Mind the Microcosm

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
Jonah Goldberg on The Suicide ... Ryan Holiday on Conspiracy, Ga...

microcosm.jpg Were you aware that we are living in a miracle? The problem is, according to the guest in this week's episode, is that this miracle is totally unnatural. EconTalk host Russ Roberts welcomes Jonah Goldberg of National Review to discuss his new book, Suicide of the West.

Have we abandoned the "Lockean Revolution?" Is there hope left for civil society in America today? Let's hear what you have to say in response to this week's episode. As always, we love to hear from you!

1. What does Goldberg mean when he says that all authoritarianism is reactionary, and to what extent do you agree with him?

2. Goldberg argues that "treating your family like a contractual society destroys the family." How does the way we interact within the family unit differ from the way we do so in larger society? How does this help explain the spread of tribalism he is so concerned about?

3. Who are the "idea merchants" Roberts and Goldberg are both concerned about? Are these types new? What has changed over the course of our history?

4. Goldberg argues that the purpose of politics used to be- and should be- persuasion. What does he see as the purpose today, and why does he find it so dangerous? Are you as concerned as he is? Why or why not?

5. How does Goldberg's critique of the American political landscape today compare to that offered by Pluckrose and Lindsay in this episode from earlier this year? With whose case are you more sympathetic, and why?

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COMMENTS (2 to date)
Walter Clark writes:

I'd like to address point 2. above...
That critical in understanding family, the tribe, and government is Dunbar's Number. (See Wikipedia)

Empathy ONLY works for groups smaller than Dunbar's Number.
The great benefit of Adam Smith's account is that cooperation rather than collaboration can involve numbers of people far greater than Dunbar's Number. It is this infinite diversity of services and stuff among strangers that distinguishes humans working together from animals working together.
The simple rules of the free market allow a society of millions of selfish strangers --of dissimilar goals-- . . . to COOPERATE.
Socialists who think empathy makes the world go round come to intellectual maturity in a very small world (the cloister of college) where the idea of working together can be a COLLABORATIVE effort where all involved have the same goals.

Pete Miller writes:

Responding to point 4 and to Russ’s question at minute 53 of why extreme partisanship has emerged over the last few decades, the primary purpose of electoral politics has become fundraising.

The financial rewards of professional politics have largely moved from the office holders to campaign professionals. Both major parties have settled on a standard message: “I agree with you on (Insert highly emotional issue that polls well with the target demographic of this message). My opponent disagrees with you. Please send money so I can defeat him.” Political fundraising receives more time and attention than vote raising. An appeal to reason may swing a vote, but to chip lots of dollars out of the voters’ wallets takes emotional frenzy and we-versus-they rhetoric.

The less resolvable the highly emotional issues are, the better. That lets the parties milk them for longer. Look at photos of Boris Johnson just when he learned the Brexit results. He looked crestfallen, not triumphant. He’d just lost his best tool. Having passed a tax reform bill will likely hurt Republicans this year in fund raising, because it can no longer fit into the standard pitch.

Russ further decried media complicity in fanning the partisan fires. They are certainly rewarded for it, since so much campaign funding is spent on advertising, and the attention-riveting power of hot button messaging that prompts giving also keeps an audience coming back. It doesn’t even require a conspiracy when interests are so strongly aligned.

At my second most cynical, I imagine a gathering of people evaluating whether to start an electoral campaign. Once they opt to do so, they draw lots. The loser becomes the candidate. Campaign operatives can be compensated however the campaign wishes to compensate them. They receive the power and prestige of exercising control over large numbers of people and dollars. Candidates and office holders are under much greater constraint and scrutiny.

At my most cynical, I fear this whole problem has been exacerbated by efforts to remove straight-up bribery. Various ethics reforms and watchdog groups have reduced old school suitcases-full-of-cash-for-personal-use influencing of office holders. The flow of so much money into campaigns may largely come from sources that in prior generations would have directed that money to bribes. How’s that for an unintended consequence?

If anyone who has legitimate chops in economics or political science has been working on these particular dynamics, I would love to get a pointer to them or hear them as a guest on a future episode.


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