Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Conservatism and the Cognitive Miser.

Back to regular programming.

One of the concepts I've been trying to get across to my readership over the last few posts is that of the "cognitive miser" or mass man. I really can't emphasise enough just how important this concept is, since in my opinion, the phenomenon of the cognitive miser goes a long way to explaining the societal uptake of ideologies which are ultimately destructive.

Indeed, one of the great omissions with regard to sociological analysis of the 20th Century has been the failure recognise the cognitive limitations of the average man and the subsequent consequence of this fact on sociological events. One of the reasons why Fascism, Socialism and modern Materialism have been so triumphant is because the ideas they espouse are so easily grasped by the weak mind, and in an age of "democracy", its no surprise that these stupid ideologies would find such fertile ground amongst "the people".

The point I'm trying to make is that the trajectory of the 20th Century makes a lot of sense when you  look at it from the perspective of the cognitive miser.  Simply by weight of numbers, it is he who determined the course of 20th Century history and has been its motor. Nazism, Socialism and Liberalism were harmless ideologies as long as they were confined to the parlor discussions of the philosophers. Cultured people saw the ideas for what they were and rejected them, their fertile ground, however, was amongst the cognitive misers, i.e the people.

Historians still wonder, how a civilised and advanced nation such as Germany could fall under the spell of the Nazi's. William Shirer, writing in the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich wondered how could the people that produced Beethoven, Goethe and Planck embrace Hitler? It's a difficult fact to reconcile until you realise that the in the age of Beethoven the average German had no say in public affairs, but in the age of "democracy" stewardship of the nation was passed to the cognitive misers of Germany. Hitler would have been impossible in the Kaiser's Germany, but he is possible in a modern Democracy. I think it is the neglect of this fact that has seriously hampered historical understanding of the rise of such poisonous ideologies. Societies change not only through the uptake of new ideas, but also upon the mob's perverted understanding of them. Note, I'm not having a swipe at the Germans here.  I imagine that under different circumstances Americans and Australians would have behaved in the same manner.

Historians tend to think that the average man is swayed by ideas when in reality he is swayed by emotion.  Fascism and Socialism appealed less to the mind than to the blood. Ideas which resonated with an individual's disposition and prejudices are far more powerful to the mob than reasoned discussion and factual evidence. Less taxes ( no matter how inappropriate) initiate just as Pavlovian a response amongst the unthinking right as do calls for "social justice" on the Left. The point is that democracy elevates the unthinking man into a position of power. It is therefore no surprise that when the wise and considered are pushed aside, governance ceases to be a considered subject but becomes an exercise in mob power in pursuit of the satiation of its hindbrain appetites.

In a democracy, the intellectual "center of gravity" drifts from a society's best and brightest and, instead, finds its home amongst in the mind of the cognitive miser, who forms the bulk of humanity. The net effect is that there is an inevitable "prole drift', not only of political debate, but of culture and morals, everything eventually gets vetted by the people (within their cognitive limitations)  But there is another factor that needs to be considered here, namely economic democracy, i.e the free market. In a free democracy, cognitive misers do not just exert their malign effect through political power, but through economic power as well. Elitist activities--activities which represent the high point of civilisation-- such as opera, classical music and and art, esoteric academic disciplines, and libraries struggle to survive economically in a market where the proles do not appreciate their intrinsic worth.  The is not an argument against the free market, but an argument against the notion that everything has to pay for itself, it's this latter notion that ensures that prole economies of scale overwhelm  everything which eludes their comprehension.

The Victorian critics of democracy were acutely cogniscant of the incompatibility between universal democracy and the notions of virtue, good governance and liberty. They also recognised the the notion of universal democracy itself was profoundly anti-conservative.  They based their criticism on the observed fact that the average man's mind is incapable of the complex cognition necessary for good governance. I think one of the reasons why mainstream western conservatism (particularly its American variant)  has been so completely sideswiped by the left is that it has lost sight of this fact. Instead, modern political conservatism has internalised one of liberalism's enabling principles and proclaimed it as a core value.  Modern conservatism is, in effect, sawing away at the branch it is sitting on by supporting one of the enabling principles of liberalism. The liberal infection is deeply seated.


Anonymous said...

Of course, traditionalists make a similar error, though because it's a (very) little bit subtler, they believe they are not advancing a liberal tenet.

sameoldcrap said...

What's your alternative? The aristocratic oligarchies and monarchies of the past didn't aquit themselves any better. In many ways they were less moral and more violent than the modern Western democracies we have now. Average Joe might prefer ow my balls videos to Michelangelo, but he also prefers mowing the lawn and watching sports rather than raping and pillaging weaker neighbors to expand an empire.

Doesn't sound like you've got anything better than the old "philosopher kings should rule" solution, let alone anything more practical.

Rum said...

A well known mid 20th century German Politician once said, "When I hear the word "Culture" I reach for my Browning."
I guess I am a prole. A well-off, heavily armed, red-neck prole; and very proud of it.

etype said...

A very poor article demonstrating the author's
resentment with the realization that he too, is part of the 'cathedral', or 'circus' which I think is a more appropriate sobriquet.

Ja said...

" traditionalists make a similar error, though because it's a (very) little bit subtler"

What would this subtle error be?

Anonymous said...

"It is therefore no surprise that when the wise and considered are pushed aside, governance ceases to be a considered subject but becomes an exercise in mob power in pursuit of the satiation of its hindbrain appetites."

Or, as Yeats put it:

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."

The Social Pathologist said...


I think that there are a lot of cognitive misers amongst traditionalists, though, not all traditionalists are cognitive misers.


One of the things that cognitive misers do is make up information to help them understand circumstances. Now where exactly have I expressed my preference for philosopher kings?


That fellow's part in the governance of Germany did not end up too well. I think I'd take his advice with regard to culture with a truckload of salt.


If you're going to disagree with me at least try to be original, not predictably wrong.


A poem more relevant than ever.

MarcusD said...

Well, on the topic of emotion, it would seem the Germans were looking for a way to restore their reputation after having lost WWI - Hitler provided that opportunity. It's not the only factor, of course. I think the Dolchstosslegende highlights the "emotional over rational" perspective, as well.

Anonymous said...

"...rather than raping and pillaging weaker neighbors to expand an empire."

That's still happening...

The Social Pathologist said...

@The situation in Germany post WW1 was very complex. I think a lot of people were unfortunately affected by the turn of events. The problem was that the rational minds were overwhelmed by the cognitive misers which now a new political force and thus emotion had more of an influence on German affairs than did logic.

Anonymous said...

I agree with this refreshing albeit politically incorrect analysis. I really worry about the fusion of social media and mob mentality.In whose interest is it to have so many low information voters having a say at the ballot box?

Building Magic said...

"...average man's mind is incapable of the complex cognition necessary for good governance."

1. Incapable or not inclined?

2. When we're talking about the "average man" are we talking about the apex of the bell curve or are we spreading the definition out to include a standard deviation or two from the mean?

The Social Pathologist said...

@Jason Lee

Here is an interesting paper you might want to read.

I reckon only about 10% of the population are well informed. And that's being generous.

Anonymous said...

"Insanity in individuals is something rare - but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule."

-Friedrich Nietzsche

I suspect that there are other factors in the limited coherence of mob action besides the cognitive ability, or lack thereof, in the individual members of a mob.

Granted that the members of a howling mob are unlikely to be particularly keen minds. They are stupid. What is more, each member of the mob is slightly differently stupid from his fellows. Therefore, whatever message or pathos it is that galvanizes the mob must be simple enough not only to be comprehended by each member of the mob individually, but also by the least common denominator of the mob.

For instance, American demagogue William Jennings Bryan very nearly became president on his platform of "free silver," which was essentially a way of generating inflation so as to ease the financial burden of his constituents, who were mostly debtors.

The economic effects of deliberately increasing inflation are much debated even a century later. Banking, personal savings, lending of all sorts, and much more besides would be disrupted by the proposed policy of Free Silver. Does Bryan's famous "Cross of Gold" speech attempt to mollify concerns about these things at all? No, he responds:

"When you come before us and tell us that we shall disturb your business interests, we reply that you have disturbed our business interests by your action. We say to you that you have made too limited in its application the definition of a businessman. The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer. The attorney in a country town is as much a businessman as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis. The merchant at the crossroads store is as much a businessman as the merchant of New York. The farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, begins in the spring and toils all summer, and by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of this country creates wealth, is as much a businessman as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain."

Class warfare. Us and them. You're with us or against us, and there's more of us.

Now, admittedly this is far more polite and pleasing verbiage than any contemporary politician I can name could muster. Strip away the gilding though, and it's fundamentally the same. The counterarguments are mentioned, and brushed aside with smug tu quoques or class-identity moral rage.

"Our silver Democrats went forth from victory unto victory, until they are assembled now, not to discuss, not to debate, but to enter up the judgment rendered by the plain people of this country."


David Foster said...

There are many people who have demonstrated very strong cognitive abilities in certain fields, for example business and technology, but whose reasoning about politics is at a much lower level.

As well-known examples, I give you Marissa Mayer and the late Steve Jobs. And I know plenty of other examples personally.

The Social Pathologist said...

@David Foster.

I think Ortega y Gasset was getting at the same thing when he talked about the "barbarism" of the technocrats. Ortega realised that a man may display a high level of expertise within a certain domain but be totally clueless outside it.

David Foster said...

I think Ortega y Gasset was talking about people who had a narrow technical education and not much in the way of interests or exposure outside their field. That was certainly not the case with Jobs...not sure about MM.

The Social Pathologist said...

@David Foster.

I think Ortega y Gasset was talking about people who had a narrow technical education and not much in the way of interests or exposure outside their field.

It's true, but I think he meant more that just having some interests outside their technical field. Jobs was certainly a creative person, but I'm not sure one could call him cultured.

Building a Better Country said...

"The aristocratic oligarchies and monarchies of the past didn't aquit themselves any better. In many ways they were less moral and more violent than the modern Western democracies we have now."
The monarchies or the medieval period were surprisingly bloodless compared to modern democracies, internally and externally. And caliming virtually any period as being 'more violent' than the Democracies of the 20th Century will be a hard row to hoe

Building a Better Country said...

My father told me something that matches this very well when I was a young man. It was, roughly:
"Most people are pretty good morally and surprisingly clever when they need to be. But most people don't think, they react and feel. That's fine, it let's them live their life, but you have to do two things. The first is don't stop thinking. That doesn't mean 'get an education' - most professors don't think, either. Professors are just elite peasants.
Second be careful when you make people think. Some people simply won't, wasting your time. Some will wake up a little, think, and amaze you. But there is a small but existing group that not only won't think but will hate you for trying to make them, and they may well try to destroy you."

Anonymous said...

@King Richard

How much of that more-bloody modern democracy was only made possible due to the fact that the end of the monarchy as a place of real strength came when technology was making it easier & easier to fight wars, while agricultural science was making it easier to fight with larger armies?

Or to paint the picture differently, how many more people would've died in the War of the Roses if England had the population & weaponry it had available in 1910?

Dovahkiin said...

I think you leave something out when you speak of how proles vote in a democracy. What happens is that the long term loses to the immediate.

There is a test that is useful to see how likely you are to be successful later on. The idea is that if a child of 4 years old can resist the urge to eat a marshmellow NOW in favor of 2 5-10 minutes from now, that that child has a better chance of being successful. A democracy would point-blank fail such a test -- there's an institutional difficulty in making voters think about accepting a bad situation now so that there's a better situation decades from now. At the same time, it's notoriously bad at choosing a reward today even if it means a bad consequence later.

While I'm not 100% convinced that a monarch would always pass such a delayed gratification test, I think he stands a somewhat better chance than a democratically elected representitive because his ability to continue in office is not based on his ability to win over a mob. If he decides that the nation would be better off with a base on mars to mine resources, he can plan for the decades that it would take to make that happen. A modern president could not do that -- the first time he raised taxes to fund the program, he's out on his ear. Or perhaps the first time he cut food stamps. Either way, the president could not sacrifice the immediate for the long term, while the King could.

And there is some incentive as well -- long term. If you're a monarch, you expect, in the course of time, to pass the nation on to your children. That gives you an incentive to make sure that you have a strong nation to hand your child when the time comes. This is one reason why family businesses tend to be successful -- you work hard at the shop because you want your son to take over (and hopefully his son and so on). That's a very good reason to not be greedy and milk the stock options or make short term gains at the expense of long term growth.

Stephen Blaha said...

This article makes multiple important points. I think the founding fathers of the United States understood these points and incorporated it into our original constitution. Unfortunately, for a host of reasons this has been usurped over the years by both constitutional amendments and bastardization of how the govt and division of powers are supposed to exist.

I wish this concept was taught in our schools. Sadly, I think American public education actually coddles and encourages the cognitive miser.

Anonymous said...

Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddidn was fond of saying that the Founding Fathers "loathed democracy more than original sin."

Democracy--that awful French import.

AA said...

"Principles," not "principals."

The Social Pathologist said...

"Principles," not "principals."


I'm prone to atomic typos.