that pack, so they shy away from the label entirely. Niches, whether political or religious, tend to become insular and more extreme as they define themselves opposite moderation.

So, what’s the takeaway? Well, it’s first and foremost to recognize who and what we are. You can’t solve a problem unless you identify that it’s a problem at all. Pack mentality is one of the key attributes of confirmation bias. It’s one of the key reasons we engage in appeal to motive in arguments–we fundamentally see “them” as being motivated by everything that’s evil and wrong with the world while excusing our side as well-meaning even when wrong. And when we follow Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment, we are explicitly allowing pack allegiance to trump ideological consistency. We value “our side” winning more than we value the truth.

We have natural tendencies towards pack mentality. This is part of our evolutionary biology. But it’s dangerous, and doesn’t have any place in the modern, multicultural, globally interconnected world in which we live today. We need to recognize it and guard against it. Because when you actually sit down and break bread with the people who seem so different to you, you find out that we’re really not as different as we seem. We need to come around to a world that’s not “us vs them”, because when it really comes down to it, it’s all just “us”.

Epic Takedown Of “You Didn’t Build That”

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Over at Cafe Hayek is a must read takedown of the entire “YOU DIDN’T BUILD THAT!” charge.

Don Boudreaux lays out a cohesive, detailed, and very compelling case against the entire mentality behind “you didn’t build that.” In one sense, the charge is true. Whether public or private, the infrastructure and the products of an entire worldwide market in goods and services is a key enabler to allow entrepreneurs to be successful. This includes things like government roads, education systems, etc. This is true, and not really a point of argument.

But the “you didn’t build that” charge takes it one step further and places the credit for successful entrepreneurship at the feet of all that infrastructure. If this were the case, entrepreneurship would be easy. But it’s not. It’s what entrepreneurs do to create value above and beyond all that infrastructure that makes them successful. And that’s a story that isn’t well-written anywhere–until now.

I try to set a high bar for linking off-site, since I so rarely post. I do it when I see something that really deserves a read, and this post cleared that bar easily.

Walter Scott Shooting Is Reminder of Why We Must Defend Our Right to Record

A police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina has been charged with murder in connection with the shooting death of an unarmed motorist named Walter Scott.

Patrolman Michael Slager initially claimed that following a traffic stop for a broken headlight, motorist Walter Scott tried to take Slager’s taser. The two struggled, Slager feared for his life, and shot Scott as the two fought over the taser.

Then an absolutely devastating video emerged. The video shows Slager shoot the unarmed Scott eight times in the back as Scott tries to fee. After the shooting, Slager handcuffs the dying man, leaves him lying facedown without medical attention, and retrieves an object to drop near the body.

After the video emerged, Slager, a five-year veteran with the force, was taken into custody, charged with murder and denied bond at his initial hearing. He was fired from his position with the force. The attorney who went on record with Slager’s story about the shooting occurring during a struggle over the taser is no longer representing him.

Query:

How do you think it would have played out without the video?

All over the country, our right to record is under constant assault from police who treat citizens recording them as law-breaking obstructionists. Walter Scott’s death is a stark and heartbreaking reminder of why we must vigorously defend the right to record.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.

Quote of the Day: Jason Pye on the Smarter Sentencing Act

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Jason Pye, former contributor to The Liberty Papers and current Director of Justice Reform at FreedomWorks posted an article yesterday for Rare Liberty about some promising political developments in the area of criminal justice reform. Perhaps one of the most promising of these developments at the federal level is a bill being considered is S.502 – The Smarter Sentencing Act.

Jason explains why he believes this reform is a step in the right direction:

With federal prison spending booming, an unlikely bipartisan alliance has emerged to bring many of these successful state-level reforms to the federal justice system. Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have joined with Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) to reform federal mandatory minimums – a one-size-fits-all, congressionally mandated approach to sentencing.

[…]

The Smarter Sentencing Act would expand the federal “safety valve” – an exception to federal mandatory minimum sentences for low-level nonviolent offenders with little or no criminal history – and cuts in half mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders. This more rational approach to sentencing will reduce costs on already overburdened taxpayers. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated a net $3 billion cost-savings over a decade. The Justice Department believes the bill will save an eye-popping $24 billion over 20 years.

The benefits of the Smarter Sentencing Act may not end with the fiscal savings. It could also reverse the damage done by federal mandatory minimum sentences in certain communities, which, as Lee recently explained, “have paid a high cost for the stiff sentences that mandatory minimums require.”

Most Police Abuse Committed by a Handful of Officers

cop punches woman

Jonathan Turley at Res Ipsa Loquitur has posted an interesting snippet about a study concluding that the majority of police abuse incidents are committed by a small group of officers:

… A relatively small number of officers are responsible for over half of police abuse claims. We have seen similar results in studies of malpractice cases of doctors. Yet, this small group of officers not only tarnish the reputations of all officers but cost massive amounts of money. …

Law professor Craig Futterman, who runs the University of Chicago’s Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project, has done some interesting work in this area. His study of the Chicago Police Department found the same officers fueling these costs. It suggests that a better job of self-policing could result in substantial savings for police departments and more importantly greater protection for citizens.

UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz has found similar results.

In the wake of the shooting of two police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, and the executions of two officers in New York City in December, it is unquestionably important to keep this in mind. I generally think most of us in the reform movement already know it.

The problem is that we lack confidence in police efforts to police their own. As Turley notes:

…Most cities still resist keeping records that would help identify such officers and track patterns. This would seem to offer obvious areas of reform for departments. We have certainly seen anecdotally that officers involved in controversies often seem to have checkered histories of prior lawsuits or serious complaints. The problem is the political will to implement the academic findings.

The lengths departments are willing to go to remain ignorant of the bad apples in their barrels are reflected in the costs passed on to taxpayers. Chicago paid a half a billion dollars over a ten year period. New York City paid that amount over a five year period. A single division in Los Angeles cost the city $125 million.

Yet Lou Reiter a former Los Angeles deputy police chief who trains police departments on “liability management,” says departments rarely ask themselves what they could have done differently to avoid those costs. Instead they blame the courts or the public for not understanding the difficulties inherent in the job.

Many do not keep records or make an effort to run the numbers to identify the “relative handful of officers” who account for half of all complaints:

While New York City pays the Police Department’s skyrocketing legal bills, the department makes almost no effort to learn from lawsuits brought against it and its officers. The department does not track which officers were named, what claims were alleged or what payouts were made in the thousands of suits brought every year.

What’s more, officers’ personnel files contain no record of the allegations and results of lawsuits filed against them. Neither the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau nor the Civilian Complaint Review Board investigates allegations made in lawsuits, and police officials review only the litigation files of the few dozen cases each year that result in payments of $250,000 or more.

The majority of police officers are innocent of abuse.

But when good men do nothing, evil triumphs.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.
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