Jonathan Haidt on Monomania

“Individual monomania is rarely a social problem. One person who is obsessed with butterflies or with a particular celebrity, or who sees everything in sexual, economic, or religious terms, is just an eccentric, although sometimes a tiresome one. The monomaniac may suffer a constricted range of emotions and experiences, but she usually imposes no costs on others (although there are cases of celebrity stalkers and lone-wolf terrorists). It is collective or group monomanias that are more worrisome for liberal societies because they create many negative externalities: They cause large numbers of people to behave in ways that are harmful and unjust to others. I’ll focus on two specific group-level effects of monomanias: making groups illiberal and making groups stupid.”


Excellent source. I will have to read it in greater depth when I have the time.

Right, I have had a chance to read it more thoroughly and come to a couple of conclusions, first it is not power monomania, rather it is a social monomania of sort which is extraordinarily susceptible to bad faith and bad acting. Put simply, everybody invests significant amounts of time and energy in acquiring knowledge so that they can be the smartest or best informed- or at the edge of cutting edge discoveries. And those who have invested the most time and effort into being thought leaders will invariably suffer, especially in terms of financial considerations. Even for a relatively normal human being the thought of all those sunk costs going to waste, because it turns out you were actually pursuing a cul-de-sac of an idea, can be quite daunting.

Unfortunately, most human distributed networks are vulnerable to hijack by the relatively small percentage of the population who fall into the acute end of the ASPD spectrum or are characterised by the Dark Triad personality profiles. New ideas or those with an inherent bent to towards the ideological are unusually susceptible to these manipulators, and social media makes it even worse (especially Twitter) because it inherently rewards people with the desire for grandiosity which is typical of the Dark Triad- they just love their bold statements and being the leader at the front of the mob with the pitchforks.

As an interesting aside, there is an interesting set of literature on corporate psychopaths. They tend to be rarer than most think for the simple reason that their worldview is cynical and antithetical to the building of trust- a key ingredient in leadership. Many people have encountered the Enterprise and Discovery mode of team competition. A good leader will try to balance the two teams, so that the defining characteristics of the team that wins will be teamwork, hard work and good leadership. The corporate psychopath will create definitive A and B teams, and proceed to get the A team to bully the B team at every opportunity- it’s a means of constructing a social camouflage for their own aberrant behaviour. The social media/ideological landscape is very much like this- because it allows the psychopath free reign to bully without sanction.

He’s wrong about the politics- both the Trump Right and Economic Progressives have every reason to want to overthrow the corrupt corporate duopoly at the centre in America. It’s not that any individual politician is to blame (with a couple of notable exceptions). Most are good people, but those who support them are seeking to return the world to the cosmopolitan liberal nirvana of the nineties.

I don’t blame them, it was an amazing time when we thought that pretty much anything possible- but the fact is we made some pretty appalling mistakes, and nobody seems to be willing to engage in the kind of good faith course corrections which are by now long overdue. The chief of our conceits was Blank Slatism- the idea that anybody could be educated to do anything, given enough time and resource- or that we could shift our populations to become a productive version of Peter Turchin’s Elites. The other major conceit is that we honestly believed that countries like China would really be happy outsourcing all their really high value service sector and design work to the West!

I still have debates with committed neoliberals who honestly believe that the service sector can provide a plethora of medium and high value opportunities. It’s completely wrong, of course. Switching out mid to high value manufacturing was always going to lead to a dystopia of quiet desperation. Whilst there will always be some high value niche opportunities, service doesn’t scale. On the one hand we have huge increased productivity in manufacturing, and on the other we have a service sector which is both stagnant and reliant on a time limited commodity (older people with a surplus of money).

Jonathan Haidt gets a lot of it. I’ve heard him talk about the hugely wasteful and inefficient bureaucracies at the heart of government. Like me he probably considers all that government revenue a hugely underutilised resource which is precious. I’ve been thinking about writing about the Basque worker owner model of Mondragon as a possible example for the ideal modern administrative state. Because they have relatively high levels of internal trust, when their electronic goods division was forced to shut through competition, 3,000 workers were temporarily laid off, but eventually all bar 60 of them were relocated to other areas of the business (one presumes or hopes these were the ones approaching retirement). I think it’s a neat way of circumventing the institutional resistance which one will always encounter in government as a result of Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy.

The problem is our leaders are unwilling to really admit the mistakes of the past. Even in the dismal science there are those who are still unwilling to admit that perhaps 40% of the male workforce is unsuitable for cognitive work, retail or the service sector, with roughly 50% of them currently employed in those parts of the economy which still value them and another portion shifting from job to job in a sector in which they cannot thrive. Male systemic unemployment has shifted from 10% to 20% and almost all of it is male blue collar workers who cannot find work in the rest of the economy. There is legitimate grievance for both Trump Supporters and Economic Progressives. The system is being pushed to breaking point under the strain of political inertia and a reluctance to admit the need for radical reform.

Two things need to happen. First, read the opening chapters of Jeffrey Sachs’ The Age of Globalisation and realise that there are only so many honourable blue collar jobs in a Developed Economy. These jobs need to be the exclusive birthright of our natural-born or dreamer populations. However our hearts may go out to those who desperately want these jobs in the West, letting them participate will only reduce the market value and availability of these jobs. Plus, in a non-selective system such as undocumented for the US or the UK, roughly 85% of the labour through this import channel is playing a game of musical chairs which rewards bad actors in these sectors. A mediocre mind might say we can fix this with minimum wages- but this does nothing for the roofer whose labour should be valued at $28 an hour, who is actually getting paid $21 an hour, and labour unions no longer possess the negotiating power to handle what is increasingly a fragmented market for labour opportunities.

There are those who will look at the figures and dismiss them. It does create economic opportunities further up the spectrum. And it does create employment opportunities for women. But this ignores the fact that large segments of our male population are unsuitable for both- with the exception of supervisor/foreman roles.

But there is hope. First, there is not a single country in the world that possesses enough workers at the top 2% of cognitive spectrum, and there are many countries which don’t possess opportunities for these workers. Second, with the best will in the world, higher and further educational sectors will never fill demand and will always leave crucial holes which both government and the market desperately needs. These two sources are what helped Australia achieve a rate of 30% foreign-born citizens, with none of the rise to populism which Niall Ferguson describes in his Google Zeitgeist Trump Talk. More recently, this virtuous system which protects Blue Collar interests has been eroded. In order for it to work, potential blue collar workers should never see someone from another culture doing a well-paid job they are capable of, with training.

Finally, we need to recognise that much as we would love to provide important government jobs to college kids from nice middle class backgrounds, we probably shouldn’t create them unless the kids are willing to qualify in demanding highly technocratic degrees which the market doesn’t cater to in sufficient numbers. The Scandinavian states are world leaders in this respect- it’s one of the reasons everything works so well and people are so happy.

Instead, we need to agree that a substantial portion of revenue committed to public employment, needs to be pushed downwards solve the service failures that tend to happen in states whose governments possess too many Chiefs and not enough Indians (for Indigenous types prone to offence, think of federal bureaucracies created for Bossing Indians Around). There are huge opportunities here- infrastructure, children’s parks, maintenance jobs, fixing the MTA, etc.

All the situation requires is the willingness to confront the need for major bureaucratic change, a commitment to retrain rather than fire and the acknowledgement that many of our government bureaucracies are no longer fit for purpose. The first step which enables all other steps, is the introduction of PAYE for the majority of workers and the reallocation of all of that accounting talent towards auditing government itself.


Here’s another twist in the plot. Some of the team’s members are swapping jerseys!


Great article. I chuckled when I read “walking on eggshells”: it reminded me of my likening the current situation in the culture war.: my experience with an ex-partner with borderline personality disorder, seems like society is battling that person scaled up. The antidote as far as I understand is to make boundaries and don’t cave to their demands. We’re dealing with children dressed up like adults.