Resisting The Great Temptation

Published in Underthrow Series

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

–George Orwell, Animal Farm

In the last installment, I opened by claiming that:

An urge to control originates in our unconscious minds, which comes from our fear. Some project that urge, rationalize it, and then try to impose it on the world as a political ideology. Such projections can act as a veil of illusion between ourselves and the world, causing us to fail to see reality, and tempting us to embrace the mechanisms of compulsion. From these shadow impulses, three powerful concepts have emerged to threaten what remains of the liberal order.

We explored the first, which we called the Leviathan Formulation of Thomas Hobbes. The second concept, though distinct, is related to the first.

The Great Temptation  

We can think of The Great Temptation as a psychological outgrowth of the Leviathan Formulation. Once we accept the logic of rule-rules-ruler, we are in a certain kind of intellectual box, one that imprisons our imaginations and mutes our creativity. And in that box, we tell ourselves all manner of stories about the necessity of political subordination. 

Enter the pundits. The policy wonks. The activists–even the neighbor who says, “There ought to be a law!”

Now that we have power, how can we use it? they wonder.

The assumed necessity of this ‘necessary’ evil ends up masking its evil. The Great Temptation forces us into crude binary thinking: Either authority acts or the worst follows. And those stories we tell ourselves take us down any number of roads, depending on what social problem we hold up as the mother of all problems. 

Fear’s voice whispers in the background. 

Find more content like this at Underthrow

Fighting the War on X

But The Great Temptation always comes with risks. Consider:

  • Fighting the war on drugs risks treating half the population as criminals.
  • Fighting ‘inequality’ risks cutting the most productive down to size.
  • Fighting a recession risks creating a depression.
  • Fighting racism risks racializing everything.
  • Fighting climate change threatens society’s living systems.
  • Fighting terrorism risks creating an imperial surveillance state. 

The most insidious part of The Great Temptation is that it’s a low-cost proposition in the near term. Once you’re tempted, you don’t have to do anything except let it happen. You just have to do your duty, which is to put your faith in a supreme authority and forget that behind that authority is a vast apparatus of compulsion staffed by people with a very different agenda.

Such a proposition, relative to say, working with our neighbors, appeals to our inner teenager, who is both indignant and lazy. 

A Chorus of Angels

I can hear my interlocutors now:

Some problems can only be solved when we all act together, they’ll say. It would be nice if we could all agree to act together for the good of all, but this rarely happens. There is always a group that is feckless, ignorant, or selfish. When confronted with problems requiring collective action, those problems’ very existence justifies concentrating authority with experts.

Experts, eh?

James Madison reminded us that there are no angels. So when we outsource our responsibilities to people in distant capitals, we also outsource our self-sovereignty. This might seem like a reasonable tradeoff in the short term. 

But in time, we will create a monster we cannot contain.

Max Borders is a senior advisor to The Advocates. Read more of his work at Underthrow.org.


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