Why People Stop Believing What They Believe

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In yesterday's Daily Reckoning we promised to tell you today why people stop believing what they believe. We believe what we're going to show is bound to offend you, or at least some of you. But it's a big, bad world and a challenging idea never hurt anyone's feelings. Or if it did, that's too bad. The free world is a rough and tumble place, and you don't have the right to not be offended.

First let's start with Egypt, it's becoming a great example of one of our newest ideas: elections shouldn't matter. The country could vote on a new draft constitution as soon as December 15th. Or the two-year old revolution that ousted American-backed strongman Hosni Mubarak could fail to produce a new constitution everyone can agree on. You'd have a second revolution.

There are several issues in play here. First, the draft Constitution has been put together mostly by allies of President Mohamed Morsi. Morsi is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Constitution reflects that. It has over 230 articles, which makes it complicated. It also blurs the line between secular and religious authority in Egypt. For example, early language said that Sharia law would be 'the' basis for the Constitution rather than 'a' basis. Unelected Islamic judges will have the power to settle some Constitutional disputes. And civilians could be tried by military courts, according to some reports.

Mind you, how Egypt chooses to govern or constitute itself is absolutely none of our business. We're merely pointing out that elections only really matter when you're trying to fundamentally transform the relationship between the People and the State. Egypt has secular parties and political liberals who want a constitution that creates some checks and balances on authority and puts the basis of the law's authority on the consent of the governed, not the word of God, or belief in it.

It's a pretty fascinating institutional contest of wills. In late November, President Morsi issued a decree exempting his decrees from judicial review. He did so, he claims, because Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court could try and dissolve the constituent assembly writing the constitution on technical grounds, like it did before. It would be as if the Court is conducting a kind of legal insurgency against the revolution, in defence of vested interests who are trying to hold on to power for as long as they can. The Court, for its part, says the decree gives one man dictatorial power, which can hardly be the point of a democratic revolution.

But just what is a democratic revolution? Is it a revolution that results in an election where people are free to choose how they're governed and who governs them? Most revolutions, despite the term, are not popular. Revolutionary leaders tend to come from middle class backgrounds. They manage to stir up enough agitation at the margin that the middle class is dragged into the streets to force a capitulation by the old regime.

Our point is that these changes only happen when the relationship between the People and the State is fundamentally changing. It's not always for the better, either. If a revolution results in clear, simple rules, defining the exact limits of the power of the State and preserving all the liberties of the people who consent to be governed, you can bottle the optimism of change.

But democratic revolutions are equally capable of voting for tyranny. It's not the voting that makes for good government. It's not even democracy. It's simple, clear rules that protect liberty and define the relationship between institutions that are important to civil society.

However, the Rule of Law is only important if you want to live in a civil society where individual liberty and political freedom are the highest values. There are many other values in life, including religious or political values. And in many places, individual liberty is not the highest value. It will be interesting to see how things turn out in Egypt.

And for what it's worth, we believe the entire world is plunging into a new order of fascism - whether it's secular, religious, or just plain pathological. We'll save that argument for later though. For now, when do people stop believing what they believe? When we asked the question yesterday, it was in the context of the financial markets: how long will people persist in believing things that are untrue, like the idea that any of these huge government debts will ever be paid off, or that they really don't matter?

Well, when in doubt, we always like to look at the inexplicable in terms of the useful. That is, if a behaviour persists in human beings, it must do so because it is either useful, or isn't harmful enough to damage your chance of surviving. A simpler way to put it would be this: behaviours and beliefs exist and persist because they promote survival.

The idea of belief itself - 'confidence in the trust or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof,' according the Webster's - must be useful to promoting human survival, or else it wouldn't persist in all human cultures over time. Belief allows you to take the existence of something - say the value of a dollar - at face value. That belief allows you to make plans for the future.

Belief is essentially hopeful. It's the assumption that tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow are worth planning for because some things will remain true and constant, even if you can't be logically certain. It's also modest. You don't really know if things will be the same. Maybe the Mayans will be right and the world will end. But if you believed that, would you bother getting up out of bed to begin with?

Of course we're skirting around a big issue: belief in what? But let's avoid that. It's tricky. And besides, the more interesting question is why people believing anything at all that can't be proved. Our answer is simple: because belief is useful in promoting survival. So when will people stop believing in the financial status quo? When that belief no longer promotes their survival. More on this idea tomorrow.


Dan Denning for The Daily Reckoning Australia

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