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The wisdom of violent disagreement...

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So we were casually chatting about that inherently fascinating topic, recreational drugs. We had finished proving, just for fun, that drug policies, in this or any other society, seem like they have no tangible relationship to reality or common sense. Certainly not in terms of logical cost/benefit analysis, consistency, fairness, sound philosophical underpinnings and so on. The laws weren't written because some drugs hurt people and some drugs help people and so on. Far far fewer people have died from marijuana than alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs, or unbearable jobs. Failure to get a life may be common among your hard-core weed fiends, but keeling over dead is not.

So there is a reason why it seems like policy and custom have no tangible relationship with reality - and that reason is because they don't. Evolution designed society this way. Or to be more accurate, evolution doesn't really give a flying fuck if the things societies do make any goddamn sense. That's entirely beside the point as far as it is concerned. This doesn't mean stupid things can't be changed - but it tells us what we are up against.

To understand this we have to start at an odd point. Which is that people spend the vast majority of their lives violently disagreeing with each other. You may have noticed that human beings seem to come in a wide variety of temperaments. You have your ranting types and you have your submissive types. You have your courageous types and your timid types. Your hard-nosed determined people and your lazy easy-going folks. Your whiners and your shouters. Your people-pleasers and your people leave me aloners. Your people who will take a telemarketing job to pay the rent and your people who sleep on other people's couches because they're not about to pay their own way for anything. Your dependable, conscientious people and your madcap party-heartiers. Your sensitive, compassionate people and your Bill O'Reillys. Your flaming religious hypocrites and your flaming new-age spiritual hypocrites. The humble and the arrogant. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Hopefully you have noticed this.

All this difference in temperament creates violent disagreement as to what should be done in any given situation. The cautious spouse doesn't want to risk any money in volatile high-tech stocks, the growth-greedy spouse wants to bet the farm on a 'hot tip' or the 'sure thing'. The uninhibited outgoing girlfriend wants to run up on stage when the band plays and take off her top; her inhibited, embarrassed boyfriend is inhibited and embarrassed in such a situation. The happy-go-lucky business partner wants his mate to 'lighten up'; the uptight one wants to worry and get things done. The boss wants the reports stapled, the employee huffily mutters under his breath that they would work much better paper-clipped -duh! One wants to rent an action flick, the other an independent Sundance movie or something. And on and on and on and on. Meanwhile, one of us wants to chemically enhance his rave experience and another of us would rather die than be forced to attend an uninhibited gathering of people engaging in activities with no known moneymaking purposes. One of us likes Burning Man and another of us pretty much hates the desert no matter what the hell you are doing there.

The human species contains a tremendous divergenge of opinion on how things ought to be done for best results - and even as to what constitutes a best result in the first place. Evolution, that wily trickster, did this on purpose. It did this because human beings are designed to survive in a very wide variety of environments and conditions. What works quite well in one environment fails totally in another. For example, your preference for bundling up in a parka, overcoat, and long johns is going to cause you tremendous problems in the heat of the Mojave desert. On the other hand, it will suit you quite well in Minnesota during the winter. On the other hand, my preference for wearing as few clothes as possible is exactly the reason I avoid Minnesota during the winter as though it was the death trap that it is. This is a trival example, but the underlying point is true - what works in one situation does not work at all in another. Evolution could have tried to cram into each individual human an equal adapatability and preference for every possible circumstance but it ran into space problems and out of room in the skull, plus it realized that if everybody has an equal preference for everything, nobody is ever really going to do anything. (Which coincidentally is more or less what marijuana does, if properly ingested, one of the things that makes it so pleasant at times - feeling no great need to do anything.) Back to our story...

So evolution cleverly decided - okay, fine, rather than try to cram everything into everybody we'll just split up the varying temperaments among the population, and that way you have a decent chance of having someone in each given population who is well adapted to the situation, likes it okay, and can figure out what the hell to do. It'll all work out, evolution reasoned to itself, not everybody has to be good at everything, they can just sort of split up the skills and one person will do one thing and another will do something else. Evolution was right. It does all work out.

In a weird way. Because in any given situation, damn near every single person with an opinion on it is wrong. You and I are hardly ever right about anything, and only then by random chance. This is not the end of the world, you don't have to be right about everything to do reasonably okay. But if you think you and I are bad, god you should see everybody else. Not only are they wrong - but they're wrong in a way that doesn't suit our preferences. The entire world is populated by massive hordes of Other People who are not only wrong but annoying!!!

This would seem to explain your drug policy problem right there. Annoying massive hordes of Other Wrong People have taken over the government and fucked everything up! This assessment is accurate enough as far as it goes. But things get worse.

It's supposed to be this way. Infuriatingly, the government is supposed to be under the perpetual control of annoying massive hordes of Other Wrong People. Because it turns out, oddly, that if you mush a clump of wrong people together into a tight space and average out all their wrong opinions, you get pretty close to the right opinion. This can actually be verified with opinions that are numerically measurable.

For example, mush a clump of people together at a carnival and force them all to guess the number of jelly beans in a gigantic jar whether they want to or not. Mush such a clump of 100 people together and you can very easily get 100 wrong answers. If you average out all their wrong answers, though, strangely enough, the answer is usually extremely close to correct. The average answer is a much better reflection of reality than the guesses of almost all the individuals. You've got your chronic overestimaters, your chronic underestimaters, your people who can barely count, those who favor the wild guess, the ones who try to count the visible jelly beans and make an estimate from that, those who try to calculate the volume of the jar & the weight of an individual jelly bean and estimate from that, your experienced jelly bean guessers and your novices with beginner's luck, the ones who use intuition, and the ones who won't make any guess at all unless someone tells them what to say. People who huddle in groups to guess a group answer, and loners who are convinced everybody else's way of guessing is stupid. All this variety, and when you average it, collectively, everybody's right. This is called the wisdom of crowds. (Yes, there's actually a name for it.)

There is a saying that two wrongs don't make a right. Actually 450 wrongs make a right. Or twenty-five wrongs. When you have widespread disagreement on a topic, and you mush everything together so that nobody is completely happy and nobody gets their way - you're pretty damn close to do the right thing. This is how evolution has designed society to work - chronic discontent for every single individual in it.

If there is a disagreement about whether or not a country ought to go to war, if you mush all that disagreement together into a policy that suits nobody all that well - then you are probably pretty close to the most sensible decision. Because you have your people who want to go to war even when it is insanely disadvantageous, and those who are opposed to all war even when pacificism will get everybody killed, and you have people who want to do it boldly and aggressively and people who want to back it up with diplomacy, people who want to charge ahead without preparing and people who want to prepare everything down to the last detail, etc., etc. And none of these people are right. So if you can find the one thing that nobody's all that thrilled with - that's your average answer and pretty close to correct.

It's when everybody agrees that we're all in big trouble.....because you get a big clump of people together all being wrong in the same way at the same time - oh jesus. Lemmings off a cliff. Example - dot.com stock bubble. When you've got everybody from Alan Greenspan to grandmothers in Des Moines agreeing that internet stocks should cost lots and lots of money because they're going to have explosive growth and make everybody rich, rich, rich - this is a sure sign that everybody is running off a cliff together and that you will hear the screaming plunge into oblivion sooner or later. If everyone in America thinks Scott Petersen killed Laci Petersen - then he didn't. If everybody's convinced that low-carb diets are the key to miracle weight loss - then they aren't. And so on. Widespread agreement violates the law of averages and means that individuals are falling down in fulfilling their sacred societal duty to be wrong in their own particular god-given way. This is shameful and appalling, this kind of dereliction of duty, but we all fall prey to it from time to time - take a vacation from being ourselves and our natural tendency toward violent disagreement and we occasionally get swept up in being agreeable. This is tragic, but it happens.

The other very bad sign is when you find any particular group sharing a similar opinion that is very happy. Excessive happiness on anyone's part is a very bad sign. It means there is a backlash to come. Nobody should be happy in an optimally functioning society.

Let's take an example. I was happy during the Clinton administration. This was a bad sign. It meant that soon there would be a massive backlash and everything I was happy about, including my personal life, would soon take a drastic turn for the worse. Everything did take a drastic turn for the worse, including my personal life. All because I was happy! I am exaggerating a bit here for effect - oh no wait a minute, I'm not - but the principle is true. If liberals are happy - not a good sign. If conservatives are happy - not a good sign. If religious folks are happy - not a good sign. If secular humanists are happy - not a good sign. If rich people are happy - bad. If poor people are happy - bad. Gonna cause big problems later. Because whatever is making them happy is not the average - or they wouldn't be happy. Now it is impossible to make everybody unhappy all the time, some happiness is going to creep in here and there no matter what you, as a government of Annoying Other Wrong People do, but maximum unhappiness is the ideal US government strives for - and by and large it does a pretty good job.

Drug policy in America actually illustrates all these points - Average Answer, Maximum Unhappiness, Lemmings Over A Cliff and Some People Are Too Happy.

But to understand what's actually driving drug policy, we have to understand a little more about human lemmings and how it would be possible for everybody to agree on a wrong answer in the first place. What happened to all that violent disagreement that was supposed to lead to an Optimum Society? Huh? Well, what happened to it? Huh? Why aren't there more fistfights on Capitol Hill about raves, acid, tripping, and the benefits and disadvantages of Psilocybin mushrooms? What's up with the lack of fistfights and all this focus on 'terrorism' and 'national security'? Where are the priorities?

In the interests of science, we'll address this vital topic next.

 

The perils and benefits of widespread agreement...

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