The 2016 election and ‘The Fable of the Bees’

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The media are missing the point when they attribute the Trump and Sanders phenomena to unhappiness with the “establishment.” As for Trump, there is no Republican “establishment” – no clique of insiders who have let down their supporters by refusing to dis-establish the Obama agenda. There are only people like Mitt Romney, John McCain, John Boehner and Mitch O’Connell, who have tried to get elected and then survive to run again. They, like all politicians, are at the mercy of the voters to whom they must appeal in order to win office. If you don’t like these politicians, you should blame the voters who got them as far as they went.

As for the Democrats, they are fulminating over Trump without recognizing the role they played in his creation. It is the Democrats who gave us the first president in our history to have a radical Left background. And now it is the Democrats who have spawned the first self-declared socialist to compete seriously for their party’s nomination. Did Democrats really think that they could put Obama in office without risking a political upheaval of the kind we are witnessing? Do the millennials who love Sanders really think that his agenda provides any hope for consensus?

So what lies behind the Trump and Sanders phenomena? The 18th century philosopher, Bernard Mandeville, provided an answer. “I believe man,” said Mandeville, “to be a compound of various passions” that govern him, “whether he will or no.” In his essay, “The Fable of the Bees,” Mandeville allegorically made the argument that when people claim to subordinate their passions to reason – and to do so in service of the greater good – they are merely subordinating one passion to another. Mandeville was a cynic but not a pessimist. He believed that it was their very slavery to their passions – to vanity, greed and self-love – that led people to create the wealth they so much enjoyed.

That principle lies behind Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” It forms the core idea behind every modern textbook on economics, to wit, it is the pursuit of profits that enriches society.

Passion, however, does not work well as a driver of political choices. Let’s consider a few, randomly selected examples of opinion based on passion, rather than reason:

— George Bush and Dick Chaney lied about weapons of mass destruction and invaded Iraq for its oil.

— Abortion is entirely a matter of women’s health and not at all a moral issue.

— Discrimination alone explains why women are, on average, paid less than men.

— The stagnation of workers’ wages is the fault of the Mexicans.

— The stagnation of workers’ wages is the fault of Wall Street.

— Any objection to any measure taken to reduce global warming stems from mindless disregard of science and submission to the greed of the Koch brothers.

— Free college is every American’s birthright.

— U.S. trade deficits are the result of currency manipulation by scheming foreign governments.

These are examples of claims being made in the course of the current campaign that are, at best, highly dubious and, at worst, cynically chosen to manipulate gullible voters. To be sure, there is nothing new about such claims. William Jennings Bryan intoned before the 1896 Democratic convention that mankind should not be crucified “on a cross of gold.” Lyndon Johnson won the presidency in 1964 by warning that his opponent would have “American boys” fighting Asian wars. Hillary Clinton blamed Benghazi on “an awful video.”

Mandeville would not be surprised by any of this. Passion rules over reason. The problem is that in the world of politics, unlike the world of economics, there is no mechanism to stem the descent into unreason. Businesses cannot prosper indefinitely by selling people products whose consumption is based on unreason. People will quit smoking when convinced that smoking can kill them. But no voter feels it necessary to put reason ahead of passion. And elections that produce results based on unreason can have grave consequences. Think of Germany in the early 1930s, the election of the pro-slavery James Buchanan as U.S. president in 1856, the ascendancy of Peronism in Argentina.

Maybe now U.S. voters have to learn the hard way that their willingness to ignore reason can have dire consequences. We can only hope that the predictably harsh lessons of this election will be enough to raise the tone of the dialog the next time around.

David G. Tuerck

David G. Tuerck

David G. Tuerck is executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute. Read his past columns here.