An interesting opinion piece by Elizabeth Farrelly in the National Times, reflecting on the results in politics and life at large of ignorance, dumbness and the pursuit of happiness.
Illustration: Edd Aragon
It may be, as one correspondent wrote last week, that advertising works on the “80/80 principle”, the assumption that 80 per cent of Australians have an IQ average of 80. Now I’m fine with stupidity in advertising. Indeed, I expect nothing less – isn’t that why God gave us the mute button? But what makes the 80/80 thought especially gripping – as in, by the throat – is how much it explains that branch of advertising we call politics.
This is all about scale, or if you like, dosage – a thing whose implications we perpetually refuse to grasp, although they are increasingly hard to ignore.
We’re used to the idea of economies of scale, the savings in time or money reaped by producing something – from attack helicopters to graduate dentists – en masse. We’re not as good at getting our heads around the costs of scale, how a small personal indulgence blows out, when repeated over time and space, into planetary destruction.
Everything is dose related. Whether it’s arsenic in your diet or radioactivity in the sea, small amounts now and then are OK, even beneficial, but large amounts, repeatedly, are bad and even terminal. It’s the same with almost everything else – cars, houses, chocolate, holidays, even happiness.
For one person to live in an acre of grass and trees is perfectly harmless, even lovable. But for the numberless hordes to do it means an end to wilderness, clean air and polar bears. This must be obvious to everyone who has ever sat in the daily Sydney-to-Richmond traffic jam, yet we do not see it. Which is why premiers repeatedly stake their careers on building more roads, which just means more congestion. We don’t have to be dumb. It’s enough that our leaders think we are, and pander accordingly.
All of which bears out the 80/80 principle, and is why we may find ourselves forced to choose between democracy and survival.
Democracy is very close to our hearts. So close that we go to war in order to impose it on those too weak or benighted to grab it for themselves. But democracy, the tyranny of the majority, may yet prove an own goal for humanity, mainly because of the weird trick it does with scale; allowing us all to pursue our own happiness as if we were the only ones on the planet. Allowing us to act like a vast family of solipsistic only children, steadfastly voting for lower taxes and higher services.
Democracy and happiness have been buddies ever since Thomas Jefferson wrote “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” into the Declaration of Independence. In the 250 years since, this has become one of the most influential phrases of all time, and not necessarily in a good way.
Happiness has become not just a universal entitlement but almost an obligation, replacing such ideals as goodness or enlightenment as Life’s True Purpose. It’s not that, as a society, we’re especially happy. More than we feel we ought to be. We feel that, under the circumstances, and given the vast quanta of food, pleasure, leisure, wealth and freedom at our disposal, there’s no reason not to be.
Perhaps this in itself is just another illustration of that 80/80 thing. There are two compelling proofs of the stupidity of the pursuit of happiness. One is small scale, private and relatively benign; the other large scale, public and a serious threat to survival.
The first proof is that pursuing happiness doesn’t work. Whether breatharianism or extreme underwater yoga is your bent, happiness is an elusive creature that exists only when you’re looking neither for nor at it. Even Martin Seligman, positive psychology’s founding father, admits that the most reliable path to happiness is not to pursue it, but to commit to some greater, connective cause (be it housing the homeless or writing metaphysical sonnets).
The second proof is more serious because it engages questions of scale and dose. En masse, when all of our small, personal happiness pursuits coagulate into one big, ongoing, democratic res publica, the result is an increasingly cowed and cowardly leadership with no higher goal than this; to service an increasingly petulant public by telling it precisely what it wishes to hear.
Of course you can have both cheap petrol and clean air, my darlings. Yes, yes. Big houses and swift individual transport, perfect health for free and forever, new toys all round, all the time – these things are everybody’s right. There there. Back to sleep with you.
Are we stupid? Or are they? Often it’s hard to tell. But there is, I suggest, little or no evidence that democracies can take hard decisions, even when their own long-term interests are at stake. To wit, America’s reluctance to impose a GST despite the embarrassing talk of a credit rating drop and the fact that most of its states are bankrupt. To wit, Australia’s ludicrous dithering on a pollution tax.
Whether non-democracies such as China will negotiate the rapids of the coming century more adroitly remains to be seen. Certainly, freed from any need to pander to the 80/80 rule, they have at least one freedom Western-style democracies do not have – the freedom to act decisively.
This, of course, can be bad, very bad. But it can also be good, facilitating just the kind of purposive decision making needed to change habits quickly and cater to excellence rather than popularity.
Maybe it’s too soon to dump democracy, but I’d make voting a privilege; not a right, and certainly not an obligation. If they can’t be bothered to vote, the last thing you want is their help in running the country. Rather, we’d earn our voting rights by demonstrating at least some intelligent grasp of the issues and so force, or perhaps allow, our leaders to raise their eye-cues.
Elitist? Perhaps. But we don’t have a problem choosing runners for the Olympics. So how is that different from putting the smartest in charge of the ship? It’s that dose thing. A small increment in IQ, repeated daily, would make all the difference.