Government by Wishful Thinking
posted at 1:11 am on December 6, 2009 by Steven Den Beste
Way back in the depths of time, Greek philosophers ended up with two basic and incompatible ways of looking at the universe. One way was materialism, which says that there is a material universe which behaves in a consistent way, and if you study it you can learn the way it works.
That’s the world view of engineers and scientists — and businessmen, for that matter. It’s the world view of people who understand and use mathematics, and statistics. It is a place where cause leads to effect. It’s the place that game theory studies. It isn’t necessarily inherently atheistic; a lot of religious people live in the materialist world.
But there are people who don’t. A different epistemological view is teleology, which says that the universe is an ideal place. More or less, it
exists so that we humans can live in it. And human thought is a fundamental force in the universe. Teleology says that if a mental model is esthetically pleasing then it must be true. Teleology implies that if you truly believe in something, it’ll happen. Wikipedia says:
A teleological school of thought is one that holds all things to be designed for or directed toward a final result, that there is an inherent purpose or final cause for all that exists.
And in its modern form that final result is presumed to be creation of a world of peace and harmony, a utopia, in which all men live in peace and brotherhood, in harmony with nature.
At least, that’s the distorted form of Teleology that has come down to some of us in the modern era, mainly on the left wing. Aristotle probably wouldn’t recognize his red-headed step child as it exists today, though. Like many philosophically pure ideas adopted into popular culture, it’s gotten mutated nearly beyond recognition and almost all the mutations were negative.
One way to compare and contrast those two world views is to consider what they think about socialism. Materialists look at history since Marx and point out that socialism has been tried many times, in many nations, in various forms, and it has always failed. In places where it was fully implemented the result was decline and economic collapse. When it was only partially implemented you got slower decline. It often looks like it’s working in the early stages, but in the longer term it has never succeeded.
So to materialists, it’s apparent that socialism is a nice idea, but one that doesn’t work and shouldn’t be adopted.
To teleologists, none of that matters. What matters is the fact that it’s a beautiful idea. It’s how things should be. In a world in which socialism was implemented and which worked the way the teleologists think it should work, you really would have a utopia. The fact that it’s invariably failed when used doesn’t change any of that. (When asked to explain all the failures, usually the answer is, “They didn’t do it right.” But for teleologists, a long string of failures doesn’t matter because fundamentally teleologists don’t believe things like that make any difference.)
It’s teleologists who drive around with bumper stickers that say, “Imagine world peace.” I can imagine it just fine. I don’t expect to see it in my lifetime, though. Why would they want me to imagine it?
It’s because teleologists believe that human thought truly affects things. Of course it does; thought precedes action, and actions change history, right? Yeah, but that’s not the point. Teleologists believe that thought directly affects things. The mere act of thinking about something and wanting it a lot directly changes reality, even if the thought doesn’t get translated into action.
It was teleologists who were mainly involved in the anti-war movement about five years ago when it was at its greatest. I remember reading about how they’d have a demonstration somewhere. Lots of people would come out. They’d parade about carrying signs saying, “End the war!” Someone would burn a giant mockup of President Bush’s head. And afterwards they’d all talk about how successful the demonstration had been.
Successful how? It didn’t have any political effect that I ever noticed. The war didn’t end because of the demonstrations. So what was it that they thought was successful? Well, if you asked them they’d talk about how there was all sorts of positive vibes. How good it felt to be out there. And how so many people were feeling the same thing. Which sounds like masturbation, if you’re a materialist, but genuinely makes sense for a teleologist. They really thought that if enough of them got together and wanted the war to end strongly enough, it would spontaneously end. Not because getting enough voters on their side would have electoral consequences, but because the act of wanting it would directly bring that about.
To a materialist this sounds like insanity. It is, as Chip Morningstar memorably put it, “epistemologically challenged”. And it doesn’t survive real world test. But to teleologists, “real world tests” don’t matter. The teleological world view inherently rejects all of that stuff.
Why does teleology (in this mutated form) matter? Because right now we have a teleologist as our President.
Matthew Continetti says that we’re in “a year of magical thinking.” And to someone who has grown up with a materialist view of the universe, it could certainly seem that way. But what’s really going on is that Obama has this kind of world view. And that explains everything he’s done.
It explains his foreign policy. To a teleologists, it just makes sense that everyone should want to get along. If you unclench your fist and hold out
your hand, everyone else will unclench their fists, and become your friends. So Obama is doing that, and as we know the result has been a shambles.
It explains his economic policy. Teleologists inherently don’t believe in unintended side effects when it comes to implementing their idealistic policies. Obviously it should be possible to provide free health care to everyone without wrecking the economy; it’s just how things really should be, so that’s how it will be. Where will the money come from? That’s the kind of question that materialists ask; teleologists don’t concern themselves with such trivial. It’ll happen somehow, because it’s obviously how it should turn out. To say we shouldn’t do it is to be heartless, uncaring — and those things are more important than mundane claims that it won’t work. If you just believe, it will work.
Of course, it won’t work. The materialists are right about that. But when it fails (if it gets tried) the teleologists will blame the negative vibes of all the materialist doubters for the failure. If only they’d come on board and supported it, then it would have come out OK.
It explains his dealings with Congress in general. He has been telling Congress in very general terms what he wants from them, and seems to think that this is all he really has to do. He wants the bills enough so that Congress will spontaneously create exactly the bills he wants and send them to him as soon as he says. Nothing else need be done by him except to want them.
The teleological world view on the left has been a factor in American politics to a greater or lesser extent since the 1960’s, but this is the first time it was largely in control. And the most likely outcome of it is to make most Americans understand just how deeply worthless, and outright damaging, it is. Which, in the long run, will be very good for America.
The only concern is that we can come through the remaining three years of Obama’s first (and almost certainly his only) term of office without sustaining irreparable damage. If Congress had moved at the speed Obama wanted them to, we might have suffered such damage, but now that we’ve almost made it through his first year and are moving into an election year, with public opinion polls moving strongly against Obama and his policies, I am becoming cautiously optimistic that we can survive this.