Identity is the Mind-Killer

There’s a joke among anarchists: “What’s the difference between a minarchist and an anarchist? Six months!”

For context, a minarchist is someone who believes in a minimal state. The joke is commenting on the large number of people who discover libertarian philosophy and end up gradually becoming more extreme in their views until they conclude that the state should not exist.

This is part if a broader pattern that affects other ideologies as well. Have you noticed that self-professed socialists tend to be left-wing activists? And that left-wing activists are much more likely to identify as socialists than, say, politically inactive non-voters?

In fact, the connection between extreme views and political engagement is so strong, we often don’t bother to distinguish between the two. The word “extremist” is used interchangeably to describe people with extreme viewpoints and people who take extreme action for their views. But there’s no reason why someone with moderate political views can’t be marching in the streets, circulating petitions, joining activist circles, burning down buildings, and the like, all in the name of moderation. There’s also no reason someone can’t have extreme views while not engaging much with political or social activism. And yet, extreme views tend to go hand in hand with activism. To borrow Jason Brennan’s terms, you have the Hobbits, who have low political engagement and moderate views, and the Hooligans, who have high political engagement and relatively extreme views.

Why is this so? And how come the difference between a minarchist and an anarchist is six months?

The answer the typical anarcho-capitalist might give you for the latter question is that anarchist ideas are so strong, once you start down the path of questioning statist ideology, you inevitably become an anarcho-capitalist. The idea is that once you start questioning the state, your belief in having any state at all must come tumbling down like a house of cards.

I’m sure that’s how it feels to make the transition from minarchist to anarchist, but I don’t think we can trust our internal narrative about our own thinking. I have less experience of leftist movements, but I can imagine a moderate leftist becoming active in some social or political movement and finding himself drawn towards more radical philosophies such as socialism, radical feminism, radical environmentalism, or all three. I can imagine him saying that the strength of those ideas was so great, that once he started pushing against the neoliberal orthodoxy, it all came tumbling down like a house of cards.

How Identity Drives Beliefs

How can two mutually exclusive and opposed ideologies as socialism and anarcho-capitalism both have arguments so strong and self-evidently true that anyone who seriously engages with them will go down the path to true believer? They can’t.

And that’s where I think identity comes in. What happens in those six months that someone transitions from minarchist to anarcho-capitalist (or from moderate liberal-democratic activist to socialist) is they come to identify with that movement and build a social circle around it. Once they do that, the belief in anarchy (or socialism) takes on a different significance. Once you build a community around a belief, the strength of your belief is tied to your commitment to your community and your friends.

So when a libertarian says, “the minimum wage causes unemployment,” he’s saying, “I am committed to my identity as a libertarian, I am committed to my friends in the libertarian movement, and also, the minimum wage causes unemployment.” And when a socialist says “wage labour is slavery,” he’s saying, “I am committed to my identity as a socialist, I am committed to my friends in the socialist movement, and also, wage labour is slavery.”

Now when you attack either view, you are also implicitly attacking the person’s identity and his group. His personal identity and social standing depends on him holding these beliefs. Saying “you should abandon that belief because it probably isn’t true” is saying “you should abandon your identity and your community because one of your core beliefs probably isn’t true.” (Disclaimer: I am not arguing that either of these beliefs are true or untrue. I am just using them as examples.)

You see this with silly things like creationism. To someone who isn’t part of a religious community, it seems like you must be a moron to believe the Earth is six thousand years old. But if your relationships with all your friends and family in your community depends on you believing the world is six thousand years old, it’s pretty easy to see why you might be more skeptical of arguments that it is actually billions of years old. People, even very smart people, are extremely prone to confirmation bias when they have an incentive to believe something. And unless you’re a geologist or archaeologist, your belief about the age of the Earth probably has no bearing on your day-to-day life outside of the social impact of believing what the people in your community hold as a core belief.

The title of this post is borrowed from an old Yudkowsky article called “Politics is the Mind-Killer.” I think we can find a more general mind-killer with a more general cause. Yes, people get funny in the head when they talk about politics. In our society, people tend to define their identities based on political affiliations. My belief—and this is a testable, falsifiable belief—is that people who define their identity and community based on something other than politics will be more rational and less obstinate when it comes to politics. At the same time, they will be less rational and more obstinate when it comes to the beliefs on which they define their identity and community. Those beliefs could be about religion, race, nationality, the environment, the proper diet, the value of Bayesian reasoning, or anything really.

I really enjoyed Scott Alexander’s essay, “The Ideology is not the Movement.” In it, he uses Sunni and Shia Muslims as examples. Superficially, it seems that the wars and violence between these two groups all stem from a political schism between the heirs of Mohammed over a millennium ago.

Now, you might think medieval political disputes are silly things to fight over in the 21st century. And you’d be right! But the modern disputes aren’t really about that. There are deep cultural differences between Sunnis and Shias that go way beyond, and even predate, the conflict between Mohammed’s heirs. The belief about which of Mohammed’s heirs was the rightful Caliph is simply a rallying flag for two cultures that have a lot more differences than that.

To build on Scott’s point about the differences between movements and the beliefs that become their rallying flags, I want to add that when a belief becomes a rallying flag, we elevate that belief. We selectively consume information and arguments that support the belief, we downplay or ignore information and arguments that cast doubt on the belief. In short, our epistemology is even worse than usual when it comes to beliefs that serve as rallying flags for our particular movement or community.

When Consequential Rallying Beliefs Drive Policy

A conclusion I would draw from this is that the world can potentially be a better place when our rallying beliefs are not consequential ones. All political movements are built around consequential political ideas (e.g. the state must intervene in the market to protect workers from exploitation, free markets generate prosperity, Germany needs lebensraum, etc). The problem is that, if your ideas turn out to be wrong, you will be blind to counter evidence when you implement them.

When I wrote about Venezuela (here and here), I framed my critiques of the Chavistas as critiques of socialism. One odd response I got was that, since some of my critique focuses on price controls, and since price controls aren’t a core part of socialism, that my critique of socialism is invalid. I am willing to concede that price controls aren’t a core part of socialism. But what I see happening in Venezuela is that the socialist true believers who have run the Venezuelan government since 1998 have implemented every core socialist belief into policy. They reorganized firms into workers’ cooperatives. They severely restricted firms from firing workers. They used deficit finance to give free medical care and subsidized food and shelter to the poor.

And as it turned out, many of these reforms drove up prices and reduced economic growth. But while an outside observer might say that socialist policies were driving up prices, the true believers were blind to that possibility. It had to be capitalist saboteurs who were restricting output and raising prices to undermine socialism. So they implemented price controls, which greatly magnified the damage done by their policies.

So although I will concede that price controls are not a core tenet of socialism, it was the Chavistas’ adherence to those core tenets and blindness to their downsides that made price controls appealing. After all, from their perspective, they were thwarting a capitalist plot to undermine their reforms. From an outside perspective, they were driving up prices and then trying to push them back down in the worst possible way.

Conclusion

The naive response to this would be to try to build identities and communities without any core beliefs. That way, you have nothing to be irrational about.

The problem with this solution is that I don’t think it’s humanly possible. We are a deeply tribal species and we can’t help but form our communities in this way.

Instead, I just want people to examine their own core beliefs and which beliefs are integral to their identity and standing in their community. If you are part of multiple different communities with different core beliefs, try examining one set of beliefs from the perspective of the other community. Finally, I think we should try to affiliate ourselves more strongly with the communities whose core beliefs would be less dangerous if they turned out to be wrong.