One of the theories of government that I have been considering lately is this: the long-term success or failure of a system of government is determined in many cases by how they treat their insane. Or, more precisely, how they avoid discarding people with psychological problems unnecessarily while dealing with people with psychological problems who potentially can gain power over other people.
Until the early 20th century, we did not even have the vocabulary to face this question. I remember one student of history who was quoted as saying that our reading of history before about the 12th century should be tempered by the fact that everyone, from Aristotle to Abelard, was absolutely nuts – that they led lives of trauma and were genetically predisposed to serious psychological illnesses. Yet no history before about 1920 that I can recall ever raised such a question.
Nevertheless, we can guess at some of the ways certain systems of government approached the matter. On the one hand, Charles of France was treated as intermittently mad while Henry V of England invaded, and so was George III of England (although we now think it may have been an inherited medical condition); while the unclassifiable were confined to madhouses and Bedlam in unbelievable squalor that certainly did not improve their plight. On the other hand, people like Napoleon (one theory posits he had extreme ADHD or a Type A personality, since he was always hyperactive and slept little) and Alexander (at the very least, megalomania exacerbated by alcoholism) were rewarded with excessive power despite the destructive effects on society of over-accommodation of their insanity – so that not only military dictatorship but also hereditary kingship tended to choke on its own psychological excesses.
Democracy (or, more properly, until the early 1900s, republicanism) as practiced in Britain and the United States did offer some “checks and balances” on power which served to limit the power of the insane whose insanity was indetectible: a General Sherman gave every indication of occasionally going off the deep end, but was never in a position of political power where it could really ruin things in the long run – except for his power over Native Americans.
However, with the popularization of Freud’s theories, the veil was ripped away from many of the clearly problematic psychologies of power, and it has never been possible again to accept with equanimity addiction, sadism, psychopathy, narcissism, and other conditions that are deeply serious when allied with power to govern others. In this light, while non-democratic societies that hide and deny psychological problems are clearly inferior, just as clearly our democracies have far to go in facing up to the psychological problems of those in power, and in treating the psychologically disabled in ways that ensure we don’t waste those who can contribute, rather than typecasting them or stuffing them in jails to be forgotten.
Rejecting the Deeper World
The effect of our new understanding of psychology has been subtle but pervasive. I see it clearest in a sharp divide occurring about 1920 in literature. I remember picking up a stray “woman’s novel” once from around that time, and marveling at how its differences cast any novel from 1910 and before as flat, bland, and somehow shallow – the stick figure of the madwoman was revealed to have a past of tragedy that not only shaped itself into depression and alcoholism, but led with painful examination of all the “unmentionables” repressed for the sake of survival to a very nuanced hope. Contrast that with a Samuel Butler, a G.A. Henty, or even a Mark Twain!
At the same time, however, it has led Western society, at least, into an uncomfortable and apparently unending examination of the psychological characteristics of our leaders. We have learned, for example, that our habit of demanding fidelity to our wishes from our male legislators while subjecting them to incredible amounts of campaign contempt has led to amazing numbers of them seeking unconditional adoration from groupies, and frequenting whorehouses where they alternately dominate and are spanked. We have in some cases learned to accommodate leaders who have been treated for depression or who smoked pot when they were young, perhaps because we have begun to realize just how understandable and relatively unimportant such traits are in a leader.
The psychological viewpoint has also affected how we view major “new” theories of the government from the past. Communism – to be clearly distinguished from socialism, which seeks to balance a greater “insurance” role for government with continuing democracy – has fallen short in practice, we now assert, not only for its other sins, but also because its secrecy and naïve view of human psychology (“from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”, to misparaphrase Marx) leads more often to pathologically paranoid leaders and the depression and alcoholism of the command-and-control economy. So does Fascism. A capitalism-driven government – or, if you prefer, an oligarchy, not of the landed but of the moneyed rich – falters as a theory when we consider the narcissism and Type A obsessive-compulsive behavior of its leaders, the so-called “captains of industry and finance,” and its failure to face the highly irrational behavior of its participants that leads to “bubbles”, “imperfect markets”, “Ponzi schemes”, and above all to “doubling down on failure.”
And then there is libertarianism – the only theory, in my opinion, that can be said to have gained currency after the arrival of psychology on the scene. What is striking about libertarianism is that, superficially at least, it takes no notice of psychology’s insights; in fact, it acts as if they don’t exist. When previous theories were developed, ignoring the deeper world of psychology’s insights was understandable, since those insights had not yet been developed; in libertarianism, it amounts to a – unconscious! – rejection of those insights. What’s going on? What does it mean for libertarianism in practice?
Libertarianism in Theoretical Practice
I have been hearing about libertarianism since the early 1980s, when it was all the rage in the political discussion groups on the nascent Internet – in fact, the incessant posts about how “libertarianism solves this!” were early markers of today’s trolls who crowd out all other viewpoints. My question, then and now, was, OK, how does it really work in practice? Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, which I had picked up 15 years before, was of very little help. Even at 15, I could see that the climactic trial scene was utterly unrealistic (the prosecutor in any sane trial would, instead, be talking about law and order and how the protagonist should be locked up to prevent future acts that would kill people); and this was the case of an isolated libertarian in a non-libertarian society, not a fully-fledged functioning libertarian culture. Likewise, Robert Heinlein’s Moon is a Harsh Mistress seems to show a complete (prison) libertarian society; but proponents seem to keep forgetting that at the end, when supposedly the truly independent libertarian society is launched, it immediately breaks down in “political infighting”, and the protagonist leaves for hopefully more libertarian pastures.
In fact, the best portrayal of a libertarian society I have seen is in a gem of a science-fiction novel by a long-underappreciated author, Eric Frank Russell. It is really three essays in political theory, in which a benign military invasion seeks to restore three planetary societies to “normal” government, and fails miserably at each point. The first is a Mafia government, where the inhabitants reject return to “normalcy” by treating every military move as a mobster power play. The second is a government of narcissists, which simply regards everyone else as incredibly ugly and therefore to be exterminated or at least removed from sight immediately. The third is the most appealing to the protagonist – and to us.
In it, the whole society functions by a form of barter known as “obs” – short for obligations. If you want something from someone, you do something for that person (or someone else, in trade) in return – there is a very clear relationship between work and reward. Attempts at domination are met, confusingly, with “myob!” – short for “mind your own business.” The person who tries to get things for free is progressively blocked until, if he does not stop, he cannot get anything at all, and starves to death.
At this point, readers of the Laura and Mary books should begin to suspect what makes this society so appealing – it’s very like the frontier society described in those books. Pa and Ma are utterly self-reliant and function well in a society of other self-reliant types, where everyone feels an obligation to help others and expects others to help them in the same measure, where payment is as much by that kind of trade as by exchange of goods for money, where the children are brought up to behave in the same way, with fewer stereotypes about “helpless women”, and where outsiders are few.
And yet, the Laura and Mary books, written as they are from the viewpoint of a pre-psychology frontier society, cannot help but note things that call into question the long-term stability of such a society, and form a sharp contrast with Mr. Russell’s society. The violent, disturbed young student in Laura’s class is handled without regulations, yes, but by application of a whip that will in all likelihood lead to an adulthood in which the student will view the whip as the answer to everything – “might makes right.” The government that fails to get the trains through in the Long, Hard Winter is rightly viewed as incompetent by Pa; but, as technically dexterous as people are, there is no sign that the frontier society is anywhere near providing the same level of technology as the train and distribution system that keep folk alive and keep people from going stir-crazy. When Almanzo proves incompetent at farming and goes back to his expertise in running a country store, while Laura wrecks her health trying to pick up the slack at the farm while pregnant, Pa comes to the rescue, yes, but the result is that Laura moves back to a non-frontier, non-libertarian society, where there is a better social safety net. The drunks, the rowdy miners, the rancher-farmer friction of much of the rest of the American West and the attendant psychological problems, are mostly offstage, but we can still perceive that they are out there. The problems of class (the Olsens), of isolation (the Long, Hard Winter), of excess disease (Mary’s blindness) are all psychologically-related strains that this society can only handle up to a point, and whose solutions are far from ideal.
Libertarian Power Vulnerability
At this point, the libertarian will typically answer with a variant of “Here’s how libertarianism solves the problem!”, usually an assumption that today’s or tomorrow’s technology (computer or otherwise) will allow a very loosely coupled massive collection of frontier societies to function without the psychological stresses caused by hunger, disease, and so on. But that is not my point. Because we now come to the psychologically disturbed who seek excess power in such a society.
Note Mr. Russell’s way of solving the problem of the self-centered, amoral individual. Leave aside the fact that piling more “obs” on a person may face that person with reality, but may also create a burden greater than an individual who is partly but not wholly self-centered can bear. No, my objection is rather that such a solution still leaves the door wide open to exploitation by people with known and dangerous psychological conditions – in many ways, wider open than other forms of government.
Consider, for example, the psychopath. The psychopath has no objection to working hard – although for the life of him he cannot understand why other people care. Rather, the psychopath is often superb at counterfeiting the well-adjusted, hard-working individual, while behind the scenes he seeks control and immediate gratification of whims. Want to see how he behaves in his private life? Myob! He will happily undertake all sorts of obs for what he views as useless things in return for more and more power; and he is exceptionally good at convincing you that what he is doing is natural and normal and desirable.
In most societies, not the psychopath but at least the existence of abnormal power is recognized, and so at least psychopaths are kept under more control via laws, competition from other psychopaths, and, more recently, recognition of and monitoring for the condition. In libertarianism, by definition, psychopaths are supposed to be kept in check “automagically”, by the reality of the “ob” plus the perception of their saner fellows. But, as we have seen, the psychopath is not impeded by work to satisfy “obs” nor by inability to deceive those linked in the “ob” chain. On the contrary, the loosely-coupled nature of this society means that if the technology cannot pick it up (and why would a libertarian trust a computer Big Brother?) then the victims simply don’t compare notes – myob! And the psychopath has every incentive to reach out to other psychopaths in other communities to increase power without threat to himself. The result is a libertarian veneer over the worst of totalitarian societies – a kind of libertarian Animal Farm.
A closely allied problem is that of the narcissist. The narcissist in fact has a great incentive to work hard, and a superficial self-confidence that counterfeits sanity, but, like the psychopath, she has a total lack of empathy, and she also has a strong and violent reaction to criticism (btw, in case you wondered, both conditions affect both sexes). The object of the narcissist, therefore, is to avoid such criticism at all costs, by surrounding herself with sycophants controlled by massive obs. Narcissists also tend to reach armed truces with other narcissists in other communities leading to mutual admiration societies, with Mutually Assured Criticism replacing Mutually Assured Destruction as a deterrent to competition between them.
In most societies, the narcissist is more easy to detect than the psychopath, and criticism that cannot be held at bay is the ultimate control – which we can sometimes achieve in both democracies and autocracies by occasional but nonetheless somewhat effective random acts of criticism/punishment fueled by laws. But while Nelly Olsen may have been easy to counter in a frontier society, a massive collection of such societies allows the Nelly Olsens of the world a surprising power to combine to hold up “fashions” as a tool for power. Subtly, the freedom of the libertarian to think different thoughts is corrupted into the freedom to buy into the narcissist’s idea of fashion. Again, the libertarian idea that such things can be handled “automagically” simply enables a libertarian veneer over a world in which we respond as the narcissist wants, with useless obs traded for narcissist praise and control.
I pass over addiction here because, in fact, it can be argued that libertarianism has an equally effective method of dealing with it – which is, I believe, the method outlined by Mr. Russell, of refusal to be blinded by promises not backed up by fulfillment of obs, and of effective withdrawal of the addiction: kill or cure. However, I would note that this is adequately effective only if you believe that approaches that seek to end the addiction before starvation arrives are useless. I happen to believe that the carrot of psychological encouragement and the medical fix as well as the stick does better, and so libertarianism, which by its nature tends to reject the first two, would in the end prove less effective. In any case, the addict has a destructive effect on any scheme of government that is limited by his or her excesses to the relatively short run, hence the short reign of some of Rome’s Augustan emperors – so the point is moot.
And now we can revert to the problem of how a government handles the psychologically powerless who are disturbed. I would repeat, again, that the reasons I view libertarianism as not as good a societal solution as many of the others cited above – the unusual power they give to certain types of psychological disturbance by their inability to recognize those types – do not apply to the case of the psychologically ill who are powerless. Here, I rely only on my own experience of having a hand in the care of the autistic. The help of others that was like that of a frontier community helping with each others’ burdens; it was well-meant but in almost all cases – whether it involved the autistic person taking responsibility for his or her entirely automatic destructive actions, or volunteering the helper’s own creative thought based on irrelevant experience about what it was and what to do – was almost invariably counterproductive. The help of businesses was entirely focused on what made money for the purveyor, with as little regard as possible for the needs of a particular as opposed to the “average” autistic person. The help of government was bumbling, bureaucratic, intrusive, and in most cases the most effective of all, because it bore some vague relation to both the common good and solid science – particularly as regards psychology. We can argue endlessly about whether “libertarianism can solve that problem!” The fact is, the libertarian communities I hear about out there don’t have psychological smarts, aren’t set up to inhale or accept scientific knowledge about Tourette’s or ADHD, and tend to be misogynistic and indiscriminate in their enthusiasms; so even if the nature of libertarianism does not preclude decent handling of the psychological illness of the powerless, I see absolutely no sign of real-world libertarianism coming up with such a solution in the foreseeable future.
A Better Way
And yet, as I have noted, we perceive some merit in the ideas that libertarianism promotes. This merit, I would say, lies entirely in two aspects of their criticism of present-day societies and governments. Firstly, yes, there should be a much better line between actions and consequences. We respond positively, rightly, to the notion that we have to earn as much as, but not more than, we get in return, and we have to pay the right price for doing wrong things – because it tells us that our irrepressible self-esteem is truly earned. Secondly, it is indeed reasonable to be concerned about increasing powerlessness and threat of blackmail in one’s life as governments intrude, even to try to make things better. It is this kind of merit, I believe, that leads a scientist like James Hansen to protest that he is a bit of a libertarian himself, even as he is being viciously attacked by climate deniers in the guise of libertarians.
And yet, libertarianism, like anarchism, is effectively defined by its negatives. Rather than accommodating a theory of human psychology that requires consideration of structures to contain the harmful societal effects of mental illness, while preserving the potential of those temporarily ill for later contributions, libertarianism “solves” the problems of skewed action/reward pairs and powerlessness by abolishing such structures entirely. The result, by libertarianism’s own definition, is a much greater inability to cope with society-destabilizing and destructive psychological conditions such as psychopathy and narcissism.
And so, sadly, we must return to trying to improve the systems we already have in these areas. These, at least, have made some effort to accommodate psychology’s insights; and therefore their structures are to some extent pre-adapted to the task. However, our development of these structures has up to now been almost entirely reactive, involving after-the-fact regulations and sanctions, leaving the powerful but disturbed always one step ahead in adapting to the new rules of the game.
A better answer to the action/reward problem, I believe, is to embed a deliberate integration of psychology and action/reward fine-tuning into the workings of the government. Yes, like everything else, it can be diverted by the powerful. But introducing the notion of psychopathology into the fabric of normally-functioning society and power structures makes the notion a fundamental part of life that the powerful cannot quite argue away. Too blatant a violation, and only sweeping aside other powerful people to alter the government will do; and that’s a solution that even a psychopath will usually find difficult. The action/reward fine-tuning can then be undertaken as limited by psychology concerns, rather than used to justify deregulation leading to libertarian dystopias.
In the powerlessness area, we are faced with the dilemma that societal success and growth increases distorting power bases that affect us. Our technological might and numbers allow us to create better monitoring technologies for threats like al Qaeda, technologies which in turn are very hard to point away from us, much less prevent the powerful in government and outside it from using these technologies to keep us in line, whatever that means. As our numbers and tasks increase, the power of our vote decreases. The answer here, I believe, is less in the checks and balances and regulations that are harder and harder to preserve and extend, and more in the extension of fundamental limits on any powerful person to throw sand in the gears, by the constitutional elevation of scientific fact as a limit on all government. It is now time to refuse to permit laws that define pi as 3.00, as the Indiana legislature is once reported to have done. And that job should not be the sole duty of the courts, but also of scientists whose independence and peer-review process is preserved constitutionally as a necessary part of a free society. The best way to prevent burgeoning power from ever being used against us unjustly is to require that its users never distort the truth beyond recognition in their efforts to do so; because the powerful will view changing these rules are not worth the bother, while this kind of rule places a better limit on the powerful, no matter what their tactics.
And finally, the better way would ensure that we continue to improve our handling of the powerless and psychologically ill, as we have been doing, free of interference from those who would wipe out such efforts in the name of libertarianism and the like. I am no automatic fan of today’s efforts in this area. I am, I think, fully aware of their misuse, not least by some psychologists. I simply assert that we are much, much better off than in the days when Bedlam was the proper place for the autistic – and further improvements lie along much the same path.
Viewed in terms of human psychological excesses, it seems clear to me that libertarianism is by its nature a cure that is worse than the disease. Within our present frustrating systems, there lie the seeds of a way at least marginally better than today’s governmental mess. One way to grow those seeds is to do a better job of facing the realities of human psychology when allied with power, leading to alterations within the general framework of those systems. Libertarianism offers good criticisms but also a poor solution that rejects psychology. We should incorporate those criticisms into a government that handles human psychology better and therefore rejects libertarianism.