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In casting about for a topic for this weekend’s edition of SubscribeStar Saturday, The Z Man’s latest podcase served as inspiration. Entitled “Thinking About Athens,” the episode is an extended thought experiment on the nature of Athenian democracy, and the problem of generating consensus in a true democracy. The problem becomes increasingly intractable the larger the group of participants becomes, to the point that “consensus” breaks down entirely, as everyone realizes that the groups that complain the most and take the firmest stances against compromise end up getting their way in order to maintain the “consensus.” Yikes!
I often use the analogy of ordering pizza when illustrating this point to my students (usually in the context of the Articles of Confederation, America’s first governing document, which required unanimous consent of all States—each of which had an equal vote—to amend the Articles): there is almost always at least one student who will not anything but plain cheese pizza. Some students will only eat pizza with toppings. Rarely, a student will not eat pizza at all. But if found ourselves in a world in which ordering one kind of pizza were mandatory, the outcome would either be a.) ordering no pizza at all or b.) capitulating to the lame person who just wants a plain cheese pizza. In either case, almost no one gets what they want.
Even if someone attempts to “opt-out” of the system, that is a threat to the consensus itself. By attempting to abstain, those who demand conformity with the “consensus” react with suspicion—why won’t this weirdo eat pizza with us? It’s not enough that someone might just want to do something else; we must be forced to be free.
I touched upon this topic in an essay from 27 February 2021, “Authoritarian Creep.” To quote liberally from myself:
Something with which I struggle to wrap my mind around is the authoritarian impulse. I’m not pretending I’m immune to this impulse—this desire to tell others how to live their lives, backing it up with the threat of force for non-compliance—but the older I get, what little appeal the tendency held continues to diminish.
What I struggle to comprehend is the apparent need to boss people around. I understand needing to be authoritative with children and students—setting clear boundaries, understanding actions have consequences, molding the child to become a self-governing adult—but this desire to boss around perfect strangers is increasingly foreign to me.
This impulse manifests itself in virtually every facet of our lives. It creeps in bit by bit. Modest policy proposals and laws suddenly becomes weaponized Karenism, empowering authorities and otherwise normal people to swagger about with impunity, assured of the righteousness of their cause du jour.
Why do we want to control one another so much?