February 15, 2003

· Politics

Terry Pratchett, the novelist and acute political sociologist, recently noted (in his book Night Watch) a pattern often displayed by successful revolutionaries. Before the revolution, they are convinced the problem is that the good and pure and true people are living in a corrupt and stupid and worthless society. After the revolution, though, they begin to think that their good and pure and true society is populated by corrupt and stupid and worthless people. This is because people often don’t fall into line with the grand plans of their political leaders, which bugs the shite out of the leaders. Leaders, in general, prefer to treat The People as an abstraction rather than as a concrete entity. This mistake is usually associated with doctrinaire Leninists who believe The People in abstracto to be more important than all those actual people out there running around the place. Actual people are sheep to be led by the state in its wisdom, because the state (by definition) acts for The People.

So it’s amusing to see folks who usually trust people more than this get twisted up in angry knots about all those idiots—- those hundreds upon thousands of mindless idiots—- who oppose a war with Iraq. Many of the commentators most annoyed by the anti-war protests are big fans of the free market in a broad sense. And no wonder. There’s lots of good evidence that the disaggregated judgement of lots of people usually makes for better outcomes than some top-down alternative. Many conservatives and libertarians rightly never tire of pointing this out. Notice that their argument entails some assumptions about the basic good sense of the people making all those choices. In fact, one of the chief virtues of this line of thought is that it doesn’t assume that people are stupid—- or at least, it suggests they are not as stupid as your typical bureaucrat.

Or to look at it a different way, as Iain Coleman recently pointed out, doing politics is a pain in the ass. Campaigning for your cause “has all the glamour of slashing your finger on a spring-loaded letterbox on a rainy winter’s night.” That’s why many political scientists believe political participation—- voting, protest, whatever—- is basically irrational. The cost is too high, someone else will probably do it anyway, so why bother? Just stay at home and you’ll still get the benefits. (Unless everyone thinks like that and then… oh dear.)

So, when huge numbers of people turn out against something, at some cost to themselves, in an effort to signal to their State bureaucracy that they really, really don’t like what it’s doing—- well, you’d think it would give conservatives of a certain stripe some pause. After all, people aren’t stupid. And it takes a lot to get them annoyed enough to join a protest march. And the strengths of both democracy and the market are rooted in disaggregated decision-making, right?

But this hasn’t been their reaction. Instead, it’s made many of them retreat into a more atavistic, essentially pre-modern form of conservativism. The kind that regards the people as ignorant dupes who don’t know what’s good for them. The kind that’s contemptuous of the masses and snickers at their poorly-articulated convictions. The kind that, when faced with popular dissent, assumes that the dissenters must ipso facto not truly be Of The People. The kind, in other words, usually associated with the dogmatic worst of the Left they claim to reject.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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