Trends in Society

by Kyle Davenport
c. 1988

    Behind current events and controversies lies the fundamental question of the nature of society. From public policy to critical analysis, media express presumptions and judgements about society. Even claims about what society ought to be necessarily judge what society actually is. In an effort to resolve controversies and problems, the nature of society needs to be considered. Two motivations for doing so are that at a different level of argument agreement might be found and that examining tacit presumptions leads to greater understanding, and hence, to greater tolerance.

    Granted, nothing seems as controversial and irresolvable as the nature and behavior of society. Trying to achieve precision, the experts ignore the whole for the parts. Trying to capture the zeitgeist, literati abstract grey heroes or bogeymen out of society's multiplicity. Yet somehow, everyone's personal and immediate experience must scale up to the whole - of many people over the long term. It is not enough to take polls and chart statistics; we need to ask how society persists and changes. Concealed by all the popularizations of Progress or doomsday, profound changes are occurring which must no longer be ignored.

    One reason for such controversy is the implicit recognition of society as an expression of human nature - a subject near and dear to us all. Arguments about social justice and obligation clearly depend on human nature, though they infrequently separate fact from fancy. Social engineers are comfortable with people as economic machines, acting out their beliefs, and responding rationally to their context. However social controversies can not be resolved while human nature is ignored or denied. Our civilization is said to be in anomie - in which norms weakly affect belief and behavior. Old beliefs in family, community, honor and respect are being outdated by anonymous, centralized power and ruthless greed. But why is this happening if few want authoritarianism, and so many have urged a return to traditional values?

    I have come to view many of the latest developments in our society as aspects of a few general trends. I want to describe the most ominous trends because positive trends already receive enough publicity, and because the fact that the worst trends are concealed implies important truths about social problems and controversies. This perspective on the hidden nature of society reveals human nature, and how it affects society. Spanning these new developments seems to be a loss of personal choice and control. Certainly, modern life provides greater choice in many ways, as in diet, religion, consumer goods, information... But at what price? These choices weigh light in the balance with the trends to follow. Cognitive research shows that psychological reactions to loss of control are anxiety, neurosis, and apathy - which speak strongly of our time. This century marks ever increasing change and crisis; no sooner do we enter a "new age" when another comes to overshadow it. What is most alarming is not just change, but the rate of change, and an increasingly unstable and unpredictable future.

I. The Protection Rackets, Security, & Risk-Avoidance

    This past century has seen an exponentially growing demand for security at all costs, as if enough money could make life risk-free. Institutions are happy to "guarantee" security to individuals overwhelmed by the onslaught of change. Protection rackets work by exaggerating both risk and security. The threatened risk compels the purchase of protection. See table for major examples.
Protection Racket Alleged Risk Growth  Current per Capita 
government anarchy   10.2x ('29-'87)  $7400
military "our enemies"  38.1x ('00-'90)  $1200
police crime  6.3x ('54-'90)  $410
religion damnation   2.8x ('50-'87)  $180
insurance loss  3.7x ('50-'87)  $800
health insurance medical costs   18.1x ('50-'88)  $600 
pensions disability   4.8x ('50-'87)  $905
medical sickness, injury, death  5.0x ('50-'87)  $2050

All figures are expenditures adjusted for inflation and population growth. Growth of federal, state, and local governments. Medical growth based on national health expenditures reported by US Dept of HHS. Insurance growth based on private premium income. Pensions based on annual growth of public and private (excl. SS) pension funds in 1950 and 1987. Contributions to organized religion are from total private philanthropy. By comparison, inflation adjusted average earnings of workers grew 1.8x ('50-'87). Inflation measured by Consumer Price Index. U.S. Statistical Abstracts, U.S. Dept of Commerce, Census Bureau

    Of course in principle, insurance is judicious, preventive, even a necessity against catastrophe. But buying insurance is not necessarily any of these. The twentieth century peculiarity of insurance expresses a materialistic mentality; when anything and anyone can be bought, throwing money at a "problem" absolves responsibility and repeals consequences. Incentives to minimize risk, as well as control over future resources to handle life's diverse hazards are abandoned to the insurer. As change is a given and crisis is guaranteed, the individual who has bought into this lifestyle, with little savings and in debt, will find he has scant security.

    Characteristically, the growth of new protection rackets occurs while traditional protection fails. The archetypal protection racket, "organized crime", could exist only because government criminalized economic business, became corrupted in turn, and failed to provide protection.2,3 The extended family no longer guarantees old age security. The close community rarely exists to provide the support to bridge hard times, as it once did. The loss of bank savings in the Great Depression gave impetus to Social Security.

    "Security" as a paradigm is a convenient and recognizable rationalization. But these "security" cravings may also reflect a perception of growing insecurity and instability in the whole of society. The manufactured reality of the mass media for instance portrays an abundance of illness, crime, violence, and war. The protection rackets pander to fear and anxiety. The function of fear is to avoid the feared. Clearly insecurity about the future motivates avoidance of risk, so personal responsibility and individual decision are increasingly shunned. The protection rackets shift the consequences of individual mistakes onto others. Health insurance and medical costs shift the cost of unhealthy lifestyles onto everyone buying "protection". The two faces of insecurity are at once lost innovation and protected recklessness. The unfolding disaster of the savings and loan industry bail-out shows the results of such attitudes; thanks to the biggest protection racket of all, we must all pay for the mistakes of a few.

    Insurance companies demonstrate the power protection rackets have assumed. They routinely discriminate - against "high risk groups" - and can demand intrusive answers, procedures, and all sorts of contractual compliance, with impunity. Sure, "private" companies are free to set any contractual conditions; individually they do not force anyone to comply. Collectively and in collusion, protected and subsidized by law and legal precedent, they have unaccountable powers even government hesitates to use. Nothing has prevented insurers from demanding drug tests, medical screens, family history, or term obedience. Even worse follows attempting to collect, when claimants must confront the disparity between security and insurance.

II. Presumptive criminalization

    One trend in legislation and enforcement has been described as "presumptive criminalization", growing despite the civilized legacy of presumed innocence. Coercion formerly reserved for criminals is applied to persons accused or suspected of crime. The expanded license to presume criminality inspires a "preemptive justice", which is the same legitimized coercion for crimes not "yet" committed. Both trends superficially resemble prevention, eg., "preventive detention". But prevention forestalls harm, while unjustifiable coercion exacerbates it. A truly preventive prescription would be to reform society and diminish the reasons for desperate acts.

    America's problem with drugs currently excuses presumptive criminalization, since law enforcement has required much greater police state powers for these victimless crimes. Prejudice however motivated the original presumptive criminalization, and continues to do so whenever people can be labelled and classified. Minorities and the disadvantaged are keenly aware of continuing police harassment related to their likelihood of committing crime, e.g., inner city young men are routinely harassed, detained and body searched. The unemployed are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and imprisoned.4

    Presuming criminality resembles the security and risk-avoidance trend. The laws and practices are excused by how much they will allegedly protect us from criminals. They are accepted for reasons of security. Like any protection racket, freedom is a small price to pay for the exaggerated threat of crime. The boot of the law seems to be directed at Them - the evil criminal - and not Us, the law-abiding, good citizen.

A Short List of Examples of Presumptive Criminalization

III. Criminals lose all rights

    Crime and punishment are where State and individual collide, preparing the path for future relations between all individuals. Parole considerations demonstrate a common attitude towards criminals; their "good" behavior, attitude, socially proper beliefs, and capricious public opinion determine parole granting. Severe bias against former prisoners occurs throughout society, from personal suspicion to restricted occupations - predisposing the criminal to more crime. The loss of civil rights begins immediately upon suspicion of crime. Abuse, discomfort, loss of privacy, disruption of living, and even extended imprisonment await the innocent suspect. Depending on the suspect's race, sex, wealth, history, and attitude, he or she may then be convicted and sentenced. If imprisoned, as a spate of recent court decisions shows, they lose nearly all remaining civil rights: censored mail and visitations, strict and arbitrary "discipline", loss of choice in diet and lifestyle -- they cannot even refuse psychoactive drugs! Even out of prison, the parolee now can "choose" between probation, community service, medical operations, drug treatment, or electronic tagging.

    Not much sympathy is usually reserved for criminals; "they deserve to suffer any legitimate punishment". This attitude may well be the root of the problem. As ever more behavior is criminalized, the guilt and shame - the deserved suffering - spreads to encompass all of society. The national per capita incarceration rate has nearly doubled in the past 10 years while the National Crime Survey shows crime rates falling about 20%.1 The so-called "law and order" mindset has also led to the malignant growth of over-criminalization.2 For example, in 1987, (traditionally) victimless crime accounted for 16% of arrests, 30% of federal convictions. Drug laws alone sent 58% of about 17,000 people to prison from U.S. District courts,1 and 8.6% of 486,000 to state prisons.5 Those who eagerly press for punishment and suffering really don't care what purpose it serves. The purpose may once have been to compensate victims and rehabilitate, but American-style justice accomplishes neither since it is based on fear. (The fraction of re-imprisoned prisoners is greater than 3/4ths.1) America's prison/probation system amounts to a massive segregation policy - the greatest incarceration rate in the world. Raising penalties to deter crime is a vicious cycle with marginally diminishing results, and political hay, inspiring still greater penalties.

    The trend toward preemptive justice complements the loss of rights by criminals, spreading coercion into all spheres of life. The movement to imprison pregnant women who might abuse drugs and harm their fetus joins the two trends together. The controversy encapsulates the forces shared by increasing coercion: political expediency and the rhetoric of virtuous beneficence, exaggerated risk, "public good", and irresponsibility. Indeed, a reliable sign of yet more coercion is the use of the word "responsibility", which distracts attention from the punishment to the punished. Conveniently then, the blame for both some tragedy of life and the inevitable failure of government policy to fix it is restricted to the victim.

IV. Uncommon or disapproved behavior as mental sickness/disease

    The utility of the drug-abusing pregnant woman in justifying a whole new venture into coercive possibilities is aided by another prevalent attitude: the woman who would do such a horrendous thing to her offspring must be sick. And the sick obviously need to be treated. Modern psychiatric institutions explicitly justify themselves in terms of preemptive justice. Many of the several hundred thousand "insane" are "involuntarily committed" to mental prisons because they might harm society or themselves. [In 1980, ~525,000 were admitted, with ~255,000 institutionalized on average.1] Thomas Szasz has persuasively argued against psychiatric slavery for decades.6 The abuse of mental prisoners in these institutions exceeds even that in criminal prisons. The outrage against Soviet psychiatric abuse is hypocrisy at best. Institutional populations have greatly fallen in the past few decades while psychochemical constraints have replaced physical ones [see graph]. The residue wanders homelessly or ends up in prison.7

    The disease paradigm of abnormal behavior has ancient roots in superstition. The convenient connotations brought with such a paradigm are 1) the disease is deserved somehow by bad thoughts or (other) behavior, 2) (if that is denied, then) the diseased did not really choose to be sick, and therefore will not mind being treated, for of course 3) disease must be treated, 4) disease is typically inherited (his race is to fault) or contagious (his associates are likely to need treatment), and 5) the diseased are stigmatized.

    The belief in these disease states is so compelling as to easily flutter thru any thicket of facts. It does not matter if the condition the disease "explains" does not even exist. Exemplary in this regard is addiction - as Stanton Peele argues in Diseasing of America.8 Likewise ignored is that any coercion excused by addiction does more harm than self-abuse would have.9 The easy metaphorical "explanation" provided by disease or addiction provides even easier excuses for the treated and treatment, distracting from underlying causes. Even if an addict recants his sin and blames the devilish drug he willingly took, intolerance is no less to blame for the dimensions of the drug problem. The disease paradigm is only the most obvious manifestation of the attitude that uncommon behavior and belief are irrational and dangerous, and growing coercive possibilities need no longer tolerate them.

V. Institutionalization of inequality

    Inequality, poverty, discrimination, and like social ills are universally denounced, fought, and legislated against, yet have grown worse in this country in the past 25 years. These problems are not new; Charles Murray provides a comprehensive review in Losing Ground.10 It would seem though that if all the best intentions have not helped, the problems are systemic or institutionalized. Judicial institutions are notorious for socioeconomic and racial bias.11,12,13 Legislatures are rich mens' clubs - of, by, and for the rich people.14 The administration exists for patronage with the bureaucracy committed to benefitting the aristocratic power blocks they represent.15,16 The regulatory system exists to rationalize the economy for the benefit of the largest, oligopolistic corporations.17 In the mid-sixties America passed a turning point in its "free-enterprise and competition" system when the productive economy was finally overwhelmed by the "distractive", parasitic, fiat economy of the State.18 A distractive economy slights consumer, market forces. Large corporations now seek profit-making through decreased competition and unfair advantage - the necessary role of a corporation in a government-rationalized economy. A corporatist society of rigid hierarchies and centralized, unaccountable, trickle-down funding functions at the whim of the rich and powerful. Such a society is hardly conducive to equal opportunity.

    More to the point, a whole mindset is cultivated to justify our deplorable state - of greed, success-at-all-costs, blind consumerism, and envy for the rich. A work ethic, which may once have motivated productivity, now only distracts from the reality of unearned privilege and corrupt gains. The predominant paradigm not only worships the rich, but degrades the poor, who are accused of laziness, stupidity, or criminality. The widespread belief that the government is trying to combat the problem is itself part of the problem - by distracting attention from the abundant disproving facts.10 Not only have the "best intentions" gone awry, but the rhetoric and programs (to treat only symptoms) serve as distraction - guaranteed to fail, even exacerbate the systemic problems.19,20

VI. Public vs. private good (& bad)

    A simple political process accounts for much bad government. The essence of laws and public programs is to replace a plurality of individual choices and priorities with a monolithic "public" decision. The effects of such dictates are 1) to favor particular industries or groups - diminishing competitive progress 2) to divert resources from individual consumption - their free-market distribution 3) to treat everyone as the worst social elements may need to be treated.3 The latter occurs, for instance, when practices of presumptive criminalization hurt us all. Both diversity and freedom suffer then.

    Government also dictates a sort of private good for public harm, or at the expense of the public. The interest individuals have in a government policy may be expressed by their advocacy, dollars, or votes. Whichever, the relatively few benefactors of "special interest" policy have much greater interest in their policy than does the rest of society.21 This also applies to "public bads" such as pollution, food contamination, or despoliation of public reserves; the harm is spread thinly amongst the public while a few gain tremendous advantage. The individuals who take advantage weigh the small personal harm they have shared with everyone against the large benefit mostly to themselves.

    The submersion of individual identity within the group (here, "the Public") causes inestimable suffering. As the public good translates into mediocritization, lost potential and loss of initiative, creativity, and individual achievement are inevitable. The problems with public education then come as no surprise. Individual goals and hopes are thwarted, producing apathy, anxiety, and lost self-esteem. What equates with "herd instinct" has spread from tribal, to community, national, and now global concern as everyone seeks desperately to be the same. "Group-mindedness" affects much behavior, like supporting hierarchy, networking, and xenophobia. Such strategies are inappropriate, and uncritically arrived at, when for example, belonging to the group is more important than the self-destructiveness such belonging might engender. All too frequently orders down a hierarchy are followed regardless of what the individual might feel is right.

VII. Extra-territorial lawlessness (the end justifies the means)

    American foreign policy is an extension of the public good process. Foreign aid is mostly a circuitous subsidy to American exporters, especially the defense contractors and multinational corporations; coincidentally, foreign aid is also the least accountable of government expenditures. A brief exposure to the alternate media convincingly shows that American foreign policy is not accurately portrayed in the mass media.20,22,23,24,25 The "rationalized" business environment which the U.S. manufactures in foreign countries is the antithesis of national security or democracy. U.S. government policy in the Third World can be understood only as intentional destabilization,26 from covert action to quite public impoverishment (foreign aid, IMF policies, sanctions, trade barriers).27 This makes great markets for U.S. defense contractors, but hardly seems very defensible otherwise. Our loss of economic preeminence exacerbates the trend to seek "non-consensual relationships" out of desperation.

    This imperialistic trend is a denial of civil rights to foreigners even while applying American laws to them extra-territorially. A blatant example is the application of our RICO act against Noriega. How can nearly a quarter of federal inmates be non-U.S. citizens?28 This American century has seen an increasingly belligerent, might-makes-right attitude, creating many sought-after enemies.23,26 Completely ignored in the mass media are the numerous unanimous U.N. votes against U.S. policy (alone in 20 votes, 29 votes with only one other country in 143 plenary votes in 1989 session), and a declining voting coincidence (17% in 1989).29 The parade of pitiful excuses offered by our leaders shows that most Americans just don't care what happens outside the U.S. - any excuse is acceptable. While the innocent, but foreign, poor are oppressed, tortured, and murdered with the help of the American tax dollar, it is enough to conjure up American Virtue: "We do this for Democracy and Freedom." Useful for the "world's policeman" is the seductive idea, "benevolent coercion", which translates to "some individuals know better other individual's interests than the others know themselves".

    The astounding disparity between American Virtue and American reality shows how much ends now justify means. Clearly, scruples have not interfered with an imperialist program to bring Democracy to the world. Neither have beliefs about democracy enabled perception of puppet despotisms among the U.S.'s allies. The so-called "end" is usually contrived; it need only sound good to distract from unwanted truth. How can the alleged goal contradict the actions directed toward it? How can we promote democracy with such horrendously un-democratic means? As if the reasons and beliefs were inconsequential, the "ulterior motives" are concealed from observer and subject alike.

VIII Legislating morality

    When the term "legislating morality" appeared in the press lately, editorialists referred to the legislating of clearly religious morality - creating public demands out of private, even minority, beliefs. While all laws can be construed as some morality, laws are accepted and obeyed because they are socially functional. These acceptable laws are an institutionalization of ancient common law, or common sense fairness and justice. Specific victims had only to demand restitution or the fulfillment of obligations. Although mores once grew out of practicality and tradition, modern law consists more of whatever remote, anonymous, and barely accountable rulers can get away with. Likewise, judicial precedent accumulates whatever they have gotten away with. Brotherhood, fairness, equality, trust, and altruism simply can not be expected to apply beyond family and friends regardless of how sweet and virtuous they are.

    The relatively powerful special interests therefore continue to legislate and enforce their versions of morality - behavioral injunctions neither functional nor commonly acceptable. In effect, they expand the social domain of law into the private sphere. Fundamentally totalitarian intrusions increase by law and police practice: sin taxes, vice laws, censorship, travel restrictions, regulated enterprise and occupational laws, and IRS/INS/DEA harassment. Unending public services seem to be beneficently provided, but their cost is extorted "justifiably" from captive beneficiaries. Since laws are much harder to remove once created - again because of the public good vs. special interest process - they accumulate thru the conservative/liberal cycle, with government gaining power in every phase. Broadly, in the conservative phase civil liberties are attacked while in the liberal phase economic liberties are attacked. This three decade cycle is reflected in the most fundamental measures of American society, eg., the money supply or federal regulatory growth, which has continued since our country's beginning.30

    Many signs of growing intolerance dot the American ideoscape. Leaders demand "zero-tolerance of drugs" in the silliest, and most frightening, routine. The mildest nonconformity results in ostracism, peer abuse, lost employment prospects, and official suspicion. Choice over the disposition of one's own earnings steadily declines; once just taxes and tithes, we must now add insurance, pension, company benefits, leases, passed-on business costs in products, and so on. The loss of control over one's own property represents an intolerance for your private choice. Whenever possible, the government "protects" the consumer from rash consumption - restricting medical drugs, prohibiting some products, taxing and tariffing selected others, and so on.

IX. Incrimination and other violations of social contract

    Those consensual laws derived from ancestral mores share a fundamental belief in the social contract. Integrity, recognition, trust, fairness, and compassion guaranteed normative behavior. Ostracism from the group was the ultimate punishment, seriously threatening one's welfare and life. Permanently alienated members of our society in urban anonymity are not likely to worry about ostracism anymore. Remote, anonymous governments, corporations, or organizations cannot be treated like just another friend or neighbor, whose self-interest is bounded by mutual constraints.

    Laws increasingly violate such a social contract. When one person can inform on another about a supposedly mutual economic exchange to the other's peril from government, the social contract has been explicitly broken. But Americans calmly accept such occurences "in order to fight drugs". Not even children informing on parents provokes outrage; the children are heroic and dutiful to help their parents into prison. The indeterminate sentence now includes the indeterminate criminal charge, as prosecutors bargain with the Accused for his life, liberty, and property, not only to inform upon but entrap his acquantainces. Few aspects of American society have not been touched by the government sting; agents insinuate themselves into legal or illegal operations until they have netted sufficient guilt. A requisite presumption of these government activities is a sovereign immunity, with the government above the law.

    Political machinations, which are just social alliances on a greater scale, are a fact of social life. The problem derives in part from the modern remoteness and anonymity of the agents involved - causing a lack of accountability and personal responsibility. In crowded cities, the robber does not likely know his victim, and neither much appreciates the motivations of the other. An individual has great difficulty contending with an organization and its faceless minions. When government (as the monopoly of force) usurped particular reciprocations (or revenge) that deterred crime, contextual constraints on behavior were removed. So also were potential victims less likely to prevent crime and defend themselves, if big brother protected them. When organizations conflict - rarely - "membership" merits discrimination regardless of responsibility. A most extreme example would be gang wars.

    Jeffrey Reiman describes the historical social contract between feudal lords and serfs.11 The landlords were obligated to take care of the serfs by protection and sustenance, and all serfs expected reasonable standards of subsistence. By contrast, a modern government that declares all property inviolable while slum children starve has clearly violated this social contract. Countless less-than-consensual standards are now embedded in the judicial system that allow the greatest crimes to go unpunished, and unpunishable (pollution, product negligence, harm caused by the nuclear and processed food industries...).11

X. Meta-trends

    Beyond the trends of statistics, quantifiable characteristics, and (verbalizable) abstractions, are dynamics of the very long term or very complicated of which we are only just beginning to be aware. Any system, such as society, of an interacting multiplicity of elements has certain properties and dynamics - in a global sense independent of its elements - such as stability, periodicity, or functionality. These dynamical rules imply on the one hand, that such a system can be inherently unpredictable [meaning the system is itself the best experiment that can be done], but on the other, that an evolving system can become chaotic under certain conditions. I believe these almost ineffable abstractions are significant for our civilization. Dr. Gabriel Kolko, Harvard historian, concludes that the major trend of American history has been America's growing instability and implacability.17 To paraphrase, the more government and society try to solve society's problems, the greater interaction within society is produced, and hence, the greater problems and instability result. Instability means both 1) that system variables change or spread without bounds (like business cycles) and 2) an ever smaller perturbation can cause an ever greater effect. Either way, the system inevitably breaks down.

    Meta-trends also imply that discussion and understanding of complicated issues requires several "levels of understanding" or hierarchies of abstraction. One can discuss facts and draw conclusions, but no great meaning is conveyed without also considering presumptions, connotations, understanding and motivation, and so on. Though the trends in this essay are broad generalizations of innumerable events and tendencies, they are yet aspects of broader or more abstract trends, such as the loss of personal choice and increased social interaction, but also of trends we know little or nothing about. Indeed, every argument should account for what it might ignore. Intentional or not, ignorance always has major implications. A commonplace example is that higher returns are demanded for riskier investments, where risk is simply the unknown future return. The complete argument can never know just what it ignores - just what it does not know, but it can draw conclusions or recommendations based on the existence of the unknown; ignorance demands a safety margin.

    One meta-trend, replete with unknowns, is the coevolution of humans and the environment. Apparently, humans have had a major deleterious effect on the environment for many tens of thousands of years, from irreversible species extinction to permanent desertification. To see people beginning to care about their world may be comforting, but even the presence of growing populations has a profound ecological impact we cannot begin to appreciate. Merely disturbing the surface of the land releases toxic heavy metals, and housing destroys ecosystems. Regardless of expressed concern, the purchase of any product inevitably impacts the environment (out of sight, and out of mind). Most of this country's ecological damage has occurred since this concern became popular. Current controversy on the greenhouse effect splits thus: that we do not know enough about the impacts for cost-benefit decisions or that we must begin to change because we do not know how bad it might become - the very possibility of catastrophe demands change.

    Bound up with the ecological issue is the very stability of society. If people believe authority is failing them on issues of vital importance, clearly a great deal is at stake. Described above, stability applies to a system that persists. At the level of individuals, "micro-stability" is the consent to cooperate in a system perceived to generate benefits exceeding costs, plus a conservative, future-discounted, factor. In other words, when disadvantages seem to outweigh advantages plus future uncertainty, individuals will lose faith, demand change, and eventually refuse to cooperate in the system. Clearly, the past few decades have seen increasing portions of society pass thru these stages. No one sets out to calculate such a cost/benefit analysis, but people act upon their experience, i.e., with perceptions dominating judgement or propaganda. So many delusions about the political/social realm persist because the mass media has such a major impact on perceptions. (Does TV watching really average 8 hours per day per person?!)1 These stability arguments then depend not just on what is, but what seems to be. On another scale, do people's perceptions -massively reinforced by TV - of global interdependencies and spreading waves of instability contribute to instability in the American system?


    How can these trends be so ominous and pervasive, yet be mostly ignored? As society is the total of our individual behaviors, should not we all be familiar with the motivations and decisions that brought us these trends? If we have not wanted what is happening, why does it continue to happen? The tendency perhaps is to blame Evilmen, or modern complexity, or fate - anything but ourselves. An even more likely tendency is to simply ignore anything that conflicts with our worldview. To the deliberately ignorant, the rules are given, and the game is life.

    Those worldviews, which lead to ignorance and denial of our society's problems, share a particular kind of beliefs. First, they presume that people act rationally on the basis of their values and beliefs. Second, they view most individuals as basically good, even if usually self-interested. Third, they see organizations and institutions as respectable achievements. Fourth, they accept rhetoric and expressed intentions at face value. Fifth, they suppose history is just a series of accidents and famous decisions. They would also probably be saddened or indignant to hear these five beliefs questioned.

    Clearly, if we do not want these social problems, other motivations are responsible for the decisions that led to them. If we do not know what these impulses are, they are properly called subconscious. This truth about human nature can lead us to understand not only ourselves, but our society. Understanding will be the only way to solve our problems.

    Most behavior is in some way subconsciously motivated. Cognitive science has identified that behind any behavior are subconscious perceptions, decisions, and even goals. But we all know how "mindless" is a typical day. Apathy, denial, illogic, and impulsiveness are routine. We even praise subconscious intuition and creativity. From psychoanalytic repression to innate drives, the mind is too complex to deny diverse reactions to a drastically changing world. Beliefs and intentions, AKA consciousness, are a fancy facade, too often accepted as the totality of mental output.

    That most beliefs just don't matter reveals an essential aspect of their nature. They may be inconsequential because they are contradictory, meaningless, or superfluous. If they are contradictory, some other consideration is required for decision. People say they want freedom, democracy, and justice, but they also want security, leadership, and personal advantage - so what happens? Kings seem to have abdicated to someone named Society, whose Good we should believe is the ultimate goal of social policy. The "good of society" may be perfectly meaningless, but then communication typically consists of useless repetition, intentional ambiguity, and un-reality to some degree.

    One clear distinction among beliefs is between those that affect the individual's decisions and those in the "political realm". A preference for black coffee has a very real effect, but a belief in some government policy is typically, utterly inconsequential. American Republicanism insulates the citizen from even a 100 millionth part voice in any of the millions of governmental decisions made every day. What could be the role of belief then?

    If instead, beliefs are consequent to behavior (or events), then the reaction of the individual to enormous social forces beyond his control is futility and making do. Like sports fans, they identify with and support those forces - such as displays of jingoism, socialism, subordination, or sloganeering - "because it feels good". People perceive that en masse, they can have an effect on a grander scale than their individual lives - thus, the games of conformity and trying to identify with the winner. Those who succeed in this game of course win a very real division of the spoils of exploitation. The beliefs held during successful games, however meaningless and inconsequential they were, are firmly retained in the best of conservative traditions. Those beliefs, which are the price of admission to conformity, are relieved of any constraint of conforming to reality and assume bizarre mythological forms. Examples abound: religious tenets, American Virtue, organizational group-think, journalists' faith in the mass-media.

    What else then motivates action besides faddish and inconsequential beliefs? Delusions can persist because they are not contradicted or specifically, their contradictions are unimportant to survival and success. Now, evolutionary biology happens to be about survival and success. Indeed, biology has very much to say about human behavior, and I believe that is where understanding human nature must begin. Widespread ignorance or denial of "bad" human nature has naturally spread to the critical analysis of evolutionary biology, yet agreement may still be possible. Someone may avoid the implications for one's own beliefs and behavior, while at least recognizing that aggregate effects of trendy beliefs and shared propensities have norms or average-weighted distributions of conduct (alias, "statistical determinism"). Whether cultural, childhood, or innate explanations are preferred is not as important as the recognition of deeply rooted, uncritically examined motivations resulting in a diverse abundance of social problems.

    Seeking explanation of modern changes in the constancy of human nature might seem strange. Other essayists choose to modernize human nature to fit their preconceptions. A knowledge of constant human nature could show, for instance, why many laws and institutions are bound to fail, or have (allegedly unintended) harmful consequences. By asking how a given nature responds to the modern environment, at least very real and measurable factors are considered. The guide to human nature is how it responded in past environments - again, a quickly growing database called history. A purely cultural evolution of institutions, traditions, and beliefs does not begin to account for why institutions become burdensome, traditions become harmful, and beliefs become absurd; why would a culture evolve for the worse?

    Labeling any of the general activities of humans "new" is liable to be wrong, if what seems new just varies human nature's manifestation. For example, modern corporations, bureaucracies, and military organization are forms of hierarchy, which is typical of social primates. What has changed is a drastic centralization of power, many more levels of organization, and an anonymous, far-flung, irresponsibility. The motivations behind the trends discussed in this essay probably had their role in every culture at any time. Often what seems new is only more publicized, or cyclical, or merely transient. All the novelties of modern life do not necessarily imply inherent motivations will be expressed differently. Drinkable water piped into every home has a profound effect on everyone's life, but it has probably not changed anyone's feelings, beliefs, or behavioral strategies. The frenzy of war though undoubtedly does change such expression. (America's persistent wartime status since 1941 makes this significant.) Understanding human nature is required to anticipate or explain the significance of changes.

    Worldviews that deny the importance of human nature not only do not prevent "social darwinism", they encourage "social engineering". The belief in beliefs necessarily label some beliefs bad and their believers guilty. The attendant censorship and propaganda, discrimination and repression by thought police is a familiar theme of the twentieth century. That is minor though compared to the horrendous practices "good" beliefs have supposedly justified. Paternalism, for instance, has excused psychiatric slavery, the war on drug users, and oppression of third world countries, thwarted opportunities at home, and of course, literally defined the enslavement of women. If the "human mindset" did not accept these excuses so easily, the harmful consequences would have been obvious -and avoided. But of course, a primary reason for the prevalent mindset is to distract from that truth. Ignorance of these major trends indicts the alternative approaches. Problems must first be identified before they can be solved.

    Terribly interdisciplinary experience has granted me this over-generalization: gaining expertise about any establishment is realizing that the practice is not the principle. Our institutions are simply not what they pretend to be. Beliefs or wishes about the nature of, for instance, government regulation, the judicial system, or Big Science, not only contradict, but distract attention from, the reality of those establishments. Curiously, the specialists will admit the truth about their establishment, but not entertain the same skepticism about others.    Touche'  Everywhere is the cynical lesson, taught but not learned. The institutions and regulations and taxation just keep on growing, while the true motivations behind them are not just ignored, but denied.

    In the following table the trends discussed are listed with some factors I believe are most important. Social dynamics may be described as "in this context, human nature tends to react thus". The global or social level of analysis is a pattern abstracted from the total of individual behaviors. Any review can not be complete or definitive, but hopefully this is suggestive. Particular contexts were chosen for their loaded connotations, much of which is intended. All the contexts can be described by measurable quantities - the reality regardless of beliefs. The "primary motivation" is just a label, and its contents are only a vague reference to some underlying reality. The listed motivations seem to shine only a bit brighter in an enormous constellation of influences. Throughout, all trends and their motivations have been clearly interrelated.


Trend or Attitude Context Primary Motivation
Security & Risk-Avoidance  Insecurity Fear
Presumptive criminalization Anonymity (Distrust) Fear
Criminals lose all rights Statism (Prejudice) Fear
Mental disease paradigm Complexity Greed, Power-lust
Systemic poverty Inequality (Advantage) Greed
Public vs. private good Institutionalism (Cliquish) Greed
Extra-territorial lawlessness Globalism Greed, Morality 
Legislating morality Pluralism Conformability
Violations of social contract Statism  Sociality 

    In every trend above, the motivation for, or explanation of, the agents' behavior is quite distinct from the motivation of those who are not the agents but merely assume appropriate beliefs about others' behavior. For instance, the purveyors of protection are clearly motivated by greed - but it should not be surprising if they share with the buyers of fear-insurance a belief in its value. A spoonful of sincerity makes the medicine go down. In all the other trends, agents who decide and act belong to The Establishment. If they are not directly employed by the government, their affiliation is like an extended bureaucracy. Their subsidized, protected corporation or institution intimately embraces the government in a mutually corrupt dependence relationship.14 Of course, the Establishment is society, but its agents are "organization men" (who act appropriately),31 while non-agents simply believe as individuals. Those who are not agents have the responsibility of citizens and victims, for whatever that is worth, of allowing and demanding Establishment action. The motivations of victims of coercion seem an academic topic; what beliefs really count at the point of a gun? The coercion is a final effect of a complex system of causes; what allowed one person to coerce or victimize another person?

Viewed against the reality of coercion and other human relationships, reasons and excuses seem rather silly. "There's more punishment because there's more crime." "There's more insurance because more can afford it." "There's more insanity because we can recognize and treat it better." Such word games are excuses not to think. Others may be irrational and make excuses, but we ourselves have only reasons and goals. Invoking subconsciousness is not just a ruse to denigrate other's opinions. Subconscious predominance in human behavior explains for me the consequences discussed here. The problem is rather the absence of informed, reasoned, and impassioned opinions. If this essay provokes any thought or research, it has succeeded. Everyone desperately needs to consider the impact of their individual choices and actions on the remote and long-term. We urgently need more opinions, and controversy, and dissent.

The End


1 Statistical Abstracts of the U.S., 1989, U.S. Dept of Commerce

2 Richards, David A.J., Sex, Drugs, Death, and the Law - an essay on human rights and overcriminalization, Rowman & Little field, 1982

3 Friedman, David, Machinery of Freedom - a radical approach to capitalism, Open Court, 1989

4 Box, Steven, Recession, Crime, and Punishment, Barnes & Noble Books, 1987

5 Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, Justice Dept., 1988

6 Szasz, T.S., Law, Libery, and Psychiatry - an inquiry into the social uses of mental health practices, Macmillan, 1963
    Myth of Mental Illness, Harper & Row, 1974
    Psychiatric Slavery, Free Press, 1977
    Insanity - the idea and its consequences, John Wiley & Sons, 1987

7 Teplin, Linda, "Prevalence of Severe Mental Disorder Among Male Urban Jail Detainees", American Journal of Public Health, (June 1990) 80:6

8 Peele, Stanton, Diseasing of America - addiction treatment out of control, Lexington Books, 1989

9 Davenport, Kyle, 1984 - the dynamics of the drug problem, unpublished monograph, 1984

10 Murray, Charles, Losing Ground, Basic Books, 1984

11 Reiman, Jeffrey, The Rich Get Richer, the Poor Get Prison, John Wiley & Sons, 1984

12 Hinds, Lennox, Illusion of Justice, School of Social Work, University of Iowa, 1978

13 Spence, Gerry, With Justice for None, Times Books, 1989

14 Karp, Walter, Indispensible Enemies - the politics of misrule in America, Saturday Review Press, 1973

15 Burch, Philip, Jr., Elites in American History, Holmes & Meier Pub.,inc., 1980

16 Peters, Charles, How Washington Really Works, Addison-Wesley, 1980

17 Kolko, Gabriel, Main Currents in Modern American History, Pantheon Books, 1984

18 Dumas, Lloyd, The Overburdened Economy, Univ. Cal. Press, 1986

19 Kolko, Gabriel, The Triumph of Conservatism, Macmillan, 1963

20 Zinn, Howard, A People's History of the United States, Harper Colophon, 1979

21 Hardin, Garrett, "The Tragedy of the Commons", Science, 162:1243 (Dec.13, 1968)

22 Kwitney, Jonathan, Endless Enemies: the Making of an Unfriendly World, Congdon and Weed, 1984

23 Karp, Walter, The Politics of War, Harper and Row, 1979

24 Parenti, Michael, Inventing Reality, St. Martins Press, 1986

25 Chomsky, Noam, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, South End Press, 1989

26 Stockwell, John, In Search of Enemies, Norton, 1978

27 Hancock, Graham, Lords of Poverty - the Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989

28 Knight-Ridder News Service, Business Desk, Nov.4,1990.

29 "Report to Congress on Voting Practices in United Nations, 1989 Session", U.S. Department of State, 1990

30 Batra, Ravi, Regular Economic Cycles, St. Martin's Press, 1985

31 Whyte, William, The Organization Man, Simon & Schuster, 1956

For further reading on subconscious effects on behavior:

Gazzaniga, M., The Bisected Brain, Appleton-Century-Croft, 1970

Goleman, Daniel, Vital Lies, Simple Truths - the psychology of self-deception, Simon & Schuster, 1985 (ie, pp 84-95)

Hilgard, Ernest, Divided Consciousness, Wiley & Sons, 1986

Langer, Ellen, Mindfulness, Addison-Wesley, 1989

Weiss, Joseph, "Unconscious Mental Functioning", Sci.Amer., 3/90

Wilson, Edward, On Human Nature, Harvard, 1978