seawasp (seawasp) wrote,

ZENO'S POLITICS, or Why Reasonable People Are Destroying America

There is a famous logical paradox, called Zeno's Paradox. (it's actually two related paradoxes, but we'll focus on one) It goes like this: 

Suppose Achilles, fastest man in the world, wants to go shake the paw of his friend the Tortoise, who is waiting for him on the other side of a room. The Tortoise knows how fast Achilles is, so he stays in one place, waiting for Achilles. But Achilles has a terrible problem! Before he can reach the Tortoise, he must get halfway there. So far so good. But now he has to get halfway THERE. Then halfway again. It quickly is obvious that while Achilles is cutting the distance in half with every move, Achilles can NEVER REACH the Tortoise, because there will always be some distance to go!

The logical flaw in this is of course obvious; in real life, Achilles is moving at a constant speed, which means that he's covering each "halving" of the distance in half the time, and thus will reach the Tortoise in exactly twice the time it took him to get to the first halfway point.

What does this paradox have to do with politics, you ask? So happy you inquired!

In the standard perception of bargaining of any sort, it is generally assumed that (A) both parties are negotiating with reasonably good faith, and (B) any compromise will therefore lie somewhere near the middle of both sides' preferences.

If these assumptions hold true, then an extended sequence of repeated negotiations would be expected to cause both sides to move closer and closer to the middle, eventually to be almost indistinguishable from each other except by the fact that one is *just* on the right side of the middle, and the other is *just* on the left. If the negotiations take roughly the same amount of time, each side is in fact making Zeno's Paradox a fact; they will never *actually* reach the middle, just approach it arbitrarily closely (and presumably debating about smaller and smaller differences).

But what if one side has no intention to negotiate? If they move virtually no distance?

Well, if a negotiation *HAS* to be concluded (as is the case in governmental operations -- no one really wants, or can afford, the entire government or large portions of it to shut down), then the REASONABLE people -- operating based on principles (A) and (B) -- will make an offer halfway between them and the other. The non-negotiating side will grudgingly agree to that, the Reasonable People will feel a compromise has been reached. Then on the NEXT negotiation, the SAME THING happens.

But now, instead of each side converging on a central goal that satisfies SOME of each group's preferences, the Reasonable side is now converging on the OPPOSING side's position. In the FIRST step they REACHED the acceptable middle ground. In the second step, they've reached the fairly hard-line opposition's views. Subsequent steps take them arbitrarily close to the lunatic fringe of the far side -- IN ENTIRELY REASONABLE ATTEMPTS TO COMPROMISE.

This is what has happened with our government of late, and with Obama in particular. Thinking about it, I believe that Mr. Obama is, at heart, an "honest politician": he believes that his job is to state particular positions he would LIKE to achieve, and then be prepared to negotiate to some halfway point with his opponents.

His opponents, however, are NOT politicians. They are ideologues, absolutely certain that their way is not only the right way, but the ONLY way, or they are people with a clear and selfish agenda that does not allow for compromise, and they  thus WILL NOT MOVE. They force the other side to come to them. And in doing so, the other side ("we are all reasonable men") are following the Nietzschean path; they're dealing with fanatics, and the fanatics position is slowly becoming their own.

It's a very, very hard lesson to learn for a politician, and an even HARDER one to put into practice, when our entire government has, in general, been founded on the concept of fair bargaining and compromise, but the simple truth is this: when dealing with unreasonable people, the only reasonable position is to be unreasonable yourself.

It's even WORSE once you've found you've gotten caught in this trap, because then you can't just START being stubborn; you're already well past the point you were willing to reasonably approach. You now have to BACKTRACK, which means you may well start looking like a lunatic extremist compared to your opponents, just going in the opposite direction.

Yet one should consider looking at things with perspective. Ronald Reagan was once the very epitome of the far right politicians -- more personable than most, but clearly on the far right side, too influenced by the Christian Right, etc. But if you examine Reagan's positions on many issues, he would be on the LEFT -- and fairly far over -- by today's standards. That's how far the Reasonable People have already taken us.

We don't WANT reasonable people right now. We want some fanatic power on OUR side, I'm afraid. We've compromised ourselves into a pit in the past ten years; now we have to start backing up, and it's going to be HARD.

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