Homo Politicus, Part II: Washington's Obedience to Authority Problem

Ralph Benko
Posted: Apr 18, 2012 12:01 AM
Homo Politicus, Part II: Washington's Obedience to Authority Problem

An earlier column, “Homo Politicus,” offered an explanation of why Washington does not learn from experience. (Recap: Washington elites rarely operate from observed results. Rather, they mostly emulate higher status members of their society — much as do chimpanzees and other primates.)

Calling “monkey see monkey do” on our high public officials is heresy, of course, because our political system’s legitimacy is based on claims of merit, reason, and effective service. The evidence for such qualities often is flimsy. Homo Politicus (part 1) concluded: “What besets Washington … is an ‘Obedience to Authority’ problem.” The implications are more dire than suggesting simple mediocrity.

What is an “Obedience to Authority” problem? In 1961, Yale Professor Stanley Milgram proved that, without much overt pressure, about two-thirds of normal people will shock an innocent victim to torturous, and potentially deadly, levels. All it takes is an authority figure directing them.

Alan C. Elms, a participant in the study, later a professor at UC Davis, describes the experiments in “Obedience in Retrospect:”

“By drawing slips of paper from a hat, one volunteer became the teacher. …. The teacher was given a sample 45 volt electric shock from the shock generator, a level strong enough to be distinctly unpleasant. … Soon the teacher found himself administering higher and higher shock levels, according to the experimenter’s instructions. …

“…[T]he experimenter ordered the teacher to continue, and to administer stronger and stronger shocks for each failure to respond—all the way to the end of the graded series of levers, whose final labels were “Intense Shock,” “Extreme Intensity Shock,” “Danger: Severe Shock,” and “XXX,” along with voltage levels up to 450 volts. …

“[…T]wo-thirds of a sample of average Americans were willing to shock an innocent victim until the poor man was screaming for his life, and to go on shocking him well after he had lapsed into a perhaps unconscious silence, all at the command of a single experimenter with no apparent means of enforcing his orders.”

Dr. Elms, the last living researcher from the Obedience to Authority study, reflected to this columnist on the purpose of the experiment. Elms has reflected on this at length in “Social Psychology and Social Relevance” and he has lectured, more recently on it at the University of Virginia.

Elms, a personal friend, observed to this columnist:

“Critics of Milgram’s obedience research often depict him as seeking ways to increase levels of obedience in various research conditions, supposedly in search of more effective techniques of ‘mind control’ or brainwashing. In fact many of Milgram’s variations in scripts and procedures were introduced to reduce levels of obedience: the learner’s claims to have a heart condition, the increasing physical closeness of learner to teacher from one condition to the next in the ‘proximity’ series, the replication of the voice-feedback condition in a Bridgeport storefront office building rather than at Yale University, etc. Milgram did not want to help authoritarian governments or other institutions (including universities) strengthen control of underlings; rather, he hoped that publicizing his findings would lead ordinary citizens increasingly to question or resist authority.”

Milgram’s findings are, politically, ominous. There is no reason to anticipate a freefall into an American Holocaust. But Milgram’s work strongly suggests that government officials may have an unhealthy propensity to defer to authority — leading to terrible public policies like those that led to the Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the Weak Recovery.

Even the great Winston Churchill, when Chancellor of the Exchequer, deferred to such expertise. He thereby precipitated a catastrophic recession, one that almost ended his career and consigned him to a decade in the political wilderness.

From William Manchester’s The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory 1874-1932:

"The most sensational moment in Churchill’s first budget was his dramatic disclosure that Britain, which had left the gold standard during the war, was back on it. The Times reported that this announcement was greeted with “tremendous cheers.” After the applause had died down he said, “No responsible authority has advocated any other policy. It has always been a matter of course that we should return to it.” This was simply untrue. … Churchill has been blamed for it, and rightly so, because as chancellor he made the decision. The step was not taken lightly, however, or without learned advice. …

"Keynes now emerged. In the Nation, the Evening Standard, and finally in a pamphlet, “The Economic Consequences of Mr Churchill,” he went for Winston’s jugular, declaring that the chancellor had acted “partly, perhaps, because he has no instinctive judgment to prevent him from making mistakes; partly, because, lacking this instinctive judgment, he was defeated by the clamorous voice of conventional finance; and most of all, because he was gravely misled by the experts.”

Elite trends shift, as often from sentiment as reason. The leading experts of Churchill’s day catastrophically insisted on resuming the gold standard at a deflationary conversion price. It was a way of going into denial about Britain’s definitive loss of world financial primacy in the carnage of World War I.

Conversely, leading experts of our day insistently oppose restoring gold convertibility, yet without presenting a compelling case. Chairman Bernanke recently observed: “I think though that the gold standard would not be feasible for both practical reasons and policy reasons.” But Mr. Bernanke, when he gets down to the specifics, relies on rather discredited arguments (“there is not enough gold”) and ignores a recent, rigorously produced, Financial Stability Paper No. 13 published by the Bank of England last December. This paper was noted by Forbes.com, Roll Call, Bloomberg, thestreet.com,and DailyFinance, among other well-respected venues. It held that “The IMFS (International Monetary and Financial System) has functioned under a number of different regimes over the past 150 years and each has placed different weights on these three objectives [ i) internal balance, ii) allocative efficiency and iii) financial stability]. Overall, the evidence is that today’s system has performed poorly against each of its three objectives, at least compared with the Bretton Woods System.”

Washington has a bad case of blind Obedience to Authority. That is a more clinical term for an elitism that threatens to undermine our government’s very legitimacy. “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong,” wrote Keynes, “are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.” The welfare of too many rides on getting the right policies, such as gold convertibility, in place to restore prosperity, security, and liberty. It is past time for our officials to adopt policies based on what has been proven, empirically, to work rather than lazily allowing themselves to act as “the slaves of some defunct economist.”