Sunday, July 10, 2011

Government of Sociopaths - By Sultan Knish

Saturday, July 09, 2011

It's politically risky to raise taxes. It's politically risky to cut spending. The one thing that isn't politically risky to do is go deeper and deeper into debt. Whatever agreement evolves or devolves out of congress it will likely allow Republicans to satisfy their base by cutting spending a little, allow Democrats to satisfy their base by raising taxes a little, and kick the ball down the road by going deeper into debt.

The real subject of this is not Medicare or the Stimulus plan-- it's long term thinking.

We did not suddenly go to sleep and then wake up the next day with a political class that acted this way. Or with CEO's that act this way. The erosion of long term thinking is progressive. It begins slowly before becoming pervasive.

Lack of long term thinking manifests itself as a lack of responsibility. The difference is not in intelligence. Very intelligent people show no grasp of responsibility and no understanding of consequences. 'Stupid' behavior by intelligent people is often a symptom of that. Sociopaths, who often have very high IQ's, yet a poor understanding of consequences, are at the farthest limit of that category.

What explains this behavior? Socialization and empathy. Sociopaths are often quite bright, but it is the company of other people that makes us fully human. Sociopaths are too detached from other people to be able to rationally calculate long term consequences in a social context. They understand rules in an abstract fashion, but they don't internalize them. Because rules are socially internalized and given priority as higher truths over personal feelings only by an ego that has learned it is not master of the universe. A sociopath may be a physics professor, but if an impulse pushes him into a situation where the laws of physics are in his way, then they will be less valid to him than that impulse. The same goes for mathematics. The sociopath is irresponsibility taken to the extreme, but there is a long gradation on the way there.

What does a country run by sociopaths look like? It looks a lot like our own actually. Lots of short term fixes. Lots of 'keep this thing running' pragmatism. Short attention spans. No sense of responsibility. And no thought for the future.

This is the problem with filling a cabinet full of bright people who don't understand responsibility or long term thinking. While their intelligence should allow them to solve most problems, the situations they are confronted with are social, not abstract. And they lack empathy for the people involved, any sense of them as individuals, and any real understanding that they will also have to live with the long term consequences of those decisions.

To the Sociopath, most situations come down to, "How Do I Make Person X Do What I Want." This sounds a lot like the Cass Sunstein theory of 'Nudges'. The government acting as manipulator getting people to do what they're being told, while making them think it's their own idea is exactly what a sociopath would think of as a brilliant solution. It is a perfect illustration of a mind that is intellectually aware that people are individuals, but does not understand or empathize with it as a gut level.

Of course we're not actually a country run by sociopaths. For the most part. But it is run by men and women who display similar traits and blind spots.

Let's take a brief look at some of the behaviors and attributes used to identify a sociopath.

Are they cavalier about the truth, and capable of telling lies to your face?

Have they no apparent sense of remorse, shame or guilt?

Is their charm superficial, and capable of being switched on to suit immediate ends?

Do they enjoy taking risks, and acting on reckless impulse?

Are they quick to blame others for their mistakes?

Do they have no qualms about sponging off others?

Are they sexually promiscuous?

Would you regard them as essentially irresponsible?

Put bluntly, the behaviors which are common to politicians are also common to sociopaths. But the worst of these is irresponsibility. Without responsibility, there is no self-correcting mechanism. The experience of negative consequences does not lead to avoidance of the same behavior.

For most people the sociopath is a tiger in the forest. But it's a miscategorization. There are extreme cases, but there are also entire societies where the general population acts and thinks this way. Where empathy is an alien notion, where doing whatever you please if you think you can get away with it is the norm, and where no one thinks in the long term. And we are slowly headed that way.

In the late 20th century, an economic system built on hard work and inventiveness, was replaced with one built on temporary bubbles and salesmanship. A culture with thousands of years of moral and intellectual tradition, was forced to make way for one built on egotism and instant impulse satiation. A nation of few laws and many mores, was replaced with a nation of a million laws and few mores. Which economic system and culture looks more like a sociopath habitat, the one we had before or the one we have now?

That isn't to say that we are sociopaths-- but our political and economic systems, and culture are being transformed to accommodate them.

The medically diagnosed sociopath who lacks empathy and only manipulates people represents an extreme. But a society becomes untethered from its codes, it loses the ability to meaningfully socialize its own children. The breakdown of moral codes eventually leads to a breakdown in empathy. In a multicultural society where there are fewer kinship ties, this is even more devastating.

Feelings of hollowness abound. Anhedonia becomes a common complaint. Many people feel that they should be helping others, but they're not sure how to go about it. A vague sense of guilt drifts over them. Unlike a sociopath, they experience the detachment, but their attempts to compensate for it by getting beyond their egos and meaningfully connecting with others is limited by a larger social breakdown.

Worsening symptoms leave them even more detached. They use "I" often. Everything that happens is processed through their own experience. Everything becomes about themselves. Celebrity becomes a consuming craze. They feel driven to be witnessed by other people, otherwise they feel unreal. The truth becomes a mutable thing to them. They recreate it at every turn and forget that they have done it. Nothing is their fault anymore. Nothing at all.

Finally there is a stage so near that of the sociopath that it hardly makes any difference anymore. Long term consequences vanish. Everything takes place in the present. Reality is infinitely mutable. They have no patience for obstacles. Life to them is a game. And they are determined to win it. The answers to everything seem clear, and do not require any reality testing. Everything either exists to accommodate them, or it shouldn't be allowed to exist at all.

This a progression of detachment. It is what happens when a culture begins to come apart. And it's all around us. It is why we lack leadership so badly. An imploding culture adamantly hates and opposes the virtues of leadership. When it sees them, it tries to destroy them. True leadership derives from understanding people and relying on them to respond to the implicit code by which the leader acts. The leadership of a government of sociopaths on the other hand is impulsive, it prides itself on juggling rules to avoid being caught by them. It thinks that principles and those who hold them are dangerous. And it views long term thinking as an obstacle in the way of its bright and beautiful plans.

From NY to Jerusalem,

Daniel Greenfield

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