Regular readers of Eternity Road will be aware that government doesn't get a lot of slack from your Curmudgeon. This is as it must be; no entity with hands that bloody, that prone to robbery with violence, that untrustworthy in its statements deserves any decent man's indulgence. If government is a necessity, a proposition open to serious question, it must be treated like a large, aggressive guard dog: kept on the shortest and strongest of leashes, and whipped back into its kennel whenever it trespasses its bounds by so much as an inch.
But not all Americans are frustrated lovers of freedom desperate for a lever with which to roll back the State's incursions. One must recognize the enemy among us: private citizens, usually wholly convinced that they're on the side of the angels, who actively press for increases in government authority and enforcement power on subjects of specific interest to them.
When politicians and governments seek expanded powers, they routinely emphasize whatever threats, or pseudo-threats, they want the populace to take most seriously. A bit of perceptual engineering is required here, for the truly serious threats to a nation rarely require the State to do anything other than what it's already authorized to do: defend the borders, keep order in the streets, and put the violent and fraudulent behind bars. If such genuinely serious threats are afoot, quite often the masters of the State will attempt to minimize their significance. Real threats demand real work and real risk-taking. Worse, as everyone agrees on the necessity of countering them, they can't be used to buy special-interest groups' support.
Inversely, a "threat" that matters only to a special-interest group is political fodder for the masters of the State. It presents them with the opportunity to buy electoral support with other people's money and liberties. Public Choice economics tells us that We the People in the main will be inadequately moved to defend ourselves against marginal incursions and exactions. No revolutions have started over a recycling law or a one percent increase in tax rates. But one dollar taken from every American household would create a fund of $200 million; quite a lot of special-interest groups would sell their loyalties for far less than that.
Thus, the State and its media allies have a powerful incentive to deflect our attention from greater threats and to exaggerate the importance of lesser ones. We can see this incentive in operation clearly in several current controversies.
Surely no one knows the politics of the Middle East better than Benjamin Netanyahu, former Prime Minister of Israel. Yesterday evening on Glenn Beck's Headline News television segment, he said quite clearly and forcefully that to allow Iran to acquire weapons of mass destruction -- specifically, nuclear weapons -- would rip Iraq's nascent republic apart and cost the United States all influence over that region. His argument is that in any contest of wills, Muslims invariably side with whoever appears to be winning, and that Iran's acquisition of nukes would strike the peoples of the Middle East as a clear sign that militant Islam of the Iranian variety is destined to conquer. Even the people of Iraq, supposedly grateful to America for having been relieved of Saddam Hussein and the Ba'athists, would be swayed onto the Iranian bandwagon.
That's an enormous threat, even if we consider only its implications for our access to oil. For Prime Minister Netanyahu to have stated it as calmly and concisely as he did suggests that other well-informed persons would concur. But what is Washington doing about the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran at this time? Precisely what it's doing about nuclear-armed North Korea: nothing. Our masters are reluctant even to address the subject in a public forum.
By comparison, consider the "global warming" canard. It's now beyond dispute that the slight warming trend of the late 20th Century (which followed a comparable cooling trend in the middle 20th Century) is over. Indeed, the polar icecaps are thickening, ocean temperatures worldwide are cooling, and orbital monitors reveal a slight decrease in atmospheric temperatures since 1998. Recent heliography suggests that the solar constant -- the Sun's radiation flux per unit of surface area -- is more likely to decrease than increase over the next few decades.
Yet enormous attention is going to anti-global-warming initiatives, both in the halls of power and in our mass media. This non-threat, about which Mankind could do little in any case, is receiving far more political attention than the prospect of Iranian nukes. Anthropogenic global warming is the faith of a large, well funded interest community. Its congregants hold to it with fanatic intensity, and can be swayed into supporting whatever politicians seem most ardent about their Cause.
Look about you, Gentle Reader. Assess for yourself the potency of all the threats, real and notional, you can tabulate. Flaccid border control. Rising taxes. Exploding food and fuel costs. Rampant currency inflation. Disastrous government-run schooling. The disintegration of our roads. Hispanic and Islamic exclaves within our borders. "Affordable housing." Internet pornography. Violent video games. Baseball players using strength enhancers. The possibility of a third Boston Red Sox world championship within five years. Put those in priority order; next to them, list the intensity of the associated media campaigns and governmental responses. Do the greatest threats receive the most column-inches and air time, or the least? Do they receive the most draconian legislative and executive responses, or the least?
What is PERCEPTUAL ENGINEERING?
Every threat possesses certain characteristics, which we probe with a series of questions:
Who is threatened?
To what extent?
Who or what is doing the threatening?
What's the time frame involved -- that is, if everything remains as it currently is, when will the threat eventuate in damage to the threatened party?
What can be done to avert or mitigate it?
What would the costs of the proposed action be?
Can we foresee any unintended consequences?
If we can get trustworthy answers to those questions, we can classify and prioritize threats, and assign the responsibility for responding to them to the appropriate persons and institutions. Most germane to this essay is the set of answers that would legitimately classify a threat as belonging to the political sphere:
Who is threatened? A large enough subset of the polity to justify a political response; preferably, everyone.
To what extent? The threatened population could suffer severe, possibly lethal harm, if what's threatened were to come to pass.
Who or what is doing the threatening? Either a nation, a sizable armed "non-state actor," or an impersonal natural force too large for a unit smaller than a government to address.
What's the time frame involved -- that is, if everything remains as it currently is, when will the threat eventuate in damage to the threatened party? Soon; far too soon for individuals and private organizations responding to market incentives to fashion their own defenses.
What can be done to avert or mitigate it? An effective response will require marshaling the resources of the polity.
By whom? The government, of course.
What would the costs of the proposed action be? Far less than the costs of "burying our heads in the sand."
Can we foresee any unintended consequences? None of comparable importance, as long as the government is permitted to do its job.
When media organs contrive to force that set of answers on us through framing, filtering, or otherwise fitting the threat to a particular "narrative," they are engaged not in honest, objective reporting but in perceptual engineering. Its impact will be to expand State power at the expense of individual freedom. The conscious motives of the perceptual engineers might be largely wholesome. Even their subconscious motives might not be reprehensible; conviction penetrates the mind to an unknowable degree. But the thrust of their machinations cannot be denied: their work will enlarge the State and intensify its incursions into our lives and property.