Human Action and Fear in Politics
First, my disclaimer. This is a layman’s view; it is neither a scholarly nor reference article. If you want exact quotes and context I recommend reading several of Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard’s works. Ask me if you’re interested.
The Axiom of Human Action is simply this: Human Action is Purposeful Behavior.
From that Axiom flows the logic and analysis that comprises von Mises magnum opus, Human Action.
Stated more elaborately to highlight some implications contained in the simple statement above, Human action is initiated upon the belief that the action will improve or maintain one’s level of satisfaction of human wants and needs. Conversely, humans do not act in ways they believe will lead to less satisfaction of their wants and needs. Even in the case of altruistic action, the individual performing the action must value altruism as a want or need that is higher than not behaving altruistically.
NOTE: It is important to the understanding to not overlook the word ‘belief‘ in the description above. Since the consequences of one’s actions manifest over time through some instant in the future, individuals must act on what they believe will happen not on what actually does happen. The trick of the politician is to blur the distinction between intended outcomes and actual outcomes. Fear is the tool of choice for causing that to happen. In politics, perceptions carry far more weight than real-world circumstances and consequences.
Mises demonstrated at least these two important concepts with his logical elaborations from the axiom above.
- Actions are chosen based on one’s needs and wants at the time the action is chosen. There is a hierarchy of wants and needs at any given instant but it is not a static hierarchy. The priority of various wants and needs change over time based on two primary factors: Time Preference and Cost. (I recommend reading up on disutility of labor and marginal utility for details of the precise impacts of time and cost.)
A: Time Preference example:
For instance, one minute after an enormous meal if someone offered you a pizza you would probably pass because eating would not be your highest priority at that time. Yet 8 hours later with no snacks in between, eating may be at the top of your list and you’ll warm up a slice of pizza.
B: Cost example: (Not dollars only, but also the ‘cost’ of satisfaction with regard to your current hierarchy of wants and needs.)
For instance, if you don’t work today perhaps you will not eat tomorrow. So, even though you are not hungry in the present, the anticipation of tomorrow’s hunger and it’s associated cost if not sated tends to cause individuals to choose to work in the present. Removing the cost of future wants and needs tends to encourage individuals not to work in the present.
Humans are able to weigh costs of future conditions because we have an innate understanding of the relationship between actions and consequences. We know that when we do act, things happen. Future costs may be increased or decreased by actions we choose today. For that reason it is to one’s advantage to not only know that consequences happen, but to cultivate skill and tools to help one determine the likely consequences from the unlikely or impossible consequences. History is the basis for this kind of reasoning and evaluation. Experience, literal or literary, helps individuals learn to connect the dots and recognize patterns that lead to an understanding of the relationships between actions and consequences over time even if those relationships are obscured by fear-based political influences.
2. Wants and needs are satisfied in priority order one at a time even though priorities can change very rapidly. Imagine you are famished as you start a great meal; eating is your priority. Two seconds later you inhale a slice of beef and start choking…all the sudden breathing has become a much higher priority than eating.
By extension it can easily be seen that physical threats to one’s existence are at the top of the priority list. Survivors do not get distracted while in the direct path of physical threats by lesser priority wants or needs. In the ultimate act of altruism, sacrificing oneself to protect another life or lives, individuals prove that humans are able to consciously override the survival instinct if they believe doing so leads to a better state of personal satisfaction than not doing so. Without this ability there would be no heroes. Without this there would be no individuals committing atrocities in the name of the State or in the name of their God by any other name.
Moving away from the extremes to consider day-to-day actions of individuals those same two concepts apply. Every action must be taken in the present moment. One cannot act in the future nor in the past. Figuring out what to do now, in the present, is the trick that ensures man’s continued existence. It is also that vital action decision making process that is targeted by political influences and manipulations.
In the hierarchy of priorities the alleviation of fear is near the top, just below self-preservation or preserving another. Once fear is properly created and regularly fueled, it can be tapped at any time and for any purpose for those who know its power. What do people fear? Different things for different people. For instance, saying that if candidate X wins the homeland will suffer an increase in the bat population may scare some folks into voting against candidate X because they have a very strong fear of bats. However, for most of us, a potential increase in the bat population doesn’t even register in our voting decision.
Aside from phobias and personal tastes, fear falls into several common categories.
1. Fear of harm to life. Theirs, mine, yours, the pet dog’s, your unwed daughter’s fetus, etc.
2. Fear of being wrong. Humans invest a lot of time and energy into being able to make decisions and to follow through for the time it takes to implement those decisions. Such investments are hard to abandon.
3. Fear of being an ‘outsider.’ (of being treated differently based on some personal trait or belief.) Humiliation, shunning, ridicule, etc. can arouse debilitating fear in some individuals.
4. Fear of change. Fear of the unknown…
Fear of harm to life caused Jews to get on trains. In that moment they were more afraid of the guards with weapons than of taking a train ride. Time preference adjusted the two fears in their individual hierarchies so the dreadful train was the ‘lesser of two fears’ in that particular moment. If they had been able to objectively consider the costs, the horrors of the camps at the end of the train ride, perhaps they would have rushed the guards and changed history. Their fear was deliberately manipulated to control their actions. The same fear kept generations of slaves in bondage from ancient times through the present.
Fear of being wrong is well founded in the evolution of human civilizations. Being wrong can so often end in death that fear of it has been stamped on our species. Simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time is wrong enough to get a lot of folks killed no matter what they may have thought or how they acted in their lives. Making wrong decisions that affect large groups has often led to lynching or sacrifice. The threat of being accused of being wrong triggers a fear-based reaction in almost everyone. History is full of accounts of the horrendous consequences from defending wrong decisions rather than admitting them and changing course. The Bible says, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18. Pride is simply a form of fear of being wrong characterized by one’s willingness (need?) to accept the accolades from being right even when dead wrong. Yet, despite this old, well documented notion, the fear of being wrong prevented the helio-centric model of the solar system from being accepted by the church and thus by society and academia for more than a century after Copernicus posed the theory.
Leaders of religions and government and human organizations of many sorts tend to defend wrong decisions, some more adamantly than others and with far greater consequences. Fear of being wrong causes a lot of conflict when reality (actions of other humans) challenges one’s faith-based illusions. Rather than embracing the wrongness and learning from it most folks attempt to regain that previous state of illusion because they found that to be preferable to reality. Forever in the way of such attempts to re-establish naivety is the innate human ability to consider costs and consequences in the ordering of one’s priorities. It is against human nature to expend resources in activity one knows cannot lead to their desired outcomes….yet the fear of being wrong causes many individuals to choose to act against their own best interests in the expenditure of that precious time and energy. Fear of being wrong causes most people to accept the leadership of others even when they are not fully aligned with the other person’s leadership. Better they be wrong than I be wrong…I was just following orders.
Fear of being an outsider has also been inseparable from the evolution of human civilization. Outsiders die. Outsiders get the smallest crumbs from the leaders droppings. The consequence of the fear of being an outsider is that it fosters a herding mentality that tends to bring people into groups of a homogeneous nature. Playing the herding instinct allows large groups to be identified and a strategy of fear manipulation tailored to their specific panic buttons. Muslims! Racists! Japanese! Commies! Gays! Bilderbergers! Indians! Christians! Yikes…for any group you can label there is another group that fears them enough to allow their behavior to be controlled in deference to that fear.
Fear of change, fear of the unknown, even if it should be known because history has recorded it over and over, is pervasive. Many people are unable to ‘know’ things they have not personally experienced with enough credibility or conviction to alter their behavior. Once one’s culture and experience sets one’s patterns of behavior and beliefs they are very hard to change for individuals…it takes determined effort over generations to change the patterns that a culture impresses on its inhabitants. Some folks can read history and analysis from now till their end and still never ‘know’ what is obvious to those who can learn without personally experiencing the described consequences. Their fear of change will ensure they are unable to see the connections between past situations and present situations…and likely future situations.
Fear causes malinvestment and waste just as do manipulations of the free market. It is all related. Malinvestment and waste stifle human progress and potential. Malinvestment is a term from von Mises that refers to actions being taken by individuals that do not lead to a state of better satisfaction of one’s wants and needs in the future. Malinvestment is always the result of the inability of human beings to foresee future conditions correctly. Politicians know that by manipulating the ability of individuals to connect actions today with consequences in the future or consequences in the present with actions in the past…they can control the voting behavior of large groups with simple, fear-based messages. It works every time. I always has worked…the only thing is…fear is hard to aim. Easy to light the fuse but hard to aim.
Fear is a tool for manipulating and corrupting the free market of ideas and individual expression. It is used to control and homogenize perspectives across broad swathes of society.
Using fear in this way isn’t a new or foreign concept to mankind. It is part of our being. Understanding it with the goal of disabling it’s destructive effects on the future of mankind isn’t new either. The invention of the Gutenberg press enabled the first wave of knowledge expansion. The internet is enabling the next wave of knowledge expansion. It is now possible of almost anyone to learn almost anything in their spare time from anywhere they happen to be. This is a fantastic time to be alive. knowledge conquers fear and it looks to me like fear is on the run for the first time in human history. How far will it retreat? How desperately will leaders who depend on it for their continued power go to protect it? No one knows. I expect it to be worse than I can imagine…maybe like Stephen King’s The Stand.
Unless knowledge wins the day…which is what I’m banking on and working towards.Tweet
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