Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What did I mean by "Manichaean"?

A couple of days ago I mentioned Manichaeism. What is that? It’s a long-dead religion. And it’s a way of looking at social conflict that has similarities with that religion.

Why get into religious doctrine in a blog dedicated to political & economic issues? Because Manichaean thinking infests political and economic debates.

The Manichaean world view is appealing, popular, and evidently comforting. It shows up frequently in discussions and accusations regarding, for example, the bubble-collapse of 2008 and the subsequent downturn.

For example, the opening sentences of a Slate article about Mark-to-Market accounting rules exposes Manichaean thinking:

"According to a small but powerful group of America's financial decision-makers — mostly supply-siders and those in their thrall — the chief cause of the creditmarket meltdown is not folly, or reckless lending, or the demise of America's financial management. It's an accounting rule." (Slate, “The Mark-to-Market Melee”, by Daniel Gross, April 1, 2008;

It also contains 60-year-old Stalinist cant, but that’s another issue.

The religion behind the term

Manichaeism is one of several religions or world-views that see history as the conflict between forces working for the good of humanity and forces working to harm humanity. Zoroastrianism is another. These dualistic religions believe in two equally powerful, but oppositional deities (or cosmological forces): a good god (whom good people worship positively) and an evil god (whom good people abhor). The events of history are the result of these dueling deities.

According to the article in Wikipedia, “A key belief in Manichaeism is that there is no omnipotent good power.” What happens on Earth is the result of the struggle between the two oppositional powers: open goodness and secretive, destructive badness.

This is in marked contrast to the central creeds of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam which believe there is only one omnipotent God, the author of all creation. If there is evil in the world it is because God allows it or because it is somehow built into the system along with free will. Why this is, God alone knows, but He has His reasons.

Christians exhibit Manichaean thinking when they see Satan as a power independent of God’s control, working against God’s plan, and somehow actually capable of winning.

Beyond the religion to a world view

A “Manichaean View” is that there is a force for creativity and good (usually “our side” ) battling with covert forces of darkness and selfishness (usually “their side”). Bad thing happen because sometimes the bad guys win a set.

This is a comforting way of looking at things. Much more satisfying than believing the world is complex and random, that the workings of society and the universe may be beyond human apprehension, that good intentions sometimes produce unfortunate results, that people I disagree with might be as full of good will as I am, and that bad things can happen because “my side” isn’t as intelligent and capable as I’d like to believe.

Listen to the political speeches: “People are poor because of the selfishness of those in power”, “The Godless are destroying America”, etc, etc, etc.

In the above quote from Slate, Daniel Gross identifies his evil entity - “[A] small but powerful group of America's financial decision-makers—mostly supply-siders and those in their thrall” - then denounces the illegitimate Manichaean argument he attributes to that evil cabal – “[according to this evil power, the ] chief cause of the credit market meltdown is [mark-to-market accounting,] not folly, or reckless lending, or the demise of America's financial management.”

A brilliant double-whammy: blame things on the bad guys and accuse them of flawed, Manichaean thinking.

Non-religious Manichaeism is arrogant

The conceit of Manichaean thinking is: “My side knows enough and understands enough to intentionally accomplish whatever we want, including an earthly Utopia." If we have trouble along the way, it's because of an evil opposition.

Dr. Thomas Sowell calls this “we know enough to create an earthly Utopia” thinking the “Unconstrained Vision”. (see A Conflict of Visions, and The Vision of the Anointed, by Dr. Sowell).

This author believes the humans and human societies are complex far beyond the limited intelligence of any elite group of people. Therefore, Utopia is beyond our capabilities.

By “Manichaean”, I mean the belief (or claim) that policies go awry, not because the policies are mistaken or the world is simply too complex for the policies to work dependably, but because some powerful and usually-hidden group of people is secretly working to thwart those policies.

The cry “we must continue to fight the powerful, selfish special interests if we are to achieve [whatever good thing we want to achieve] " is Manichaean.

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