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Journey of the Magi

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All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Here’s an epiphany for you: There’s a straight line from the Merrick Garland affair to a large majority of Republicans in Congress refusing to confirm the election of Joe Biden. The logical and perhaps inevitable extension of the principle “we won’t confirm any Democratic Supreme Court nominee if we have the votes to block it” is “we won’t confirm any Democratic winner of a presidential election if we have the votes to block it.”

Obviously the Republicans at this moment don’t have the votes to block the latter, but this is now the guiding long-term principle of both their leadership and their base (Don’t fall for the claim that Mitch McConnell in particular was powerless here: The Senate majority leader has enormous formal and informal power to sanction deviationist members, by for example stripping committee assignments, blocking pet legislation, calling big soft money donors etc.)

Political systems in particular and societies in general both depend on the maintenance of informal norms as much or more than they do on adherence to formal rules. The most basic norm is that these systems/societies assume that sociopaths are and will remain extreme outliers, and that therefore they can be constructed on the basis of that assumption.

For example, contract law in the United States legal system simply wouldn’t work if most or even a large minority of contracting parties were sociopaths, because in game theoretical terms the most personally advantageous thing for a contracting party to do in a huge number of situations is to defect. This is because in those situations the cost of enforcing contract rights will outstrip the benefit to the enforcing party of enforcing them, and the defecting party knows this.

That of course is a precise description of Donald Trump’s entire business strategy and indeed life as a whole: don’t honor your legal obligations whenever it’s to your advantage not to do so. This is how sociopaths think; and someone like Trump literally cannot even understand the argument that he shouldn’t do something that’s good for him because it’s bad for society.

Sociopathy can even be transformed into a political ideology: It’s called “libertarianism,” and its votaries labor mightily to escape the natural implications of their views, by inventing elaborate and subtle arguments about how self-interested defection from social norms will not actually be self-interested in the long run, for Reasons.

Here’s a not very elaborate or subtle argument: Anthropology teaches us that, in societies that live at or near the ecological margin, repeated defection from social norms tends to get the defector killed outright by the rest of the group. Such societies can’t afford luxuries like the delightful intricacies of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, because their members understand that any toleration of sociopaths in their midst will lead rapidly to the extinction of the group as a whole. Hence these societies employ their own versions of summary judgment and Rule 11 of the aforementioned FRCP.

Complex contemporary societies can afford to be more tolerant of sociopaths, because the enormous surplus wealth of such societies creates “a lot of buffers,” as Willie Cicci might have put it. But neither that wealth nor those buffers are unlimited. What, for instance, happens when one of the two parties in a two-party putative democracy becomes frankly and openly sociopathic? That is, what happens when sociopathy becomes a rampant ideology, instead of just a handy DSM-V categorization?

Nothing good.

At that point, that society as a whole is forced to the social and political equivalent of the ecological margin. The implications, anthropologically speaking, of this situation are that the society and those who have put it in this circumstance cannot continue to co-exist, and will not.

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