In the 1920s, women didn’t smoke—or, if they did, they were severely judged for it. It was taboo. Like graduating from college or getting elected to Congress, smoking, people believed back then, should be left to the men. “Honey, you might hurt yourself. Or worse, you might burn your beautiful hair.”
This posed a problem for the tobacco industry. Here you had 50 percent of the population not smoking their cigarettes for no other reason than it was unfashionable or seen as impolite. This wouldn’t do. As George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, said at the time, “It’s a gold mine right in our front yard.” The industry tried multiple times to market cigarettes to women, but nothing ever seemed to work. The cultural prejudice against it was simply too ingrained, too deep.
Then, in 1928, the American Tobacco Company hired Edward Bernays, a young hotshot marketer with wild ideas and even wilder marketing campaigns.¹ Bernays’s marketing tactics at the time were unlike anybody else’s in the advertising industry.
Back in the early nineteenth century, marketing was seen simply as a means of communicating the tangible, real benefits of a product in the simplest and most concise form possible. It was believed at the time that people bought products based on facts and information. If someone wanted to buy cheese, then you had to communicate to them the facts of why your cheese was superior (“Freshest French goat milk, cured twelve days, shipped refrigerated!”). People were seen as rational actors making rational purchasing decisions for themselves. It was the Classic Assumption: the Thinking Brain was in charge.
But Bernays was unconventional. He didn’t believe that people made rational decisions most of the time. He believed the opposite. He believed that people were emotional and impulsive and just hid it really well. He believed the Feeling Brain was in charge and nobody had quite realized it.
Whereas the tobacco industry had been focused on persuading individual women to buy and smoke cigarettes through logical arguments, Bernays saw it as an emotional and cultural issue. If he wanted women to smoke, then he had to appeal not to their thoughts but to their values. He needed to appeal to women’s identities.
To accomplish this, Bernays hired a group of women and got them into the Easter Sunday Parade in New York City. Today, big holiday parades are cheesy things you let drone on over the television while you fall asleep on the couch. But back in those days, parades were big social events, kind of like the Super Bowl or something.
As Bernays planned it, at the appropriate moment, these women would all stop and light up cigarettes at the same time. He hired photographers to take flattering photos of the smoking women, which he then passed out to all the major national newspapers. He told the reporters that these ladies were not just lighting cigarettes, they were lighting “torches of freedom,” demonstrating their ability to assert their independence and be their own women.
It was all #FakeNews, of course, but Bernays staged it as a political protest. He knew this would trigger the appropriate emotions in women across the country. Feminists had won women the right to vote only nine years earlier. Women were now working outside the home and becoming more integral to the country’s economic life. They were asserting themselves by cutting their hair short and wearing racier clothing. This generation of women saw themselves as the first generation that could behave independently of a man. And many of them felt very strongly about this. If Bernays could just hitch his “smoking equals freedom” message onto the women’s liberation movement . . . well, tobacco sales would double and he’d be a rich man.
It worked. Women started smoking, and ever since, we’ve had equal-opportunity lung cancer.
Bernays went on to pull off these kinds of cultural coups regularly throughout the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. He completely revolutionized the marketing industry and invented the field of public relations in the process. Paying sexy celebrities to use your product? That was Bernays’s idea. Creating fake news articles that are actually subtle advertisements for a company? All him. Staging controversial public events as a means to draw attention and notoriety for a client? Bernays. Pretty much every form of marketing and publicity we’re subjected to today began with Bernays.
But here’s something else interesting about Bernays: he was Sigmund Freud’s nephew.
Freud was infamous because he was the first modern thinker to argue that it was the Feeling Brain that was really driving the Consciousness Car. Freud believed that people’s insecurities and shame drove them to make bad decisions, to overindulge or to compensate for what they felt they lacked. Freud was the one who realized that we have cohesive identities, stories in our minds that we tell about ourselves, and that we are emotionally attached to those stories and will fight to maintain them.² Freud argued that, at the end of the day, we are animals: impulsive and selfish and emotional.
Freud spent most of his life broke. He was the quintessential European intellectual: isolated, erudite, deeply philosophical. But Bernays was an American. He was practical. He was driven. Fuck philosophy! He wanted to be rich. And boy, did Freud’s ideas—translated through the lens of marketing—deliver in a big way.³ Through Freud, Bernays understood something nobody else in business had understood before him: that if you can tap into people’s insecurities, they will buy just about any damn thing you tell them to.
Trucks are marketed to men as ways to assert strength and reliability. Makeup is marketed to women as a way to be more loved and garner more attention. Beer is marketed as a way to have fun and be the center of attention at a party.
This is all Marketing 101, of course. And today it’s celebrated as business as usual. One of the first things you learn when you study marketing is how to find customers’ “pain points” . . . and then subtly make them feel worse. The idea is that you needle at people’s shame and insecurity and then turn around and tell them your product will resolve that shame and rid them of that insecurity. Put another way, marketing specifically identifies or accentuates the customer’s moral gaps and then offers a way to fill them.
On the one hand, this has helped produce all the economic diversity and wealth we experience today. On the other hand, when marketing messages designed to induce feelings of inadequacy are scaled up to thousands of advertising messages hitting every single person, every single day, there have to be psychological repercussions to that. And they can’t be good.
Feelings Make the World Go ’Round
The world runs on one thing: feelings.
This is because people spend money on things that make them feel good. And where the money flows, power flows. So, the more you’re able to influence the emotions of people in the world, the more money and power you’ll accumulate.
Money is itself a form of exchange used to equalize moral gaps between people. Money is its own special, universal mini-religion that we all bought into because it makes our lives a little bit easier. It allows us to convert our values into something universal when we’re dealing with one another. You love seashells and oysters. I love fertilizing soil with the blood of my sworn enemies. You fight in my army, and when we get home, I’ll make you rich with seashells and oysters. Deal?
That’s how human economies emerged.⁴ No, really, they started because a bunch of angry kings and emperors wanted to slaughter their sworn enemies, but they needed to give their armies something in return, so they minted money as a form of debt (or moral gap) for the soldiers to “spend” (equalize) when (or if) they got back home.
Not much has changed, of course. The world ran on feelings then; it runs on feelings now. All that’s changed is the gizmos we use to shit on each other. Technological progress is just one manifestation of the Feelings Economy. For instance, nobody ever tried to invent a talking waffle. Why? Because that’d be fucking creepy and weird, not to mention probably not very nutritious. Instead, technologies are researched and invented to—yep, you guessed it!—make people feel better (or prevent them from feeling worse). The ballpoint pen, a more comfortable seat heater, a better gasket for your house’s plumbing—fortunes are made and lost around things that help people improve upon or avoid pain. These things make people feel good. People get excited. They spend money. Then it’s boom times, baby.
There are two ways to create value in the marketplace:
- Innovations (upgrade pain). The first way to create value is to replace one pain with a much more tolerable/desirable pain. The most drastic and obvious examples of this are medical and pharmaceutical innovations. Polio vaccines replaced a lifetime of debilitating pain and immobility with a few seconds of a needle prick. Heart surgeries replaced . . . well, death with having to recover from surgery for a week or two.
- Diversions (avoid pain). The second way to create value in a marketplace is to help people numb their pain. Whereas upgrading people’s pain gives them better pain, numbing pain just delays that pain, and often even makes it worse. Diversions are a weekend beach trip, a night out with friends, a movie with someone special, or snorting cocaine out of the crack of a hooker’s ass. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with diversions; we all need them from time to time. The problem is when they begin to dominate our lives and wrest control away from our will. Many diversions trip certain circuits in our brain, making them addictive. The more you numb pain, the worse that pain becomes, thus impelling you to numb it further. At a certain point, the icky ball of pain grows to such great proportions that your avoidance of that pain becomes compulsive. You lose control of yourself—your Feeling Brain has locked your Thinking Brain in the trunk and isn’t letting it out until it gets its next hit of whatever. And the downward spiral ensues.
When the scientific revolution first got going, most economic progress was due to innovation. Back then, the vast majority of people lived in poverty: Everyone was sick, hungry, cold, and tired most of the time. Few could read. Most had bad teeth. It was no fun at all. Over the next few hundred years, with the invention of machines and cities and the division of labor and modern medicine and hygiene and representative government, a lot of poverty and hardship was alleviated. Vaccines and medicines have saved billions of lives. Machines have reduced backbreaking workloads and starvation around the world. The technological innovations that upgraded human suffering are undoubtedly a good thing.
But what happens when a large number of people are relatively healthy and wealthy? At that point, most economic progress switches from innovation to diversion, from upgrading pain to avoiding pain. One of the reasons for this is that true innovation is risky, difficult, and often unrewarding. Many of the most important innovations in history left their inventors broke and destitute.⁵ If someone is going to start a company and take a risk, going the diversion route is a safer bet. As a result, we’ve built a culture in which most technological “innovation” is merely figuring out how to scale diversions in new, more efficient (and more intrusive) ways. As the venture capitalist Peter Thiel once said, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got Twitter.”
Once an economy switches over primarily to diversions, the culture begins to shift. As a poor country develops and gains access to medicine, phones, and other innovative technologies, measurements of well-being track upward at a steady clip, as everyone’s pain is being upgraded to better pain. But once the country hits First World level, that well-being flattens or, in some cases, drops off.⁶ Meanwhile, mental illness, depression, and anxiety can proliferate.⁷
This happens because opening up a society and giving it modern innovations makes the people more robust and antifragile. They can survive more hardship, work more efficiently, communicate and function better within their communities.
But once those innovations are integrated and everyone has a cell phone and a McDonald’s Happy Meal, the great modern diversions enter the marketplace. And as soon as the diversions show up, a psychological fragility is introduced, and everything begins to seem fucked.⁸
The commercial age commenced in the early twentieth century with Bernays’s discovery that you could market to people’s unconscious feelings and desires.⁹ Bernays wasn’t concerned with penicillin or heart surgery. He was hawking cigarettes and tabloid magazines and beauty products—shit people didn’t need. And until then, nobody had figured out how to get people to spend copious amounts of money on stuff that wasn’t necessary for their survival.
The invention of marketing brought a modern-day gold rush to satiate people’s pursuit of happiness. Pop culture emerged, and celebrities and athletes got stupid rich. For the first time, luxury items started to be mass-produced and advertised to the middle classes. There was explosive growth in the technologies of convenience: microwavable dinners, fast food, La-Z-Boys, no-stick pans, and so on. Life became so easy and fast and efficient and effortless that within the short span of a hundred years, people were able to pick up a telephone and accomplish in two minutes what used to take two months.
Life in the commercial age, although more complex than before, was still relatively simple compared to today. A large, bustling middle class existed within a homogenous culture. We watched the same TV channels, listened to the same music, ate the same food, relaxed on the same types of sofas, and read the same newspapers and magazines. There was continuity and cohesion to this era, which brought a sense of security with it. We were all, for a time, both free and yet part of the same religion. And that was comforting. Despite the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, at least in the West, we tend to idealize this period. I believe that it’s for this sense of social cohesion that many people today are so nostalgic.
Then, the internet happened.
The internet is a bona fide innovation. All else being equal, it fundamentally makes our lives better. Much better.
The problem is . . . well, the problem is us.
The internet’s intentions were good: inventors and technologists in Silicon Valley and elsewhere had high hopes for a digital planet. They worked for decades toward a vision of seamlessly networking the world’s people and information. They believed that the internet would liberate people, removing gatekeepers and hierarchies and giving everyone equal access to the same information and the same opportunities to express themselves. They believed that if everyone were given a voice and a simple, effective means of sharing that voice, the world would be a better, freer place.
A near-utopian level of optimism developed throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Technologists envisioned a highly educated global population that would tap into the infinite wisdom available at its fingertips. They saw the opportunity to engender greater empathy and understanding across nations, ethnicities, and lifestyles. They dreamed of a unified and connected global movement with a single shared interest in peace and prosperity.
But they forgot.
They were so caught up in their religious dreams and personal hopes that they forgot.
They forgot that the world doesn’t run on information.
People don’t make decisions based on truth or facts. They don’t spend their money based on data. They don’t connect with each other because of some higher philosophical truth.
The world runs on feelings.
And when you give the average person an infinite reservoir of human wisdom, they will not google for the information that contradicts their deepest held beliefs. They will not google for what is true yet unpleasant.
Instead, most of us will google for what is pleasant but untrue.
Having an errant racist thought? Well, there’s a whole forum of racists two clicks away, with a lot of convincing-sounding arguments as to why you shouldn’t be ashamed to have such leanings. The wife leaves you and you start thinking women are inherently selfish and evil? Doesn’t take much of a Google search to find justifications for those misogynistic feelings.¹⁰ Think Muslims are going to stalk from school to school, murdering your children? I’m sure there’s a conspiracy theory somewhere out there that’s already “proving” that.
Instead of stemming the free expression of our worst feelings and darkest inclinations, the start-ups and corporations dove right in to cash in on it. Thus, the greatest innovation of our lifetime has slowly transformed into our greatest diversion.
The internet, in the end, was not designed to give us what we need. Instead, it gives people what they want. And if you’ve learned anything about human psychology in this book, you already know that this is much more dangerous than it sounds.
It must be an odd time to be a super-successful businessperson. On the one hand, business is better than ever. There’s more wealth in the world than ever before, profits are breaking all-time highs, productivity and growth are doing great. Yet, meanwhile, income inequality is skyrocketing, political polarization is ruining everyone’s family gatherings, and there seems to be a plague of corruption spreading across the world.
So, while there’s exuberance in the business world, there’s also a weird sort of defensiveness that sometimes comes out of nowhere. And this defensiveness, I’ve noticed, always takes the same form, no matter whom it comes from. It says: “We’re just giving people what they want!”
Whether it’s oil companies or creepy advertisers or Facebook stealing your damn data, every corporation that steps in some shit scrapes off their boot by frantically reminding everyone how they’re just trying to give people what they want—faster download speeds, more comfortable air-conditioning, better gas mileage, a cheaper nose hair trimmer—and how wrong can that be?
And it is true. Technology gives people what they want faster and more efficiently than ever before. And while we all love to dogpile on the corporate overlords for their ethical faceplants, we forget that they’re merely fulfilling the market’s desires. They’re supplying our demands. And if we got rid of Facebook or BP or whatever-giant-corporation-is-considered-evil-when-you-read-this, another would pop up to take its place.
So, maybe the problem isn’t just a bunch of greedy executives tapping cigars and petting evil cats while laughing hysterically at how much money they’re making.
Maybe what we want sucks.
For example, I want a life-size bag of marshmallows in my living room. I want to buy an eight-million-dollar mansion by borrowing money I can never pay back. I want to fly to a new beach every week for the next year and live off nothing but Wagyu steaks.
What I want is fucking terrible. That’s because my Feeling Brain is in charge of what I want, and my Feeling Brain is like a goddamn chimpanzee who just drank a bottle of tequila and then proceeded to jerk off into it.
Therefore, I’d say that “give the people what they want” is a pretty low bar to clear, ethically speaking. “Give the people what they want” works only when you’re giving them innovations, like a synthetic kidney or something to prevent their car from spontaneously catching on fire. Give those people what they want. But giving people too many of the diversions they want is a dangerous game to play. For one, many people want stuff that’s awful. Two, many people are easily manipulated into wanting shit they don’t actually want (see: Bernays). Three, encouraging people to avoid pain through more and more diversions makes us all weaker and more fragile. And four, I don’t want your fucking Skynet ads following me around wherever I go and mining my fucking life for data. Look, I talked to my wife that one time about a trip to Peru—that doesn’t mean you need to flood my phone with pictures of Machu Picchu for the next six weeks. And seriously, stop listening to my fucking conversations and selling my data to anyone and everyone who will pay you a buck.¹¹
Anyway—where was I?
Strangely, Bernays saw all this coming. The creepy ads and the privacy invasion and the lulling of large populations into docile servitude through mindless consumerism—the dude was kind of a genius. Except, he was all in favor of it—so, make that an evil genius.
Bernays’s political beliefs were appalling. He believed in what I suppose you could call “diet fascism”: same evil authoritarian government but without the unnecessary genocidal calories. Bernays believed that the masses were dangerous and needed to be controlled by a strong centralized state. But he also recognized that bloody totalitarian regimes were not exactly ideal. For him, the new science of marketing offered a way for governments to influence and appease their citizens without the burden of having to maim and torture them left, right, and center.¹²
(The dude must have been a hit at parties.)
Bernays believed that freedom for most people was both impossible and dangerous. He was well aware, from reading Uncle Freud’s writings, that the last thing a society should tolerate was everyone’s Feeling Brains running the show. Societies needed order and hierarchy and authority, and freedom was antithetical to those things. He saw marketing as an incredible new tool that could give people the feeling of having freedom when, really, you’re just giving them a few more flavors of toothpaste to choose from.
Thankfully, Western governments (for the most part) never sank so low as to directly manipulate their populations through ad campaigns. Instead, the opposite happened. The corporate world got so good at giving people what they wanted that they gradually gained more and more political power for themselves. Regulations were torn up. Bureaucratic oversight was ended. Privacy eroded. Money got more enmeshed with politics than ever before. And why did it all happen? You should know by now: they were just giving the people what they wanted!
But, fuck it, let’s be real: “Give the people what they want” is just #FakeFreedom because what most of us want are diversions. And when we get flooded by diversions, a few things happen.
The first is that we become increasingly fragile. Our world shrinks to conform to the size of our ever-diminishing values. We become obsessed with comfort and pleasure. And any possible loss of that pleasure feels world-quaking and cosmically unfair to us. I would argue that a narrowing of our conceptual world is not freedom; it is the opposite.
The second thing that happens is that we become prone to a series of low-level addictive behaviors—compulsively checking our phone, our email, our Instagram; compulsively finishing Netflix series we don’t like; sharing outrage-inducing articles we haven’t read; accepting invitations to parties and events we don’t enjoy; traveling not because we want to but because we want to be able to say we went. Compulsive behavior aimed at experiencing more stuff is not freedom—again, it’s kind of the opposite.
Third thing: an inability to identify, tolerate, and seek out negative emotions is its own kind of confinement. If you feel okay only when life is happy and easy-breezy-beautiful-Cover-Girl, then guess what? You are not free. You are the opposite of free. You are the prisoner of your own indulgences, enslaved by your own intolerance, crippled by your own emotional weakness. You will constantly feel a need for some external comfort or validation that may or may not ever come.
Fourth—because, fuck it, I’m on a roll: the paradox of choice. The more options we’re given (i.e., the more “freedom” we have), the less satisfied we are with whatever option we go with.¹³ If Jane has to choose between two boxes of cereal, and Mike can choose from twenty boxes, Mike does not have more freedom than Jane. He has more variety. There’s a difference. Variety is not freedom. Variety is just different permutations of the same meaningless shit. If, instead, Jane had a gun pointed to her head and a guy in an SS uniform screaming, “Eat ze fuckin’ zereal!” in a really bad Bavarian accent, then Jane would have less freedom than Mike. But call me up when that happens.
This is the problem with exalting freedom over human consciousness. More stuff doesn’t make us freer, it imprisons us with anxiety over whether we chose or did the best thing. More stuff causes us to become more prone to treating ourselves and others as means rather than ends. It makes us more dependent on the endless cycles of hope.
If the pursuit of happiness pulls us all back into childishness, then fake freedom conspires to keep us there. Because freedom is not having more brands of cereal to choose from, or more beach vacations to take selfies on, or more satellite channels to fall asleep to.
That is variety. And in a vacuum, variety is meaningless. If you are trapped by insecurity, stymied by doubt, and hamstrung by intolerance, you can have all the variety in the world. But you are not free.
The only true form of freedom, the only ethical form of freedom, is through self-limitation. It is not the privilege of choosing everything you want in your life, but rather, choosing what you will give up in your life.
This is not only real freedom, this is the only freedom. Diversions come and go. Pleasure never lasts. Variety loses its meaning. But you will always be able to choose what you are willing to sacrifice, what you are willing to give up.
This sort of self-denial is paradoxically the only thing that expands real freedom in life. The pain of regular physical exercise ultimately enhances your physical freedom—your strength, mobility, endurance, and stamina. The sacrifice of a strong work ethic gives you the freedom to pursue more job opportunities, to steer your own career trajectory, to earn more money and the benefits that come with it. The willingness to engage in conflict with others will free you to talk to anyone, to see if they share your values and beliefs, to discover what they can add to your life and what you can add to theirs.
You can become freer right now simply by choosing the limitations you want to impose on yourself. You can choose to wake up earlier each morning, to block your email until midafternoon each day, to delete social media apps from your phone. These limitations will free you because they will liberate your time, attention, and power of choice. They treat your consciousness as an end in itself.
If you struggle to go to the gym, then rent a locker and leave all your work clothes there so you have to go each morning. Limit yourself to two to three social events each week, so you are forced to spend time with the people you care about most. Write a check to a close friend or family member for three thousand dollars and tell them that if you ever smoke a cigarette again, they get to cash it.¹⁴
Ultimately, the most meaningful freedom in your life comes from your commitments, the things in life for which you have chosen to sacrifice. There is emotional freedom in my relationship with my wife that I would never be able to reproduce even if I dated a thousand other women. There is freedom in my having played guitar for twenty years—a deeply artistic expression—that I could not get if I just memorized dozens of songs. There is freedom in having lived in one place for fifty years—an intimacy and familiarity with the community and culture—that you cannot replicate no matter how much of the world you’ve seen.
Greater commitment allows for greater depth. A lack of commitment requires superficiality.
In the last ten years, there has been a trend toward “life hacking.” People want to learn a language in a month, to visit fifteen countries in a month, to become a champion martial artist in a week, and they come up with all sorts of “hacks” to do it. You see it all the time on YouTube and social media these days: people undertaking ridiculous challenges just to show it can be done. This “hacking” of life, though, simply amounts to trying to reap the rewards of commitment without actually making a commitment. It’s another sad form of fake freedom. It’s empty calories for the soul.
I recently read about a guy who memorized moves from a chess program to prove he could “master” chess in a month. He didn’t learn anything about chess, didn’t engage with the strategy, develop a style, learn tactics. Nope, he approached it like a gigantic homework assignment: memorize the moves, win once against some highly ranked player, then declare mastery for yourself.¹⁵
This is not winning anything. This is merely the appearance of winning something. It is the appearance of commitment and sacrifice without the commitment and sacrifice. It is the appearance of meaning where there is none.
Fake freedom puts us on the treadmill toward chasing more, whereas real freedom is the conscious decision to live with less.
Fake freedom is addictive: no matter how much you have, you always feel as though it’s not enough. Real freedom is repetitive, predictable, and sometimes dull.
Fake freedom has diminishing returns: it requires greater and greater amounts of energy to achieve the same joy and meaning. Real freedom has increasing returns: it requires less and less energy to achieve the same joy and meaning.
Fake freedom is seeing the world as an endless series of transactions and bargains which you feel you’re winning. Real freedom is seeing the world unconditionally, with the only victory being over your own desires.
Fake freedom requires the world to conform to your will. Real freedom requires nothing of the world. It is only your will.
Ultimately, the overabundance of diversion and the fake freedom it produces limits our ability to experience real freedom. The more options we have, the more variety before us, the more difficult it becomes to choose, sacrifice, and focus. And we are seeing this conundrum play out across our culture today.
In 2000, the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam published his seminal book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.¹⁶ In it, he documents the decline of civic participation across the United States, arguing that people are joining and participating less in groups, instead preferring to do their activities alone, hence the title of the book: More people bowl today than before, yet bowling leagues are going extinct. People are bowling alone. Putnam wrote about the United States, but this not merely an American phenomenon.¹⁷
Throughout the book, Putnam shows that this is not limited to recreational groups but is affecting everything from labor unions to parent-teacher associations to Rotary clubs to churches to bridge clubs. This atomization of society has significant effects, he argues: social trust has declined, with people becoming more isolated, less politically engaged, and all-around more paranoid about their neighbors.¹⁸
Loneliness is also a growing issue. Last year, for the first time, a majority of Americans said they were lonely, and new research is suggesting that we’re replacing a few high-quality relationships in our lives with a large number of superficial and temporary relationships.¹⁹
According to Putnam, the social connective tissue in the country is being destroyed by the overabundance of diversions. He argued that people were choosing to stay home and watch TV, surf the internet, or play video games rather than commit themselves to some local organization or group. He also predicts the situation will likely only get worse.²⁰
Historically, when Westerners have looked at all the oppressed people throughout the world, we’ve lamented their lack of fake freedom, their lack of diversion. People in North Korea can’t read the news or shop for clothes they like or listen to music that isn’t state sponsored.
But this is not why North Koreans are not free. They lack freedom not because they are unable to choose their pleasures, but because they are not allowed to choose their pain. They are not allowed to choose their commitments freely. They are forced into sacrifices they would not otherwise want or do not deserve. Pleasure is beside the point—their lack of pleasure is a mere side effect of their real oppression: their enforced pain.²¹
Because, today, in most parts of the world, people are now able to choose their pleasures. They are able to choose what to read and what games to play and what to wear. Modern diversions are everywhere. But the tyranny of a new age is achieved not by depriving people of diversions and commitments. Today’s tyranny is achieved by flooding people with so much diversion, so much bullshit information and frivolous distraction, that they are unable to make smart commitments. It’s Bernays’s prediction come true, just a few generations later than he expected. It took the breadth and power of the internet to make his vision of global propaganda campaigns, of governments and corporations silently steering the desires and wishes of the masses, a reality.²²
But let’s not give Bernays too much credit. After all, he did seem like kind of a douche balloon.
Besides, there was a man who saw all this coming way before Bernays, a man who saw the dangers of fake freedom, who saw the proliferation of diversions and the myopic effect they would have on people’s values, how too much pleasure makes everyone childish and selfish and entitled and totally narcissistic and unbearable on Twitter. This man was far wiser and more influential than anyone you would ever see on a news channel or a TED Talk stage or a political soapbox, for that matter. This guy was the OG of political philosophy. Forget the “Godfather of Soul,” this guy literally invented the idea of the soul. And he (arguably) saw this whole shitstorm brewing multiple millennia before anyone else did.
English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead famously said that all of Western philosophy was merely a “series of footnotes to Plato.”²³ Any topic you can think of, from the nature of romantic love, to whether there’s such a thing as “truth,” to the meaning of virtue, Plato was likely the first great thinker to expound upon it. Plato was the first to suggest that there was an inherent separation between the Thinking Brain and the Feeling Brain.²⁴ He was the first to argue that one must build character through various forms of self-denial, rather than through self-indulgence.²⁵ Plato was such a badass, the word idea itself comes from him—so, you could say he invented the idea of an idea.²⁶
Interestingly, despite being the godfather of Western civilization, Plato famously claimed that democracy was not the most desirable form of government.²⁷ He believed that democracy was inherently unstable and that it inevitably unleashed the worst aspects of our nature, driving society toward tyranny. He wrote, “Extreme freedom can’t be expected to lead to anything but a change to extreme slavery.”²⁸
Democracies are designed to reflect the will of the people. We’ve learned that people, when left to their own devices, instinctively run away from pain and toward happiness. The problem then emerges when people achieve happiness: It’s never enough. Due to the Blue Dot Effect, they never feel entirely safe or satisfied. Their desires grow in lockstep with the quality of their circumstances.
Eventually, the institutions won’t be able to keep up with the desires of the people. And when the institutions fail to keep up with people’s happiness, guess what happens.
People start blaming the institutions themselves.
Plato said that democracies inevitably lead to moral decay because as they indulge more in fake freedom, people’s values deteriorate and become more childish and self-centered, resulting in the citizenry turning on the democratic system itself. Once childish values take over, people no longer want to negotiate for power, they don’t want to bargain with other groups and other religions, they don’t want to endure pain for the sake of greater freedom or prosperity. What they want instead is a strong leader to come make everything right at a moment’s notice. They want a tyrant.²⁹
There’s a common saying in the United States that “freedom is not free.” The saying is usually used in reference to the military and wars fought and won to protect the values of the country. It’s a way of reminding people that, hey, this shit didn’t just magically happen—thousands of people were killed and/or died for us to sit here and sip overpriced mocha Frappuccinos and say whatever the fuck we want. It’s a reminder that the basic human rights we enjoy (free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press) were earned through a sacrifice against some external force.
But people forget that these rights are also earned through sacrifice against some internal force. Democracy can exist only when you are willing to tolerate views that oppose your own, when you’re willing to give up some things you might want for the sake of a safe and healthy community, when you’re willing to compromise and accept that sometimes things don’t go your way.
Put another way: democracy requires a citizenry of strong maturity and character.
Over the last couple of decades, people seem to have confused their basic human rights with not experiencing any discomfort. People want freedom to express themselves, but they don’t want to have to deal with views that may upset or offend them in some way. They want freedom of enterprise, but they don’t want to pay taxes to support the legal machinery that makes that freedom possible. They want equality, but they don’t want to accept that equality requires that everybody experience the same pain, not that everybody experience the same pleasure.
Freedom itself demands discomfort. It demands dissatisfaction. Because the freer a society becomes, the more each person will be forced to reckon and compromise with views and lifestyles and ideas that conflict with their own. The lower our tolerance for pain, the more we indulge in fake freedoms, the less we will be able to uphold the virtues necessary to allow a free, democratic society to function.
And that’s scary. Because without democracy, we’re really fucked. No, really—empirically, life just gets so much worse without democratic representation, in almost every way.³⁰ And it’s not because democracy is so great. It’s more that a functioning democracy fucks things up less often and less severely than any other form of government. Or, as Churchill famously once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others.”
The whole reason the world became civilized and everyone stopped slaughtering one another because of their funny hats is because modern social institutions effectively mitigated the destructive forces of hope. Democracy is one of the few religions that manages to allow other religions to live harmoniously alongside it and within it. But when those social institutions are corrupted by the constant need to please people’s Feeling Brains, when people become distrustful and lose faith in the democratic system’s ability to self-correct, then it’s back to the shit show of religious warfare.³¹ And with the ever-advancing march of technological innovations, each cycle of religious war potentially wreaks more destruction and devastates more human life.³²
Plato believed societies were cyclical, bouncing back and forth between freedom and tyranny, relative equality and great inequality. It’s pretty clear after the past twenty-five hundred years that this isn’t exactly true. But there are patterns of political conflict throughout history, and you do see the same religious themes pop up again and again—the radical hierarchy of master morality versus the radical equality of slave morality, the emergence of tyrannical leaders versus the diffuse power of democratic institutions, the struggle of adult virtues against childish extremism. While the “isms” have changed throughout the centuries, the same hope-driven human impulses have been behind each movement. And while each subsequent religion believes it is the ultimate, capital T “Truth” to unite humanity under a single, harmonious banner, so far, each of them has only proven to be partial and incomplete.