Based on Siva Vaidhyanathan’s book, “Antisocial Media.”
“The intellectual roots of the rejection, or at least retreat, of the state from the political imagination lie in public choice theory, a branch of economics and policy analysis that subjected the functions of the state to many of the same assumptions of self-interest to which private sector actors were put. Once public choice theory impressed economists and political scientist, it became awkward to profess the idea that public servants, even low-paid social workers and teachers, were chiefly motivated by a commitment to public service. They were considered operators who would work the system and play games just like any other self-interested rational actor would. James Buchanan, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1986 for his work on public choice, wrote that he hoped his work would refresh and clarify debate about policy and politics. His main target was the idealized version of the state, one that offered answers to all problems and often seemed to be described as both omniscient and benevolent. It certainly did. Public choice was not the only influence that significantly altered how voters, leaders, and writers viewed the prospect of state action since 1980. But it certainly worked its way into the speeches and policies of both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.”
“While the influence of public choice theory offered scholars, legislators and regulators some important and bracing lessons by making them aware of real problems such as regulatory capture and rent-seeking, it contributed to a steady reduction of life into a matter of games and rewards. It undermined concern about market failure, when commercial actors and systems cannot provide for an important public good such as education, law enforcement, national defense, parks, basic research, or art. In the 1960s, before public choice and other market fundamentalist ideas gained currency, the United States could create the National Endowment for the Arts because Congress decided that the public deserved such things and the market clearly was not capable of supporting symphonies, composers, poets, and educational children’s television. Once market fundamentalism rose through the 1980s and 1990s, market failure arguments grew rare.”
Mister Vaidhyanathan’s goal in these two paragraphs is to describe a large and fundamental change that has taken place in the United States. Academics, in order to study how people made decisions, simplified things by reducing their motivations to self-interest. For academics this is fine. However, academic ideas lead to practical applications. Practical applications lead to people using academic ideas without a complete understand of their implications, which leads to simplifications. As word of mouth increases things get simplified even more as people try to understand this new idea and apply it to their own lives. This is the nature of human society and how it changes. After all, there is no point in learning new things if you do not allow them to change your life.
Unfortunately, we have taken that useful simplification and gone too far with it. One of the problems with present day politics in the United States is that everybody assumes everybody else is out for their own means and ends. One of the consequences of this frame of mind is that people are seen as inflexible and adversarial. Since my goals are different than your goals, there cannot be any common ground between us. Another consequence is that people are expected to be more and more responsible for their own actions and conditions. We have made this mistake of going too far with things before.
When the biologist Charles Darwin came out with his theory of evolution it was revolutionary to scientists of the time, 1859. In fact, one fellow biologist, Thomas Henry Huxley, after reading Darwin’s “On the Origins of the Species” said, “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that before.”
Darwin’s theory says, according to Wikipedia, “that all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual’s ability to compete, survive, and reproduce.” This idea spread through scientific minds, then the minds of social elites and finally to the popular culture of the day. Along the way, it got simplified to “survival of the fittest.”
As a description of life for the evolution of animals and plants, including humans, on the unfathomable time scale of evolution, survival of the fittest is a fair description of what goes on in Nature. However, people went too far, applied Darwinism to society and came up with social darwinism. Interestingly, social darwinism is one of the founding principles of both laissez-faire capitalism and political conservatism of the day.
Social darwinism applied to the national economy means that you do not regulate businesses because doing so interferes with the national economy developing to its strongest. To say it another way, anything that cuts into corporate profits, environmental protection laws, labor relation laws that protect workers, etc., are bad for the country’s economy and thereby society in general. This means that wealth concentrates at the top of society. Any time you allow wealth to concentrate at the top of society you get entrenched poverty, the inability of people to improve their lives, and a repressive government that caters to wealth not the people. social darwinism applied to society means that helping the Poor or Middle Class is also interfering with their “natural development,” so human suffering increases.
Eventually, cultural and economic realities undermined social darwinism and it fell out of favor though it survived through the 19th-Century and into the 20th-Century. I do not think it is a coincidence that during the “rein” of social darwinism the United States experienced its Gilded Age, a time of extreme economic inequality, worker repression, and social stagnation.
We are making the same mistake by taking the idea of the self-interested actor too far. Human beings are capable of a great many wonderful things, and at their best when they follow all the human motivations, love, friendship, compassion, consideration, etc. Of course, these fly in the face of self-interest, so what is useful for scientists and academics can be detrimental when applied to society in general.
To its detriment, US politics has become based around self-interest. We no longer judge politicians, or their policies, on their ability to serve our city, state or nation as a whole. Instead, we judge them based on how well those policies serve our individual needs. If a policy matches what we believe then is good. If it does not, it is bad. We have forgotten that the needs of society may very well be very different from our own. So, while one person believes that abortion is wrong. That does not mean that the rest of society must think the same thing.
We all face the internal struggle between what we believe and what those around us believe, which very often can be very different. However, we have no right to force our beliefs on others, and the fact that abortion is available to those who desire or need it does not in any way require anyone that disagrees with the procedure to have one against their will. It is only our self-interested desire to make the world around us conform to our beliefs that makes us impose on others. There is comfort in knowing that we live in a group of “like-minded” individuals even if the similarity is legally imposed.
The problem with looking out for ourselves in politics is that it allows politicians to tell different groups different things and thereby hide what they truly believe and what they intend to do in office. Elsewhere in Mr. Vaidhyanathan’s book he says that the proprietary data collected on social media is used to tailor ads that say specific things to specific people, and that because political campaigns know so much about us, they can easily find the single issue that will outrage people enough to make them vote. This seems to me one way that the Republican Party ended up with white supremacists and evangelicals in the same party. They are not there out of discussion that generated a broad-based consensus of the things they have in common. They are there because each is responding to a message custom tailored for them, and they aren’t really interested in who else is in the party. Each is only responding to their own self-interest.
Above, Vaidhyanathan also mentions market fundamentalism, which is a term that a lot people will be unfamiliar with. Market fundamentalism is the belief that the unhindered market will solve all of our social problems. One of the things that many forget when discussing economics is that the fundamental goal, making money, is an expression of self-interest. What a twisted bit of logic we have here then, the idea that someone pursuing their own self-interest will solve social problems. It’s like having your cake and eating it too.
Because of market fundamentalism, we have turned many of what use to be social functions of government over to corporations hoping that business efficiency would somehow improve their effectiveness. For-profit schools, according to Brookings Institute, are more expensive and provide a lower quality of education. Speaking about the financial side of for-profit education, they say,
“For-profit colleges only enroll 10 percent of students but they account for half of all student-loan defaults. 71% of students in for-profit colleges borrow federal loans, as compared to only 49% of students in 4-year public schools. The average amount borrowed by students in for-profit colleges is nearly $2,000 higher than the amount borrowed in 4-year public schools. These differences in borrowing can’t be explained by demographic differences among the student populations; instead, they are mainly caused by the fact that the average tuition at a for-profit college is over $10,000 higher than at a public community college.”
About the quality of education, Brookings Institute says,
“Across a wide range of metrics, for-profit colleges underperform their peer institutions. When controlling for socioeconomic differences among students, study after study finds that the earnings and rates of employment of for-profit college graduates are lower than (or at best similar to) those of public college and non-profit college graduates. Even when compared to high school graduates that did not pursue a postsecondary education, there is no evidence that for-profit college graduates with associate’s degrees have higher earnings.”
Shane Bauer, in his book “American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment”, besides describing his experiences as a prison guard, delves into the history of economic exploitation associated with prisons and prisoners going all the way back from present day to the 19th-Century. The circumstances describe by Bauer in one corporate run prison include, overcrowding, insufficient healthcare, hunger, random violence and abuse, and constant and severe staff shortages, which lead to dehumanizing tensions in the prison. Furthermore, there were no functioning rehabilitation programs in that prison. They were sacrificed to budget cuts for the sake of profit.
Clearly self-interest is a poor way to manage a school or a prison. From the perspective of human dignity and respect, overpriced, substandard education, and human abuse disguised as corrective punishment are more expressions of the self-interest of the corporation’s owners than they are of the corporation’s mission. The company that runs to prison Bauer worked in has since changed its name. Last year, 2020, that company had a profit of $54.2 million.
And yet, there are those that claim self-interest will fight climate change. Here, the general theory goes that as climate change worsens the economic viability of corrective technologies improves. Therefore, at just the right moment, some dashing, self-interested entrepreneur will come along, save the day, or at least improve the situation, and make a profit at the same time.
Climate change, just like the covid virus, will not negotiate with us. The implacable chemical reactions that are weather and climate will continue, with or without us, based on the random mixing of molecules irregardless of what we want to happen. We can only take what we know and use it in a preventative fashion to hopefully save what we can of things we know and love. Adapting a society to the coming ravages of climate change is a moral, not an economic decision that will affect everyone, and everyone should participate. Climate change (Some prefer the term climate catastrophe) is going to reorder human society all over the world in a random fashion if we do not confront its effects.
Some sectors of our society, for example the extractive energy industries, are going to have to give up their social prominence and wealth. In a world governed by CO2 production, we don’t need people refining petroleum or mining coal to be used as power. By extension, the Wealthy, who own these industrial complexes, are going to face the situation where their wealth and social position is seriously threatened if not eliminated. This has been obvious since the evidence of climate change was first reported in the 1950s.
It is not a coincidence that at a time we need moral action to address climate change our politics is flooded with market fundamentalism. According to several authors, as a counter reaction to the liberalism of the 60s and 70s, the Wealthy have been spending their money trying to change US culture so that market fundamentalist ideas, which nobody entertained before, have now become prevalent. According to Jane Mayer, they achieved this by funding think tanks that produced research to justify their political views, they established political front groups to stage protests to make their objections appear to be a grassroots movement, they held luxury seminars for judges to impress upon them the value of a probusiness decisions, and they have established “academic” entities, attached to public and private universities, who are really political activists operating under the supposed cover of academic objectivity. If these activities are not an expression of self-interest, I do not know what is. The result of this spending, which has been going on since the 1980s, has been the installation of market fundamentalism as one of our guiding political principles. In turn, that has allowed wealth has concentrated at the top of US society thereby creating a society where the government is responsive to the Wealthy and not the People.
Our federal and state governments have always had a specific role in US society. Their jobs are to correct the “market failures” that Vaidhyanathan mentioned. I do not like Vaidhyanathan’s use of the term market failures because it contributes to the idea that everything is in some way an economic decision.
Private companies cannot provide quality education to a nation because the requirement for profit gets in the way. For any society to provide equality of opportunity to its members there must be some basic equalities and equality of education is one of them. In this regard, I would follow the Finnish example and ban all private education while focusing the nation’s educational resources on a free public educational system open to all. However, the truth of the US political system is that its bottom-up organization makes such an idea nearly impossible.
Putting aside the history of exploitation of judicial prisoners in the United States, Bauer’s book makes a serious case against corporate run prisons. At the end of his book, Bauer tells the story of a former prison employee that he talked to after his book was published. She explained why she left her job. One day a prisoner came into the prison who had been shot by the police, and was still recovering from his wound. Shortly after he arrived, he was found dead in his cell. Rigor mortis had set in, which means that he had been dead for at least eight hours. Part of her job was to collect evidence that the company could use to defend itself whenever something accusatory happened. During her investigation she spoke to other inmates who told her that the dead man had been calling for help all night long and nobody came. She asked the inmates to write out statements, and took the reports to the warden’s office. When she asked him to read the reports, he said, “Why would I want to read inmates’ statements? You can throw those in the trash on your way out.” She summed up her experience by saying, “The part I struggle with is, is that the dehumanization of one man, or is that the company? Is that a systemic issue in this company, or is it bad apples who are in charge?”
To me it does not matter whether the dead man was dehumanized by one man or the company. The fact that he was allowed to die from lack of care, and died alone calling for help that was denied, calls for serious, permanent and moral change. There is no morality in profitability.
One of the reasons that people break laws is that they do not feel sufficient connection to society in the first place. Poverty, hunger, and authoritarian law enforcement tells people that those around them do not care about them, and they show their disgust, anger, or frustration by ignoring the law. Our present focus on reducing people to self-interest hides these things from us. The simplification that they robbed a store because they wanted the money, hides the idea that they robbed the store because they were hungry, felt it was the only way they could get ahead in life, or they were just plain angry at the world around them. Perhaps one of the reasons that focusing on self-interest is so popular is that it also absolves people of the blame associated with allowing poverty, joblessness, and authoritarian zeal to erode society.
One further point that Vaidhyanathan makes about self-interest is that by emphasizing market fundamentalism we put ultimate responsibility for everything on the individual. Talk to your parents and grandparents about how US society has changed over the last 100 years. What is obvious to all is that it has become much more complicated. Technological changes create social changes that are not always obvious as in the case of Facebook’s proprietary data. As an individual, there is nothing I can do about the social and political problems it causes. I can delete my Facebook account, but all that achieves is that I am not contributing to the problem. Facebook is still collecting, and selling, data about people all over the world. Political campaigns are still using that data to manipulate people rather than persuade them. It is only the collective action of people in the form of their government that can force Facebook to change. One of the first changes should be to require Facebook to consider its users as clients and then require Facebook to do nothing harmful to their clients. In this way, allowing political campaigns to persuade people not to vote would be illegal.
It is currently fashionable to regard the US federal government as more in the way than it is useful. There are some valid reasons for thinking that, Congress is only in session 3 days a week, and many Congressmen and Congresswomen become rich while serving. However, if we curtail the Wealthy’s ability to use their billions to push US culture in their direction by making them spend their money on charity instead of politics, we can solve a lot of problems by removing the corrosive influences of money from Congress, our elections, and society. If we give up on market fundamentalism, we will realize that one role of our local, state, and federal government is to arbitrate between the top and the bottom of US society, to make sure the top does not get too wealthy, and therefore too powerful, and that the bottom does not get too poor and therefore suffer. We will also realize that by reducing everything to individual responsibility, we give license for the most powerful to take control and remake society to their benefit.