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.