Won’t Get Fooled Again 

"We don’t get fooled again. Don’t get fooled again. No, no . . . Yeah. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."
— Pete Townshend, The Who

Let’s explore the possibilities. This is America, after all. We have some experience with such explorations, even if most of us now sit for a living.

Let’s start with the macro view. In order to compete in this world today, we need enormous corporations able to manage huge amounts of capital and command large workforces, while influencing government priorities. Efficiency is gained by size and access to raw materials as well as the access to markets that is gained by using government mandates. This view of economics has been taught since World War II and there are millions of pages of text detailing the potentials, the patterns, and pitfalls. It is often labeled “capitalism” though, like China’s uses of markets, it is only that in passing.

What could go wrong?

There are those who think this arrangement is just swell. Look how big and powerful we have become using these methods. Look on our works, ye mighty, and despair! 

This view is usually promoted by individuals at the upper levels of the food chain, political insiders, and members of established families with sufficient wealth to see them through the ups and downs of an economy based on the myriad uses of power. It’s the way the world works, they say. The way it’s always been. True enough, it is really not so different from 15th-century Italy, is it? The internal combustion engine and the airfoil changed some of the uses of power, but not the big picture. 

But since the time of Lorenzo dé Medici, we have had a few other additions to the cosmology of human life. The European discovery of America. The American Revolution. The atomic bomb . . . The list is really quite extensive. And not least of those accomplishments is the furious rise of American business. As Eric Hoffer says, “America is a business civilization.” 

Well, almost.

After the fact, it might be argued that Lorenzo had a greater interest in promoting individual creativity than do the chairmen of any of the Fortune 500 that currently control our lives. The key error in macroeconomics is its willful ignorance of human beings except as consumers—as mere units. The cost-benefit analysis never takes into account the genius of a Michelangelo. The fact that such regimented thinking fits well with the purpose of government, which is, after all, to gain and maintain power, makes the system work in spite of the human grease necessary to keep its wheels turning. 

Now, this neo-Hobbesian view of man has been augmented by the innovative use of addictive algorithms that imprison the user in a comfortable bubble of his own making, a captive of his likes and dislikes, avoiding the unpleasantness of any other contact with reality. Unable to cope with what is disagreeable, when confronted, the primitive emotion of hate quickly replaces thought. This Pandora’s package is a bit more than can be detailed here, but it is important to be aware of it when considering the power of the tech companies now governing our lives

“The attribute which is at the root of human uniqueness is freedom,” Eric Hoffer said in a 1963 interview with public television host James Day, “The essence of absolute power is the power to dehumanize . . . to turn man into a thing. To turn him into a puppet. To turn him into an animal. To turn him into a robot. To turn him into a machine.”

The textbook alternative, microeconomics, ostensibly takes greater care of the creatures it supposes to manipulate by focusing on the individual choices being made and the incentives that produce the best result. But it too is flawed by the use of math to determine the worth of product and outcome. Math is certainly necessary, but the value of what is being added or subtracted must be determined elsewise. We are not beans in a bag, though the algorithms say we are. 

Moreover, this form of economic game-playing also depends on making prior decisions about what is important in the first place. Who makes those decisions? Given its use and abuse of government, that actually would be the province of politics, would it not?

Given the various tragedies besetting us, and depending on your political point of view, the alternatives to these systems are infinite. But for the purposes of brevity, I will skip all of those possibilities that require more government. My assumption here is simply that though some government is needed, using government to control an economy is a guarantee of corruption, creating a system that feeds itself rather than serving the human beings it was theoretically intended for. That’s what we’ve got now. We don’t need a new boss who’s the same as the old boss.

Some of those tragedies cry out for government solutions. Atomic power, for instance. Or biological weapons research. Others are not necessarily tragedies at all and are well beyond human control. Climate change is an example. Let the arguments begin. But even those on opposite political sides of these issues can appreciate the dangers inherent in the ready solutions—whether those be Russian management at Chernobyl, or North Korean nuclear missiles, or Chinese virus research at Wuhan. And who, might we ask, determines what the ideal climate is? 

Some argue that big government is necessary for just those reasons and that there must be something to mitigate the tragedies that await us. But doesn’t politics immediately make the use of that power the bigger problem? God help those who disagree with the politically correct solutions. I will resist any political philosophy that promotes dealing with human beings en masse instead of individually. But if I were foolish enough to give the government the power to make disagreeable politics illegal, that government would then have the power to take my freedom as well—and eventually it would.

The new paradigm needed is one that allows for the maximum of individual freedom without jeopardizing the society as a whole. I don’t want to meet the new boss who’s the same as the old boss. And, not surprisingly, this idea is not really new. It is the very conundrum dealt with by the founders and discussed at length in print and in debate over 200 years ago. 

What is important now is that we have their work to build upon. That Thomas Jefferson knew little about viruses, or atomic energy, or wouldn’t even have supposed that mankind could control the power of the sun on the earth is not the problem. The problem is, as we have learned over and over again, that solutions involving enhanced government power only magnify rather than mitigate the tragedy. The additional self-interest of Big Tech and their abuse of the economy to gain power totally beyond national borders makes a difficult problem seem unsolvable without total revolution. But you know who will lose in such a fight. 

If individuals do something stupid, as they inevitably will, the spill is manageable. When a government screws up, the result is a disaster for all. A government is only an aggregate of individuals given license to play with matches and prone to human error times the number of those in power. 

But will we be fooled again? The answer is yes. People can always be fooled some of the time. That’s why we must always limit the power of government—so that we might survive our own poor choices.

Eric Hoffer was an individual with many odd ideas because he came at his subject from outside the academic box. He was self-taught. He is easy to disagree with on one point or another. For instance, in the 1960s he said that Ronald Reagan was just a “B” movie actor who wanted to make California into a “B” movie state. Twenty years later he was accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the man. At least he was willing to learn. Are we willing to learn now in our turn? 

At the end of The Ordeal of Change , Hoffer said, “We in this country have a deeply ingrained faith in human regeneration. We believe that, given a chance, even the degraded and apparently worthless are capable of constructive work and great deeds.”

Indeed, we will need such faith given the numbers among us who have sold our souls to the government for supposed comfort and safety. Now that these bribes are evaporating, how will we respond? It will not be easy.

The lawyers who make a “good” living interpreting the arcane clauses of corporate law will not be pleased at the prospect of such change—but they should be. They might find they have better lives to live by putting cynicism aside. The agribusiness (much of it foreign) that milks the system producing ethanol from corn might be unhappy about losing their hold on the federal teat, but the farmers who now work for wages might find a new lease on their lives. Farming is still an ideal to many. The accountants who navigate the twists and turns of IRS mandates each year would not like it if the income tax was made the same for all, say, 10 percent—for everyone, no deductions. But then they might find time to play town-league baseball or write poetry. The public-school administrators, now paid with our taxes, who force national mandates on local schools might find that actually teaching a student is a more rewarding thing to do.

As Mr. Townshend said, “The parting on the left is now the parting on the right.” If we keep the old boss, things will not get better and the getting worse will only increase.

We don’t need the new boss. We need a change. Self-government is something we have done before, and we can do it again. 

It is time to peacefully assemble as best we can and make good on the fifth clause of the First Amendment: the prohibition on government religion and the guarantee to citizens the free exercise thereof, the proclamation of freedom of speech and of the press, that is followed by the right to peacefully assemble. This placement is no accident and was fully anticipated to be at the heart of American life.   

Start the debate. The whole internet is our Philadelphia. And listen. Don’t ask for permission. Let’s discuss it amongst ourselves. It is time for a new constitution, not to fly the same banners flown in the last war.  Then get on our knees and pray, we don’t get fooled again.

About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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