What Does “The People” Mean?

“We the people” is a powerful phrase in the United States. It conjures images of democracy, freedom, revolution, and the power to push back against illiberal governments and disinterested elites. The phrase has been a rallying cry in movies for civic motivation, has been a symbol in politics for grassroots movements, and occupies and idyllic vision of governance to many Americans.

 

The challenge, however, is that “the people” is not a very clear idea or concept. It is ambiguous, without real direction, and is not always used in all encompassing ways. The idea of a government governed by “We the people” is great in theory, but at the end of the day decisions need to be made and a final direction must be chosen. “We the people” is not actually a great approach to decision making when you get to the end of the line. Building a government based on “We the people” may seem natural to us today, but looking deeper reveals the challenges of setting up a government based on the public will that our founding fathers encountered after the revolutionary war. Joseph Ellis captures these challenges in his book The Quartet when he wrote about James Madison’s perceptions of the new direction he wanted the nation to go:

 

“Experience during and after the war had demonstrated beyond any doubt that romantic descriptions of “the people” were delusional fabrications, just as far-fetched as the divine right of kings.”

 

Ellis also quotes Jefferson and his doubts about the feasibility of a government built on popular will and fully democratic values, “a choice by the people themselves is not generally distinguished for its wisdom, that the first secretion from them is usually crude and heterogeneous.”

 

“We the people” is absolutely the spirit of government that we should embrace in the United States, but I think it is important to also be nuanced in how we think about the actual decisions that government must make. Popular will can be hard to gauge and impossible to decipher. When popular will does align, we must also be fearful of a tyrannical majority. Ultimately, “We the people” must translate into active participation in government that works to better understand, connect, and unify the American people. If “We the people” does not live up to this standard, it risks devolution into demagoguery and minority out-casting.

Will We Lose Conversations?

With the internet social media world we live in, you can always find the perfect niche community for your interests. I love podcasts and like geology and there is a perfect show for me: The Don’t Panic Geocast. I enjoy stoicism and thoughts about overcoming obstacles and I can literally find forums on Reddit all about Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way. In many other areas of my life I am able to find the perfect group of strangers online who share my interests, want to talk about the things I want to talk about, and share the same general worldview and background as me. This is fantastic for me personally and I am very comfortable listening to the geology podcast and reading about stoicism, but if I only engage in these communities then I risk losing my ability to communicate beyond these small niches.

 

Colin Wright describes his fears of a world where conversation becomes impossible in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. He writes, “One of the fundamental challenges we’ll face in the coming years, I think, will be figuring out how to have conversations … about anything and everything. How to have discussions about important things and relatively mundane things, and how we might have those conversations with a shared understanding that we’re trying to achieve the same thing, even if that might not immediately appear to be the case.”

 

The fear that Wright has is that we will become so accustomed to communicating within our own sub-communities that we won’t be able to have real conversations outside our groups. The words we use and the definitions we attach to those words will begin to shift and overtime will signify who is part of the group and who is not part of the group. Sometimes this will be obvious to both insiders and outsiders, but sometimes it won’t be obvious to either, and conversation will break down as each side fails to recognize that words are not being use in the same way. Similarly, certain things will become running jokes within a circle (like ice is a mineral in the Don’t Panic Geocast community) and we will make references that either intentionally or unintentionally leave other people out. This might help with bonding for our small group, but it can be alienating to people outside our group and can drive wedges further between our niche communities and the outside world.

 

If we end up in a world where we become so enclosed within our niche communities that we can’t have any real conversations beyond them, then we face a lot of negative consequences as a country and planet. Pragmatically working to solve problems may take a back seat to trying to enhance the status of ones community, or ones place within the community. Shared meaning could break down, preventing us from having real discussions about real values and priorities. If we cannot come together and step beyond our niche communities then we won’t be able to avoid identity politics and we will feel more isolated in the real world even if we feel deep connections with our online communities.

Competitive Altruism

In The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler write about the Arabian babbler, a bird that lives in hierarchical social groups. The small birds are easy prey when isolated on their own, but as a social group they can live in bushes where they are able to take turns on guard duty, protect each other, and safely forage for food within a given territory. What is interesting about the birds, in the context of Simler and Hanson’s work, is that male birds compete for the opportunity to be altruistic within the group.

 

The dominant male birds will compete to be the top lookout bird, forgoing their own food for the chance to protect the group. They will feed other birds before themselves (sometimes forcefully) and fight to be the toughest group protector. The birds are not just socially altruistic, they are competitively and forcefully altruistic. Hanson and Simler write, “Similar jockeying takes place for the “privilege” of performing other altruistic behaviors,” to highlight the birds competitive nature.

 

The authors place this type of behavior within the context of evolution. The more dominant males show their physical prowess and mental acuity by their altruism rather than just by fighting and pecking lower males to death. Nevertheless, their altruism is more about setting themselves up to pass on their genes than it is about protecting the group and doing what is best for everyone else. This type of behavior is relatively easy to connect back to humans. We pose everything we do as being good for the whole, but often we do what we do to better our chances of impressing a mate or to pad our LinkedIn profile.

 

We even go out of our way to compete to be altruistic at times. In small groups where we want to impress someone to further our career, we will compete to take on the most challenging jobs, to write the best report, or to do the least glamorous job so that we can be praised for doing the dirty but necessary work. Our altruism is not always about altruism, sometimes it is much more selfish than we want to let on. As Hanson and Simler close the anecdote about the birds, “babblers compete to help others in a way that ultimately increases their own chances of survival and reproduction. What looks like altruism is actually, at a deeper level, competitive self-interest.”

Our Devious Minds

We now realize,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “that our brains aren’t just hapless and quirky – they’re devious. They intentionally hide information from us, helping us fabricate plausible pro-social motives to act as cover stories for our less savory agendas. As Trivers puts it: “At ever single state [of processing information] from its biased arrival, to its biased encoding, to organizing it around false logic, to misremembering and then misrepresenting it to others – the mind continually acts to distort information flow in favor of the usual goal of appearing better than one really is.

 

Recently I have been pretty fascinated by the idea that our minds don’t do a good job of perceiving reality. The quote above shows many of the points where our minds build a false sense of reality for us and where our perceptions and understanding can go astray. It is tempting to believe that we observe and recognize an objective picture of the world, but there are simply too many points where our mental conceptualization of the world can deviate from an objective reality (if that objective reality ever even exists).

 

What I have taken away from discussions and books focused on the way we think and the mistakes our brain can make is that we cannot always trust our mind. We won’t always remember things correctly and we won’t always see things as clearly as we believe. What we believe to be best and correct about the world may not be accurate. In that sense, we should doubt our beliefs and the beliefs of others constantly. We should develop processes and systems for identifying information that is reasonable and question information that aligns with our prior beliefs as much as information that contradicts our prior beliefs. We should identify key principles that are most important to us, and focus on those, rather than focus on specific and particular instances that we try to understand by filling in answers from generalizations.

What’s Happening in Our Brains Behind the Conscious Self?

Toward  the end of the introductory chapter of their book The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain what they observed with the human mind and what they will be exploring in the coming chapters. They write, “What will emerge from this investigation is a portrait of the human species as strategically self-deceived, not only as individuals but also as a society. Our brains are experts at flirting, negotiation social status, and playing politics, while “we” – the self-conscious parts of the brain – manage to keep our thoughts pure and chaste. “We” don’t always know what our brains are up to, but we often pretend to know, and therein lies the trouble.

 

The last few days I have written about a few instances where we deceive ourselves and hide our true motives from ourselves. We do this so that in our political and social world we can appear to have high-minded motives and reasons for doing the things we do. Simler and Hanson show that this does not just happen on an individual level, but happens at group and society levels as well. We all contribute to the failure to acknowledge what it is that drives our decisions and why we do what we do.

 

This process takes place behind the conscious self that experiences the world. In the past, I have borrowed from Ezra Klein who has used a metaphor on his podcast about a press secretary. The press secretary for a large company doesn’t sit in on every strategic decision meeting, isn’t a part of every meeting to decide what the future of the company will be, and isn’t part of the team that makes decisions about whether the company will donate money, will begin to hire more minorities, or will launch a new product. But the press secretary does have to explain to the general public why the company is making these decisions, and has to do it in a way that makes the company look as high minded as possible. The company is supporting the local 5K for autism because they care about these children in the community. The company has decided to hire more minorities because they know the power of having a diverse workforce and believe in equality. The company was forced to close the factory because of unfair trade practices in other countries. None of these reasons are self-interested, but the final decision made by the company may be more self-interested than altruistic or even necessary.

 

On an individual level, our conscious self is acting like the press secretary I described and this passes along throughout the levels of society. As individuals we say and think one thing while doing another, and so do our political bodies, our family units, our businesses, and the community groups we belong to. There are often hidden motives that we signal to, without expressing directly, that likely account for a large portion of the reason for us to do what we do. This creates awkward situations, especially for those who don’t navigate these unspoken social situations well, and potentially puts us in places where our policy doesn’t align with the things we say we want. We should not hate humans for having these qualities, but we should try to recognize them, especially in our own lives, and control these situations and try to actually live in the way we tell people we live.

The Purchases We Make

In their book The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about “conspicuous consumption,” a term coined by economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen who lived about 100 years ago. Simler and Hanson write, “When consumers are asked why they bought an expensive watch or high-end handbag, they often cite material factors like comfort, aesthetics, and functionality. But Veblen argued that, in fact, the demand for luxury goods is driven largely by a social motive: flaunting one’s wealth.” The other pieces of the argument, the good performance of the item, the colors we were dying to have, and the durability of the product might be the true reason we made a purchase in some instances, and that allows us to make those excuses even though they only describe part of our behavior. A big part of Hanson and Simler’s book focuses on the idea that we use these types of excuses to justify our actions. Further, they argue that our behaviors often signal something about ourselves implicitly that we don’t want to say explicitly.

 

In the case of luxury goods the thing we are signaling is our wealth. Our wealth demonstrates our financial resources and can be used as a proxy for our social capital and human value. Our wealth may give others insights into our skills and abilities to do hard things, helping us stand out against a crowd. And, our wealth may reveal our deep social connections or our family’s high status, two social traits that certainly helped our ancestors pass their genes on in small political tribes.

 

The problem today, however, is that we don’t admit this is what we are doing with our purchases, and as a result we face major negative externalities from our consumptive habits. We spend a lot of money on unnecessary luxury goods, and many people go deeply into debt to signal that they are the type of person who would own a certain type of luxury good. Our unyielding desire in the United States for ever further and greater consumption leads us to buy larger houses that we have to heat, faster cars that use more energy, and to own more clothes that will take millions of years to break down thanks to the new synthetic fibers we use to make them. Our consumption and our drive to continuously signal our wealth and social value, some would argue, is poisoning and heating our planet to dangerous levels.

 

Simler and Hanson don’t focus on the externalities of our signaling behavior in their book, but they do acknowledge that they are there. The authors simply make an argument that most of us would rather ignore. That we do things for selfish motives and reasons we don’t want to talk about. This is important if you are an economics, sociology, or policy researcher because you need to understand what people are really doing when they rally politically or make economic decisions.  For the rest of us, in our daily lives, we can take a lesson from Hanson and Simler that stems from an awareness of our self-centered behavior. We can think about our signaling behaviors and ask if conspicuous consumption is really worthwhile. We can step back and ask if the ways we signal our wealth help or hurt the planet, and we can start to make decisions with positive externalities and attempt to avoid the negative externalities I mentioned above.

More on Hiding Our Motives

Deception is a big part of being a human being. If we try, we can all think of times when we have been deceived. Someone led us to believe one thing, and then we found out that something different was really going on the whole time. If we are honest with ourselves, we can also see that we clearly try to deceive others all the time. We make ourselves seem like we are one thing, but in many ways, we are not exactly what we present ourselves as being. Sometimes we truly are genuine, but often, we are signaling a particular behavior or trait to a group so that we can be accepted, praised, and get some sort of future benefit. In order to do this really well, we create stories and ideas about why we do the things we do, deceiving even ourselves in the process. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson wright in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “We hide some of our motives…in order to mislead others.”

 

This is not a pretty idea of humans, and expressing this idea is an admittance that we sometimes are not as great as we like to make everyone believe. This is not an idea that is popular or that everyone will be quick to admit, but I believe that Simler and Hanson are right in saying that it is a huge driving influencer of the world around us. I also don’t think that accepting this about ourselves ends up leaving us in as sad, cynical, and dejected of a place as one might think. Humans and our social groups are complicated, and sometimes being a little deceptive, doing things with ulterior motives at their base, and behaving in a way to signal group alliance or value can be a net positive. We can recognize that we do these things, that we are deceptive, and that we deceive others by lying about our motives, and still make a good impact in the world. The altruist who donates money to the Against Malaria foundation may tell himself and everyone he knows that he donates because he wants to save people’s lives, but truly he just gets a warm glow within himself, and that is perfectly fine as long as the externality from his status seeking behavior is overwhelmingly positive (looking in the mirror on this one).

 

If we don’t accept this reality about ourselves and others then we will spend a lot of time trying to work on the wrong problem and a lot of time being confused as to why our mental models of the world don’t seem to work out. In my own life, recognizing status seeking behavior, self-deception, and motivated thinking helps me to be less judgmental toward other people. I recognize that I have the same capacity for these negative and deceptive behaviors within myself, and I choose (as much as I can) to redirect these types of behaviors in directions that have the greatest positive social impact rather than in the direction that has the greatest personal benefit for me and my feelings. Ultimately, I encourage us to be honest about the fact that we are sometimes rather dishonest and to build our awareness in a way that is easy on ourselves and others for behaving as humans naturally behave, but still nudges us in a direction where we create positive externalities where possible from these ways of being.

Designed to Act on Hidden Motives

The human brain evolved in a social and political context. As our species developed, it mattered who you were close allies with, who you were opposed to, and who you cooperated with to survive. You needed to build up your social support to survive each day, but you also needed to build up your status so that your offspring and their offspring could survive and reproduce. Genetic survival and continuation of your genes and family depended on you being able to operate and survive in coordination with others in a world that didn’t have enough food, shelter, mates, and resources for everyone to survive all the time.

 

As our species expanded, our brains got bigger, took up more of our energy, made us smarter, and helped us further develop our social, political, tribal societies. In order to do well in these tribes, we had to be good at helping others in a way that furthered others’ trust in us and encouraged reciprocation. We had to appear to be helping others while at the heart of what we did, we wanted to ensure our survival and the survival of our children.

 

This idea is at the heart of The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. We evolved to be self-interested and self-serving, but in a deceptive way that is hard to notice. The authors write, “Here is the thesis we’ll be exploring in this book: We, human beings, are a species that’s not only capable of acting on hidden motives–we’re designed to do it. Our brains are built to act in our self-interest while at the same time trying hard not to appear selfish in front of other people.”

 

We hide our hidden motives from everyone, including ourselves, as we go about the world, but if we look closely, we can find the motives in ourselves and others that more accurately describe our decisions and behaviors. We post a photo on Facebook telling ourselves and others that we want to keep our friends up to date with our new house projects, but a more plausible reason for posting on Facebook is simply that we wanted to show off and be socially applauded. We like to donate to charity in the spirit of helping those who are in need, but we often fail to ask where we could make a donation to help the most people, and we are good at finding ways of making our donation very visible so that everyone knows what we donated.

 

These hidden motives are not all bad, but they do exist and in many ways drive our behavior. We need to be aware of our hidden motives and our capability of acting on them. When we are honest with ourselves about why we do what we do, we can start to have more agency in our lives and the choices we make. We can start to see that much of what we do is purely status seeking behavior, and we can ask ourselves if it is truly worth it or if we can step back and let go of our hidden motives on a case by case basis. We can shape policy in a way that redirects externatilities from our hidden motives toward positive outcomes rather than toward negative self-serving outcomes. We don’t have to evolve away from hidden motives to meaningfully engage with the world, but we should recognize them and do our best to prevent negative hidden motivations from driving our emotions, behaviors, and decisions.

Do What Is In Us

Lord of the Rings can be read as a reaction against the industrial age, a reaction against military might, and a reaction against colonial conquests. The most clean, well functioning, and happiest places in the book are places of nature, where hobbits live peacefully with plenty in the shire, and where elves live with wisdom and respect for trees, forests, rivers, and valleys. Tolkien seems to express the idea that we should live a bucolic life that is more connected with nature, tending to it to receive the gifts that nature gives us as opposed to laying down our black mastery of the planet and bending it to our will as we do with roads, railroads, dams, and the machinery of war.

 

In the story, Gandalf says, in a reaction to Sauron trying to rule everything, “Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

 

Succor is defined, according to the dictionary in my Kindle, as “assistance and support in times of hardship and distress.” Gandalf says that we should live our lives in a way that sets the world up to be more successful and bountiful in the future. We should strive to remove bits of evil from the world, to constantly make small improvements or do our little part to make the world a better place. We should not do this just for ourselves and for our happiness, but so that future generations can inhabit a world that can still provide for their needs.

 

This message is important for me. We can set out to be the best, to always have more, to accumulate as much fame and notoriety as possible, and to rule the world with golden towers and green acres everywhere we go. Or, we can accept that the world is not ours, we can strive toward mastery of a few things without spreading ourselves too thin, and we can focus on our corner of the world and what is in our power right now to make the world a better place. This may look like picking up trash along our local street, it may look like calling our grandma, or it may look like smiling at that person smoking outside the Walmart and saying hi rather than giving them a contemptuous look and treating them like trash. We can strive to be great and to make lots of money and influence the world, but what really matters is if we take small steps daily in the ways we can to make the world better for the future, even if that means we inconvenience ourselves a little to do the good work.
Morning Counsels

Morning Counsels

I do almost all of my writing for this blog in the morning. For whatever reason, thinking clearly in the evening (at least clear enough for writing) feels impossible for me. Once I have gone through an entire day, once I have spent my mental capital at work, listened to podcasts, and had dozens of conversations with colleagues, friends, and family, my brain can’t quite focus and think about what it wants to say about a given topic in a coherent way. At a certain point at night, I am completely unable to string together clear and coherent thoughts. It is certainly not a time where I am going to have great insights, and probably not a great time for me to make big decisions.

 

Many, though certainly not all of us, share this type of pattern. There is something about sleeping and unplugging for several hours that allows us to return to our thoughts and ideas from the day or night before with more clarity. I have noticed many times that jumbled, cloudy thoughts seem more organized in the mornings, the connections between disparate pieces coming out more profoundly in the morning than at night. Decisions, and my resolve to commit to decisions, are much more clear in the mornings as well. What seemed like only binary choices become full of possibilities I had not recognized nor considered before, and making a choice to stick to is simpler when my brain has had less stuff to manage for a day.

 

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s book, The Lord of the Rings, King Theoden’s brain apparently works the same as mine. while traveling and preparing for a battle, Theoden reached a point where he recognized his weariness and need to rest before making a decision and planning for future clashes. He said, “In the morning counsels are best, and night changes many thoughts.” Sleeping and getting some rest helped him to think differently about what choices he had to make and about the things he had observed. The night helped him develop new perspectives and become more considerate and insightful.

 

The quote from The Lord of the Rings makes me think about all the times I have made decisions while camping or traveling late at night. The decisions are never good and I usually get tired of making nuanced decisions and just decide for the future to do whatever feels easiest in the moment. We should postpone decisions while camping or traveling when our minds are exhausted at the end of the day. Sometimes the best we can do is say, “we need to sleep now and we can make a final decision on this thing in the morning.” For me, that would have certainly saved myself and the people I was traveling with a lot of headaches and given us back a bit more time for sleep. We should be like King Theoden and recognize that we won’t be able to process nuances at night, so rather than endlessly stating challenges and obstacles to decisions that need to be made, we should do nothing, and sleep before we make a hasty decision.