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Theory and behavior: a master-slave relationship

March 1, 2011

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. -John Maynard Keynes

Keynes showcases a fantastic brilliance when he wrote this passage in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.  As an older gentleman informed me on Twitter while discussing the value (or lack thereof) of voting, “ theories are less important than behavior.”  A curious statement to make, however, as he argued it’s illogical to abstain from voting.  Theories, accurate or not, fundamentally control behavior.  Christians alter their behavior on the Christian idea of morality; Democrats vote in support of the Democratic platform.  Lacking rationality and humanity, individuals may operate based on behavior primarily, as animals do, but humans alter and interpret behavior in strict accordance with their theories and interpretations of life.  The only effective strategy to change the behavior of individuals without the adoption of a different theory is force.  Individuals die for theories, not for behavior.  Theories are abstract and clear; behavior, however, is messy, complicated and contradictory.  Which leads to my next quote:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. -Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night

As I said above, theories, accurate or not, fundamentally control behavior.  When accurate, the power exerted by theory benefits the individuals affect.  Incorrect or misleading theories may lead to a wasted investment of time, or mass slaughter.  Such a fact should be humbling: strong, beneficial theories will catch up aided by political power or not, while weak, harmful theories only exert influence through political power.  Reality should act as a powerful corrective tool on how we live and what we think, but it should also limit us as to what we will or will not use coercion to alter individual behavior.  Like Vonnegut wrote in Mother Night, “say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.”  Faith in religion, economics or politics that forces individuals to act or abstain for their own good inevitably provides the foundation for authoritarianism.

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