August 25, 2012

Fear of Powerlessness

Fear shapes our decisions, so it also shapes the society we construct out of those decisions. In this follow-up post to What Are We Afraid Of? and Fear of Loss, I want to explore the way fears shape a social institution fundamental to modern society--the government.


Previously, in a large list of fears, I categorized a bunch of fears as "Fear of Powerlessness". They were the following:

-lack of opportunity
-not being able to choose what we want to
-feeling that we failed
-lack of self-determination
-being forced to do things we don't want to
-youth (as weakness/infantility)
-arbitrariness of other people's power

While this list is not exactly the stuff that horror movies are made of, it's certainly embedded into many political ads.

The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Indecision 2012 - Endless Suffrage 2012 - Rick Santorum's "Obamaville" Ad

Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook
(Santorum removed the ad from youtube and this is the only version I could find)

The ad is over the top, but it doesn't exaggerate the fear that many people have of government. What's odd is that government was created in order to reduce fear. To oversimplify Hobbes, governments protect us from our brutish, nasty, short, and perhaps most of all fearful life.

But if we are now afraid of government, does that mean it's not doing its job? If we created government to help us get rid of fear, but now we are afraid of it, maybe we should just get rid of government. Or at least pull out its nasty big pointy teeth.


Let's think for a minute about fear. When you're afraid of something, where does that fear come from?

The answer to that question depends on how you are thinking about fear. In an important way, of course, fear is a wholly interal product of our minds. But most fear is also more than that, and it's the "more than that", the external roots of fear that I want to talk about here. We can also think of our fears as being realized by other people: a thief takes your wallet, your boss fires you, a policeman arrests you and takes you to jail. But while the individual view is true in a way, it disregards the fact that power--and thus the conceptual root of our fear of powerlessness, loss, and other social forms as well--comes to a great extent from groups and their power over us.

It is this power that I want to think about here. We are all ultimately only individuals, and groups represent a potential threat because they have the potential to be much more powerful than any single person. But while groups can be threatening, group membership can also act a safeguard by establishing rules and order among members. The inner dynamics of the groups we are submerged in--their hierarchies, rules, and values--create new power dynamics between individuals. This power can be an enormous benefit to inviduals collectively, but we should respect and fear power in all forms.

Beyond established groups, there are social practices or beliefs that large numbers of people engage in. These kinds of beliefs or practices can be powerful because, like a group, they can influence the way large numbers of people act (e.g. homophobia can damage lives without there being a cohesive anti-gay group). Unlike a group, however, there are no identifiable structures or even relations amongst group members. Some political theorists use the word "institutions" to talk about about both groups as well as these other social phenomena. These theorists might utter such a sentence as: "Institutional factors like rampant corruption and the power of rural landowners in government are holding back economic growth."

While there are those who speculate about its loss of influence and possible demise, and some that are in fact quite weak, national governments are nevertheless the most powerful groups in the world today. Like other institutions, governments have been created (in part) to reduce fear of powerlessness. Government is involved in safeguarding us from fears in a myriad ways: police prevent us from hurting people; property rights prevent people from taking our things; public schools provide educational opportunity; in countries with state-run healthcare, the government helps minimize your fear of bad health.

However, one of the important things government does, something that gets lost sometimes amidst our concern for individual rights, is set the rules for other groups. Governments ensure that one church congretation can't just go and kill a different congregation they disagree with, that one racial group can't discriminate against another, that corporations can't use their private security forces to disappear you if you come up with a better product. As I began to explain in the recent post about defintions of power, government tries to minimize exploitative exercise of power; given the natural imbalance of power between groups and individuals, and between different types and sizes of groups, this job of government is absolutely critical. Conservatives tend to believe that government does this job best by simply enforcing property rights, providing a justice system, and letting the market solve the rest; liberals believe government must play a more active role mediating between other types of power, both within and outside of the marketplace.

But government--a group that controls the police and military and vast resources--is always also a source of fears, and we have therefore tried to set it up in a way that minimizes those fears. As everyone who went to school in the US knows well, the US government has a system of checks and balances to prevent the state itself from being taken over and used against other people. This is supposed to help keep the state from acting out the fears of powerlessness, loss, or injury. Having written laws and rules and regulations also, in theory, may prevent the use of state power in arbitrary or biased ways.

These safeguards are meant to ensure that government helps eliminate fears without adding new ones, but they are not enough in all cases. There are good arguments against the concentration of state power, and many people in the USA (particularly conservatives) have a healthy fear of the power of the state, the extention of power of the state for its own sake, and the power of the state being used by certain groups against others. There are things that governments have not been good at doing (like efficient allocation of some resources), and there are things that governments have been too good at doing (like putting people in jail or blocking good ideas about how to reform itself). And as the most powerful group, the government's power can be used by other groups (or individuals) to leverage their own, to the detriment of the country.

But we need that power structure. Laws and police and order are immensely useful and a world without them is reasonably terrifying. So where does this leave us?

Politically aware and engaged, confronting and managing our fears. If we let certain fears dominate us as a society we will not only be unable to deal with other fears, we will be unable to deal even reasonably with the fear we have. We need to understand the many ways our fears listed above can be realized, and the complex systems we have put in place to avoid or eliminate them. I certainly think it's possible; but we need to be vigilant about not letting fear crowd out thinking.

I would leave you hear with a quote by FDR, but I don't think I even need to type it out.

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