Streetwise Professor

February 13, 2022

The Tyranny of the Median–Especially When the Median Is Manipulated

Filed under: CoronaCrisis,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 4:09 pm

The past days (weeks in the case of Canada) have seen a surge of protests in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and France. The regimes have acted aggressively in France and Canada in particular. Protestors in Paris–and truth be told, innocent diners at cafes–were tear gassed and many were arrested (and some brutalized). Canadian authorities have taken escalating steps against truckers in Ottawa and on the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, OT.

The Canadian action followed a particularly egregious statement by the appalling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Adopting the wearied, condescending, and supercilious tone of an aggravated parent lecturing a 6 year old, Petit Justin said he had heard the truckers–but was blowing them off. And they had to go to their rooms like good little boys and girls or he would have to get out the whippin’ stick.

Trudeau’s words and actions (and those of bloated Ontario Premier Doug Ford) were welcomed with squeals of delight from the ruling class and its numerous pilot fish, such as the Harvard lecturer (who falsely advertises herself as a professor) who advocated slashing truck tires and siphoning their fuel, and who intimated that even more draconian measures to deliver “hurt” were justified. Similarly, the French crackdown won accolades from the usual suspects.

It is difficult to distinguish the government responses to civil disobedience in Canada, France, and other locations (e.g., the Netherlands, Germany) where anti-mandate/anti-NPI protests have occurred from how Russia responds to such agitation. The main difference being how the western ruling and chattering classes respond–cheering the former and damning the latter.

A common cause of mass civil disobedience in democratic societies–especially when it involves ordinary working people as is the case in Canada, etc.–is the well-known fact that democratic institutions such as voting and representative government are relatively unresponsive to the intensity of preferences. They are driven, roughly speaking, by the preferences of the median citizen. When there is a sizable group in the minority whose preferences diverge substantially and intensely from the median, governments will be at least unresponsive to and often virulently opposed to that minority: the incentives inherent in the democratic political institutions drive that response. Despairing recourse through normal political means, those with these intense but divergent preferences see civil disobedience as the only option available to them.

When such people are by-and-large ordinary, law abiding working people, the protests will be orderly and even carnival-like, as has been observed in Ottawa. But that matters not to the rulers. Such challenges to their authority enrage them. Moreover, in the scenario I am considering, in which protests are driven by a large divergence between minority and median preferences the government will often have considerable political support even if it acts quite aggressively.

I think that is what we are seeing throughout the world right now. In many countries COVID-rationalized restrictions garner considerable support, and arguably the median citizen supports them. Governments are heavily invested in these measures. But large numbers of people are intensely opposed. As a result we see large protests and obdurate governments which apparently believe that compromise is not politically advantageous. Hence the outbreaks of large protests that governments feel empowered to crush.

The US is an interesting case due to the fact that some vestiges of federalism remain. The median preference varies across states, and most police powers inhering in the states, individual states have adopted different policies. Compare say Texas and Florida with California and New York. This reduces the likelihood of a large minority holding intense preferences that differ substantially from the median in the polities that exercise police powers.

There is one important question to consider when evaluating this distribution-of-preferences-based story: what drives preferences?

In the case of COVID and the policy responses thereto, it is abundantly clear that government information operations, often facilitated by private corporations, have played a decisive role in shaping those preferences. The fomenting of fear, bordering on panic. The concerted efforts to quash any dissenting views–to the point now where in the US the Department of Homeland Security proclaims that opinions–and indeed, facts–contrary to official government pronouncements are “misinformation, disinformation, and mal-information” (including regarding COVID in particular) are tantamount to terrorism. Twitter and Facebook in particular have been enthusiastic handmaidens of government efforts to control the narrative. Efforts that are first and foremost directed at shaping preferences and combatting the formation of dissenting preferences and beliefs.

The DHS announcement also claims that what it asserts to be misinformation, disinformation, and mal-information–but which is increasingly clear is truth and fact–is dangerous because it “undermine[s] public trust in government institutions.” This betrays a sacralization of the state–which, perversely ironically, is also a primary objective of Putin’s policies, including his concerted efforts to control public discourse in Russia.

During the Cold War it was sometimes observed that the USSR and the west came to resemble one another in many ways. I think it is fair to say that is much more true today, with respect not just to Russia but China as well. 

Some people are more amenable to government propaganda than others. So one impact of domestic information warfare is to exacerbate divides between the median and large minorities. Further, those who are less vulnerable to information warfare and coercion, but recognize that they happening, are often outraged by it. This intensifies their preferences and makes them more militant.

I think the above is an accurate model of the trajectory of western societies in the past two years. The median has been manipulated by relentless government information warfare that played on fear. This has made it politically possible for ostensibly representative governments to impose draconian measures. But these measures have elicited intense opposition from those who have been resistant to–or repelled by–the measures themselves, and the propaganda used to promote them. The result is protests, and crackdowns thereon.

The one thing that will change this current equilibrium is an evident divide between government-driven panic narratives and the empirical reality that people experience: this would tend to move the median. That seems to be occurring now. In the US, some states are relaxing restrictions and changing their messaging when the latest scariant turned out to be largely benign–clear indications that the median is in fact moving.

We have experienced two years of the tyranny of a manipulated median. One big issue is whether there will be a widespread recognition of this fact, and whether this will engender a backlash. One thing is likely: governments fear this, and for this reason, they will continue and indeed amplify their manipulative information operations. And ironically, although the government believes that waging war on what it characterizes as misinformation etc. is necessary to maintain trust in government institutions, in the end nothing is more corrosive of trust than those very measures. The government has met the enemy, and it is them.

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11 Comments »

  1. I’ve yet to see a single report of a politician, scientist, epidemiological astrologer, or doctor being assassinated for their role in this horror story. There ain’t no justice.

    As a matter of historical fact, do people get assassinated out a simple desire for revenge, or rather is it usually because the assassin is trying to bring about political change?

    Comment by dearieme — February 13, 2022 @ 6:24 pm

  2. What you say is true. When blacks in Alabama started their true revolt, the majority of people were with Wallace on how he treated them. I had mad dogs in South Carolina snapping at me for the same reason, so I know the feeling that most people really didn’t mind that a dog could have killed me. I was lucky, the Police didn’t let go. But later, after a long period but overnight politically, the tide changed. I expect the same thing to occur now, at least that is what I hope. But it did damage badly some of my friends from the experience.

    All vaccines hurt some people, we just don’t the full extent yet of these new mRNA vaccines. That to me will be the crux of the current revolt. My best wishes go to the truckers, because some will be hurt very badly.

    Comment by PAUL — February 13, 2022 @ 7:10 pm

  3. I don’t believe there is a majority in favour of severe limits on nuclear or gas power and environmental measures in general. Most people (the median) want low energy bills, and clean air and water are just an assumed good, in a sense “free” because the cost is hidden.
    At the fringe – banning fracking, the loony tunes from Greenpeace, XR rebellion and Insulate Britain (not an autarchic movement despite the name) – the British really don’t like the greens. But they have captured government policy wholesale. How do you account for this, Craig?

    Comment by philip — February 14, 2022 @ 2:29 pm

  4. @dearieme
    “As a matter of historical fact, do people get assassinated out [of] a simple desire for revenge, or rather is it usually because the assassin is trying to bring about political change?”

    Not exclusive categories but my bet is on political change usually. And mostly failing.

    Third category: nutters.

    Comment by philip — February 14, 2022 @ 2:41 pm

  5. Craig, a concise, well written description. So good I’m going to send it out to a lot of folks still mesmerised by polly-speak. It is without doubt that the peoples’ biggest enemy is their own governments. National governments tend to be duopolies, one ascendant at one time and descendant the next but does it matter who is in ‘power’ anyway as they are all tarred with the same brush?

    Comment by Sandy K — February 14, 2022 @ 7:48 pm

  6. Two years of tyranny? Hardly – I’d give it 12 months tops, since no-one really knew what we were up against during the first year, including you. And tyranny, really??? I’d guess you may be inclined to think this if you have sensitive skin – those masks can wreak havoc with your complexion.

    Anyhow, why this discussion now? It appears that governments across the globe are permanently winding back in restrictions, and stating that it was down to individuals to decide what measures they should now take (Fauci [grr!] has said as much). So pangolin is back on the menu, and you can lick as many door handles as you desire. Happy daze!

    TBH this piece echoes your dire predictions about Afghanistan and its aftermath. And what came of that? Nada. Forgotten already.

    Comment by David Mercer — February 15, 2022 @ 3:43 am

  7. >>The US is an interesting case due to the fact that some vestiges of federalism remain.<<
    So you're telling me that the 10th Amendment still exists?

    Comment by Richard Whitney — February 15, 2022 @ 10:19 am

  8. @Sandy K. Thanks much.

    And not just duopoly. Collusive duopoly.

    Comment by cpirrong — February 16, 2022 @ 5:47 pm

  9. Except one class. Blacks are 13% of the American population, but they punch above their weightclass as someone might say in boxing. Other victim classes are trying to emulate them. It’s not okay to protest and practice civil disobedience if you are marching against tyrannical Covid policy. But, take a knee and hold up a BLM sign, you are okay—and can do it unmasked.

    Comment by Jeffrey Carter — February 17, 2022 @ 8:45 am

  10. Professor, did you hear news about Biden administration accusing ZeroHedge of promoting Russian disinformation? Typically I would doubt any claims from this source, but you made similar accusations several years ago and I respect your opinion so this may be true.

    Comment by mmt — February 17, 2022 @ 9:44 am

  11. @mmt–LOL. Just wrote a post on it.

    Comment by cpirrong — February 17, 2022 @ 12:51 pm

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