NOTE: I am posting these two articles, which previously appeared in my now defunct "Random Notes" blog, not only because I am going to cite them in an essay I hope to post tonight, but because both are also cited pretty frequently in articles I have reposted here.
Earlier in "Quick Post" I mentioned my intention to write about the recurring theme in certain fantasy fiction that postulates angels as some sort of rival or enemy of mankind, making of them either an army jealous of man's preferred position or a heavenly bureaucracy, doomed by prophecy to destroy man as part of some irresistible compulsion to enforce rules. While thinking about this, it occurred to me how this is yet one more example of a peculiarly modern trait, our elevation of cynicism, seeing in it a substitute for true wisdom. Think about it. In the past angels were seen in two ways, either as the material manifestation of G-d's will, or as elevated beings somewhere above man and below G-d. Their roles was clearly as an embodiment of superior moral principles. However, our modern cynicism can't imagine that anything can rise above the tawdry level we imagine all around us, so we turn heaven into a celestial office building, filled with either jealous co-workers (the jealous angels) or a heartless bureaucracy (the bureaucrat angels). Rather than believe, as we did in the past, that any problems we see around us are the result of man's imperfection, and that something greater exists out there, our addiction to cynicism can't believe that anything can be free of moral taint, and so we turn the whole world into the petty bickering we imagine drives the universe.
I mention this because cynicism, and our tendency to imagine it represents some sort of superior insight, actually explains a lot of what I have been trying to understand in this blog. When I wrote about liberalism's belief in man's incompetence and their own arrogant elevation of their own opinions ("Those Other People", "Our View of Our Fellow Citizens", "Seeing People As Stupid", "Appealing to Arrogance", "The Citizen Dichotomy", "In A Nutshell", "Cognitive Dissonance Part 2", "Bad Economics Part 9", "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism"), or when I wrote about anti-man intellectuals ("Anti-Man Intellectuals", "Juvenile Intellectuals", "Upcoming Posts") especially among environmentalists ("The Lie of Environmentalism", "Shocking Numbers", "Need I Say More?", "Beware Alternate Explanations", "There is a Word for That"), even the insistence that everyone be forced to follow the correct path ("A Certain Mindset", "The Right Way"), as well as the belief that charity would not exist without government ("Private Charity", "Private Charity Take Two", "Liberalism's False Dichotomy "), all can be explained by cynicism. Nor is that all. Paleo-con protectionism ("Misplaced Blame and A Power Play", "Protectionism Right and Left", "Beware Populist Deception", "Protectionism"), fear of speculators ("Authoritarian Oil Talk", "Crippling Business", "AIG Nonsense", ""Fair Trade"","Exploited Labor"), or big business ("Fear of the "Big"", "Economic and Political Power Revisited", "Power - Political and Economic", "Greed Versus Evil", "Small Business Fetish", "A Perfect Example"), and even conservative exceptions to their principles ("Inescapable Logic", "Special Cases", "Smaller Government , Fair Weather Friends and Special Cases", "Good Intentions", "Conservatives and the "Big Picture"", "Who Is To Blame?"), the bizarre hybrid of the "libertarian left" ("The Libertarian Left"), as well as the fear of government common on the right ("Tools", "Some Libertarian Analogies", "What Happened?", "Third Party Problems", "Why I am a Republican"), in fact our whole distortion of the political spectrum ("The Political Spectrum", "Political Polarization and Divisive Politics"), not to mention the gamut of conspiracy theories, left and right ( "Dabbling at Being a Film Reviewer? Not Exactly...", "False Flag Theories and 9/11", "One More", "Fort Hood and Oklahoma City", "Mumia, the DaVinci Code, Full Body Scans, and Loose Change - How Conspiracy Theories Arise"), all can be put down to cynicism. For that matter, our willingness to reject tradition ("In Defense of Standards", "Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"", "Bad Economics Part 9", "Changing Incentives"), and to elevate the values of youth ("Juvenile Intellectuals", "An Interesting Article", "I Blame the Romantics", "The Adoration of Youth"), all comes from our cynical belief that no true wisdom exists1,2.
Cynicism is the modern substitute for wisdom, or would be were we not so cynical that we deny anything like wisdom can exist. And, sadly, cynicism is the most popular theory on both the right and the left, as evidenced by the acceptance on both sides of the aisle that lies and deceit are the accepted tools of policy ("The Presumption of Dishonesty", "Lying Politicians and "Other People"", "An Interesting Comment"). It is a rather juvenile belief, this simplistic acceptance that, given any question the most unworthy, tawdry, and dishonorable explanation is most likely, it is the stuff of teenage fantasies, B-movies and tabloid magazines, but it is also the stuff of our political philosophy. It is why we have become so accepting of conspiracy theories ("Maybe Obama Was Born in Gulf Breeze, Florida", "Life Without Villains", "Enemies Into Villains", "Rethinking My Earlier Position", "Conspiracy Theory Enters the Mainstream", "Think of the Impresison You Make", "Our Donatists", "Picking Your Fight", "The Appeal of Conspiracy Theories") on both ends of the spectrum, and why we refuse to believe politicians who speak the truth ( "What We Deserve", "Don't Blame the Politicians", "Who Is To Blame?", "What is Wrong with Us", "The Single Greatest Weakness", "The Difficulty of Principle"). And worst of all, as cynicism leads us into ever more juvenile beliefs, as it denies any sort of truth, beauty and wisdom, and encourages us to adopt the attitudes of teens, it makes us accept cynical explanations ever more readily. It is a self-reinforcing world view.
But rather than just making such assertions, let me show how cynicism leads to all the many ills I have been describing. Or at least a few examples, from which you can figure out the rest. So allow me to start with a few examples, rather narrow in scope, to make clear how cynicism effects one's political views. I will then move on to more general principles, and, finally, the logical outcome of a thoroughly cynical world view.
Before I start, let me make a general observation. Many will argue what I call cynicism is just "accepting the facts". They will claim the negative slant they give to the raw data is the only possible interpretation, and that is where they err. Raw data is incontestable, provided it was gathered properly, but the meaning of that data is always open to debate ("Everyone Knows"). As I said in "Mumia, the DaVinci Code, Full Body Scans, and Loose Change - How Conspiracy Theories Arise", it is easy to find irregularities, it is the meaning you give the irregularity that matters. For example, if there is a committee deciding where to locate a new stadium and one man on the committee owns a piece of property eventually selected it is possible to argue he steered the committee there, but it is also possible he had no part in it, choosing one over the other with no other evidence is simple bias. Similarly, even if he did steer the committee there it need not be out of selfishness, perhaps he steered them there as he thought the location ideal for development, the same reason he initially bought the land. One can find good reasons as often as bad if you choose3. So, I argue the cynics, by always preferring the negative, tawdry explanation, especially when they have no other evidence on which to base their assumptions, are simply expressing their prejudice and not at all giving "the only realistic interpretation".
But enough disclaimers, let us move along to the examples.
I suppose it is easiest to start with the most common cynicism, one of which we have all been guilty at some point, and that is the one described in "The Presumption of Dishonesty", our tendency to not only expect politicians to be dishonest, but our willingness to accept that dishonesty, even ask for more of it, as mentioned in "An Interesting Comment". And this is one of those cases where we probably are more likely than anywhere else to hear the excuse I just mentioned, the claim that it is "just common sense" to expect politicians to lie. After all, aren't those who run for office the very sort who could be expected to be dishonest?
But that sort of thinking is why I have made this claim, that cynicism causes more problems than it cures, that our perspective creates problems it claims to expose. The cynics create a straw man by claiming that past, non-cynical times were absurdly naive, did not recognize the lies of politicians, and thus were easily misled. The truth is, in the past we were equally aware people could lie, and that those who wanted our votes were more inclined to do so than most. But we did not elevate this self-serving behavior to the status of human nature. Instead, we saw it as a flaw and tried to seek out politicians who were better than that. Rather than cynically saying "well all politicians lie", we eschewed those obviously manipulating and tried to find more honorable representatives. Sometimes we failed, obviously, and simply elected better liars, but that still happens today. What we did not do was accept that lying was normal behavior, and allow politicians to get away with blatant dishonesty and manipulation.
And you can see the outcome in our political environment. The past may have had politicians with hidden motives, but in general debates were conducted in relatively open terms, people took stands and stood by them, for the most part. It would have been quite rare to see today's situation where any politician's public proclamation is expected to be a deceit intended to advance his own interests alone. We were not willing to accept that public statements were meaningless, that professions of beliefs would last only as long as the next poll, and that promises were at best suggestions. And we were better for it. No, politicians were never paragons of virtue and throughout history people did act in ways that were self-serving, but at least in the past politicians felt they would be shamed by reversing themselves and so tended to stand by their statements4, unlike today where a reversal of position is not seen as shameful, but as a brilliant tactical maneuver.
Now, hopefully the harm of this political inconstancy will be obvious, but I fear some readers may be so "modern", so besotted with cynicism, they will ask "so what? Who cares if politicians change position?"
Well, besides the many drawbacks I listed in "The Presumption of Dishonesty" describing the problems engendered by the ready acceptance of expedient lies, I can think of two reasons we would prefer politicians who try to abide by their stated positions rather than adopting whatever role the polls suggest will benefit them. First, if politicians do not represent any fixed set of beliefs, or even a nebulous group of principles, but will vote whatever way the polls direct, there is really no reason to vote, as it doesn't matter who is elected. And, as I wrote in "Misunderstanding Democracy", and "The Road to Violence" apathy of the voters tends to have very negative effects, especially if they feel sufficiently disenfranchised that violence seems the only option. Second, and more significantly, politicians who change position without warning lead to unpredictable government. The many harms of a lack of predictability are too many to go into here, but those interested can read my earlier thoughts in "The Problem With Evolving Standards", "In Praise of Slow Changes", "Predictability", "Conservatism, Incremental Change and Federalism", "Empathy" Threatens not "Justice" but Predictability", "Sotomayor and Empathy", "Interpretation and Activism", "Why Judicial Activism Hurts" and "Principles Versus Outcomes". To make it brief, if we cannot rely on the future being at least somewhat predictable, we will be paralyzed and unable to act, and that has dire consequence for both the economy and the society as a whole.
I know it seems a bit of an exaggeration to say that expecting politicians to lie could lead to economic collapse, but we need to recall we have only begun to accept open political dishonesty in the past decade and a half, so our experience if quite limited. And, even in that short time, our system has changed dramatically, so is it that impossible that another decade or two could see even more dramatic, and damaging, changes?
Moving on from political promises, let us look at a more uncommon cynicism, and one more common on the right than left. Or, to be more precise, most common among libertarian-inclined conservatives. And that is the tendency to see government not as a tool, or even a tool presently being used improperly, but as something which must always be feared. In other words, those who place a little too much emphasis on the word "evil" in the aphorism "government is a necessary evil"5.
I have discussed fear of government in several posts ("Some Libertarian Analogies", "What Happened?", "Third Party Problems", "Why I am a Republican"), but have not given it that much attention as, in the scope of errors, it is a relatively minor mistake. Still, it is an error, and as such has repercussions, and ones which grow more severe the more profound the distrust of government grows.
Let us start by explaining why I say it is an error, especially as most would imagine my libertarian inclinations would make me prone to view government with distrust. But I tend to think libertarians are mistaken in that inclination.I see government not as a necessary evil, but rather as a necessary tool, but one that has often been used improperly. That history of improper use, while it leads many to distrust government, instead leads me to think we should avoid those situations which led to those past mistakes. To take those past mistakes as a model, in other words to cynically assume government will always be misused, that no matter how well we organize the state someone will find a way to abuse power, leads us to improper conclusions.
Take one example. If we seriously believe government is a necessary evil, believe it is always going to be abused, we are led to three conclusions. The first two are essentially correct (though not in all details), but the final is not, and is, in fact, a very dangerous one. First, we would conclude that government should be kept as small as possible6, that government should be given only the bare minimum of power, a statement which, in its general outline, is correct. Second, we would assume that we should take steps to ensure that government is not given the ability to expand its own scope or power, that it should be hemmed in with controls, which also is an unobjectionable argument7.
But then we come to our third, and entirely incorrect conclusion. If government is evil, or will always be abused, then, ideally, we should eliminate the state. Libertarians, being sensible individuals, aware this position would be untenable and would cause their movement to be rejected, never state this openly. Even among libertarians, they deny their beliefs lead logically to anarchism. But, as I wrote in "Inescapable Logic", as well as "It Doesn't Matter What the Court Says", it does not matter if an individual admits the logical conclusion of his theory or not, wherever the logic of his argument leads, there it will go. By conceding the argument which supports a given conclusion, he can no longer argue against it, and so someone will reach that conclusion even if he does not. And, by calling government evil, cynics and libertarians who fear government are granting the basic premise of anarchism. Of course anarchy is an impossible political philosophy, so it is unlikely anyone will ever try to establish a consistent anarchist state, but along the path to anarchism there are many opportunities for clever individuals to actually extend government power. It is no accident that many totalitarians have made common cause with anarchists. Anarchy sets the stage for totalitarianism quite well, and, by arguing government is evil, many libertarians provide the arguments needed by anarchists.
But that is the end of the road, the final stage, and one we are unlikely to reach soon, if ever. Especially as libertarians are not numerous and lack serious political influence at present. But there are other, lesser consequences of the fear of government, and those can be damaging as well, though, obviously, on a lesser scale. Though, taken as a whole, not that much smaller, as some have pretty far reaching consequences.
The most obvious consequence is the same political apathy I mentioned in the expectation of dishonesty, above. By believing that the government will always be corrupted and turned against the citizens, voters are divorced from the political process, come to believe participation is unimportant, and eventually come to see the government as completely divorced from them. As I said earlier, this is a prescription for eventual political violence. At the least it creates a pool of alienated, disaffected individuals ripe for any populist demagogue who comes along.
But even that may be too remote a risk, so let us look at very real, very basic risks, which we see every day.
Look, for example, at how many libertarians are willing to believe that various high profile criminals were framed, from Pelletier to Mumia. Why do they believe this? They will tell you it is because of the facts, but if you press them, the facts rarely seem compelling, at least absent the cynical interpretation. And that is the problem. Most such conspiracy thinking comes from the presumption that the state is "out to get" certain groups, a cynical assumption that whatever the state says is false, and that stated motives are never true. Absent such beliefs, it is hard to imagine thinking these cases deserve the attention they have received. Similarly, listen to the many who believe any story of military atrocities, who will believe the worst of the military under any circumstance8. In both circumstances, the beliefs have much more to do with assumptions about how the world works than any actual evidence.
And those two examples show a very real problem with this cynical fear of government. By imagining the government is the real enemy, many are willing to reduce its power beyond any sensible limit. As I described in "Rational National Defense", they will limit the military options to the point where a nation may be subject to unreasonable threats. Likewise, by imposing excessive restrictions on police, such as highly politicized review committees, or investigations by overzealous prosecutors, they often do more to increase crime than protect people from government abuse. And, worse still, by making the state the enemy, and doubting anything the state says, they often are forced to ignore, or even embrace, very real enemies because of their fear of the state9,10.
Originally I had planned to incorporate at least two more examples, at least the fear of corporations and the fear of trade, discussing the parallel movements on the left and (nominal) right, which either fear the "power" of corporations, or worry that trade is something akin to warfare, but I have covered those topic extensively in the past ("Economic and Political Power Revisited", "Power - Political and Economic", "Beware Populist Deception", "Protectionism", "Unfair Advantage and Foreign Trade"), and I am unlikely to say anything new. Both are obviously the result of cynicism, as should be obvious after reading say "Greed Versus Evil" or "Planning For Imperfection", or maybe "Fairness and the Free Market", "Exploited Labor", "Who Will Decide", "Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution", "The Benefits of Inequalities of Wealth" or "The Triumph of Good". Looking at the same facts as those demanding corporate controls, or an end to free trade, I have managed to reach the opposite conclusions, simply because of our assumptions. I have approached the question by assuming those involved are much like me, that they want to advance themselves, will do what they need to do, but are not generally inclined to malice without cause ("The Nature of Evil", "Evil and Greed"). The cynics, on the other hand, as is their wont, see every motive as the most base choice, see every decision as motivated by the most unappealing aims, and every individual as hopelessly corrupt, and working from those presumptions, see trade as nothing but plunder, and corporations as cabals of B-movie super villains.
Nor should it be difficult to see the harm done by these beliefs. I have written at length about the damage done by protectionism ("Cheap Lighters, Overseas Dumping and Monopolies", "Jobs, Jobs, Jobs, and More Jobs", "Has No One Heard Of Lord Say?", "Exploiting Workers?", "Capital Investment", "Clarifiying My Argument"), but one a more basic level, both the fear of trade and fear of corporations end up arguing for a government both larger and more powerful, and one also endowed with power of a more arbitrary nature. As the worries about corporations and trade tend to be wide ranging, so the solutions must be general, and thus the powers granted would tend to be unfocused, limited only by the office holder's imagination. And that is precisely the sort of arbitrary power which is most damaging to a nation ("Expectations", "In Defense of Standards", ""Empathy" Threatens not "Justice" but Predictability", "Transparency, Corruption and Reform", "Bad Economics Part 9") Not to mention that such laws also tend to increase government involvement in business, which is never a good idea. ("The Inevitability of Bureaucratic Management in Government Enterprises", "Killing the Railroads", "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism")
And that brings me to my general principle, the overall world view which cynicism tends to favor11. That world view being precisely the perspective I have so often claimed is the basis for not just liberalism, but all manner of interventionist, activist government ("The Citizen Dichotomy", "Man's Nature and Government", "Our View of Our Fellow Citizens", "Seeing People As Stupid", "Appealing to Arrogance"). I cannot cover it here in the detail I have in dozens of posts, but at the most basic, all authoritarian and interventionist systems are predicated upon a few simple premises. First, that most people are not capable of running their own affairs. In most theories it is because they are simply incapable of recognizing their own interests, but some theories take other approaches, arguing that they are easily misled, or that powerful forces distract or mislead them. Whatever the reason, the most basic foundation is that individuals cannot be trusted to make decisions for themselves. ("Seeing People As Stupid", "Our View of Our Fellow Citizens", "Those Other People", "The Citizen Dichotomy", "Acting Against Interests ") The second premise is that there is a single "right way" to do things, that one answer is clearly correct, and there is no room for debate. ("The Right Way", "Reforming Education", "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "Object Oriented Programming, Apple Computers and Justice"). Finally, though it is usually implied and not explicitly stated (for obvious tactical reasons), it is assumed there is an elite which CAN make the right decisions and should be entrusted with telling everyone what to do. ("Appealing to Arrogance", "Three Types of Supporters of Big Government", "Arrogance and Gun Control", "The Intellectual Elite", "Trusting Mankind")
After reading the preceding examples, it should be clear how this fits with my claims that all our thoughts are shaped by cynicism. It is probably most clear in the first premise, the idea that most people are stupid, foolish, motivated by base instincts, or easily misled. That sounds like the most common cynical quotes found all over the internet, those decrying the stupidity of the public at large. (""Stupid Viewers"", "A Certain Mindset") But the remaining two positions are no less rooted in cynicism. The third by positing that the only way the world will improve is by the "morons" allowing their betters to tell them what to do screams a certain variety of cynicism. And even the second, by discounting the idea that anyone's opinion may matter more than the speaker's, also argues that personal values are not to be trusted, are just cover for unworthy impulses, and that only the wise "expert" opinions should be given weight. In short, the entire theory is based upon the idea that the average man is motivated by unworthy drives, is incapable of making sound judgment and can be counted upon to do nothing but make a mess of things. It is the stuff of which every university literary journal "satire" is made, that is, it is juvenile cynicism elevated to nominally mature political philosophy.
Of course, I doubt I need to go into the harm this does, or if I do I will first refer readers to my many posts on this topic. Still, as most will not bother reading, let me give a very simple summary, and then point out another specific harm I did not mention previously.
Basically, by postulating citizens incompetent to make decisions, you have provided justification for nay government program you would care to enact, any policy at all. As I said, this is the basis for all interventionist and authoritarian theories. There is no intrusive measure or abrogation of rights which cannot be justified by this premise. It is the root of everything that moves forward government power. Or, to make my point even more clear, without cynicism there would be little basis upon which to propose authoritarian and interventionist theories. And hopefully the harm of these interventionist theories is obvious to all. ("Power and Disorder", "Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government", "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "Fairness and the Free Market", "Achieving Goals")
On the other hand, that is not the sole negative outcome. It may be the most obvious, but there are other harms.
For example, as I mentioned in the postscript to ""Stupid Viewers"", people have recently come to accept as a general principle the belief that they are part of some "elite", and that there is "somewhere, out there" a mass of foolish people who form the bulk of the country. ("Appealing to Arrogance", "Those Other People", "The Virtue of Humility", "The Essence of Liberalism", "Man's Nature and Government", "Modern Marius and Sulla ") And that is a dangerous political philosophy. Not only because it gives potential dictators the ability to convince all listeners that they will be part of the ruling elite, and that he will only need to direct those "other people", but also because the implicit "us against them" perspective is certain to create factionalism in politics. After all, when one believes he is part of an elite, and his group is the only one competent to rule, it is very easy to see any who disagree ad not simply honorable individuals with a difference of opinion, but as either stupid or evil. And that leads to much more rancorous political debate, as well as even less ability to compromise or work together, even when the two sides largely agree on issues. ("In Defense of Civil Debate", "The Angry Right and Conservatives", "Rethinking My Earlier Position", "The Political Spectrum", "Our Rude Behavior", "Political Polarization and Divisive Politics")
At this point I am sure some readers are wondering why this is entitled "Deadly Cynicism". Some may think it has to do with the authoritarian theories supported by arrogance, and, to a degree, they are right. After all, interventionist theories such as communism and naziism have led to countless deaths. But, there is a second reason. And that is because of the logical end point of cynicism, the theoretical position to which all consistent cynics must eventually arrive.
And that position is the complete rejection of mankind. After all, if cynicism leads one to distrust others, and see himself as one of the only sane individuals, is it not logical that eventually he would come to see ALL of mankind as degenerate and himself as the sole sane man? Nor is it even a simply theoretical position. We can hear this mindset every day, just as I described in "Anti-Man Intellectuals". Just listen to the many teens and college students who talk daily about how man is destroying the world, how man is destined to ruin everything, and otherwise denigrate man in favor of anything non-human. Listen to those who mouth such untrue truisms as "man is the only animal which kills without reason" or "man is the only animal that kills his own kind". These are all the logical outcomes of cynicism.
And that is why I call cynicism deadly. It is not bad enough that it leads through harmful lesser cynicisms to the full blown cynicism of liberal contempt for others. Beyond that point it leads to the thoroughgoing man-hatred that lies at the heart of the most consistent environmentalism. ("The Lie of Environmentalism") Eventually, if one is consistent in his thinking, cynicism will lead him to the point where he decides that nothing is worthy of respect, and everything he sees is deserving only of contempt.
And that is the true nature of cynicism, and it also explains why so many interventionist philosophies had so little trouble enacting thoroughly barbaric policies. If you see your fellow man as deserving only scorn it becomes easier to do harm to him. Even if you have not yet reached that point, it is still much easier to harm someone if you think in the long run it is "for his own good", than if you admit you are simply doing him harm. And so, whether one is only mildly cynical, and sees people as only foolish, or fully cynical and seeing man as simply contemptible, cynicism makes it ever more easy to do injury to our fellows.
What makes this all so laughable, or perhaps pathetic, is that cynicism is such a petty philosophy. No one is likely to mistake cynicism for wisdom. You will not hear someone say "he's such a wise, cynical man". Religious leaders are not praised for their cynical views. Cynicism is the antithesis of wisdom, the sort of snide snarkiness that once made one "hip" on college campuses and now passes for wit on the internet.
And, sadly, it is our most common philosophy. The driving force of our culture. We have become the culture of snark. And we are paying the price.
Worse, it has not been limited to the young, or to the intellectuals, or to the left. Right and left, old and young, rich and poor, we have all become infected with this viewpoint. We all find ourselves thinking the worst, viewing life as nothing but tawdry scandals and base motives. It has colored our who worldview.
And the worst part is that it need not be so. The right was the party of hope as recently as Reagan. We were not cynics in the 1980's, we were the people who were mocked for being so traditional, for holding so firmly to "naive" values. It is only in the past two decades that we have lost that perspective and joined the left in finding value in cynicism.
But it does not have to be so. We could easily return to our roots, once again choose to see ourselves in our fellows, to accept that others behave much as we do. We need not anticipate scandal and sleaze, but can instead not only expect, but demand, proper behavior, and come to think of others as upright, decent beings.
Nor does that mean we must be naive. The founders crafted a clever system, well balanced, with many protections to prevent one part of the government from seizing control. They designed a system which was well aware of the potential for abuse, and countered it. But no one would call them cynics. One can very easily expect the best in mankind, yet take prudent precautions against the worst. And that is what we need to do.
Obviously, the many specific are beyond the scope of this post, as it is already quite long. So for now let me end with a very general suggestion. Instead of trying to figure out every specific, trying to decide how cynicism figures into any given political point of view, perhaps it is best if we simply try to cultivate a general perspective free of cynical influences. Once we have spent some time seeing the best in others, finding the rest of the world to resemble us more than it differs, it will likely be quite easy to notice where the opposite perspective colors our debates.
1. The one seeming exception, liberalism's utopian bent ("Utopianism and Disaster"), is, in itself, a cynical position as well. It does posit a small elite capable of better behavior, but otherwise it sees the world as being as tawdry as any cynical theory. In fact, as it sees the world as needing strong governmental control by the tiny elite to achieve anything approaching perfection, it tends to agree with the most cynical beliefs listed. Actually, there is another aspect of this that is even more cynical. Basically, the assumption is that government will always be run for the interest of one group ("Specious Argument", "Obama's Economic Plans Revisited"), so it is best if the "right people" run the state to favor the interests of the "little guy". ("The Wrong People") The belief we cannot develop a fair government which can be run in a way beneficial to all is in itself the most cynical assumption underlying the attempts to use the state to create a utopia, or at least a state where all the outcomes are "just" and "fair". ("Principles Versus Outcomes", "Life Is Not Fair - And Trying To Make It So Makes Things Worse", "Insider Trading")
2. Even seemingly unrelated theories arise from cynical world views. For example my post "Consolidation and Diffusion" (or "Why I Am Not A Libertarian" and "The Benefits of Federalism", for that matter) is an example of cynicism. The argument for centralized power is almost always cynically stated. The various states will each try to advance their own agenda, causing problems and destroying the nation, not to mention that it is almost impossible to get "the right people" in charge of each state, so we need a strong central government to ensure the whole nation follows the "right path". See? Without a cynical belief that states would tear down the nation to help themselves, that individuals would support such self destruction, and that everyone is so blind such a situation would persist, this would not be possible to argue.
3. Of course most such panels would exclude this individual to avoid such charges, or even the possibility of these charges, but that does not mean assuming such charges are true is any more true than assuming they are false. Assuming the worst is no valid than assuming the best when one lacks any evidence. And claiming "past experience" convinces one he should "assume the worst" is not evidence, despite the claims of cynics.
4. For younger readers, or those with short memories, it was even considered shameful as recently as the first Clinton term. When Clinton's "triangulation" strategy was first revealed it was considered somewhat shocking that a politician would so openly change his positions. Today the press praises Specter for his "brave" change of parties and extols Obama's "flexibility" in changing positions on Afghanistan and Iraq when his original position proved politically unpalatable.
5. I personally do not agree with this statement. As I described in "Revisiting an Old Post" and "Some Libertarian Analogies", government is a tool, and perfectly appropriate for the right functions. Used properly it is no more evil than a hammer. And just as a hammer is not evil just because someone can use it to cave in a skull, government is not evil just because it can be used in evil ways.
6. This argument is largely correct, as in almost every case I can imagine government is too large. Still, it can be a damaging argument if it is held consistently, as, at some point, government is the proper size, and attempts to reduce it farther would impede its function. So it is not strictly correct to say we should always reduce the size and scope of government. And that is why I say it is largely correct, but not entirely. The better statement would be that government should be just large enough to perform its proper functions, but that is not a conclusion one draws from a fear of government, as those inclined to fear government have difficulty admitting that government has any positive role to play.
7. Again, this is largely accurate, but can be taken to an extreme, just as the previous rules. Controls should be provided, but with considerations given to the costs of such controls, both in terms of general cost to society, and the degree to which they impede government function, as well as the likelihood of the power available being abused. But those who fear government often overstate the risk, and are not inclined to see sufficient benefit in government, and so, when they both to do cost-benefit analysis at all, tend to find the costs almost always justified, and so tend to over-control. Thus I have to qualify my endorsement of the this principle by adding a caveat that controls must be subject to a sensible cost-benefit analysis.
8. Considering the response "Rational National Defense" received ( see "Wait And See", "Rights Versus Laws", "Final Apology", "Last Word on Defense"), I am certain many will object to my argument that fear of the police or military, or granting credence to claims of abuses is nothing but cynicism or bias. But if you look at the many arguments over these issues, it is clear that the same sparse "facts" could often be read many ways, and that disinterested parties often would read them in quite innocuous ways. Most often the evidence of misdeeds is not so much in the facts as in the presumptions with which one approaches those facts. But doubtless I will be debating that argument in the comments for the next several days.
9. For one example, look at how those who distrust the state tend to cynically wrap "terrorist" in quotes, even when the evidence is incontrovertible. Because they declare the state "is the real terrorist" they have to downplay the risk of people doing real harm, and pretend that terrorism does not exist. In addition, as they blame the state for everything, they have to make absurd claims, such as that terrorism would end if we left the middle east, completely ignoring the many states subject to terrorism which have never had a middle eastern presence. But, to cover this topic exhaustively would take a very lengthy post, so that will need to wait.
10. It is not my purpose here to debate what is a proper control and what is an excessive fear of government. Obviously it makes sense to limit what use an officeholder can make of his power, but I would argue one should not approach the question based upon the assumption every office holder will abuse his post. Much better is ask "what is the minimal power needed to achieve the purpose of this office" and then grant no more. Rather than fearing the state, why not simply give the state so little power there is little to fear? Clearly, some additional checks are needed beyond that, but I think it possible to build a sensible, safe government while still not requiring cynical and negative presumptions about the nature of government and man. You need not assume the worst of everyone, and anticipate that everything will be corrupted, to avoid being naive. You can recognize that some people will abuse the system, and guard against it, without insisting everyone is a crook.
11. I did provide a handful of links in the article, but, as I have written so extensively on this topic, the links provided do not do the subject justice. For those seeking a more complete understanding of my argument, and the many changes it has undergone over time, I suggest starting with "The Right Way", "In A Nutshell", "Cognitive Dissonance Part 2", "Three Types of Supporters of Big Government", "Bad Economics Part 9", "The Best Historical Example" and "The Presumption of Dishonesty". The links in those posts should direct interested readers to the entirety of my writing on this topic. In addition, earlier today, I posted ""Stupid Viewers"", which discussed this topic as well.
I know I offer a solution at the end of the post, but for those looking for more specifics, my more detailed thoughts can be found in "A True Conservative Platform". In addition, general principles can be found in "My Vision of Government", "My Vision of Government Part II", "Why I Am Not A Libertarian", "The Benefits of Federalism", "An Analogy For Government", "Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government" and "A Simple Proposal". Obviously the entire blog is, with the exception of family travel snapshots, a response to cynicism, so I suppose I could recommend reading everything I have posted here, but that seems a bit less than helpful, so I suggest starting with the posts I have listed, then following the links they contain. That should be more than enough to make clear, at least in general, broad outlines, exactly where I stand, and what I think is needed to adopt a less cynical world view.
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2010/01/21.