Warring Stories

[Note: Tim Bray is conducting an interesting exercise in public debate over on Google+, testing its commenting capabilities to see how it fares in civil discourse on contentious political topics. His efforts are well worth following. I’m re-posting one of my comments below for posterity – as much for my own benefit as anyone else’s.]

There seems to be a nearly universal preference for narrative over fact in most (if not all) of the US debate over economic policy. People invest the issue with their own biases (a common propensity) then construct or defend the most closely aligned story.

In short, people have been led to believe that the whole situation:

a) makes sense;
b) can be simply expressed; and
c) has a straightforward solution, if only the rest of the world can be made to see it.

This explains not only the refusal even to grant that a debt policy must of necessity consider revenue generation AND reduced spending, but also the tendency to draw the Hayek/Keynes/Friedman debate as a zero-sum argument.

Government, at the best of times, is more a clusterfuck than anything else. It requires a level of opportunism and ideological/ethical/moral compromise that few of us can stomach. Tragically, it breeds people who can stomach it far too easily.

Human society requires narrative in order to make sense of this otherwise senseless situation. (We can’t all be Sartre or Clauswitz – and really, who wants to be?) But its desire for narrative has been cynically abused so consistently and for so long by propaganda that the possibility for civic (not to say civil) discourse has been reduced nearly to zero.

The increasingly (irretrievably?) fictional rhetoric driven by the various camps within the anarchic village that is Washington has made mutual understanding (and therefore compromise) impossible. We can, in other words, no longer talk usefully amongst ourselves.