August 19, 2011


This morning I was waiting to take the local commuter train in to my office.  A train came past the station in the other direction at a fairly high speed and did not stop.  That's a normal occurrence. It's so normal in fact, that people standing a few feet away on the platform didn't bat an eyelash or turn around as it sped past them.

It made me think about how dependent we are as humans on the concept of consistency.  People in that instance were so accustomed to the train going by to the next station at the start of the line, that it did not occur to them that tonnes of potentially lethal steel is speeding past a few mere feet away.  

I'm sure in some cases people were trying to look 'too cool for the room', even though we were outside.  The normalcy of the train remaining on the tracks is taken as a given.  But trains don't always stay on the tracks.  In the immediate area there have been a few derailments in the last few years.  The tracks are in good shape, the system has been well maintained.  It's just been a bit of bad luck really, yet accidents do happen. But no one bats an eyelash or considers the possibility that it could easily happen again.  If it's just bad luck those other accidents happened then that luck could continue.

However people need the consistency of accidents not happening in order to have a structure around their daily lives and even to have a society as a whole.  So they act, or react, or in this case don't react, based on the assumption of consistency.  If there were no consistency, society would be quite fractious and life would be pretty disjointed.  Consider the alternative in an extreme case.  What if gravity were not a constant?  What if that speeding train could lift off the tracks at any point in time and drift plow into everyone on the platform, just because there was an entropic moment of gravity giving way?  Then people would not stand so casually near oncoming trains.  Indeed the station would more resemble a bunker than a train station.  Or perhaps trains would not exist.  The implications of such a lack of consistency are far reaching.

Such an example is of course absurd.  But that absurdity is only because we have come to accept the consistency of the immutable laws of physics.  The need for consistency applies to politics as well.  People are resistant to change, for good or bad, for the same sorts of underlying reasons.  Consistency conveys a sense of normalcy and a sense of control over a universe that is beyond our scope to control.  But we want to not be helpless in the face of an environment where some consistency exists but so does a lot more chaos.

That's why society exists - control over the uncontrollable. Whether it is illusory or not, it drives our thought processes.  Consistency is good, change is therefore bad.  This is neither a boon or a bane for conservatism.   Or rather, it is both.  People want the success of America's past and may therefore be unwilling to change away from capitalism (though they can certainly be swayed in small, incremental steps), but on the other hand, reforming Medicare for example, is not simple to do because it addresses that security blanket issue of consistency. Medicare has been around and is taken as a fixture of America. Thus the incremental change can defeat the steady state (i.e. get Medicare enacted but don't get it reformed when it needs it, so it's effectively locked in.  It's now the new steady state).

But that doesn't explain the Obama campaign on change.  If change is so scary, how on earth did 2008 happen?  There's three things to consider, which explain why change was not only accepted, but embraced.

(1)   The economy was in apparent free fall.  When you are in a state of chaos and flux, any change is better than falling with no parachute.
(2)  Change can mean a change back to better days, and that leverages consistency to in fact, change away from consistency. In other words if a new change is seen as a way to return to what was consistently great, then the change can be seen as a diversion from a perceived decline.  That is an acceptable change.
(3)  The change Obama promised was largely undefined for many people.  While there were hints of spreading the wealth, the real change being 'prescribed', was left to each individual to project their own vision onto the tabula rasa that was Obama's promise. For some that meant a change back to the good old days of Bill Clinton, for some it meant a change to the far left, for some it meant a change away from Bush, whom they viewed as a negative change agent. And for some it simply meant stopping the free fall of the economic crisis that truly materialized in late 2008. 

Consistency is something that can serve as an ally to conservatism but it is a double edged sword.  Indeed invoking the need to change or to stay the same are merely tools for someone with a political agenda.  But in the bigger picture, without some form of consistency in the small portion of the universe we can indeed control, there is little point to society, and to the individual as well.

UPDATE: corrected a few grammatical errors.

1 comment:

  1. Good post.

    I think one of the reasons why the economy is in such bad shape is that Obama has upended so much of the consistency that businesses need to function.


Disagreement is always welcome. Please remain civil. Vulgar or disrespectful comments towards anyone will be removed.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Share This