The Ruler Con

11:07 Fri 22 Dec 2006
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The death of the ruler of Turkmenistan prompts the question: how do people get away with this shit?

The guy was a classic megalomaniac, and ruled for twenty years with brutality and ruthlessness. Anyone with a sense of justice or fairness will be rightfully appalled at that. But he wasn’t the first, nor will he be the last, to pull the ‘ruler’ con off on a large number of people.

What luck for rulers, that men do not think.
—Adolf Hitler

Or is it that they (we?) don’t want to think? If you believe, as I do, that we all have the capacity for rational thought, then the logical conclusion is that a lot of people choose to give up thinking rationally about their rulers.

Looking at Social Dominance Theory, though, gives credence to the idea that people who believe in authoritarian rulers think they’re getting something out of reinforcing such beliefs, in a construct similar to the “psychological wage” in the American South—i.e. the idea that employers could get away with exploiting white workers in the South as long as those workers were convinced that they were better off than black people. So supporters of authoritarianism presumably feel there’s some benefit to them in promoting an authoritarian society. This is hardly a revelation, but what kind of benefits do they think to gain by cooperation?

They might think that they will be somewhere on the pyramid, and that the advantages of being somewhere other than the bottom on a hierarchical pyramid is better than being in a flat(ter) society. This has certain advantages in terms of identity—there is comfort in having one’s identity defined, or supported, by social norms, rather than by one’s own efforts.

They might think that for whatever reasons, they personally are better-equipped to thrive in a hierarchical society than in a flat(ter) one.

They might be motivated by fear, either a “simple” fear of not wanting to speak out or stand up for themselves, or a more nuanced fear that the long-term benefits they personally would derive from resisting at that particular time are significantly outweighed by the hazards.

As I write this post, I’m looking at the problem more in terms of game theory. I’m trying to see to what extent a popular movement towards it is driven by rationality versus a desire to flee rational conclusions. It seems to me that a critical variable is the psychological strain placed on individuals by rational examination—which essentially, in my view, comes down to how much cognitive dissonance one suffers when trying to view the world rationally versus when viewing it through the myths that one has been taught.

That’s for the people who aren’t disposed to view life as a power game (which in many senses) it is. People who have positive views on fairness and justice, etc., but who cannot face the fact that their world/society/belief system is fundamentally unjust/unfair, will clearly be under pressure to retreat from an objective view and insert whatever prejudices and myths comfort them.

So the rulers get away with it when enough people think there’s some justification for what they do (which the rulers’ own conduct will reinforce—if the rulers make it a world where ruthlessness and brutality are necessary to survive, people will think it’s logical to have ruthless and brutal rulers), when enough people think they can benefit from the rule, and when enough people are too frightened to resist.

There’s a lot more to explore here (obviously!), but that will have to wait for other posts.

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2 Responses to “The Ruler Con”

  1. kevintel Says:

    I’ll agree with the idea that there are too many of these people in power, and how do they get away with it? But I’ve been in countries where this stuff has happened, and it does work not because people think they’ll get something out of it (though undoubtedly this is true) but because these situations often develop over time in a manner similar to an abusive relationship. You don’t draw a line under things, because there isn’t a visible line to be crossed. The other issue is that by and large, people don’t ‘stand up and do something about it’ – some people do, and when they are removed, the others are much less likely to try it themselves.

    What I find more interesting is situations where democracy as we understand it may actually be a less good option than some form of dictatorship. I’ve heard it said many times about Moldova, and certainly Yugoslavia was held together through cult of personality, until they started setting about voting and getting freedom to make decisions. In other words, sometimes democracy doesn’t do the right thing; you need a single, or few strong rulers. Such as in Iraq. And yes, I know this will be very controversial with you, so fire away.

  2. Tadhg Says:

    I guess the question then becomes “why do we put up with abusive relationships?” Clearly, when dealing with rulers, the answer tends even more strongly to be connected with fear—fear they know how to exploit.

    As for places that might be better off without ‘democracy as we know it’, and presumably better off with ‘strong rulers’ instead, who determines what ‘better off’ is? Don’t many of the problems that arise in a power vacuum come from competing would-be rulers who attempt to fill that vacuum? As for Iraq, I think it’s clear that many people (including, in my view, the American people as well as the Iraqi people, and even a significant chunk of the American elites) would be better off now if Hussein had been left in his dictatorial role… but that doesn’t mean that that’s the best option. Better than war followed by the imposition of corruption and chaos, sure. But I believe other alternatives were possible.

    Into such a vacuum the would-be rulers rush, and the first thing they do is make sure everyone knows that their group is at risk from the other groups, who are all being told the same thing… and since each group realizes that it’s about to victimize the others, each group figures it’s justified in so doing since each other group will try to do the same thing. So they all get scared, and believe that they each need ‘strong leaders’ to see them through this time of chaos, thus more or less guaranteeing bloodshed and misery. The ruler con is self-reinforcing, in that it just takes one ruthless powerseeker to make it seem necessary that other ruthless powerseekers exist to protect people from the first one.

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