Green Room

Government by Wishful Thinking

posted at 1:11 am on December 6, 2009 by

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.

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SdB is da bomb!!!!

Happy to see in Greenroom.

cthulhu on December 6, 2009 at 1:53 AM

If you’re curious how someone could believe teleology, it’s because teleology validates itself. To a teleologist, it’s obvious that teleology should work, so obviously it does work.

It’s no use arguing that this is circular logic; those things don’t matter.

Steven Den Beste on December 6, 2009 at 1:58 AM

I’m not convinced that Obama won’t win another term. Blaming the “materialists” for everything bad that happens is the modus operandi that gets a majority of voters on board.

VBMax on December 6, 2009 at 8:28 AM

I (fervently) hope you have it right. But, as much as Obama may be a megalomaniacal dreamer, I worry he is surrounded by modern-day brothers Gracchi in Pelosi, Durbin, Axelrod and Emmanuel. As a group, they are dedicated to the proposition of government control of the economy, and smart enough to accept whatever they can get in this go-round from Congress, hoping that even a start towards state control of the economy will lead inevitably towards full control. Our protection is the people, and elections. Nothing else can fully repudiate these awful, evil twits except resounding losses at the polls.

MTF on December 6, 2009 at 8:37 AM

I actually feel smarter now. Thanks for the knowledge.

JABB on December 6, 2009 at 8:41 AM

MTF – I disagree that Pelosi et al. are committed to Government control of anything. They are comitted to THEIR OWN control of anything they can. It all comes down to personal power-trips.

Ace ODale on December 6, 2009 at 9:18 AM

I wonder if Obama is a teleologist by default – i.e., either due to a lack of desire to do hard work and/or a fear of conflict within the base of his party, where he only wants to play the “good cop” and let others take on the “bad cop” role when disputes can’t be delineated on simple Republican-vs.-Democrat lines.

If it’s not due to lack of drive when it comes to non-televised work or just timidity, there is that belief in the final stage of Marxism that once you get to the “From each according to his abilities to each according to his needs,” stage, the only crimes left will be crimes of passion, since humanity will have passed beyond seeking out materialistic or militaristic advantages. Which Obama might believe everyone who’s not a conservative Republican already believes in, but is an incredibly naive and dangerous way to go through life, unless you’re living on the planet Vulcan (and hey, the big media keeps telling us how much Obama acts like Spock…)

jon1979 on December 6, 2009 at 10:59 AM

Very interesting.

Happy Saint Nicholas Day.


acat on December 6, 2009 at 11:01 AM

Great to see your thoughts on this Steven. It occurs to me this is why Hollywood is so attractive to the mindset currently in power (and vice versa), as they can actually spray that utopia onto the screen, convincingly. With 5.1 sound. Ooh.
The question I am left with then is this, has America gotten the government they deserve?

DanaA on December 6, 2009 at 11:47 AM

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.

Classic Narcissistic Personality Disorder. From the Mayo clinic…

Narcissistic personality disorder symptoms may include:

Believing that you’re better than others
Fantasizing about power, success and attractiveness
Exaggerating your achievements or talents
Expecting constant praise and admiration
Believing that you’re special and acting accordingly
Failing to recognize other people’s emotions and feelings
Expecting others to go along with your ideas and plans
Taking advantage of others
Expressing disdain for those you feel are inferior
Being jealous of others
Believing that others are jealous of you
Trouble keeping healthy relationships
Setting unrealistic goals
Being easily hurt and rejected
Having a fragile self-esteem
Appearing as tough-minded or unemotional

Jeff2161 on December 6, 2009 at 12:43 PM

Ace, I think your distinction amounts to the same thing in their eyes, from their perspective they are the party, so I don’t disagree with you.

On the post again for a moment,it’s amazing but some Obama supporters made a very similar argument against Bush’s foreign policy at the time, accusing him of hopeless idealism in favor of spreading democracy (ore proof that Bush was a Democrat?). The biggest problem in Obama’s idealism, I think, is that is so completely foreign to America. The Democrats don’t believe in a limited federal government. They don’t believe in individual liberty. They don’t believe citizens should be entrusted with their own lives. Ideals are important, but his and their ideals are hopelessly Utopian in a Euro sort of way. As I said earlier, I cannot wait for the next election.

MTF on December 6, 2009 at 4:17 PM

This post has been promoted to

Comments have been closed on this post but the discussion continues here.

Ed Morrissey on December 6, 2009 at 5:46 PM

Wow. Mr. Den Beste, you were one of the reasons I started reading political and other topological blogs. From there I found Chizumatic, which led me to what has become my favorite form of entertainment, and now you’re back doing political, et al posts. Life has officially come full circle for me.



topmaker on December 7, 2009 at 11:29 AM

Brilliant post, Steven.

And the theme song for the Teleologists? Imagine. Because to them, wishing/dreaming/HOPING make it so…

texlovera on December 7, 2009 at 5:03 PM

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.

I hope you are correct. There are signs that the other way of looking at it is that the drop in polls has told Ax/Obama that they have to move Left. Engage the Base so it votes next year. Engage the big money interests.

And, added to that, Obama/Ax/Pelosi don’t care about losing congress people. They are all looking for Legacy, 30,40 years out

Healthcare looks like it will pass in some pretty favorable form for Obama…the migration to single payer will be much easier after this

The CO2 stuff…They have the full weight of Congress and the Supreme Court on their side. The graft/patronage possibilities are endless…which is to say more votes, more money

If some of them are going down in flames anyway, then go for the Labor vote and the Hispanic vote.

Sure, painful for a couple of years, some sacrifice…but even over a short term of 5-10 years we may see the total domination of politics by the Dem/Left party

r keller on December 7, 2009 at 9:28 PM

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