Nathaniel Givens identifies a failure mode of social programs in democracies:

What you can understand enough to support you can also understand enough to co-opt.

In the original, the line is just a throw-away in a light piece on the minimum wage. But it caught my eye. The usual complaint about democracies is that the voters are uninformed. The other usual complaint about democracies is that the voters just vote themselves benefits at the expense of the weal (“benefits” being understood broadly). This last complaint has always been something of a puzzle to me, because while it seems true in aggregate, it doesn’t seem true of very many individual voters. Very few people have the piratical psychology to want something that’s bad for the country because its good for themselves.

Givens’ insight clears up the puzzle. Uninformed voters who are told that a program will benefit them will assume that the program will also benefit the country. Informed voters, on the other hand, know enough to see how the program should work in principle, but also how it could be made to work for them in practice. The characteristic cognitive oversight being that how it works for them in practice is how it will work, in practice.

It wouldn’t be a failure mode just for voting either. One would expect the same for bureacrats and politicians.

There may be insight in this too into legitimacy and the role that myth plays in it. Is the tao that can be said not the real tao?

Changing gears, does this insight explain why the Church usually doesn’t announce detailed, lawlike rules, give thoroughly convincing explanations for new revelation, or why God is to a great extent a latens Deitas? Familiarity breeds contempt is a cliche, but like most cliches its as overused in life as it is in language.

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