Self-deception and dogmatism leading countries to their doom is nothing new. As the ill-conceived climate policies and public overspending supported by the Western elites of our time demonstrate, democracies can be rigged to fall into this trap as well.
The German journalist Gabor Steingart remarked once that the modern citizen is neither Catholic nor Protestant but Politically Correct. “The highest Commandment is that in the name of the good thou should lie to yourself,” he tweeted.
Periods of massive-scale self-deception occur regularly in history and usually lead to cataclysmic disruptions. The typical symptoms of such a process are intolerance of divergent opinions, silencing debates and the rise of conspiracy theories, paradoxically accompanied by frequently hurtling conspiracy charges to muzzle dissenters.
Self-deception is usually coupled with a self-perpetuating of the political elite that requires a constant repetition of the prevailing narrative. The afflicted come to believe this discourse even when facts contradict it. As the consequences of real developments can be devastating to the elite, it is convenient – actually, from their viewpoint, necessary – to suppress the disturbing truth. Pragmatism gives way to dogmatism.
We went that way before
Many instances in history illustrate this mechanism. The ruling elites of France ignored the economic and social situation before the French Revolution. In Nazi Germany, official optimism prevailed until the very end of World War II. Against all logic, France tried to keep the colonial empire alive, leading to frustrating wars in Indochina and Algeria. And France and the United Kingdom succumbed to self-deception in 1956, when they went to war to preserve control of the Suez Canal.
The news media increasingly support governments’ delusionary narrative.
The examples of the ancient regime in France and Nazi Germany might lead some to believe that catastrophic self-delusion affects autocratic regimes rather than democratic ones. Democracies have a record of self-renewal, one may argue. This is true – providing that the democratic system is working. It works best in decentralized setups with a high degree of subsidiarity, emphasizing individual and local responsibility coupled with limited government.
Unfortunately, what we see in Western-style democracies is a trend in the opposite direction. There is ever more centralization, state involvement and regulation in daily life. Bureaucracy is ballooning and parliaments are controlled by political parties and their loyalists. Independent deputies representing the res publica in good conscience and to the best of their ability have become a rarity.
This state of affairs enables the self-perpetuation of ruling elites, just as in autocracies. Also, it alienates politics from the social and economic reality. These days, we watch the news media, the “fourth estate” and supposed pillar of democracy, increasingly supporting governments’ delusionary narrative. The same is true of some leaders of large and so-called “system-relevant” businesses.
Take public finances. The life-supporting oxygen for the political parties over the last 30 years has been “gifts” to the population in a constantly expanding welfare state combined with an increasing share of employment in public services. The expense has been financed by increasing debt and ignoring the liability created for future generations. What matters is that the policy ensures reelection. At the same time, taxation has become more and more complicated and developed into a byzantine regulatory jungle.
Interest rates have been reduced to close to zero to the detriment of savers and the middle class to minimize the debt burden of governments. The emergencies of Covid and climate-change mitigation now serve as excuses for dropping all monetary restrictions.
And now comes the need to create a narrative that all this travesty is successful. The completely unrealistic Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has been put together to lull policymakers and citizens into believing that governments can spend as much money as they want without negative consequences. This theory is about as realistic as the rulers’ dogmas in prerevolutionary France.
Deception and intimidation
The climate issue is very important, as we must protect the environment. But it has become a quasi-religion. The narrative is that greedy businesses created the situation, and now a one-size-fits-all global solution must be accepted. The slightest criticism of the 2016 Paris Agreement is considered heretical. Taking measures to protect the atmosphere is necessary, but they should be aligned with the best possible strategy.
Global systems are usually ineffective as they fail to consider enough local necessities. We should be happy that there is a rising global consciousness of the climate threat, but local and regional solutions and alternatives to the Paris plan are needed. A radical scheme presented as the only acceptable alternative is fragile by definition. In the real world, nothing is perfect; healthy debate could only improve on the existing options on climate. Now, this vital issue is misused to justify irresponsible government overspending.
Ideological zeal blinds common sense, and the establishment embraces radicalization.
However, the politically correct intolerance goes even further. Historic statues are being demolished, street names are changed, the language – against public wishes – is being loaded with awkward but obligatory phrasing to make it gender-neutral. The charge that something is “offensive” to someone has become a way to kill debate. In a cynical way, it also serves to polarize and fragment society into subgroups and persuade people that they are victims. Ideological zeal blinds common sense, and the political establishment embraces radicalization. This know-it-all attitude trumps knowledge, reality and facts.
Politics has become a full-time occupation with careers hinging on partisan loyalties, not the responsibility to the long-term common good. Civil courage has ceased to be a desired commodity. The devastating result is the loss of individual freedom and responsibility. Stiff dogmas limit the freedom of speech and opinion.
Democracies went from a decentralized democracy to a global and national centralized bureaucracy, preserving the narrative of the elites. Advocacy groups, such as Oxfam or Greenpeace, amplify the message.
Modern Monetary Theory will fail as the rules of economy, finance and mathematics eventually assert themselves. Inflation will ruin the middle class. Very significant disruptions will occur. Accepting delusion, society stands to lose its self-regenerating strength. One hopes for a return of reason and pragmatism in the wake of a crisis caused by MMT and, eventually, changes for the better. However, we might unfortunately see the opposite: an even more powerful state sweeping away liberty and establishing an “egalitarian” system that will govern subjects rather than citizens.