Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Culture War: It's the Congestion Stupid Part II

In the previous post on this subject, I noted the political pattern apparent in this well-known graph of the 2008 election results:

and developed a thesis that our political wars right now are all about country vs city, people who live surrounded with a lot of space, and people who live surrounded by a lot of people.

There is a simple fact of life that conservatives are loath to accept: with large groups, collective action is superior to individualist action. In case anyone thinks this analysis is born of some sort of political bias, consider 1) I am a libertarian-leaning former Republican, 2) the animal kingdom, and 3) the military.

Let's start at the end. If we compare the functioning of the old Soviet economy (one that truly deserves the "socialist" label, and would scoff at that being applied to Obama's actions) to ours at the time, and then do the same thing with our two militaries, is there any doubt where the greater similarities lie? Efficient military options are decidedly NOT individualistic. They are top-down authoritarian regimes, due to nothing but raw pragmatism. Military ventures allow little room for romantic idealism, where the penalty for error is death. The collective will destroy the individuals. Terrorists might be able to hurt us, but they could never conquer us. We could conquer them.

For more evidence, observe the animal kingdom. We rule the world (if we may think in such terms) due to collective, not individualist behavior. Individually, we cannot compete with even the weakest of other species. Likewise, prior to our arrival, the apex predator of the world was wolves, working in packs, in a decidedly collective venture. Regardless of who made the kill, all get to fill their bellies. Who were the analogous rugged individualists? The cats, who, by any individual measure, are superior to dogs. Put a 150 pound mountain lion in a pit with a 150 pound wolf, and the cat will win every time. Yet the wolves ruled because of their collectivism. Go to the sea world, and we see the same thing: the apex predator is the orca, hunting in packs, not the rugged individualist, the great white sharks. In the insect world, the ants overwhelm everyone else, where sacrifice of self for the whole is a normal part of everyday life. Resistance is futile.

Back to us, observe the great human endeavors, and every one of them required collectivist behavior. No rugged individualist venture would have gotten us to the moon, or built the interstate highway system, or won WWII. That required collectivism.

The battle is raging now in America because we have reached a tipping point where the people living the relatively new lifestyle of collectivist city life are beginning to outnumber those living the more traditional, individualist, country lives. Each appears insane when viewed from the perspective of the other. City dwellers have seen first hand what can be accomplished with the sacrifice of some individual liberties (say driving anywhere you want) for a collective enterprise (mass transit), and want more of it. Country folk have no need for such a thing, and are perfectly content with their slower, simpler life (I once had a woman who worked in a town of 100,000 people explain that the reason she commuted 80 miles from the tiny town where she lived was because she couldn't handle the big city). They mostly have family bonds and the power of social ostracism to keep the order, and really don't need all that. City people see country values as outdated. Country people see city values as socialism.

This is where America stands now politically. This is why a character like Sarah Palin can elicit such a rabid following from people in the country. It's no coincidence that she comes from the least congested state in the nation, and Obama from one of the most congested. The country folk see their way of life, that stretches back generations, unchanged, solid, predictable, and cheap, being taken away from them, and they don't like it one bit. They've always been able to rely on tradition before, so why shouldn't they now? Can they now?

I suspect not, which is why they are in such a panicked frenzy, and why they speak of certain groups "taking over". They've lived a life for so long that required little adjustment to new things that the notion of rapid change is an impossibility to them. They see their lives being taken away. So they watch Glenn Beck cry, and listen to Rush Limbaugh scream, and pretend it is all going to go back to the way it was. Only it won't, and they can't change, which means we in America simply have to ride out these visceral election cycles until 2032 or so, when sadly, most of those that knew nothing of collective living are gone. The challenge for the rest of us is to remember to keep our rugged individualist spirits alive, for there will always be new frontiers to be explored and conquered, while recognizing the pragmatic benefits of giving them up once the battles are won and congested civilization takes over. If anything from evolutionary theory should be applied to civilized life, it is that heterogeneity is good. We need different approaches to different problems. There is a place for both the rugged individualist, and the community organizer. All of us in our place.


parakeet said...

"There is a simple fact of life that conservatives are loath to accept: with large groups, collective action is superior to individualist action."

I've never heard my conservative friends ever say such a thing. In fact, I think they'd agree with the "many hands make light work" approach. That is, unless the government was involved, which in that case the proverb would change to "too many cooks spoil the broth."

"In case anyone thinks this analysis is born of some sort of political bias, consider 1) I am a libertarian-leaning former Republican,"

I would suggest the fact that a position is a former position does not imply a lack of current bias. The opposite is usually the case. If we ask a former smoker what his opinion is about smoking in public places or taxing cigarettes, you will get an answer that shows anything but impartiality.
That was not an accusation that you're biased, just a point that your former stance on issues doesn't imply impartiality in the present.

ScienceAvenger said...

It was the libertarian-laning part that was relevant, not the former GOP part. I'm still looking for the smallest optimum government solution I can find, I've just learned enough about the real world to know that optimum is larger than my ideology would like.