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To me, there seem to be two defining characteristics of The Tea Party movement: 1) a lack of empathy for the suffering of others, and 2) an outright hostility to knowledge and reason. In just one example among many of the latter characteristic, here’s part of a Facebook exchange I just engaged in:

Charles Heatherly: Val., Brian,,,,Steve is a descendant of the progressives of the early 20th century who dreamed of a technocratic society where experts make all the important decisions, unrestrained by the confusions and biases of ordinary citizens. It is a dream that is hard to awaken from because so many educated people are seduced to believe THEY will be part of the scientific elite making the decisions. It is a deeply anti-political ideology because it does not trust democracy.

Steve Harvey: It’s usually wiser to let people speak for themselves, especially when you disagree with them, than to volunteer to put into their mouths and attribute to their minds the caricatures of their thought that you find easiest to repel.

I think that there are two challenges facing a representative democracy:

1) The agency problem, of aligning the interests of the agents (the elected representatives) with the principal (the people they represent). Democracy addresses this, imperfectly and incompletely. Refining the systems by which we align these incentives is one of the on-going challenges we face.

2) The mobilization of relevant knowledge and expertise in service to pursuing the interests of the principal most effectively, which does not mean exclusion of the public, since the public has some relevant knowledge and expertise, but does mean not reducing decision making to a crude plebiscite of popular opinion.

In all information intensive endeavors, the robust value of a division of labor, in which some people dedicate their lives first studying, and then daily working with, the systems that are the purview of their profession, has pretty thoroughly proven its value. When our child needs open heart surgery, we don’t find a surgeon who agrees with our community’s lay opinions about how to perform surgery, but rather one trained and practiced in that profession. And since we are very concerned that they act in accord with our interests, of performing that surgery as diligently as possible, we have put into place many safeguards to help ensure that they do so.

Neither of these two challenges should be considered in isolation, but rather both in conjunction: We want a government that is a faithful agent of its principal, and we want one that is an effective agent of its principal. Neither one alone is sufficient, and the absence of either is unsatisfactory.

The notion that only the first demand applies, and not the second, is based on the myth that there is no information-intensive aspect to governance, that it is not necessary to understand any economics, law, and some sufficient cross-section of other relevant knowledge (e.g., how energy grids, hydrogeological systems, and other natural, technological, and social institutional systems that are relevant to public policy decisions, work). In reality, there are few professions that benefit more from a high degree of expertise, since few professions deal with systems as varied and complex as public policy work does.

You may agree or disagree, but your dismissiveness of this point of view is not a sign of the impeccable commitment to reason that you claim (in contrast to folks like me, who are merely raving fools). And before you “rubber-and-glue” me, I am completely open to counterarguments, made with comparable precision and logical integrity to the argument I just made. They do exist, and I am aware of some of them. I do not dismiss those arguments as mere ravings, because they aren’t. That’s part of the complexity of the world in which we live.

Charles Heatherly: Steve..Thank you SO MUCH for proving my point. You alone have the scientific paradigm for solving society’s problems. Congratulations, and good luck with that.

Steve Harvey: No more than I alone have the scientific paradigm for diagnosing and treating diseases, but we together do, and not embedded in each and every one of us, but as collective wisdom more fully embodied in those who study and practice the relevant profession. That’s why we have professions, and why we continue to professionalize broader swathes of our economy: Because expertise is not a bad thing. Knowledge is not a bad thing, and mobilizing knowledge for specific purposes is not a bad thing.

Keith Perry: I have never before read so much elitist, “better-than-thou” snobbery rife opinions full of progressive intellectual drivel in my life than right here. Somebody has spent way too much time in isolated Liberal environments and media.

Brian Wilson: Translation of Steve’s arguments: “the people aren’t voting the way we (the elites) tell them to! We need to “align” their votes to benefit us. They don’t know what’s good for them.”

Keith Perry: Oh, I got that loud and clear in his needlessly lengthy dissertation.

Valarie Murphy: Thank you, Brian, for that translation. I think Steve does not like the great unwashed masses (Republicans). Isn’t that what he said? No one will “align” my vote. Sorry, Stevo.

Steve Harvey: Yes, it’s deja vu all over again. I make a cogent argument, and the chorus declares it “unreasonable” because it challenges their dogmatic assumptions, and that, after all, is your definition of what is unreasonable. Nobel Prize winning economists are “irrelevant”, because the speaker knows more about economics. Knowledge is “irrelevant,” because it’s “anti-democratic.”

Of course, there is never any counterargument, never any counteranalysis, never any application of knowledge to observation, never any logic. And yet, despite those defects, yours is the only rational point of view. It’s simply amazing.

If it isn’t dumb, it isn’t right. That should be your bumper sticker.

Valarie Murphy: Mine is the only rational point of view. I don’t know why you argue with that.

Steve Harvey: I don’t either, Valarie. It’s a disease, not an argument. You can’t argue with a disease.

What most strikes me about this exchange, other than the persistent insistence that no one who thinks differently from them can possibly be rational, while simultaneously never making any rational argument themselves in defense of any position (more apparent in the first part that I didn’t reprint), is 1) the twisting of my description of agency theory, which is really just another way of describing the challenge of holding elected officials accountable to the electorate, into some notion of aligning them to some point of view they disagree with; and 2) the inability to recognize that there can possibly be any value to the mobilization of expert knowledge in the design and implementation of public policies.

The first point is an illustration of a sort of paranoia (even more apparent in Charles’ status update under which these comments appeared, in which he insisted that the OFA Facebook GOTV campaign is a conspiracy to access all of their personal information), in which they perceive everything, particularly that originates from “the evil other” (a concept which embraces all non-Americans, non-Christians, non-whites, non-heterosexuals, and non-bigots), as an assault on their “liberty.” So, if a progressive describes holding our elected officials accountable, using a body of thought called “agency theory,” which is about how to hold agents accountable to their principal’s interests (big in managerial theory, law, and microeconomics), they perceive it as a nefarious conspiracy to control them, miraculously getting it diametrically wrong.

The complete miscomprehension in their collective response is due to a combination of confirmation bias (selectively perceiving information in such a way as to confirm what they already hold to be true) and prejudice (anything a liberal says must by definition be wrong), so that they were simply incapable of grasping what agency theory is really about. Since a liberal said something about aligning the interests of government and the electorate, it could only mean government control of the populace (which it didn’t), not popular control of government (which it did).

The second point is an affirmative commitment to ignorance, not only in the prejudice against scholarship, but also by simultaneously declaring all who disagree with them “irrational” while never making any arguments of their own, thus insulating an information-deprived ideology from any intrusion of fact or logic. After explaining that there are two challenges to self governance (ensuring that our representatives act in our interests, and ensuring that they do so effectively), these mouthpieces of Organized Ignorance, to an even greater extent than I could have predicted, not only were unable to acknowledge the latter challenge, but, amazingly, could not even acknowledge the former when I said it, just because I’m the one who said it. The irony is that, to the extent that they acknowledge we should have any representatives at all, holding them accountable should logically be a cornerstone of their own ideology (emphasizing popular sovereignty, as it does).

These various facets define their movement perfectly: Paranoia informed by an ideology which privileges ignorance, so thoroughly insulated from any contradictory informaton that they won’t even agree with what one would assume is a cornerstone of their own ideology if stated by an ideological opponent, all in service to the avoidance of any shared responsibility to others, especially to those less fortunate than themselves. It just doesn’t get any better than that.

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  • Uncle Fish:

    My bumper sticker reads:
    “You voted for him? You can pay for him.”

    …just thoughts from the West Side

  • Well said, UF, because it reflects one aspect of the social problem that you embody: We will no longer be, if you Tea Partiers get your way, a single polity, no longer a democracy, but rather a society fractured into those who accept democratic outcomes, and those who say “if it’s not what I voted for, then I don’t have to accept it.” It is just one more expression of what I described in The Tea Party’s Mistaken Historical Analogy (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=1023) and Tea Party Assault on Moderation & Professionalism in Politics & Governance (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=1044).

    Add that underlying anti-democratic attitude, along with the nature of the movement as one that wants us to no longer remain committed to equality of opportunity and to being a compassionate society, reveals to others not yet swept up by your destructive mania why they shouldn’t be, and why they should join all reasonable people of goodwill in opposing it, democratically, reasonably, and peacefully, but very, very assertively.

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