The Projection Racket, Pt. 1

Source: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

In the course of a hasty sketch of the Revolution, I shall endeavor to show what errors, what faults, what disappointments led the French to abandon their first aim, to forget liberty, and to aspire to become the equal servants of the master of the world; how a far stronger and more absolute government than the one the Revolution overthrew then seized and monopolized all political power, suppressed all the liberties which had been so dearly bought, and set up in their stead empty shams; deprived electors of all means of obtaining information, of the right of assemblage, and of the faculty of exercising a choice, yet talked of popular sovereignty; said the taxes were freely voted, when mute or enslaved assemblies assented to their imposition; and, while stripping the nation of every vestige of self-government, of constitutional guarantees, and of liberty of thought, speech, and the press – that is to say, of the most precious and the noblest conquests of 1789 – still dared to claim descent from that great era.

L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution by Alexis de Tocqueville (1856)

The secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom is courage.

History of the Peloponnesian War, Book II, by Thucydides (ca. 410 BC)

If you’re willing to get creative, there really are an awful lot of ways to surrender your liberties.

When it comes down to it, though, free people usually pick one of three methods.

Most often, I think free people give up liberties because we become convinced it is necessary. Usually because of some implacable and existential threat, which on rare occasion might even be real. History gives us a lot of these stories. And no, you having to wear a mask to go to the grocery store isn’t one of them.

Only slightly less often, I think, and often overlapping with the first, we pretend that giving up our liberties will be temporary. It takes a sort of Wile E. Coyote brand of suicidal persistence to believe this in 2020, but for some reason that’s a deep well that humanity never quite seems to exhaust. History offers us many of these stories, too. In case you’re wondering, the guy at the NSA reading your email because you Googled “jihad” and “the sleeper must awaken” after watching the trailer for the new Dune movie last week is nodding.

There is a third way we surrender rights and liberties, however, and it is far more difficult to spot. We give them away, piece by piece, in exchange for the mess of pottage that is the narrative of liberties. Our petty tyrants tell us grandiose stories about the ideas of freedom and equality. They offer us seductive and powerful symbols of their commitments to those ideas. All the while they are instituting and expanding systems, institutions and laws which steadily reduce those liberties in practice. Or, to paraphrase Tocqueville writing about the messy aftermath of the French Revolution, while stripping the nation of every vestige of self-government, of constitutional guarantees, and of liberty of thought, speech and the press – that is to say, of the most precious and the noblest conquests of [the revolution] – [they] still dare to claim descent from that great era.

It’s an Indiana Jones-style weight-and-switch bit. History tells us fewer of these stories.

It tells us fewer of these stories because when stories of steady usurpations of rights become history, our memories of the past have usually crystallized. That decades-long stream of gradual offenses becomes a single event, a betrayal that should have been obvious to anyone who was paying attention. The idea that it wouldn’t have been as transparent to those who experienced it is almost inconceivable to us. How easy it should have been to see that the most precious and the noblest conquests of 1789 were being used as a meme to support the consolidation of social, political and financial power into the coming Napoleonic empire! How easy it should have been for citizens to see that their votes didn’t really matter, that their newly won vibrant liberties were being exchanged for an irrelevant version, impotent to truly effect political, social or financial change!

We are breathtakingly arrogant when it comes to understanding history. Humans, I mean.

It is a shame, too, because the stories about gradual erosion of liberties we might have been told are also some of history’s truest stories. They would tell us what it is like to be an individual awash in a sea of narratives, finding one’s way in a fog of social, cultural and political war. It is an ephemeral perspective, forever lost when the zeitgeist is reduced and distilled into a caricature by history, spun into a cautionary tale for future middle school students to marvel and gawk at.

As ours will be one day. That’s the thing about the water in which we swim.

It should not be a surprise to us, then, that it is also much harder for a free people to become agitated about the dangers of a slow erosion in liberties taking place under the aegis of powerful narratives of liberté, égalité, fraternité, that sort of thing. That is, after all, the reason why these narratives and memes are conjured in the first place. What better way to protect a scheme to erode liberties to the benefit of a faction or a few than by co-opting their message? What better way to weaken those with concerns about that erosion than by accusing them of a lack of faith in those liberties!

Don’t you believe in free markets? Don’t you believe in democracy? Don’t you believe in equality? Don’t you believe in the power of individuals to make their own choices? Don’t you believe in self-determination? Don’t you believe in capitalism? Don’t you believe in free inquiry?

It’s not a protection racket.

It’s a projection racket.

It is the steady replacement of the power to direct the course of our own lives with right-sounding stories. Stories that at once give us neutered forms of the liberties they describe and then characterize our protests as opposition to the liberties themselves.

Why am I bringing all of this up? Because I know that it makes some of you uncomfortable when you read Burn it the $*!# down or “BITFD on these pages or on social media.

And I hear you.

It makes me uncomfortable, too, and not just because my mother will eventually ask me what the “F” stands for. No, anyone who considers themselves a small-c conservative should feel uncomfortable about burning anything down without knowing what “it” is. Anyone who considers themselves a small-l liberal should feel uncomfortable about burning anything down without knowing “how” we plan to do it. Anyone who is invested in a message of change from the bottom up should feel uncomfortable about a solution that sounds like it comes from the top down. And anyone who is furious about the literal burning being done to communities and businesses by, say, the LARPers in Portland, Seattle and Rochester ought to be uncomfortable if the idea looks anything like that, too.

If you feel like any of those descriptions fits you, I’ve got two messages for you:

The first message is that we agree with you.

The second is that those very sentiments are why I think you should and will be part of this movement. A movement to see with clear eyes and anger the erosion of the ability of each citizen to determine the course of their life. A movement to act with full hearts and courage to change that from the bottom up.

But first you deserve an explanation.

What is the ‘IT’ in BITFD?

I’ll give you three kinds of answers.

In theory, when we say BITFD, IT is any persistent institutionalized corruption which takes from the people and gives to existing concentrations of political, social or financial power. The “corruption” part is important, and the “institutionalized” part is important. We don’t mean garden-variety individual corruption, which will be with us as long as we are human. We also don’t mean “when the rich get richer,” which is often a fair and even desirable outcome of fair competition in all kinds of markets. We mean “when laws, policies and enforced norms make it structurally more likely that the rich will get richer, ceteris paribus.” We are not communists.

In principle, IT is social, political and financial structures that are (1) entrenched by law, narrative or strong game theory equilibrium and which (2) constrain self-expression, self-determination or rewarded risk-taking by individual citizens.

In practice, IT is (at the very minimum):

  1. Our two-party political system
  2. Our federal tax code
  3. Our antagonistic, militarized model of policing
  4. Our system for establishing for-profit state enterprises
  5. Our politically broken news media
  6. Our broken relationship with elite universities
  7. Our Federal Reserve’s realized mandate
  8. Our “independent board” system for shareholder representation
  9. Our monopolies (of several varieties)
  10. Our forever wars

No, this isn’t a complete list. And yes, there is widespread petty and large-scale corruption of many kinds which fits these descriptions. Still, many of those kinds are largely addressed by addressing one of the core issues above. That is because the IT rarely refers to the institution itself. Profit-maximizing public companies can be very good and liberty-reinforcing. Competitive, cutting edge universities, too. Police forces. Yes, even a properly mandated central bank. These are not institutions in need of burning down but building back up to a purpose that can serve both the rule of law and political, social and financial self-determination. To that end, we most often think that each IT is a proximate source of the erosion in the purpose of these institutions and systems embedded in law, policy or cultural common knowledge.

In practically all cases, each IT is also likely to be defended by a Projection Racket. By design, the most successful will rely on memes that will exert a powerful emotional and intellectual pull. Concerned about the suppression of financial freedom and risk-taking by monopolies? You’re not less free, dummy! People made those companies big because they provided the market something we all wanted. If you don’t like it, just vote with your dollars! Concerned that we are providing incalculable tax advantages and massive tax-supported research funding to universities that offer huge admission advantages to wealthy, connected legacy candidates? It’s a private university, dummy! Don’t you believe in freedom of association?

That emotional and intellectual pull will make it exceedingly difficult for us to see clearly, for example, how the real-world effect of a first-past-the-post voting system in a structurally polarized political environment is indistinguishable from the practical effect of disenfranchisement by fiat. The sophistication of these memes will permit us – encourage us – to embrace a mealy-mouthed sort of half-agreement that bemoans the “corruption” of crony capitalism as only a fault of unethical individuals without identifying the systemic causes in law and policy. Each of these ‘ITs‘ structurally reduces each American citzen’s capacity to make decisions which will influence their life (for better or worse), and not as a result of the natural competition of ideas and capabilities within social, political and financial markets.

While the principle and theory cut a much wider swath than any list of individual examples, these ten are the big ones. If you are trying to figure out whether to add your voice to the chorus, then thinking through where you stand on these issues is probably a good place to start.

Over the coming weeks, this series will walk through each of these items in detail. We will describe what IT is, and what, precisely, we mean when we say that it is time to BITFD. We hope you’ll join us. And even if you come agreeing only in part or not at all, we hope you will have a better understanding of what we mean when we say that it is a mission for Clear Eyes and Full Hearts.

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  1. I look forward to more flesh being added to the bone structure ET has created! One additional area ripe for inclusion in the list is the labyrinth of the US Healthcare system. Other than Ben’s note on his personal experience facing it this summer, and the valiant efforts to get PPE to places it might not trickle down, I believe more can be done. Health Care has its own rackets, monopolies, tax schemes, and narratives to shed light on through the ET plaform.

  2. Fantastic news! I am all for (and yet still uncomfortable) with BITFD, but have long wondered what that meant from a practical standpoint for you and Ben. This is great.

  3. Great piece Rusty and looking forward to the series. I am the little c. I am the little l. I am the middle. I want a cooperative game. I want win, win. I dislike the competitive game. I win, you lose. (I hate snakes Jock. I hate 'em.) If we were to have an Independence Day (the movie) alien moment right now, it would be a race to see which country surrendered first hoping for the greatest leniency from the aliens.

  4. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    You and me both on all counts, Brian!

  5. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    It does, and it probably deserves something more in-depth. The problem I tend to arrive at when I try to form a coherent intellectual framework is that even when you eliminate the monopolies, tax schemes and narratives, you’re still left with an insanely complicated issue with unsolved problems and conflicts.

  6. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Thanks, Dan!

  7. Great work Rusty. If we hope to have any success dismantling mendacious, unfair, systems, I think the whole pack needs to be singing from the same hymnal. Right now BITFD is a cacophony of righteous indignation that is spinning its wheels and occasionally cracking 100 likes on Twitter. I hope ET can bring some focus to these issues and try to loop other groups in to pull the rug out from under institutions that no longer deserve to be considered sacred.

    For example, what if ET collaborated with Kahn Academy to create a top flight, low cost, alternative to traditional, mostly in-person, universities? Perhaps you could even reimagine the entrance exam process to uncover great applicants who don’t shine in the SAT/ACT formats? Has there ever been a better time to attempt such a thing? It would be a huge undertaking, but I bet the pack could pull together a great curriculum and I am certain that there are enough pack members who can influence hiring decisions to create end demand for graduates. I know I would go out of my way to support an effort like that. As far as I know, there is no source of young, hungry talent that has been steeped in a Clear Eyes, Full Hearts approach to life. That’s who I want in the trench with me though.

    FWIW I think ET is a great first step at pulling the rug out from under our woeful “news“ media. That’s a big accomplishment in and of itself. Keep it up!

  8. Avatar for 010101 010101 says:

    The often used phrase “healthcare system” is a bait and switch. The system cares little about your health. Large systems and emotions make awkward bedfellows.

  9. Outstanding note that helps answer a question, clearly, many of us had/have. I’m basically onboard with all of it - as always, I can find a quibble at the margin that’s unimportant to the big picture. That last part explains why no one invites me to, well, anything (I don’t blame them).

    So, it’s from a position of enthusiastic support that I suggest we consider changing the name as BITFD simply sounds destructive; whereas, what we are really talking about is eradicating corruption, legal and moral, while rebuilding institutions with integrity and values that serve the greater good with honesty and sincerity.

    BITFD is not on-message to Epsilon Theory in my opinion as it sounds like wanton rage and destruction, but conveys none of the hope, optimism or community of the pack. Perhaps we should be thinking about something more along the lines of ET’s outstanding “Make-Protect-Teach” description of its social movement to revitalize the foundation of our citizenship.

    BD&BU is my humble recommendation as in Breakdown and Buildup. But my background and limited skillset is not in marketing, so I am convinced the ET pack will come up with much better recommendations than that.

    Looking forward the rest of the series. Thank you Rusty for this note and Ben and Rusty for all of it.

  10. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    I hear you, Mark, but if you would, give us a chance to make the argument for this framing over the course of the series. Just because our goal is peace, liberty and building up doesn’t mean that those must be our ONLY language.

    “I have come to ignite a fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”

  11. Your credibility is good with me. I will keep an open mind as I read the rest of the series, which I’m really looking forward to.

  12. Avatar for Schase Schase says:

    Rusty, thank you for the much-needed granularity on the volatile term of art, BITFD. Here’s my interpretation: What’s moral is what’s legal and what’s legal is for sale. And the framework for seeing it is negative network effects.

  13. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    This is a really elegant restatement of the problem IMO

  14. Avatar for tobinh tobinh says:

    I’m guilty of push-back against BITFD, so I appreciate the intention not just leave it as a slogan.

    Ultimately, I believe this movement needs to become a political party after the 2020 elections. I think local chapters of ET pack are the next step. I hope there is an international chapter.

    An ET party will not topple the 2-party system at once, but even 2-3 Senate seats might hold the balance of power depending. Even if unsuccessful, the process of campaigning for 2022 will lead to the message’s impact growing, as people will have to grapple with the double-speak of the various parties and an army of influencers arguing against their nonsense.

  15. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Dr. Hartnell, with the permanent destruction of some of our world’s most valuable history and art that you have witnessed, you have a permanent pass to push back as hard as you want when anyone talks about burning anything down.

  16. If you had asked me a decade ago if I was ok with the notion of BITFD I would have looked at you sideways. If you had asked me in 2016 I would have given some ham-fisted answer about understanding people’s gripes but how ultimately the system was Good and the system Worked. Ask me now and I will happily explain to you why I’m carrying a torch.

    Burning it down was never good for my own business. It still isn’t. I’ve benefited enormously from the existing system and burning it to the ground makes it seem like I’m pulling up the ladder behind me after making it to where I wanted to be. But it’s not. In fact it’s quite the opposite. Unlike the Yay Socialism! crowd, I want to hand out ladders to everybody who asks for one. As long as we have the corruption and stupidity that dominate our politics, our universities, and our corporations, we will never have enough ladders to hand out and they will always, always end up in the hands of the people who look like me, talk like me, grow up in the kind of neighborhoods I did, and have the kind of runway I had. I used to think that happened naturally. But it doesn’t. The system is built to create inorganic outcomes while putting up enough of a facade to make the people within it believe that they got there by merit alone. Maybe some did. In fact, I bet a lot did. But they didn’t compete against the full field. No, the full field doesn’t even know the game exists, so how could they ever be expected to play, let alone win?

  17. Isn’t there an agency problem underlying almost all of these? Conflicting moral goods in these complex systems allows agents to exploit ambiguities and maintain the cloak of righteousness to sleep well at night. There’s no effective process in these arenas to reconcile the conflicting Goods such that the ambiguity is easily exploited.

  18. Very much looking forward to these pieces. The several visceral reactions to BITFD I see on Twitter each time its mentioned by our ET friends remind me of how some react to the “Defund the Police” initiatives. As with most things, the reality is often far, far more nuanced than the slogan would suggest. I’m not the kind to get too wrapped around righteous indignation regarding either of these mindsets. I want to hear what the options are and get to a better place. The Thucydides quote above is spot on, by the way. That entire book itself has several of the most important lessons one can learn about serving something larger than oneself…

  19. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    D_Y, it is scary how much this feels like my own evolution in thinking over time.

  20. I understand that we need to do it, but—being a bear of very little brain—I need explicit instructions.

  21. I completely support BITFD !
    must be the closet anarchist in me…

  22. I didn’t grow up rich. But I had a stable, middle-to-upper-middle class home, in the right kind of safe neighborhood, at the kind of “public” school where the tuition comes wrapped in granite countertops and high property taxes. I was allowed time to screw up, make mistakes in college, and still find my way without ever really having to suffer the consequences others might have been subject to. I had a dad who got up early, put on a suit and tie, and went and hustled every single day. That alone is a privilege beyond the understanding for 16 year old me. At my heart I’m still a conservative, because I believe in freedom and liberty, but man oh man do I no longer treasure the opinions and thoughts of the corporations and the politicians who got us here. The fish rots from the head.

  23. #BITFD is the perfect because it says nothing and requires a search for more info. Make. Protect. Teach. is, well, boring, but I understand the sentiment. It’s also not going to not gonna sell any hats or bumper stickers. It’s about like Ben’s ponytail look going for Sam Elliot and winding up with Wilford Brimley. :-) The “hats and bumper stickers” should be a joke, but I’m not sure how you grab anyone’s attention without #BITFD. I mean if anyone ever came up with a bad title for a movement, who the hell came up with “Defund the Police”? There are some great ideas in the concept, but the marketing there is just awful. BTW, is it possible to get a like button for other comments?

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