Daniel Dennet’s book Freedom Evolves has a couple of great insights directly applicable to politics (how pissed would he be if he saw himself being quoted by CUCR).
The first is that “caveat emptor”–the doctrine of “buyer beware”–is one the most powerful tools of reason out there. He explains that it causes an “arms race” between predator and prey, and both predator and prey develop ever more complex methods of decision making. When applied to evolution over the long term, it was a similar concept that allowed for the development of our brains into the intellectual, rational powerhouses they are.
As a society, we have been moving away from “Caveat Emptor” as a value. Government heavily regulates how companies can advertise, who can be sold what. Moving into the realm of health, progressive social engineers on the left dream of making sure that everyone in the country eats perfectly healthy and green all the damn time (for the record, I hate chocolate cake for breakfast. Luckily, in the Jewish town in the West Bank where I was for the Sabbath, that’s legal). When pushed about free choice and agency, they respond by talking about the unfair advantage that corporations (in league with the Satan they don’t believe in) take of consumers. When asked about “buyer beware,” many friends of mine explicitly disavow it as a value.
What works in evolution, though, can also work in some very limited cases in culture. Consumers who are smart enough figure out the tricks and spread the knowledge, forcing the corporations to develop ever wiser ways of screwing us. The arms race that develops helps make our judgements of the most basic things we buy much more subtle and much more practiced. It actually develops our reason and our skill at choosing. In a social democracy, the bureaucrats simply tell the corporations “no,” the corporations follow, the citizens have outsourced their initial thought processes to bureaucrats, and the arms race develops between regulators and corporations. Besides bypassing the citizens completely, this “arms race” has a problem of its own. Because government is involved, it moves much more slowly, as bureaucrats are notoriously lazy when they don’t have their own money on the line.
Practically speaking, there doesn’t seem to be much harm to outsourcing our thinking about consumer good (and medicines, etc.) to government agencies. After all, the bureaucrats are mildly education college grads who, despite the stereotype I’d like to paint of them, mostly have the welfare of their people (note: not their constituents) in their hearts. So why am I so worried?
The ability to judge depends on practice, like anything else. We get used to being told what to buy, what’s healthy and what’s not, what’s good and what’s not. We being inherently trusting the people who give us this information. And our ability to weigh different options and judge withers on the vine.
Judgement is crucial for a democracy, and not only for voting. Being in a democracy means being free to make our own decisions, and though decisions about health care, retirement and education have been taken out of our hands, many other decisions remain. What church should I join, if I want to at all? What should I major in? What do I do when my son tells me he’s going out to California to become a musician (shoutout to my little brother)? I’m worried about what subtle movements happen in a culture when we give up the engine of the rational arms race of caveat emptor.
As a final note, Dennet also mentions a truly chilling fact. Domesticated cats have smaller brains than their wild ancestors. Since humans were taking take of their food and shelter, and brains are expensive in terms of energy, their brains shrank over the course of their recent evolution. Let me repeat that. Their brains shrank. Not by that much, they’re not vegetables. But still.