Self-Fulfilling Prophecies and the Paradox of Politics

A couple of weeks ago, President Biden announced that he was at last going to put the massive and seemingly unlimited powers of the federal bureaucracy to work in a direct assault on vaccine hesitancy, essentially mandating that all workers at companies of over 100 employees receive the Covid-19 vaccine or institute weekly testing. Opinions are of course sharply divided on whether the mandate is constitutional or enforceable under current law, and it is almost certain to be tied up in the courts for the foreseeable future. For that reason alone, it is hard to defend the prudence of such a measure, which seems almost sure to harden opposition to vaccines among the reluctant, and intensify our already pathological and paralyzing levels of political polarization.

For many, however, the wisdom, morality, and the legality of the measure could scarcely be considered in isolation—rather, the mandate must be seen as but the latest in a long series of increasingly tyrannical power grabs. For some Covid skeptics, indeed, Biden’s vaccine mandate was taken as retroactive justification for all of their earlier acts of resistance: “See, this is exactly what we said would happen! This is exactly why we drew the line at masking or social distancing. You might’ve said that that seemed paranoid, or making a mountain out of a molehill, but we knew this is the direction things were going. This is why we refused to get a vaccine in the first place; because we knew that it wasn’t really about the virus, but about government control. And this is why we balked at the first hints of vaccine coercion, even by private businesses; you might have said, ‘Well, why can’t a private business establish its own workplace safety rules?’ but we knew that it wouldn’t be long before all businesses were compelled to require vaccines. This is where it was headed all along. We are vindicated!”

Loud and breathless has been the chorus along these lines for the past couple weeks in many quarters of Evangelicana. And, at first glance at least, this reading of events seems quite plausible. Certainly, if the soundness of a theory lies in its ability to make true predictions, the Covid skeptic theory looks like an awfully powerful one over the past year. Time after time, when they’ve predicted, “Next thing you know we’re going to be asked to do X,” sure enough, we were asked to do X. (Of course, that’s not to say they haven’t made failed predictions too, but no one’s 100%). But of course, the real test of a theory’s soundness is supposed to lie in its ability to make falsifiable predictions: predictions that really could turn out otherwise if the theory was unsound. Now, someone might object, “Surely these count as falsifiable predictions? All of these policy decisions were decisions, that in theory could have gone differently, right?”

Well, there’s a wrinkle. There are, after all, phenomena that we call “self-fulfilling prophecies.” In this case, a prediction turns out to be 100% correct, but only because the prediction itself set in motion the predicted event. All sorts of human behaviors have this form. If one of my kids says in a snooty voice to his sibling, “You’re such a bad loser I bet you’re not even going to play this game to the end,” his sibling is very likely to reply, “Well fine then!” and stomp away from the game. Prediction verified? Yes. Prophetic powers? Maybe not. Indeed, in all relationships characterized by affection and trust, it is extremely easy to (intentionally or unintentionally) make self-fulfilling prophecies when voicing disaffection and distrust. This is part of why so many marriages collapse: one spouse loses respect or trust in the other, and expects them to do something foolish and hurtful; the other spouse, sensing the suspicion, lashes out and “proves” that they were in fact undeserving of respect—and on it goes in a vicious cycle.

Now, I am not proffering this as a perfect and comprehensive explanation for what’s been going on in America over the past 18 months, much less seeking to exonerate the Biden administration from what really does look to this humble onlooker like a foolish, ill-timed, and overreaching measure. However, I have recently been doing a great deal of reading about the lead-up to the Civil War, and it is startling how this propensity for self-fulfilling prophecies can manifest in the domain of politics, with often cataclysmic consequences.

If you had asked the Southern leaders in 1860 why they felt the need to secede from the Union, they would’ve told you:

  • The North holds overwhelming power in the federal government that they are going to use for their sectional advantage.
  • The Republican Party is going to encourage our slaves to run away.
  • Then they’re going to take away our slave property by force.
  • They are out to destroy our way of life.
  • They’re going to remodel the Constitution and weaken the political power of the states.
  • They want to take away our power and put our former slaves in charge.

Five years later, what had happened? All of these things. No doubt to a great many Southern leaders, their original decision to secede looked eminently justified in retrospect, and the only mistakes that had been made were their own military ones in failing to adequately counter the threat of Northern aggression.

But does this mean that the Southern leaders in 1860 were startlingly prescient? It’s possible, but that’s not what a sober look at history suggests. In fact, any objective reading of the trajectory of US politics up through 1860, the platform of the Republican Party, and the speeches and letters of Abraham Lincoln suggests that none of these things was true until the South unilaterally withdrew itself from the protection of the Union, made active war upon it, and stubbornly persisted in that war until the North had abandoned many of its constitutional scruples and racist prejudices and was willing to radically reconstruct the Southern political order. (Edit: Since I may readily be misunderstood, I should note that I do not introduce the example of the antebellum south as the cliched whipping boy that it is in so much popular political discourse. On the contrary, I myself am a proud native son of South Carolina and have wrestled for years over the political legacy of my ancestors. Though I have gradually come to see them as grossly mistaken, I can still understand in some measure why they thought and acted as they did. I thus use the 1860 example as a salutary warning about how, when public trust breaks down within a society, rational actors on either side may take rational measures that nonetheless lead to disastrous escalation.)

It is as least quite plausible to view the events of the last year and a half through a similar lens. If individuals and communities had behaved with great public-spiritedness and prudence, voluntarily taking the recommended mitigation measures, and availing themselves of tests, tracing, and vaccines, and refusing to amplify fear and misinformation, then would we ever have ended up where we are now with federal-level vaccine mandates (or many of the intermediate coercive measures along the way)? It seems at least worth considering the possibility that we may not have. Some other countries have achieved a great deal with largely voluntary compliance and never had to resort to as many mandates—although they came into the pandemic with much higher levels of public trust and lower levels of public idiocy.

Indeed, it’s worth noting, as I often have over the past decade, the central paradox of politics: that the very concept of coercion in a large measure a self-fulfilling one. Strictly speaking, it’s entirely up to you whether someone can coerce you to do something. If you do it voluntarily, then either they won’t bother to try to coerce you in the first place, or, as Solzhenitsyn realized in the Gulag, even their efforts to coerce will be thwarted by your inner integrity of will. (Indeed, the phenomenon of martyrdom shows that this holds all the way up to the point of death: someone can try to coerce you in religious matters by holding the fear of death over you, but ultimately you can decide that you’re not actually that afraid of death, and rob them of the pleasure.) This is not merely a philosophical point, but a very practical political point: quite often, people lose their freedom precisely by acting on the basis of their fear that they’re about to lose their freedom. And quite often, people gain a remarkable amount of freedom by choosing to act like authentically free people.

If you doubt me, just translate from a political to a parental lens: multiple times each day, I have a child who, convinced that he’s getting a raw deal, manages to give himself a much much rawer one; convinced that he has too many chores, he ends up with three times as many; convinced that his parents are meanies who don’t want him to have fun, he manages to deprive himself of most of the avenues of fun for the day. Meanwhile, on a once much rarer but thankfully now more frequent basis, I have a child who, trusting that his parents love him and want what’s best for him, freely undertakes a series of onerous chores and responsibilities, and finds himself increasingly left alone to pursue whatever delights or tasks take his fancy.

Now, of course, there is another side to all this. After all, as the saying goes, “you’re not paranoid if they really are out to get you.” One certainly can err by having an overly Pollyanna outlook toward one’s governing authorities. Sometimes, all of the warnings about how freedom is under attack, and we have to fight back before it’s too late—well, sometimes that’s just true. The American Revolution is perhaps an example of this. To be sure, there was plenty of paranoid conspiratorial thinking, and plenty of actions that turned out to be self-fulfilling prophecies; certainly the British Government’s harshest crackdowns on the colonies came only in response to restless and lawless protest behavior. Still, it does seem as if the colonists were right on the central nub of the matter: Parliament really did intend to reduce the colonies to a much more dependent status than they had previously had; Parliament really did claim the right to legislate for them without their consent; and the trend really was one toward less freedom and more subservience. It’s certainly possible that the situation could have been managed without resort to revolution and war, but it’s also possible that in the end, nothing else would’ve sufficed to preserve colonial liberties.

So, how do we know which situation we’re living in? How do we know if our vigilant resistance to the first sign of oppression is a noble stroke for liberty before it’s too late, or if it’s a self-defeating act of paranoia that sets in motion the very train of evils we would rather prevent? There are no easy answers; it is not easy to make such determinations even with the benefit of historical hindsight, and much less in the fog of the present. But we should at the very least be alive to both possibilities, and before congratulating ourselves on the soundness of our predictions, ask whether we ourselves might not have had a hand in making them come true.

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“‘They say,’ is the monarch of this country, in a social sense. No one asks ‘who says it,’ so long as it is believed that ‘they say it.’ Designing men endeavor to persuade the publick, that already ‘they say,’ what these designing men wish to be said, and the publick is only too much disposed blindly to join in the cry of ‘they say.’” (233)

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