Blinding by Paradigm

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January 8, 2007


It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows. ~ Epictetus (c.55-c.135)

A paradigm arranges the world, or some portion of it, into a mental framework. While the term is generally used in regards to science, it clearly describes thought and behavior in a much broader context. Paradigms define the importance and character of specific events, connect events to each other in meaningful ways, and shape our predictions of what various actions and approaches will lead to.

The more complexity, breadth, and depth a paradigm has, the more difficult it is to view the same events through the lens of a new paradigm. This is true even if (perhaps especially if) one's existing paradigm is not working well. What might otherwise be obvious can be invisible if one's current paradigm arranges facts and connections poorly.

Paradigm blinding is why the shift to a new, more accurate paradigm can rapidly create dramatic improvement (e.g., moving from superstition and dogma to the paradigm centered on science, or the shift from Communism to semi-free-market fascism in modern China ). In such cases the old paradigm actively prevents progress; the new paradigm assists and encourages progress by more closely aligning perception with reality. Note that the new paradigm does not have to be perfect; significant improvement can be enough for dramatic change.

Three relevant examples of blinding by paradigm in the social/political realm:

Most libertarians use a paradigm in which the cohesive duality of love and freedom is – to one extent or another – denied. In this paradigm, freedom is the important thing and compassion (or love generally) is downplayed or ignored; many libertarians can be compassionate and loving, yet see those characteristics as existing in a different realm than freedom. Breaking the love and freedom link has done two things: first, it has made libertarianism unattractive to most people, who instinctively want love and compassion explicitly included in their own social/political framework. Second, by fostering a mechanistic view of society, where (for example) the market functions magically without a widespread sense of connection between people, the libertarian paradigm leads to a misunderstanding about how a free and healthy society functions and thus about what is needed to create such a society.

Marxists and other coercive socialists fail to see the dissonance between coercion and compassion. As with libertarianism, the Marxist/socialist paradigm denies the interconnections between compassion and freedom, but coercive socialism focuses on compassion and fairness (at least in theory) rather than on freedom. Extreme versions of the Marxist/socialist paradigm have largely blinded millions to the stunning mass-murder committed by every Communist government. The coercive-socialist paradigm ignores the criminal nature of coercion in general, as long as that coercion is being used by a government claiming to create a particular kind of utopian society. This same paradigm blinds coercive socialists to the reality that rewarding people for non-productivity while penalizing those who are productive must, without fail, reduce wealth in a society and eventually impoverish that society. (For the same reason, no poor nation has ever adopted coercive socialism and then become wealthier). Making it even harder to see outside this paradigm is that coercive socialism can appear to function well for a time – if the nation already has significant wealth to cannibalize, and as long as one focuses on those receiving the stolen wealth.

Like Marxists, centrists on both the left and right (Democrats and Republicans, for example) posit the need for systematic initiated coercion ('crime' when you do it) to fund and in most cases to carry out government actions. 'Left' and 'right' are thus simply different wings of the pro-coercion party. Neither wing is inherently better than the other, although specific instances may be more or less cruel, violent, corrupt, and so on, just as one criminal street gang may be more or less violent than another. But how could an institution defined by its own criminal behavior be anything other than evil? And how rational is it to expect such an institution to be necessary or beneficial? Even without considering the millennia-long record of horrendous results from government (genocide, economic destruction, torture, war, massive environmental damage, corruption of regulatory functions and of business, etc.) the very idea that wide and systematic use of coercion would be a good way to run society is irrational in the extreme. Here again, blinding by paradigm is more commonplace and powerful than one might imagine.

Is there a more accurate, rational, and healthy paradigm for making sense of the social/political world? One must hope so, because the frameworks currently in use by most people – and in particular those paradigms favoring Power – could put an end to mankind in the 21st Century. The three paradigms described above all directly or indirectly sanction and create widespread emotional damage (if that doesn't make sense to you, re-read the three examples above), while the Marxist and Left/Right paradigms also sanction the use of initiated coercion by governments. For that matter, many libertarians also support government coercion to some degree; few are abolitionists or genuine voluntaryists.

I have previously described widespread emotional damage and systematic use of initiated coercion as The Two Great Evils. These two evils feed upon each other and, together, form a sinister inversion of the love and freedom duality. The combination of widespread neurosis and coercive government has been an on-going disaster for thousands of years; the addition of advanced 21st Century technology will be the hay bale that breaks the camel's back – unless we make real and appropriate change in time.

What would a paradigm congruent with a free and compassionate society look like? What elements would it need to possess? Are there examples we can learn from? Is there a set of characteristics that would allow a society to become and to remain both free of tyranny and imbued with compassion?

This weekly column will look at those and similar questions. As for that last question: yes, I believe there are characteristics that would set us on the road to a sustainably free and compassionate world. In the coming weeks, I will describe a paradigm that incorporates the necessary elements and provide examples, theory, and commentary relevant to the topic.

I hope you will join me in the discussion.

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Glen Allport's picture
Columns on STR: 111

Glen Allport co-authored The User's Guide to OS/2 from Compute! Books and is the author of The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity.