Everybody from atheists to fellow Christians has had a good time laughing at the deluded group who follow Harold Camping‘s predictions about the end of the world. For those who believe in the power of the coercive state, though, it should be an opportunity to pause and realize that they’re not much different from those who follow Camping.
You would think that people who find their leaders’ predictions to be false would lose their belief in the leaders and the doctrines they preach. We certainly think that when we look at Camping’s group. But how is it any different when those who vote for political leaders to rule them through a coercive state keep believing that the politicians’ predictions and promises are going to come true this time?
Camping predicted the end of the world in 1994, but he and his believers explained the error away afterwards by saying that there were minor miscalculations and new information. So he changed his prediction to 2011. Most of his followers stayed with him. Why?
Psychology tells us that when people are faced with proof that their beliefs are untrue, they simply reinterpret the prediction or the result. It’s rare that people who are invested in a belief will simply accept the evidence and turn away from the belief. How do those things play out in the statist political world?
- Followers can claim their leaders were right, but the evil people on the other side obstructed their brilliant ideas. When Republican plans to change things don’t work, they blame Democrats for obstructing plans that would have worked. When Democratic plans to change things don’t work, they blame Republicans for obstructing plans that would have worked.
- Followers can claim their leaders were right, but that they just didn’t go far enough. We see abundant evidence of that with Democrats and neo-Keynesians today. They made specific predictions about what the various “stimulus packages” were going to do for the U.S. economy, but their predictions were badly mistaken. Their response? Well, things were worse than we thought. We should have done even more of what we did.
- Followers can claim that their ideas were right, but that their fallible human leaders simply weren’t up to the task. When parties and movements get far enough down, they’ll typically throw the people at the top overboard, never stopping to ask whether it’s the basic ideas that are wrong, not necessarily the personalities or skills of the people at the top.
How many times have you heard politicians promise to “fix education”? I’ve written political material for state and local candidates for 20 years, so I can assure you that this is a staple of most campaigns. Although the specific spin can change slightly, the idea is the same — promise people what they want, even if you have no power to deliver it. Nobody in campaigns ever talks about the fact that the politicians can’t deliver what he’s promising. They simply write the words that will move the votes. I know, because I’ve done it for a hundred campaigns or more.
When it came time to write the marketing material for my clients, I rarely had to ask the candidate what positions he wanted to take — and the client rarely bothered to tell me what he wanted to say. It was assumed that I knew what to say, what people wanted to hear. And that was the truth.
At every election, politicians look at what issues voters care about most at that moment, whether it’s jobs oreducation or drug abuse or terrorism or some foreign threat. The issues are complex and the solutions are complex and (many times) unknowable, but complexity and nuance don’t win elections. Certainty and promises win elections. So politicians hire people like me to make promises they can’t keep. Voters emotionally react to one of the candidates (or against another one) and they make their choices.
But once a voter is in a particular camp, he’s unlikely to realize he’s been had. He’s not typically going to notice that the promises weren’t kept — that it was never even possible for the promises to be kept. And the cycle keeping going with each election cycle. In the meantime, the politicians strip away more and more of the population’s rights and take away more and more of their money. But because they mouth rhetoric that sounds good to their voters, they keep winning elections — so they keep holding onto power.
Harold Camping is flat-out wrong. The world didn’t end the first time he predicted it in 1994. It didn’t end today. He doesn’t have a clue when it will end. In the same way, the people who run for president or governor or mayor don’t have a clue how they can keep the promises they’re making to you. But they know you’ll keep voting for them, because they know you’re not going to question the “civic religion” that you’ve been given that says politicians have answer to our problems and have the right to control us.
If you’re laughing at Camping’s followers, but you’re still a part of the statist political system, it’s time to see that you’re not so much different from them. When you’re holding up a political sign, you’re not so different from one of Camping’s supporters on the street predicting the end of the world.
It’s time to accept that the state can’t fix your problems and that it has no right to enforce anybody’s will, even if it’s your own. Otherwise, you’re no better than one of these rapture cultists.