Why Indeed?

Another in what has turned into a series of selections from Charles Lindblom’s Politics and Markets: The World’s Political-Economic Systems (1976):

A set of unifying beliefs that assert the virtues of the fundamentals of social organization will be found in any stable society. . . . In the market-oriented polyarchies [where there is “rule by the many”], the beliefs show a distinctive character. They are greatly influenced by inequality of wealth and by the existence of a dual set of leaders who enjoy a privileged position in politico-economic organization [that is, government leaders and business leaders]. Many of the unifying beliefs of the society are those beliefs communicated by a favored class to all other classes, with enormous advantage in a grossly unequal competition of ideas.

. . . Deep-seated beliefs and attitudes that persist over time, some people will say, have to be understood as the product of random “spontaneous” social forces. What does that mean? It cannot mean that they arise without cause. Perhaps, then, it means that they arise without deliberate intent. No person or group or government plans them. They are unintended consequences of mutual influences of persons on each other.

Granted. Yet we know that, although people do indeed influence each other’s attitudes in countless unintended ways, they also intend a great deal of control over attitudes, beliefs and volitions. Parents and teachers, for example, teach children — explicitly and through their own behavior as example — the virtues of obedience to authority. In most societies, they also teach children that improvement in their position in life will and ought to depend on their own personal qualities (rather than on an alteration in social structure).

Moreover, many of the unintended influences of people on each other reinforce the intended indoctrinations, as when someone who repeatedly challenges authority makes his friends so uncomfortable that they gradually drop [them]. Much unintended mutual influence among persons is therefore patterned control rather than random, because it reflects a pattern in intended influence, which is itself not random.

Why the particular pattern of intentions that we perceive? Why the emphasis on such a theme as obedience to authority (rather than a skeptical, only conditional, and selective acceptance of it)? Why deference toward the wealthy (that does not even discriminate between earned and inherited wealth)? Why individual responsibility for improvement in the quality of life (rather than social cooperation to improve polity and economy)? Why genialized privilege for the wealthy and powerful (rather than offsetting constraints and responsibilities to balance their advantages in wealth or power)? Why so profound a respect for property as to lead many people to think it immoral to steal a loaf of bread to save one’s family from hunger?

These are not random themes. They confer advantages on persons in the favored social class. How do they come to be “spontaneous”? How do they come to be near universally taught? They have been endlessly communicated to the population — explicitly and through behavior as example — through the church, the media, the schools, the family and the pronouncements of business and government leaders. Since they have been in this way communicated for centuries, they have passed into folklore and common morality, with the result that almost everyone joins in the intended and unintended or “spontaneous” processes by which they are passed on to the young and reinforced for the old [230-231].


Maybe there’s more skepticism about our common beliefs than there was in 1976. If so, such skepticism hasn’t translated into very many progressive government policies. In the US, at least, with a few exceptions, it’s been the reverse. But as skepticism justifiably grows, will our politics lean toward the alternatives Lindblom put in parentheses? I sure hope so.

(A giant blue wave 40 days from now would help.)