The Kahneman Kurse
If you want to know the reason we have the two most unpopular major-party presidential candidates in the history of our nation, look in the mirror.
The Founders of our country had a passion for liberty, but when it came to structuring the government they relied on rational thinking. They created a structure for democratic government based on the reasoned philosophy of John Locke as articulated in his Second Treatise on Government as well as other enlightenment philosophers including Adam Smith. Democracy would work wonderfully well if we were all as reasoned and rational as Locke in making our democratic choices. But it did not take long for our democracy to sink into the gutter. The presidential election of 1800 was one of the angriest, dirtiest campaigns in our nation’s history noted primarily for character assassination, unsubstantiated rumors and downright lies. Founder and President John Adams had a particularly pessimistic view of the future of democracy stating “There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide”.
What John Adams sensed, Prof. Daniel Kahneman, Israeli psychologist and Nobel Prize winner in economics, described in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman, one of the founders of behavioral economics, wrote that the human brain has two systems, one that reacts quickly and instinctually to new events and a second system that reacts more slowly and deliberately to reason things out. We need both systems. Reacting slowly to imminent danger can get us killed. But not using our reasoning would have left us savage hunter-gatherers on the savannahs of Africa.
The curse of Kahneman’s theory is that democracy, a system of government based on the reasoned and rational thinking of its citizens, is at the mercy of our quick-acting brain that makes decisions on gut feelings and instinctual behaviors. Aspirants to political office understand this (instinctually). Attack ads don’t appeal to our rational brains. They appeal to the raw emotional side of our psyche. And politicians use attack ads because they work. The applicability of behavioral economics theory to politics (a central theme in my book. Principled Policy) was confirmed by Prof. Kahneman’s fellow behavioral economist, Richard Thaler, in a July 12 interview on marketwatch.com.
Mr. Trump’s primary campaign was completely geared to appeal to this seamy side of politics. It was a campaign almost totally bereft of rational thinking as his surrogates scrambled to come up with explanations and justifications of his off-the-cuff and spontaneous tweets and comments. Policies such as banning Muslim immigration and building walls on our southern border appeal to the instincts of his core constituencies without the sound rational thinking of how the heck these policies would be implemented or what the possible consequences of such actions might be.
That does not mean that there is no rational thinking at Trump campaign headquarters. But the rational thinking is unseen, a wizard behind the curtain cynically pulling all the strings and levers. It is politics as reality TV. Mr. Trump knew how to make his TV show popular just as he knew how to draw gamblers into his casinos (and suckers into investing in his casinos).
But Mr. Trump is not alone in choosing the low road. Progressivism sacrifices rationality on the altar of fairness. Fairness resides deep in the recesses of the instinctual brain. I believe that fairness is one of the most basic of survival instincts. The member of the wolf pack that doesn’t get its fair share of the kill dies. Nature is tough that way. It you don’t bite and scratch and claw to get your fair share you (and all your unborn progeny) will be wiped off the face of the earth. If you think you are being treated unfairly you do not come up with reasons why such treatment should be stopped. No! You get hot. You get pissed off. You want to punish someone for your unfair treatment (even if they are not the appropriate target of your anger).
Mr. Trump, Mr. Sanders and Mrs. Clinton are cultivating the same field. Mr. Trump is preying on irrational fear: Mr. Sanders on an outraged sense of unfairness and Mrs. Clinton on insecurity that can only be assuaged by progressive government programs. The emotions arising from the instinctual brain are the same ones that propelled Hitler, Mussolini and Peron into power. Freedom House has stated that democracy has been in decline across the globe since 2006. But we can’t just point our fingers at other nations. We need to protect our freedom here in America.
Here is the conundrum we face. Neither of the major-party candidates (the Libertarian and Green candidates having little chance of success) appear inclined to expand our freedom and restore our democracy. The Supreme Court is becoming politicized and will likely become even more so with the upcoming picks. The Congress is a Gordian knot of inaction in the face of the growing power of the executive branch. A recent Rasmussen poll indicated that 64% of Americans believe we are moving in the wrong direction. That number is fated to increase over the next four years.
We will have to endure the Kahneman Kurse for the next four years. But we need to reverse this malaise and reassert some rationality back into our politics. We need to vote for representatives and senators who have the gumption to resist the encroaching state power of the executive branch. We need to be active and involved. We need to speak out and make our voices heard. We need to make sure our rational brain controls our baser instincts. On a more positive note, there will be plenty to write about in the coming years.