The Null Device

The Gordian Knot Delusion

Observing political debate, I have noticed a trope that keeps recurring, particularly (these days) on the Right. I'll call it the Gordian Knot Delusion. It says, in essence, “the so-called experts/eggheads/‘intellectuals’ keep going on about how complex things are, but they're liars. When you get down to it, things really are simple.” (There is an implicit “Watch this!” after that, as the speaker purports to bulldoze their way through some issue that namby-pamby liberals and ivory-tower boffins have been wringing their hands ineffectually over, like the two-fisted, lantern-jawed hero of one of those old sci-fi paperbacks the Sad Puppies lament aren't being written any more.) An example of the Gordian Knot Delusion, on that favourite subject of taxes/economics, recently manifested itself in the following tweet from Conservative commentator Daniel Hannan:

If tobacco taxes disincentivise smoking, and petrol taxes disincentivise driving, what do you suppose income taxes do?

— Daniel Hannan (@DanielJHannan) September 4, 2016

It does not need to be pointed out that this is an extremely simplistic argument, more an act of trolling (in its original sense of seeking to provoke a pile-on of responses) than a serious inquiry in good faith, at least, if one assumes that the author is not a simpleton. It achieved its aim, in that others piled on with rebuttals on the same level, along the lines of “if olive oil is made of olives, what is baby oil made of?”. But if one takes the premise beneath it at face value, or at least treats it as something more meaningful than wordplay, the Gordian Knot Delusion comes through. Taxes disincentivise prosperity, it implies, unqualifyingly; cut taxes to the bone and watch prosperity take off like a rocket. And ignore the tweedy, elbow-patched fellow there saying that it's more complicated than that; the man looks like a commie, and is probably after your piece of the pie.

The Gordian Knot Delusion, the idea that things are simpler than they are claimed to be, is trotted out by amateur spectators in a lot of fields. Economics is a big one: witness the “common-sense” idea that national economies work like household budgets, with a largely fixed income that is unaffected by the level of spending. By this token, one can believe that deficit spending is inherently irresponsible and austerity is, in itself, good economic housekeeping. (This, of course, falls apart when one considers that economic activity generates wealth, and that savings at rest have no economic impact, but it feels enough like common sense that one can persuade oneself that these objections are sophistry by ivory-tower eggheads, Marxists and moochers.) Ecology and the environment are another area; nobody can see global warming, or when they can, one can believe that the evidence is still out, (or once it isn't, it's too late to do anything so crank your air conditioning up and enjoy the ride); and as for that habitat of endangered newts the hippies are protesting about, let's just drive a motorway through it and see what happens; betcha that everything will be alright. The bees are dying off? Who cares about a buncha dumb bugs! The coral reefs are too? The tabloids say they're not. And if they are, so what?

And then there's modern society in general: gender-neutral job titles and ladies wearing trousers and lactose-free milk in the supermarket, oh my! Your son, who used to be your daughter, is taking medication for ADHD, your other daughter has a girlfriend, your boss wears a nose ring, and the golliwog doll from your childhood is now a potential hate crime. In the good old days, these things didn't exist, or if they did, they were hammered flat like a lump under the rug; people accepted their lot in life, and, as the refrain goes, everything was alright. (One part of this is the myth that these complex conditions, from gluten intolerance to gender dysphoria, don't actually exist, but are made up by an unholy alliance of bureaucrats, drug companies, the liberal media and people who want to feel like special snowflakes; the corollary: were it not for the conspiracy, a sharp clip around the ear would sort them out just as well.)

At its core, the Gordian Knot Delusion is an application of the 80/20 rule to the modern world at large; the belief that complexity is superfluous, and that rather than fretting over it, one should just stride over and cut the knot, deciding that the world is actually simple; witnessing the lack of an immediate catastrophe, one will find one's common sense and derring-do vindicated. (The original Gordian Knot was cut by that gung-ho man of action, Alexander the Great, which is always a flattering comparison.) The other part of the Gordian Knot Delusion is the stab-in-the-back narrative of how the world started to look deceptively complex. As the paranoiac's dictum goes, shit doesn't just happen, but is caused by assholes; in this case, all that talk about how complex things are is the work of a conspiracy; a motley crew of commie traitors, ivory-tower academics, so-called “intellectuals” corrupted by book-learning, miscellaneous perverts, Satanic cultists and out-and-out crooks and thieves out to keep the gravy-train of complexity going, all the better to steal from the simple honest folks. (The trope about climate change being a massive fraud for the purpose of maintaining funding for otherwise worthless research is a classic of the genre.) It is, as conspiracy theories tend to be, a compelling story, especially those who feel themselves bewildered or victimised by the world.

Whilst ostensibly associated with the Right these days, the Gordian Knot Delusion is actually the very antithesis of Edmund Burke's Conservatism, formulated in the wake of that catastrophic leftist severing of this knot, the French Revolution. Burke's argument (framing Conservatism for a world where the divine right of kings was no longer accepted and the University of Chicago School of Economics had yet to come into being and coin its modern analogue, trickle-down economics) was that things are much more complicated than one can comprehend, that bold attempts to destroy ancient injustices are also likely to have countless unintended consequences, and that one should stick to gradual, tentative reforms at best, if not to just give up and learn to live with the world as it is in all its richness and iniquity. Today, one might expect to hear that sort of argument, but only from a hair-shirted greenie warning against tampering with Mother Gaia's blessings. The Robespierres of the Right are all too happy to break things and observe that, on a macro level, everything is alright (whilst circularly classifying those for whom they are not alright as bums and sore losers). These radicals are in alliance with a growing number of people who are anything but radical in temperament, but who have been radicalised by the rapid pace of change, and for whom the idea of turning back the clock to (what in retrospect seems like) a simpler time has appeal. The shift of the Gordian Knot from the Left to the Right could be a result of the increasingly rapid pace of social and technological change.

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