Sunday, December 03, 2017

Alchemy of the Mind: deliberate misrepresentation leading to unconscious but motivated transmutation

Background Fact: The recent GOP tax bill “rammed through the Senate” in the middle of the night (technically, early morning) is “filled with perks for America’s wealthiest individuals and largest corporations, many of them paid for by closing loopholes that benefit middle-class people. By 2027, the top one-fifth of earners would receive 90 percent of the tax bill’s benefits, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.”
Repeat a lie enough in public, and you (the liar) may come to believe it (whether members of the recipient public come to believe it as well may be an open question, but it appears that at least some of them do). This possibility has been discussed and explained by Jon Elster as exemplifying the wider psychological phenomenon of “deliberate misrepresentation and unconscious but motivated transmutation” and assumes that “people are capable of keeping their private beliefs and their publicly professed ones in separate compartments” [weak mental modularity].
Yesterday evening, I serendipitously came upon the following passage from Jon Elster’s Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (1999):
“In a society with progressive taxation, those with higher incomes have a strong interest in low taxes. In defending this system, however, they cannot simply appeal to their interest. They cannot say, publicly, ‘Taxes should be low because that’s good for me’ [or in the case of Republicans and the very rich interests they represent, ‘good for us’]. By appealing to trickle-down effects and supply-side considerations they can claim that everybody will be better off if the rich get a tax break [In our case, the Republicans keep calling their overhaul of the tax code a ‘middle class tax cut,’ as well as making the general argument, in spite most economists believing otherwise, that dramatically cutting the corporate tax rate will result in increased economic growth (akin to the post-war decades) that, in turn, provides far more jobs and higher wages.] If they make this argument repeatedly, they may end up believing it themselves. Most people do not like to think of themselves as liars or cynics. To say one thing and think another is a source of tension and discomfort [e.g., cognitive dissonance] that can be removed by aligning one’s thoughts on one’s utterances. In fact, that tension need not even arise. Most people do not like to think of themselves as motivated only by self-interest. They will, therefore, gravitate spontaneously towards a world-view that suggests a coincidence between their special interest and the public interest. This example suggests not only that people have the options both of misrepresentation and of transmutation, but if the former is chosen it may induce the latter.”
So it seems we might conclude that it is likely more than a few Republicans have arrived at the belief—perhaps by way of reducing cognitive dissonance—that their tax bill will in fact benefit the middle classes (they won’t, however, pretend that it will benefit the poor).
As Elster points out in a footnote, “Marx asserted that ideology could be understood as the tendency to assert the special interest of one class as the general interest of society.”


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