If you’re ever in a political conversation that isn’t going well, this essay describes one reason why that might be so: people are thinking in terms of “good guys and bad guys,” not cause and effect.

In most of human history, if someone didn’t understand a natural phenomenon, they would attribute it to some kind of god. Today, if people don’t understand politics, they attribute political and economic outcomes to some kind of god. Of course they don’t put it in those words, but both the ancient and the modern person, when confronted with complex reality, think, “This must have been done deliberately by the hand of [a very powerful being].”

This mindset has similar manifestations then and now. In both cases, there are good gods and bad gods, gods that are worshiped and gods that are hated, and public displays of sacrifice and ritual done in the name of the gods.

The common thread is that reality is avoided. The actual cause and effect of things is not looked into. In the case of natural phenomena, that means technology is severely limited. You might even get punished for suggesting that the gods aren’t responsible for the workings of nature!1 In the case of politics, that means we do not get great politicians or great political outcomes. There are punishments in that arena too, which you can imagine.

Now, it’s not like we live in a totally scientific age yet, but we have made immense progress on that front. Most people understand that lightning doesn’t fly from Zeus’s hand (and if anyone’s going to be throwing lightning around, it’s humans2), and they nominally recognize that the technology in their life is due to scientific work.

I’m not sure how much comparable progress we’ve made on the political front as a society, but certainly in the vast majority of political conversations I witness, you wouldn’t think we’d made any. People claim their gods (politicians, Elon Musk, “billionaires,” millenials, etc) cause various things with omnipotent directness, for good and ill, without reference to anything specific, or if it is specific, it is often just made up—the equivalent of “Zeus does lightning.”

It’s useful to watch whether your political conversations are just about gods doing things, or whether you’re investigating the allegedly god-induced phenomena themselves, in concrete detail. Conversations where two people are throwing gods at each other don’t, and almost can’t, end well. In many ways, ending well is not even the point of those conversations. It’s a 30-years-war in a cocktail bar.

Avoiding these conversations, or gaining the capacity to steer them well, begins with you gaining a concrete understanding of the political phenomena you’ve long attributed, via handwaves, to your gods. This is very difficult, because politics is vastly more sophisticated than our culture and universities would lead you to believe.3 But you can know the law, government, and politics. If you’re in New York, I can help.

Notes

  1. Or just not worshiping them the right way. Socrates would like a word. 

  2. I’m referring to Tesla’s experiments in Colorado Springs from 1899-1900, of course. 

  3. Politics, in terms of difficulty, should be regarded like physics: there is a lot to learn, there is a sort-of-proper-sequence in which to learn it, there is much to practice, and it is easy to fool yourself into thinking you understand more than you do if you’re not careful. And most are not careful. More here