Harry Anslinger and the Fragility of Civilization

Harry Anslinger and the Fragility of Civilization

To open his book Chasing The Scream, author Johann Hari tells a story about Harry Anslinger and the fragility of civilization. Anslinger was the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and sparked the war on drugs in the United States. As a young child, Hari explains, Anslinger was at a farm house where he heard a woman screaming in agony as she possibly experienced drug withdrawals. The owner of the house sent him to the pharmacy to return with a package and drugs to ease the woman’s suffering, which Ansligner did, but the memory of the screams would haunt Ansligner forever, pushing him to spend his entire life fighting against any drugs that he believed were dangerous.


In World War I Anslinger became a diplomatic agent in Europe, and he saw the destruction of entire cities and the destruction of human life first hand. At  the end of the war, Anslinger learned another lesson that would stick with him for life. Hari writes, “What shook Harry most of all was the effect of the war not on the buildings but on the people. They seemed to have lost all sense of order.” Ansligner was concerned about riots, starving desperate people driven to chaos, and entire institutions crumbling, leading to strife among the people. Hari continues, “Civilization, he was beginning to conclude, was as fragile as the personality of that farmer’s wife back in Altoona. It could break.”


Chasing the Scream is a brutally honest look at drug policy and the war on drugs in the United States. Anslinger was key in kickstarting the war on drugs, but his message was carried on after he left office, and to this day after his death. Hari asks tough questions, trying to understand if there is a way to win a war on drugs and whether we should be more concerned about the consequences we have seen from battling drugs in every arena. At the end, Hari concludes that what we need to fight a war on drugs is not a war mentality, but an understanding of the importance of community, and a rebuilding of social solidarity, trust, and a new sense of our responsibility to each other. Anslinger was right, to conclude that civilization was fragile, but he was wrong is his prescribed treatment. A war to end vice only tears apart our social fabric, weakening the communities which build our civilization.


Hari believes that what we need are better ways to understand each other, and more supports for everyone in society. Many of the evils that we attribute to drug use, Hari argues, are in fact byproducts of the war we wage against drugs. In an effort to impose social order on people, with the rhetoric of war and a mindset steeped in racism, Ansligner helped to create a system that broke civilization for some of the most vulnerable among us, just as he always feared from the moments he heard the screams of the farmer’s wife in his childhood.


We must remember just how close our civilization can be to chaos and disorder. We need to look for leaders who can bring us together rather than leaders who seek to castigate others and toss them out. We need to think about how we build new institutions that help develop greater sense of community, and how we help those who have the least. If we fail to do so, we will increase inequality, and then blame the inequalities on those who faced the greatest adversity as a result of our inequalities. This will segregate our societies and create more chaos, making it harder for us to come together when we need to, exacerbating our drug and violence problems.

How to Influence People

“The only way on earth to influence other people,” writes Dale Carnegie in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, “is to talk about what they want and show them how to get it.”


Carnegie’s book is one that I have heard recommended over and over by successful guests on the various podcasts that I listen to. I was excited to read it to get real insight into how to be a more likable person and how to be a more influential person in the groups and organizations that I participate with. The book, however, doesn’t provide you with any hacks to trick people into being your friend or to slyly convince people to do what you want them to do. The book focuses on relationships and the importance of being sincere and present in your relationships with others in order to develop meaningful connections with the people around you. The quote above is part of that advice.


We don’t influence other people’s decisions by preaching at them, by constantly yelling at them when they do something we consider to be wrong, or by nagging them to do things the way we want. We influence other people by connecting their actions, behaviors, and beliefs to larger outcomes that the other person is aiming for. In the ultimate sense, we show how the other person’s behaviors, actions, and beliefs are either in or out of alignment with their personal values.


In 2016 I started the Masters in Public Administration program at the University of Nevada, Reno. For years I had heard my sister tell me about the benefits of universal health care. I had heard my parents and uncles talk about the ways that welfare lead to people staying home to play video games instead of working. I had listened to people talk about trickle down economics and the values of federalism, and I wanted to enter a masters program where I could learn how to sort out all the arguments people discussed regarding public policy and governance. I wanted concrete facts so I could make rational decisions on all these topics and tell my family members who was empirically correct and who was wrong.


What I learned, however, is that all of these policy discussions hinge on something deeper than the cold hard rational facts. They hinge on values. As I learned what the scientific research showed about universal healthcare, tax rates, and social welfare programs, I told my family members where their ideas seemed to make sense and where they seemed to be in conflict with the actual data. My empirical evidence has meant nothing to my family members and has not changed any minds. The data is only useful when it supports the position that people want to hold based on their values. Changing minds and influencing people, therefore has to be connected to the values they already hold or that they aspire to.


Carnegie’s quote at the start of this post is all about connecting to values. You have to talk to people about what they want to see in life, why they want to see those things, and what values are driving the ways they hope the world turns out to be. Then you need to show them how the things you support, the ideas you think the other person should hold, and how the actions that you hope they will take help get the other person and society closer to those values.


For whatever reason we don’t like to talk about our values openly. Partly this is because for many of us our number one value is our own self-interest, and we don’t want to say that directly. But we also make up excuses around issues of abortion, healthcare, and taxes where we claim that economics or good health are the values we care about, but really we care much more about identity, self-interest, and whether the world is fair to us. If we could discuss those values directly, rather than hiding behind economic BS, then maybe we could actually compromise or be less hateful of those who don’t agree with us. In the end, we should remember that it is our values which underlay everything we say or due (that includes me, you, and that person on social media you hate). If we want to try to shape the world for the better, we better understand what values are driving us, what values drive others, and how we communicate our values in terms of how we think the world should operate. We won’t influence people to live better if we are not up front about our values and can’t connect other people’s actions back to the values question.

A Feeling of Importance

“If our ancestors hadn’t had this flaming urge for a feeling of importance, civilization would have been impossible. Without it, we should have been just about like animals,” writes Dale Carnegie in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie is hitting on an interesting idea: how the desire to be important has fueled human evolution and impacted the species we are today.


This is an idea I wrote about in the context of both competition and coordination for our early ancestors. In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about the ways that insecurity and limited resources drove the human brain to be deceptive and political, finding ways to cheat to obtain resources without letting on to other members of our social tribe that we were not 100% honest. Conversely, the authors write about how as a result of this cheating and politically deceptive behavior, our brains became bigger and we became more intelligent, opening up the possibility of future planning and productive social cooperation.


Underlying both our cooperation and competition instincts is social status. For our earliest ancestors social status meant that you could obtain a mate, and as we evolved higher social status meant that you could also command more resources and have more allies and protection within your social group. For our early ancestors, having a high social status (in the eyes of Carnegie being important) meant that your genes would continue and that you had allies and resources to make it more likely that your genes were passed on to the next generation and the following generation.


Today, we still maintain that need to feel important and to build our social status, even though for most of us we can pretty well guarantee the continuation of our genes with limited resources and minimal social status. Our feeling of importance remains, but its original drivers have been nullified (at least in a large way in rich countries like the United States).


Carnegie continues in his book to write about the sense of ego that accompanies and drives our desire for importance. It can push us to do great things, but can also have extreme negative consequences for us as individuals and for society in general. Our ego, tied to our desire for importance (or increasing social status as Hanson and Simler would say) is important for us to understand and control. At a certain point we need to acknowledge that we do things just to make ourselves seem more important, and that things that can be good for our social status can be harmful for others. We should reflect on the decisions we make in this regard, and try to make decisions that at least reduce the external harm we cause. Giving up a small measure of our own social status in exchange for having a better world to live in is the least we can do given that we are operating on evolutionary drivers that no longer match our realities.

Understanding and Forgiving

It is popular today to have strong opinions about the shortcomings and moral failures of other people. Democrats will gobble up news about the crazy things our president does and says, people who work will be quick to call out the laziness in others, and it is easy to condemn the greed and excesses of billionaires. I would argue, however, these criticisms speak more about ourselves than the people whose supposed wrongs we are railing against.


Being critical is easy, and it props us up by showing how far beneath ourselves we find another person to be. It is easy for us to say how terrible another person’s actions and thoughts are while we are not in that person’s shoes, and it creates and easy space for us to feel good about ourselves for not having the vices we see in others. What this meaningless venting misses, however, is that we live in a society where the drivers, decisions, and behaviors of everyone is interconnected.


I like to remind myself that no one succeeds or fails on their own. Consider a student as an example. In order to be a great student you need to have a healthy space in which to do your studies. Things that would make that space livable and easy to do studying in might be things like loving parents, a desk, a heater for the cold months, and sufficient lighting for you to do your work. You did not discover the light bulb or the electricity that runs it, you did not pay for the energy to run the heater, and you didn’t purchase the house within which you studied. You may have put in the hard work necessary to be a successful student, but you depended on parents who could provide the structure and environment for you. Even if you were missing those things, and did your work at a library, you similarly were dependent on others for your success. Lacking these things, and being a failure, was similarly not your fault. You could not chose to be born in a situation where you would lack encouragement, electricity, or a safe place to do work.


When I think about how dependent we are on others for even the most basic parts of life, such as commuting on roads we did not build to school or work, I am reminded of how important it is that we think beyond individuals when we want to criticize someone for their behavior. When we see someone who is lazy, we should ask what was missing in their life that did not properly encourage them to be the best version of themselves? When we see someone who is needlessly greedy, we should ask, how did society let this person down so that they came to see having more money or power than anyone else as being the most important thing for them to pursue? And when I see someone who directly harms others, I want to ask, where did society fail to help this person value relationships and value the interconnectedness which we all share? Just as we cannot claim 100% responsibility for our most incredible successes and must attribute something to the community when we succeed, we must do so with the failures of ourselves and the individuals we see around us. To simply criticize is to the ignore the role of society, which we are a part of. To end the negative we see around us, we must give more of ourselves to our community and work harder to ensure that what has made us a good person or a success as we define it, is there for everyone. (I know there are some people who are exceptions to the examples I gave above, but they are likely not the majority.)


As Dale Carnegie wrote in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain, and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”

Sex, Society, & Religion

An argument I found very persuasive in The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson is that religions establish norms for sexual behavior in an attempt to help create social cohesion partly through systems of shared sexual family beliefs and values that build into family beliefs and values. The norms around sex ensure help establish specific norms around relationships which add to social cohesion. There are many different norms about sex across the planet, and religions, or the lack there of, often have different rules about sexuality which reinforce those norms.


In the book the authors write, “As Jason Weeden and colleagues have pointed out, religions can be understood, in part, as community-enforced mating strategies. The religious norms around sex become central to the entire religion which is part of why any social topic surrounding sex sets off such a firestorm. Religious sex approaches are also community based and community enforced, meaning that they need the buy-in and support of the entire community to work.”


Simler and Hanson go on to describe the way this looks in the United States with our main political divide between family and sex traditionalists who tend to vote more Republican and be more Christian versus more secular individuals who are more careerist, less family and sex traditional, and more likely to vote for Democrats. Sex and family traditionalists benefit when people avoid pre-marital sex, stick to one partner, and have many children starting at a young age. They create communities to help with child raising and everyone is encouraged to reinforce the view of a successful two-parent family.


The authors contrast that view with a more open view of sex and families. Women are more likely to use contraception, allowing for multiple partners and allowing childbirth to be delayed. This gives men and women a chance to have fewer kids starting at a later point in life and allows both to be more focused on their career than on building a family.


In both cases, having more people adopt your norms around sex is beneficial. If you are trying to be a traditionalist, it can be challenging and frustrating to work a job you dislike, limit yourself to one sexual partner, and have children early if everyone else is having lots of sex, advancing in interesting careers, and not having to spend time raising children. You will have fewer people to share childbearing with and will receive less social praise for making an effort to start your family in your early twenties. However, if you are more open with your sexual preferences in a traditionalist society, you might be looked down upon, might not have the sexual partners that you would like to have, and be criticized for your promiscuity and for pursuing a career rather than a family. The norms around sex, in both instances, shape how you are viewed and treated by society, and reinforce or hinder the sexual, family, and even career strategy that you might pursue.


There are many ways for humans and communities to treat sex. I would imagine that different strategies at different times of human existence have been more advantageous than others. When humans barely lived past 30, when we didn’t have medical technologies for abortion, and didn’t have technology for producing contraceptives, then it made sense for certain strict rules to emerge around sex to help create communal norms that reinforced health behaviors, continued human existence, and community cohesion. On the opposite end, I recently heard someone suggest that early hunter-gatherer societies likely permitted individuals to have lots of sexual partners, and that fathers likely didn’t ever know for sure if a child was there offspring or not. This created a situation in a small tribe where it was best to just take care of every child to ensure that any child you might have was taken care of. This is another norm around sex and family that worked for the time. I may just be a modern career focused individual, but it seems to me that acknowledging that humans can have different sexual and family preferences, and allowing norms to adjust to our economic, technological, and social trends may be more helpful than adhering to strict norms established to fit different societal demands of the past.


Yesterday I wrote about using dominance to gain status by intimidating, bullying, and bulldozing ones way to prominence. Driving people’s fears, pushing them to submission and capitulation, and using others to attain what you want are part of the strategy for dominance. While dominance may increase an individual’s status, it is not a great approach for a larger society that needs to operate well together.


Prestige is an alternative form of status seeking behavior that seems like it may help societies mesh together better. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in The Elephant in the Brain, Prestige, however, is the kind of status we get from doing impressive things or having impressive traits-think Meryl Streep or Albert Einstein. Our behavior around prestigious people is governed by approach instincts. We’re attracted to them and want to spend time around them.”


We can certainly have problems with prestige, in the forms of celebrity worship and out of control egos, but the authors argue that our prestige desire is part of what drives humans and progress forward. With our large brains and political societies, we want to develop status not by just dominating others, but by showing that we can do difficult and complex things. That we have the resources necessary to spend our time, energy, and attention on things that would otherwise be trivial or meaningless to a hunter/gatherer’s survival.


Our art work is impressive, even if it is not that useful. Developing the iPhone is certainly useful, but it is also a hard thing that requires insight, creativity, and persistence, skills that are hard to display unless you do something unique and challenging. We want to associate with the people who attain prestige because they demonstrate qualities helpful allies that may benefit us in the future. Obviously, if we are of the opposite gender, then mating with these high prestige individuals will help us ensure that the genes we pass along also receive some of the status benefits from our mate’s prestige, helping them find more allies for more help further off in the future. Prestige seems to encourage the things that helps society stick together and be successful in a world where we may otherwise have just preferred to bulldoze our way over others to take what we want directly by force.

In-Group Loyalty

One thing I have written about on the blog a lot is our tribal nature and how we now live in world that demands global solutions and thinking that we seem to be unable to achieve due to our tribal evolutionary past. We face great challenges today and have opportunities to put in place policies that lift everyone, but often spend much of our time fighting among each other over meaningless tribal points. We become raving sports fanatics for no sensible reason, we will get in fights about which students from which college major is better, and we will form clubs around the typed of truck we drive and literally get in fist fights because we drive Fords and those people over there drive Dodges. For some reason, we feel compelled to be loyal to these groups, even when there is no tangible benefit (in the sense of really prospering or attracting new mates) to being so loyal to a meaningless group.


Our loyalty within these groups is a phenomenon that I find extremely interesting, and at times deeply troubling. One of the reasons why it can be so detrimental and scary for our society is well explained in The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, “When a group’s fundamental tenets are at stake, those who demonstrate the most steadfast commitment – who continue to chant the loudest or clench their eyes the tightest in the face of conflicting evidence – earn the most trust from their fellow group members.”


Groups favor and actively reward loyalty even when loyalty is undeserved. We praise those who stick with the party when the leader is clearly in the wrong. We say that true sports fans still show up and root for the team even when the team flat out sucks and isn’t even fun to watch. We encourage our fellow group members to stick with our side even when overwhelming evidence shows that our side is in the wrong.


This leaves me asking how we ever move forward based on shared understandings of reasonable facts? How do we improve our society if all we do is advocate for things that benefit our social group, even if those things are bad for everyone else? How do we create common understanding if we don’t acknowledge our group and our efforts to advantage our group over others?


I think a key is to begin working to show how meaningless many of the groups we belong to can be. On an individual level we need to develop skills to recognize when we are being defensive about something and showing group loyalty over an idea or to a group that just doesn’t matter. When we can start to step back and admit we were wrong and that changing our opinion doesn’t matter, we can start to move forward. The great challenge is doing this on a societal level, especially if bad actors don’t have the incentive to behave the same way.

The Price of Friendship

The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson suggests that our self-interest drives a lot more of our behavior than we would like to admit. No matter what we are doing or what we are up to, part of our brain is active in looking at how we can maximize the world in our own interest. It isn’t always pretty, but it is constantly happening and if we are not aware of it or choose not to believe that we are driven by self-interest, we will continually be frustrated by the world and confused by our actions and the actions of others.


Friendship is one of the areas where Hanson and Simler find our self-interest acting in a way we would rather not think about. When we learn new things, build up skills, and gain new social connections, we make ourselves a better potential friend for other people. The more friends and allies we have, the more likely we will gain some sort of social assistance that will eventually help us in a self-interested way. This part of us likely originated when we lived in small political tribes with only a handful of potential mates. In order for our ancestors to be selected, they had to show they had something valuable to offer the tribe, and they had to be in high enough regard socially to be an acceptable mate. Simler and Hanson ask what happens if we look at friendships through a zero-sum lens, as our minds tend to do, where we rank everyone we interact with and apply some type of value to each person’s time and friendship. They write,


“everyone, with an eye toward raising their price [Blog Author’s Note: meaning the value of their friendship], strives to make themselves more attractive as a friend or associate-by learning new skills, acquiring more and better tools, and polishing their charms.
Now, our competitions for prestige often produce positive side effects such as art, science, and technological innovation. But the prestige-seeking itself is more nearly a zero-sum game, which helps explain why we sometimes feel pangs of envy at even a close friend’s success.”


The authors suggest that friendship is as much a selfish phenomenon as it can be an altruistic and genuine kind social phenomenon. We constantly try to raise our own status, so that we can count as (at least) allies and (hopefully) equals among people who are well connected, have resources, and can help us find additional allies or potential mates. We always want to be one step ahead in the social hierarchy, and as a result, when someone else’s status rises relative to us, even if we stay at the same status level, we feel that our status is less impressive relative to them and we feel a bit jealous. All of this paints a complex picture of our interactions and shows that we can never turn off our own self-interest, even when we are participating in ways that can seem as if they are about more than just ourselves. All the things we do to improve ourselves and world are ultimately a bit self-serving in helping us have some type of future advantage or some type of advantage that helps us pass our genes along. We don’t have to hate this fact about ourselves, but we should acknowledge it and do things that have more positive benefits beyond ourselves since we have no choice but to play these status games.

The Social Brain Hypothesis

The California redwoods are amazing trees. They stand taller than any other tree, scraping at the sky as they compete among each other for sunlight. The trees can be packed together in a dense manner, all competing for the same light, all pulling massive amounts of water from the ground up enormous heights. What is interesting, however, is that the redwoods are geographically isolated, not stretching out across huge swaths of the continent, but contained within a fairly narrow region. They don’t compete against other species and spread, but mostly compete for sunlight, water, and resources among themselves.


In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson introduce the redwoods as a way to talk about the Social Brain Hypothesis in humans. The idea that our brilliant brains developed so that we could compete against each other, not because our brains helped us outrun lions or get more food than our primate cousins. The authors write,


“The earliest Homo Sapiens lived in small, tight-knit bands of 20 to 50 individuals. These bands were our “groves” or “forests,” in which we competed not for sunlight, but for resources more befitting a primate: food, sex, territory, social status. And we had to earn these things, in part, by outwitting and outshining our rivals.
This is what’s known in the literature as the social brain hypothesis, or sometimes the Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis. It’s the idea that our ancestors got smart primarily in order to compete against each other in a variety of social and political scenarios.”


I find this super interesting because in many ways we are still fighting among each other as if we were part of a small band of 20 to 50 individuals. We live in a world where food is relatively bountiful (for many but certainly not all) in the United States. We live in a world of online dating where finding a mate is more open to more people. Our “territory” today can be more private than ever and online niche communities can give us a new sense of social status that we could not have obtained in the past if we did not conform to the small groups of our high school, family, or work.


We seem to be in a place where we can let go of the pressures that the social brain hypothesis put on our early ancestors, but I don’t see people shedding those pressures very often. We can look at what has driven our species to behave the way we do and see that we don’t need to compete in the same way, we can recognize the great possibilities available to us and move in our own direction, but so often we chose to just show off and do more to impress others as if we still lived in those small tribal bands. Rather than branching out, we seem to often retreat back to a group of 20 to 50 and compete internally in a way that wastes resources on our own selfish motives. I think that we should talk more openly about the social brain hypothesis and the ideas that Hanson and Simler present so that we can have a real discussion about how we move forward without pushing everyone to compete for things that we should be able to provide openly with new systems and organizations.

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.