The Marketing State and the Dynamics of Erithocracy
May14
Political Economy2

The Marketing State and the Dynamics of Erithocracy

For all the bluster about “money in politics”, democracy suffers from much more fundamental perversities. Chief among them, it seems to me, is the fact that democratic governments – even those without a propaganda arm – are actively involved in forming the interests they are supposed to reflect. As Joseph Schumpeter put it, “The will of the people is the product and not the motive power of the political process.”

In the first place, political opinions are widely inchoate; formless and void. The framing effect can powerfully alter a person’s political expression, and a marketing organization with a product as enticing as the reins of political power (i.e. a campaign organization) can muster dramatic political paradigm shifts. Even when not campaigning, demagoguery is a consumption good for the type of people the political process selects for. You win fame and power by the constant exercise of marketing muscle. And because of the mythos of democratic government as public interest, people are much more credulous as voters than as consumers.

In addition, there is the organic creation of permanent interest groups by ill-advised policies. A political benefit is rarely relinquished without a fight, and except in cases of egregious harm, most citizens in a democracy can’t muster enough care to oppose someone else’s privilege – so long as he gets to keep his own. There is a reason social security is called the “third rail of american politics”: no matter how obviously broken the system, it’s beneficiaries will suffer no change to the status quo. A similar story could be told about farm subsidies, or pension benefits, and in fact nearly any benefit bestowed by the hand of the state: in a democracy, once you start giving something away, no matter how severe the resulting crisis, it’s nearly impossible to stop.

This is not merely a situation with no equilibrium. There is in fact a feedback loop, but a positive one, that feeds back on itself and amplifies the initial impulse. This is a profoundly anti-equilibrating situation. Demagoguery and marketing tickle the ears of an inevitably ill-informed voting public to subvert any mechanism that might put a halt to this perverse dynamic. How competent you are, O voter, and how much you deserve!

Money in politics is a symptom, not only of a state with enough power to make lobbying worth it, but of a political constitution where the government is supposed to reflect a will over which it itself exercises a large influence. If the people’s political preferences are sufficiently plastic, we witness the rise of a political class of marketers, subsisting on donations in exchange for political favors to fund the manufacture of those preferences. This indeterminacy of the will of the people gives the marketing class substantial leeway within which to enact policies as they see fit.

Interest groups are well-recognized as the way that bad policies perpetuate themselves in a democracy. One ends up not with a democracy, but an erithocracy1 – rule by interest group. Even so, this is a constraint on the political class, who might at times have other goals. The marketing state, however, is what sets a democracy on this course, dooming it from the very beginning.

This is, of course, not to blame those masses, any more than one can blame “greed” for financial crises. Any political system must take the existence of politically unsophisticated masses for granted, just as any financial system must take greed for granted. And even if we could devise a system to produce high-minded and politically engaged citizens, it is the sacred privilege of the free individual to ignore the political so much as possible. Democracy makes it lucrative to prey on these masses; the blame must therefore be placed there.

To say that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty in a democracy is to admit that democracy is hopelessly fragile as a political system. Perhaps it is true that no system can survive a people holding corrupt ideas and enamored of corrupt policies. Indeed, it has been the hope of the liberal throughout the modern era that ideas are exogenous; that the ideological battle can be won, and institutions must cave to ideology in the end. But if it is the dynamics of democracy itself that gives birth to this ideological corruption endogenously in the politically unsophisticated masses, surely there are systems that can survive the mere existence of these masses?

Perhaps, in order to break that ideological feedback loop, liberalism need only explode the romance of the voting rube.

Footnotes

  1. From eritheia, “mercenary self-interest”, and kratos, “rule”. My Greek-speaking friends can correct me if there’s a better way to put these two words together.

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Advertising, Democracy, Institutions, Joseph Schumpeter

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2 Comments

  • 1

    bethyada

    May 15, 2014 at 18:19 | Reply

    Well written.

    Democracy is not all it is cracked up to be. Worse when people don’t have the sense to think more about what they do. The marketing/ advertising issue is significant (and somewhat objectionable that it is perceived to be part of the fabric of capitalism). When applied to politics we have the problem of no depth, so nice sounding (but unworkable) ideas get the most support. I think the voting age is too young and that would (it part) resolve the issue. Not that young people cannot think well, or that older people always talk sense; but statistically (which matters in democracy) it seems probable that experience encourages men to at least realise that issues are more complex that how they first appear; whether they then make good decisions is another matter. There is a reason that ancient societies had elders make community decisions. I would have voting start at 30 in a democracy.

    Excellent quotes by the way, I have grabbed a couple for my own use. Couple of typos

    What later enabled those who did not inherit land and tools form their parents… [from]

    While the task of combating the serious diseases which befall and disable some in manhood is a relatively limited one, the task of slowing down the chronic processes which bust bring… [must]

    • 2

      Cameron Harwick

      May 18, 2014 at 13:04

      The main problem, I think, is of the lack of feedback. When an ad convinces you to buy a meal that turns out not to be that good, you figure it out pretty quickly and don’t buy more. When you’re sold a bill of goods through the political process, there’s always an excuse, and you get better at making (and believing) them with age.

      So maybe older people are more deliberative, but I could see them actually being less sensitive to what little feedback there is. Elders are great if they’re set in the right direction, but could be very harmful if not. For example, the elderly in post-soviet states now.

      Is there a way to filter out people who don’t care, without impeding those who do, and without making it politically profitable to try to bring the former group into the latter…?

      Thanks for pointing out the quote typos, too – those are fixed now.

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