Belmont Club


One of the reasons faith is so durable is because of its utility a labor-saving device.  Without it the cost of verifying facts from first principles would be so high there would be no time to get on with our lives.  Rational ignorance, according to economist Anthony Downs, is the practice of deliberately delegating substantive knowledge to others, “refraining from acquiring knowledge when the cost of educating oneself on an issue exceeds the potential benefit that the knowledge would provide”, relying instead on faith or trust in a professional or acknowledged authority.

Without rational ignorance we’d have to learn medicine to cure ourselves.  With it, we can go see a doctor when we feel sick. The same goes for politics. Without trust people would need need to become public policy experts.  The average person, for lack of time, simply trusts a candidate, choosing to remain ignorant of the substantive questions himself.

Virginia Postrel argues that the Internet has killed faith by exposing the clay feet of our leaders. Today’s voters know too much to retain their former childlike trust yet too little to do the job themselves.

Information used to be scarce. Now it’s overwhelming. In his book “The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium,” Gurri considers the political implications of this change. He argues that the shift from information scarcity to abundance has destroyed the public’s established trust in institutional authorities, including media, science, religion, and government. …

The result is the pervasive distrust that the columnist Anne Applebaum recently decried as “the terrible damage done by Facebook and other forms of social media to democratic debate and civilized discussion all over the world.” … As information becomes abundant … problems like police brutality, economic mismanagement, foreign policy failures and botched responses to disasters “can no longer be concealed or explained away.” …

The result is a crisis of legitimacy.

A crisis of legitimacy leads not only to higher transaction costs, but also to anomie.  It destroys the psychologically comforting world which many would gladly pay to maintain. Economist Bryan Caplan attempted to quantify exactly how much we would be willing to pay for this mental peace in his theory of rational irrationality. He argued that “when the costs of having erroneous beliefs are low, people relax their intellectual standards” and consume “beliefs that, if generally accepted, would benefit themselves or the group with whom they identify … beliefs that best fit with the images of themselves that they want to adopt and to project … beliefs of other people they like and with whom they want to associate”.

People are willing to go along believing in Santa Claus or Hope and Change for as long as it’s free. Once it imposes disastrous costs, however, people start to become cynical.  In place of trust they start to believe the opposite of what their leaders say.

For example Gregor Aisch an Josh Keller of the New York Times wryly note that president Obama’s gun control exhortations have resulted in the exact opposite effect.  The “fear of gun-buying restrictions has been the main driver of spikes in gun sales, far surpassing the effects of mass shootings and terrorist attacks alone.”  That is a sad commentary on the president’s credibility.

“President Obama has actually been the best salesman for firearms,” Brian W. Ruttenbur, an analyst with BB&T Capital Markets, a financial services firm, said last month.

The trajectory of a trusted figure transformed into a bad guy is exemplfied by the fall of comedian Bill Cosby. The same process transformed Hillary Clinton, once the most admired woman in America, into a shady and slightly ridiculous figure. Mother Jones — a left wing newspaper if ever there was one — reports on her pledges to “get to the bottom of UFOs and aliens” in Area 51, as if to show how the line between fancy and fact can so easily be crossed.

All too many figures have trodden the road to disrepute. We now expect to be lied to. News that more than a dozen special operation forces are trapped in a compound in Afghanistan, besieged by swarms of Taliban is reported even while the Washington Post notes that “the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan officially ended in 2014. Bases were shuttered, flags were lowered. The war, to some, was officially over. And yet, it goes on.”

The war goes on unofficially of course. The SOF are unofficially trapped by unofficial Islamists and are being kept from being overrun by unofficial gunships. Which is exactly what one would expect from an administration which Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) described as “a block of Swiss cheese full of holes” a reference to how many of its senior positions are unmanned or filled with stopgaps.

The Treasury Department has no Senate-confirmed undersecretary to handle terrorism financing, even as it tries to counter the rising threat of the Islamic State. The State Department hasn’t had a permanent legal adviser for three years, a job crucial to shaping the country’s stance on drones, NSA surveillance and other high-profile international matters. A backup assistant attorney general is running the Justice Department office tasked with investigating the Baltimore and Chicago police departments. At the Environmental Protection Agency, more than half the agency’s top slots are held by interim leaders; at the Department of Education, a deputy is now filling in for departed Secretary Arne Duncan, and the Cabinet post is likely to be filled by an acting secretary for the remainder of President Barack Obama’s term.

As Obama now takes his final lap in the White House, a POLITICO analysis of Cabinet-level agencies found that dozens of crucial jobs in his administration are either totally empty or run by an acting deputy. As senior aides have bolted for higher paying gigs, their jobs have remained empty — in some cases with replacements stuck in Senate limbo who may never get confirmed. More than a quarter of the administration’s most senior jobs, more than 100 overall, are missing permanent occupants.

The transformative presidency of Barack Obama has become a threadbare stage featuring a skeleton cast. Faith in president Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran — never high to begin with — is probably at an all time low following the recent diplomatic between Iran and Saudi Arabia and claims that North Korea has tested a hydrogen bomb.

The North Korea deal negotiated by Bill Clinton in 1994, George Perkovich at Carnegie argues, will be unfairly compared to Obama’s agreement with Iran.  “That earlier agreement failed due to a combination of factors.” But Perkovich will cite the detailed differences in vain because remember that the public is “rationally ignorant” and has no time for complicated explanations beyond noting that Bill Clinton sold the North Korea deal and he was taken to the cleaners by the Kims. If you can’t trust Bill — Clinton or Cosby — then who can you trust? Barack Obama?

Not the GOP leadership, itself riven by an political insurgency from the conservative grassroots.  Not foreign leaders like Angela Merkel after a 1,000 man strong Middle East and North African rape gang ravaged Cologne on New Year’s Eve after she endorsed the policy of refugee admission. Not even the press maybe, as reports emerged days after the fact that Hamburg and Stuttgart had in fact experienced similar descents on December 31.

“Love,” John Le Carre famously said, “is whatever you can still betray.”  In the modern world there is precious little which has not betrayed us and therefore correspondingly little that we can still love. In an age when ordinary people feel betrayed by religion, academic institutions, politicized science and crooks masquerading as statemen, trust is in understandably in short supply.  Talking Points Memo caught something of the prevailing cynicism when it noted that “the small group of armed militiamen occupying a wildlife refuge in rural Oregon believe they’ve faced more “backlash” than Black Lives Matter.” To the militia protesting actions of the Bureau of Land Management it would be automatic to assume that the administration was operating in bad faith.

As a man who identified only as “Fluffy Unicorn” told the Huffington Post on Monday: “The Black Lives Matter movement, they can go and protest, close freeways down and all that stuff, and they don’t get any backlash, not on the level that we’re getting.” …

Militia members this week have repeatedly drawn comparisons between themselves and Black Lives Matter. Leader Ammon Bundy … framed both groups’ primary opponent as a federal government that overreaches in its efforts to enforce order.

The loss of political faith imposes a cost to government.  Ambitious men through the ages have made the mistake of imagining that power grows in proportion to the coercive force they possessed.  In fact there is an inverse relationship between coercion and lasting authority.  As Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Center noted, the more armed groups, secret police and enforcers there were in Syria, the faster it fell apart.  By contrast the power of the American political class was never more secure than when authority figures like Walter Cronkite and John Kennedy were implicitly trusted and obeyed.

States fail not from a lack of a police but from a surfeit of lies.  Societies die from the loss of trust.  Joel Kotkin of the Daily Beast believes that “the disconnect between the hoi polloi and the new bureaucratic master race has spawned a powerful blowback” the world round. “Support for the EU is at record low … the extreme discontent in America—epitomized by the xenophobic Trump campaign—reflects a similar opposition to bureaucratic overreach.”

Because action and reaction feed each other the gap can only be expected to widen.  “This conflict can be expected to grow as new federal initiatives … stomp on even the pretense that cities might have any control over their immediate environment. ”  The preferred relationship is morphing from one of trust to one of dominance.

this new centralist ruling class … relies not on tradition, Christianity, or social hierarchy to justify its actions, but worships instead at the altar of expertise and political correctness. …

As the Obama era grinds to its denouement, grassroots democracy, once favored by liberals, is losing its historic appeal to the left. Important progressive voices like Matt Yglesias now suggest that “democracy is doomed.” Other prominent progressives, such as American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner, see the more authoritarian model of China as successful while the U.S. and European political systems seem tired.

Increasingly the call is not so much for a benevolent and charismatic dictator, but for an impaneled committee of experts to rule over our lives. Former Obama budget adviser Peter Orszag and Thomas Friedman argue openly that power should shift from naturally contentious elected bodies—subject to pressure from the lower orders—to credentialed “experts” operating in Washington, Brussels, or the United Nations.

It is a false kind of dominance, outwardly strong yet too expensive to sustain.  This may be a regrettable development, yet one that is easily understood. Our betters have for decades striven to erode the “we” to the point where the word itself is racist and seditious. It is the autocrats who are seceding as Kotkin notes:

Levels of trust for the dominant institutions like the federal government, Congress, the courts, big banks, media, and the academy are at historically low levels.

Roughly half of all Americans, according to Gallup, now consider the federal government “an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.” In 2003 only 30 percent of Americans felt that way.

The destruction of trust may in retrospect be the single most destructive act committed by elitist politics in the Western democracies, all the more because its object is intangible and therefore its damage more lasting.  As George Orwell wrote in 1984 words can be forgotten.  It is feelings that count;  real betrayal takes place when you stop caring.   The elites may stopped caring a long time ago, what they never expected was that one day the masses would return the compliment.

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