By Michael Hoexter
In writing the Pedal-to-the-Metal Plan (P2M) to build a post-carbon energy system, I felt compelled at various points to turn and address what would be expectable objections to what I believe is a sensible way forward on economic and climate-related issues. To face the massive challenge of climate change and to reorient our economy towards “real” goods and services will require people to have greater mental clarity about a number of important issues that have over several decades become muddled or swept into forgetfulness. To sign onto and participate in an effort such as the P2M Plan or similar it would in many cases involve examining some of one’s life priorities and will take deliberate thought by each to figure out how they would come to terms with and collaboratively shape a new reality.
Instead of burying descriptions of these hackneyed objections and unquestioned assumptions in a long narrative focused on that action plan, I am outlining here these critically important “delusions” that are held by people who might be inclined to take action on the most important issues of the day as well as those who would be vehemently against taking action even after long argument. I am using the word “delusion” rather than the milder term “illusion” or “myth” because these are ideas that are not only insubstantial but damaging to those who hold them or those around them. These are for the most part delusions that people share with others and find reinforcement for them by talking about them with like-minded people.
Shared Delusion #1: Society is Only a Market
The assumption of conventional neoclassical economics and the related Austrian faction within economics is that society is either entirely a market or should be like a market to function optimally. The neoliberal political movement that has captured the “commanding heights” of elite opinion over the last several decades, has based itself upon this assumption and much social policy has been created based on the belief in an all-encompassing market or markets. Individual policy proposals, for instance the current school reform movement that operates under the banner of “school choice” and “parent choice”, are direct instantiations of this belief system. The “problem” which the school reform movement is attempting to “solve” is simply that a unified public school system with a unionized teaching staff violates its assumption that everything in society should be like a market.
“Public choice” theory, the operative neoliberal theory of government, is the overlay of the neoclassical theory of markets on the institution of government itself. Government actors are supposed to act as “utility maximizers” within government, a lens which forecloses any consideration that people and government leaders in particular could act for something like the common or greater good. While, of course, corruption is a potential in all government actors, the public choice theory naturalizes the idea of the corrupt or incipiently corrupt government official, as the duty-driven official is made to seem an impossibility or an exception to be admired from afar.
Shared Delusion #2: Duty to Others is of No Consequence
Ultimately in the assumed all-encompassing market described above, duty to others is of limited consequence as each actor is attempting to maximize his or her return to him or herself. There are occasionally paeans issued to various traditional notions of duty or virtue but these are often limited to institutions that do not threaten the current political efforts to marketize society. As in “public choice” theory, every person in every role is considered to be actually or incipiently discarding transcendent notions of right and wrong and acting according to their calculations of future advantage or avoidance of disadvantage. The de-naturalization of duty yields ultimately a criminogenic environment, where a range of behaviors leading to sociopathy become naturalized.
Shared Delusion #3: Government is Never Effective or is Second Best
A standard “rap” in the neoliberal era is that government is always incompetent. A version of an older popular satire of bureaucracy and bureaucrats, in the neoliberal era this rap became reinforced by anti-Keynesian economic orthodoxy to be treated as an invariant law of government. While exceptions are found in discussions of various police or military organizations, the view of civilian government is always as a bumbling, incompetent institution. In actual discourse and one assumes in thought itself, we have a “splitting” between the mistakes and inconveniences of government which remain associated with the central mental image of government and the triumphs of government which are attributed to the militarized aspects of or some “exceptional” individual within government in neoliberal ideology.
Shared Delusion #4: Authority is Always Illegitimate
While impossible to practice in real life, in discourse many influenced by right-wing libertarianism or by post-1960’s anti-authoritarianism of the Left treat the concept of authority itself as always illegitimate. Beyond ideology, in many social situations, some will act as leaders or be treated as authorities and some act as followers. The acceptance of authority as potentially possessing some legitimacy is seen as tantamount in certain areas of contemporary discourse as incipient totalitarianism and of giving up on egalitarianism or democracy. The questioning of climate scientists’ authority in the area of climate is the most significant and damaging example of this seemingly democratic impulse (“anybody can be a climate scientist..”). As with contemporary discussions of government above, the question of “whether or not authority” has replaced the question of “how” can authority be legitimately exercised and maintained to achieve some socially positive end, including a deepening of effective democracy.
Shared Delusion #5: Mental Models are Reality
In dealing with complex phenomena that require action, mental models are inevitable guides to interpretation and sequencing of action. Our mental models originate from a combination of academic sources and our experience in the world. In academic and practical economics in particular, an entire culture has grown up that dismisses the distinction between the model and what it is describing, as adherents to different economic schools often do not often pause to consider how the world escapes the grasp of their favored interpretive framework. Sometimes this is referred to as “epistemic closure” or “strong confirmation bias”.Leaving the appropriate space between what we think we know and what actually exists might be considered the essence of wisdom, which currently is an undervalued human attribute.
The many religious and non-religious fundamentalisms are all based on the delusion that the mental models they offer adherents are an exact reproduction of reality. Adherents to these belief-systems are largely unworried by the discrepancies between their model-enhanced interpretations of reality and events in the world around them. They achieve this serenity via the emotional rewards of belonging to an idealized and/or powerful group. Neoclassical economists show signs of the same form of “epistemic closure”, where elaborate and convoluted references to models are taken as more “rigorous” than references to changing and potentially disconfirming data collected from the real world.
Shared Delusion #6: The World Is Always Providential to Human Aims
While some of the popularity of climate change denial can be attributed to a massive propaganda campaign by fossil fuel interests, there are also strains of providentialism in the stubbornness with which some politicians and one imagines their constituents refuse to believe that there are limits to the world’s capacity to absorb the byproducts of human activity. The finding that oil and of usage which has come to be viewed as an entitlement by many Americans is viewed then as a threat to an entire worldview that is based on the assumption that a diety has decreed that all resources can be consumed without a second thought.
Shared Delusion #7: There is no Non-Partisan Data
A corollary of the predominance of interpretative models over empirical data, there is the belief that data does not exist independent of an interpretive framework that represents a particular interest. This idea, ironically, was first described and sometimes celebrated as post-modernism by elements of the post-1960’s academic Left but has now become the reality of the neoliberal Right and climate deniers. A winner-take-all mentality on the Right has led to every issue and policy to be disputed as if there is no non-partisan reality basis to the argument.
Shared Delusion #8: Scorning Good Intentions/Contrarianism is a Sign of Realism
The continual reflex of the Right is to heap scorn upon the good intentions of those on the Left, seeing in the expression of good intentions themselves a sign of foolishness and weakness. This attitude reinforces the Right’s sense that attempting to change society for the better is futile and that they as individuals are “strong”. Some on the Right define their public personas and define the truth exclusively as a contrarian reaction to the expressed good intentions perceived to be of the Left.
Shared Delusion #9: Good Intentions Exempt One from Criticism and Critical Thinking
One of the frustrating characteristics of many on the moderate American liberal-Left is the belief that having or expressing good intentions exempts one from critical thinking and criticism by others. This undermines efforts to refine positions and develop strategy on the American moderate left because such work requires a dispassionate view of the pros and cons of various actions and expressed political positions. Some might call this “moral narcissism” and it is one of the prime targets of the Right’s attacks on the liberal Left in the United States.
Shared Delusion #10: The World is Composed Entirely of Intentional Beings and Intentional Acts
A correlate of providentialism and the view of the world as generating only partisan information, there is underlying a view of the structure of the world which suggests that everything in it is the product of intentions, whether beneficent or malevolent. The lack of a perception of any neutral world that just exists in between or independent of the intentions of individuals or institutions, leads to hyperpartisan struggle, paranoid lashing-out, or paranoid withdrawal.
Shared Delusion #11: Energy is a Silent, Low-Cost Aid to Any Activity
Related to the view that the world is always providential to human aims is the notion that (non-food, exosomatic) energy is a silent supplement to any human activity. As people have become used to relying on energy as a cheap substitute for their or others’ labor, the consumption that they expect is premised on energy being available in the requisite amount and at a low price. There is a sense of entitlement to ignore energy or its production which cannot be afforded in an era of rapid climate change due to fossil fuel combustion.
Casting Off…Easier Written than Done
This list of (damaging) shared delusions was probably easier to write down than it will be for some to discard the impacts of these false beliefs on their thinking and actions. The first step, I suppose, is to want to discard these beliefs, i.e. to have a motivation to do so. One such motivation might be to start to put into action a plan that might save civilization. But each will have his or her own motivation to take steps that would in all probability lead to greater clarity of thought about a number of important contemporary issues.