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Intolerable situations and political technologies

December 15, 2014

It’s far from obvious that poets have had anything insightful to say about politics. Some, certainly, have not; Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators of the world” quip is among the most idiotic claims ever made. But politics cannot be divorced from what we want, and poets, if they are experts in anything, are experts in the difficulty of knowing our own desires.

If I have political beliefs, these are perhaps they.


First example: in reading T.S. Eliot’s lectures on “The Aims of Education,” I came across the following passage:

Nobody dislikes totalitarian government more than I do; but it is not enough merely to hate it, or to concentrate our detestation upon its uglier manifestations elsewhere. We must at least recognize the existence of pressures which are modifying society everywhere, if only in order to be alert to counteract them and to accept nothing that we can do without. Not all men are moved by unscrupulous love of power, or by fanatical ideology: men sometimes find themselves in a position where they have to assume more power than they want–or in a position in which the assumption of power may plausibly seem to be the only way of meeting some crisis or relieving some intolerable situation. (Lecture 3, “The Conflict Between Aims.” Emphasis mine.)

At first its seems merely to restate that old proverb first, do no harm. Do not “solve” intolerable situations in a way that in fact makes them worse. To which we might respond, necessity is the mother of invention. Do not leave a problem unsolved just because the solution is difficult to find. This is the trouble with proverbs: they’re no good unless you know when, and when not, to use them.

But Eliot’s point is deeper than that. The desire to “relieve some intolerable situation” is given as an example of those pressures which are modifying society everywhere. Labeling a situation as “intolerable” exerts pressure: it forces persons in power to act, not so as to bring about the best outcome possible, but so as to demonstrate their righteousness, to show that they do not “tolerate” the situation.

People often imagine that democracy is the ideal solution to the political principal-agent problem, but in fact the perverse incentives created by ” intolerable” situations are at their worst in democratic regimes. The demos loves to brand situations intolerable, and to demonstrate their righteous refusal to tolerate it by voting out anyone who fails to make a similar demonstration.


This causes particular problems when technology makes the line between wishes and desires ever-more-difficult to discern. And so, second example: from W.H. Auden:

In societies with fewer opportunities for amusement, it was also easier to tell a mere wish from a real desire. If, in order to hear some music, a man has to wait six months and then walk twenty miles, it is easy to tell whether the words, ‘I should like to hear some music,’ mean what they appear to mean, or merely, ‘At this moment I should like to forget myself.’ When all he has to do is press a switch, it is more difficult. He may easily come to believe that wishes can come true. (The Dyer’s Hand, “Interlude: West’s Disease.” Emphasis mine.)

Likewise, when a man has to wait six months and then walk twenty miles, it is easy to tell whether the words ‘The state of public education in this country is intolerable’ mean what they appear to mean, or merely ‘At this moment I should like to forget myself.’ When all he has to do is vote for someone promising change, it’s more difficult.

Which is to say: we can look at democracy, not as the One True Political System, but as a technological innovation. It’s superior to feudalism in the same way that recorded music is superior to its absence: it gives us more opportunities to fulfill our desires. This is a significant advance; Auden is no more anti-democracy than he is anti-microphone. But democracy and recorded music also share a flaw: they make it more difficult to know what our desires are.

Of course, saying this will accomplish nothing. Even if we believe it, we’ll walk away convinced that we know what we want; it’s the other guys who are confused. But all of us are experts in self-deception, at imagining that we’re acting on our principles, not our incentives.


There is no obvious solution. Even if Eliot called himself a “monarchist in politics,” neither he nor Auden put any stock in the dream of “an unincentivized incentivizer” (ctrl-F the phrase) who could make everyone else’s incentives neatly align. Or, rather, both thought that only Christianity could make straight our perverse incentives, our disordered desires; but both also knew that Christianity cannot do this by telling us what goals to follow. We all know the aphorisms; the trick is knowing which ones to apply when.

There is no obvious solution. If something looks like an obvious solution, chances are it just satisfies a hidden desire–a desire to triumph over our neighbor, a desire to declare ourselves righteous.

It would be fair, I think, to call this political vision a kind of conservatism. But it’s a conservatism that stands athwart history, not yelling “Stop!”, but asking, “Is that really what you want?”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. CJ Wolfe permalink
    December 20, 2014 12:29 pm

    “Which is to say: we can look at democracy, not as the One True Political System, but as a technological innovation.” One interesting thing about the Federalist Papers is that Madison never uses the phrase “new science of politics” that many attribute to him; the exact phrase he uses in Fed 9 is that an “improved” science of politics has arrived with the American Constitution.


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