The noblest purpose of politics is the pursuit of the “perfect” compromise which bitterly opposing factions can live with, if not heartily support. This is true for keeping the peace in any civilization. Put simply, the intimate social connection and mutual understanding common among our hunter-gather ancestors is not possible given civilizations’ hierarchical social system. Civilization requires gobetweens, and politicians serve that purpose… ideally.
Modern times have seen an exponential increase in people seduced by desire’s dead end promises. A good example of this is the ability to borrow now and pay later. Such putting of the cart before the horse is totally opposite to nature’s way. Granted, our innate urge to get more than we are willing to give is normal animal nature. Our dilemma is that civilization makes the unbalanced pursuit of this possible.
A politician’s promises parallel this by offering us what we desire without requiring adequate payment. This is the Siren’s song of democracy. As chapter 29 cautions us, With desire choosing anything, of doing I see no satisfied end. Self-interests also blind politicians as each side faults their counterpart’s flawed principles. How can such loyal officials supporting one side sincerely consider the other side?
Admittedly, political dysfunction is also a natural result of tribal instincts. Even if political leaders wanted to be more balanced and impartial, they couldn’t. A leader can go only so far in seeking the middle ground—compromise—before their followers lose faith and abandon them. Truth is, effective leaders actually follow the needs and fears of their followers. This is like a dog chasing its tail.
The certainty of belief in anything is the primary cause of great falseness (a.k.a., hypocrisy). They go hand in hand. Human intelligence brings about naming; naming gives rise to beliefs; beliefs result in the disease chapter 71 describes quite literally as, Realizing I don’t know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. Furthermore, this all begins with our disconnection from nature. As chapter 18 observes…
When the great way is abandoned, there exists benevolent justice.
When intelligence increases, there exists great falseness.
When relationships lack coherence, there exists respectful kindness.
When the country is confused and chaotic, there exist loyal officials.
The second line, When intelligence increases, there exists great falseness, exposes the hypocrisy endemic within any type of politics, including organized religion, for the affectation they actually are. Nature’s ‘self-so’ is otherwise, as chapter 25 suggests, And the way follows that which is natural and free from affectation. Civilization’s institutions, or rather we their creators, are unavoidably hypocritical. We base our institutions on ideals that promise us what we desire, not on reality. Then, at some point, fear always overrides our idealistic facades. Nonetheless, civilization requires such cultural devices to give large populations faith in the social order.
Using the way to fool people
Chapter 65 offers some insight into politics and religion. It begins with, Of ancients adept in the way, none ever use it to enlighten people, They will use it in order to fool them. Of course, fooling the people these days is a lot harder due in large part to the ‘information age’. Having politicians fooling the people a lot less now may sound great on the surface. However, ‘we the people’ masses can’t handle reality’s truth either, like the fact that every advantage comes with a cost. By the way, I assume our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived intimately connected to nature would have intuitively known and accepted that. So naturally, fooling the people isn’t referring to them.
‘Fooling the people is actually vital when trying to unite a poorly connected society, which defines civilization overall (see The Tradeoff, p.549). Thus, there is a natural utility in political and religious leaders’ ability to offer simplistic answers to irresolvable issues.
The simplest wrong answer works
History shows that no one truly knows what they are doing, or how the future will unfold. Humanity makes it up as it goes along. However, people fear uncertainty and crave answers, yet there is no true answer. If no answer suffices, the simplest wrong answer is the most palatable. Only when we share a common ground of expectations— the simplest wrong answers— are we able to stumble along as amicably as possible. Now, thanks to the Internet—especially to social media’s ‘shock’ hyperbole—many people gulp down “alternative facts”, which weaken a society’s dominant mainstream political and religious storylines.
Isn’t life a learning process?
Will humanity ever accept the simple fact that we always end up paying for every advantage. Acknowledging this would help us achieve some degree of lasting political stability. One possibility for this lies in the steadily increasing median age of the human population.
If nothing else, life is a learning process. People, as of yet, simply don’t live long enough to learn how to accept nature on her terms. We begin as infants, naively relying on our parents to provide us what we need with no strings attached. In adulthood, we seem to retain that naïve expectation in many subtle ways. Politicians use this ignorance to fool the people. This can’t change until people discover that realizing I don’t know is better, and accept their limits as chapter 32 warns, Man handles the realization to stop. Knowing to stop [he/she] can be without danger. Only through a long life of living and loss does this become increasingly possible. I don’t imagine this will happen until the human race’s median age approaches 100 years old. Ah, we must be patient! Until then, we at least need to get on the same page story-wise, as divorced from reality as that may be. Yet, is even that possible now?
Civilizations’ borrow now and pay later approach to economics occurs nowhere in nature. Political stability hinges on how well a society’s economics aligns with natural law. Naively thinking we can escape the consequences of circumventing natural law shows the depth of our naiveté. As chapter 16 reminds us, Not knowing the constant, rash actions lead to ominous results. Sure, if we knew when to stop, we could conceivably get away with some borrowing from the future… Indeed, if we knew when to stop, most of our self-inflicted difficulties would diminish. Again, as chapter 32 reminds us, Knowing to stop [he/she] can be without danger. Incapable of this, we get the politics we deserve and lose the treasures chapter 67 reveals…
The fact is, our fiscal folly is natural. How could any species, given the chance, resist an opportunity to borrow from the future to pay for the pleasures of the present? In fact, we borrow now with vows of paying afterward in many ways other than financial. Examples include more exercise, better diet, broader education, and really the doing of anything that we feel we ought to do at some point. The Siren’s promise of short-term pleasure is irresistible. Thus, Buddha’s Fourth Noble Truth cautions, “There is salvation for him whose self disappears before truth, whose will is bent upon what he ought to do, whose sole desire is the performance of his duty”. Sorry Buddha, that’s just no fun!
Consensus is the mainstay of political stability
Given 2009’s Great Recession, I couldn’t understand how the political leadership could be pushing through health-care in the midst of a broken tax system, home foreclosures, huge job losses, and a massive national debt. Even worse, one side pushed through their sweeping health reform bill with no consensus from the other side. Such a “My way or the highway” approach on major issues paves the way to a broken system. In the turmoil, I’d hear the Democrats say the failure to reach a compromise was the Republicans’ fault. Predictably, the Republicans said the same thing about the Democrats. Who is right?
All I can say is that the side that has the majority in both houses and the presidency holds all the cards and is the larger entity. The Taoist view is clear on who is more responsible for finding middle ground. As chapter 61 notes, For this reason, the larger, using the lower position, normally takes in the smaller. The arrogance that the larger commonly feels owing to the power it wields, makes using the lower position difficult and rare. Such magnanimity requires a saintly degree of political leadership.
The Health Care Reform Act is an example of broken politics: 219 Democrats voted for the House bill, while 176 Republicans and 39 Democrats opposed it. It squeaked by 220 to 215. In the Senate, it also just squeaked by with all 60 Democrats voting for it, versus no Republicans, as I recall. Such a complete lack of consensus isn’t healthy for a democracy. That is how autocracy governs.
I’ve always felt we should have publicly funded health-care like the rest of the world. Thus, I would support such reform whole-heartedly, but never if that meant pushing it down the throats of half the country. What I want personally pales in comparison to the critical need for compromise in a democracy.
Reality is inescapable
Facing the truth, or rather impartially considering the facts, doesn’t mean we must actually give up our heart, our feeling, our emotional biases. Nevertheless, that is how impartially facing the facts will intuitively feel! Any attempt to consider the other side feels treasonous, and so we turn away, make our skewed judgments, and dream on. Naturally, having emotional bias to steer thought never works for long.
Coming as close to an impartial balanced view as possible is my only long-term answer. The closer I come to that, the more constant my sense of well-being. You might say, no gain without pain… here it is the pain of self-disloyalty… a cognitive divorce from emotional bias… a belief suicide.
Thought, and the belief it spawns, is the real culprit that knocks my life off balance. Realizing I don’t know, as chapter 71 reminds, allows me to nip much imbalance in the bud. I simply challenge anything I feel I am favoring or believing to be true at each moment. Such preferences are my ‘canary in the coal mine’. It is easy to know them, hear them, heed them, and rigorously seek out the other side. Easy, yet as chapter 70 cautions, Our words are very easy to know, very easy to do. Under heaven none can know, none can do. Okay, it’s not so easy, yet what is my alternative?
Certainly, we are stuck with this unalterable reality on many levels. Fortunately, chapter 3 offers a way out of this predicament for each individual: Doing without doing, following without exception rules. Following what, you ask? For me that means following reality—nature—as it is, not as I want it to be. This is why I call the Taoist approach to life a “religion” of last resort.