“There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Some government leader stated this during a time of crisis. The quote itself and its meaning seems now to be specific to one particular crisis that still looms large in our memories. When people bring it up in any subsequent crisis, we dismiss its applicability because the more immediate circumstances don’t compare to that historic crisis.
At the time spoken, it was considered a sound advice that many people accepted. While fear remained, there was at least a conversation that included fear as one of the antagonists they faced.
Significantly, it needed to be expressed explicitly as if it were a new concept. Even now, we consider this to be some kind of revelation of some prophet. However, I’m confident that the people at the time of the start of this country would have laughed at any one saying something so obvious.
In earlier centuries, fear was more present in daily life. At the end of each day they gave thanks for a day that did not end badly, or as badly as it might otherwise have been. This thanks was sincerely felt because there was an expectation that something awful could occur on each and every day of life.
These ancestors still had fears. I suspect they responded to their fears very differently than we do today. The experience of fear is constant, but they didn’t need to be reminded that fear was something that in itself should be feared. The lived through frequent episodes that provoke legitimate fear of major and often fatal consequences. They lived through these episodes starting in early childhood and of course throughout their adult lives. This experience taught them to fear inappropriate responses to fear. They did not need instructors to teach them this lesson. They learned it through their own experiences and through their observations of others.
One illustration of this is in the underlying reasoning of the second amendment, about the right to possess weaponry that could be useful in war. In the recent decades, this right was simplified as merely possessing the weapons, where the argument is about justifying this right. In earlier times, the right was first to be able to muster and army and that required people to have their own weapons. They expected that such armed responses would occur multiple times within their lifetimes. The illustration is how readily that historic period was able to muster vast armies of largely volunteers who would man defensive lines or even would serve as front lines of some offense.
Today’s military has a challenge those earlier times did not have. That challenge is to replace the training of fearing fear that earlier generation had learned since childhood. While some portion of the military going through elite training may approach this type of competency, this training probably takes a lot more time and expense to approach what the earlier generations had. Even among the most elite of modern fighters, the mastery of fear is probably not as common or as strong as that earlier generation that benefited from learning fear from earlier more formative years.
At the time of the drafting of the constitution, the authors left out things they considered obvious. They did not anticipate a future that would not have the experiences that would allow them learn how to respond to fear. As a result, they left this notion out of the constitution. In their defense of the feasibility of a republic, they did recognize the need for a high moral caliber from both the leaders and the electorate. We interpret that morality to be religious morality such as sexual fidelity to one’s marriage, and thus dismissible as outdated. Their definition of moral qualities included a maturity to respond properly to the fear coming from a dangerous world. The closest quote I can think of that expresses this is one that says that a population that is willing to exchange liberty for safety will get neither.
Fear is real and justified. Fear is something to expect to happen at any time. The important thing is to respond to fear appropriately so that the response does not worsen the situation far beyond what would have happened naturally.
A frequently experienced situation at the time was panic reaction of crowds leading to disorganized behavior that prevented an effective response, or that caused more harm as in the example of people being trampled to death in stampede type actions. This kind of thing happens in modern times but it is rare and often very remote. Most people do not experience this kind of out of control situation personally. They don’t learn that this natural flight response is detrimental.
I recall vividly of a very minor instance where I was truly frozen in fear. I was walking along high rises where there was construction going on high above. Suddenly I heard a loud and unexpected roar and I vividly recall the unreal experience of being unable to move. Initially the response was completely subconscious, but later I rationalized that I expected that the building was collapsing. It turned out to be a military jet flying low, probably after takeoff from the runway but taking a different path than normally used by commercial flights, and that was probably to avoid disrupting their flight patterns. It just happened to send the jet overhead and the noise amplified through the echoing between buildings. My point is that this was the first time I experienced that kind of frozen fear, and I experienced it as a young man in his late 20s. I was blessed to not have to experience this kind of reaction when I was growing up. Or maybe, that lack of experience was a curse as evidenced of my generally anxious demeanor throughout adulthood.
Improper responses to fear are responses that make things worse than the thing feared in the first place.
Going back to the early years of our republic, the expectation was that the electorate and leaders would have an innate respect for the response to fear. The proper functioning of a democratic republic is one that avoids tyrannical rule. One element that makes tyrannies to arise and that strengthens tyrannical rule is the imposition of fear among the population. When sufficiently fearful, people grant power to tyrants to relieve them of this fear. Given the fear present, they do not feel that their forfeiture of liberty is a sacrifice. The authors of the constitution for a republic would consider this kind of fear to contrary to moral character to make the republic work.
It is unfortunate that there is not within the constitution, perhaps in the preamble, of the necessity of the population to competently respond to fear itself. This would be a prescriptive declaration that restates the quote about nothing to fear but fear itself. Had that been in the document, FDR would have sounded silly to express it as some kind of inspired revelation.
In the recent two decades, it is rare for any leader to make such a statement about fearing fear itself. When it does come up the speaker is not taken seriously, and is often dismissed as a candidate for leadership. Modern leadership is instead obsessed with fear and with fear mongering. This occurs from all political sides. These modern fears are also frequently against invisible enemies. Examples include the presumed existence of terrorist sleeper cells, or of the prospect of uninsurable pre-existing medical conditions. Recently, of course, are the examples of a new virus and of the mRNA injection meant to make the virus less dangerous.
All of these root causes are invisible to normal experience. In the recent example, laypersons cannot see the virus nor observe its life cycle. Similar, they can not observe the operation of the body’s reaction to some injection, other than to feel the side effects when they get the injection.
Invisible enemies are very pernicious to a republic because they are impossible to debate against. The only argument for either the pro or the con side is to trust the experts who claim to be able to see these enemies invisible to normal people.
Recently, I heard a claim I hadn’t heard before. That topic concerned medical school where the first year is deliberately difficult in order to have large number of students fail at least one course, where failing too many courses will result in dismissal from the college. The claim was that this was deliberate because the school wanted students to fail, and more importantly, to fear their continued education would be in jeopardy. This fear would be especially impactful for first year students whose admission required an education record of excelling in their prior studies, and certainly not failing. Getting a failing grade and that threat of possible expulsion would have a profound impact.
The objective is that this fear will put the student in a mindset to more readily accept the information provided to them. This acceptance goes beyond merely passing the next example. The profound fear would cause that information to become part of the student’s belief system. The information became unquestionable even when the evidence is unpersuasive when considered critically.
In hindsight, I experienced this personally in my own education. My undergraduate education was funded partially by a scholarship that required good grades and I failed a course in my first year. I recall taking courses more seriously after then, but not fully to the extent described above. My pursuit of a master’s degree did result in my being expelled from one school for failing to make grades. This did not have a big impact because I managed to rationalize this as a result of remote learning through televised classes while working a full time job.
I later tried a master’s degree a second time with the added commitment by quitting my employment so I can focus fully on study. This too resulted in a threat of expulsion due to not making good enough grades. This threat was very real, and the stakes were very high because I sacrificed a start at a career to attempt this. While I did work harder to avoid further failing grades, I had the opposite than intended reaction. I did not accept anything I was taught as being worth believing.
This fear-instilled belief programming did not work with me because of that interruption of my education, placing work experience between bachelor’s and master’s study. It was also a result of accident where I downgraded the quality of school I chose for a master’s degree. The school’s master’s degree program was covering material I already learned in undergraduate courses as a better school, at least in the topics I was studying. I failed the graduate level course because I became convinced that the professor didn’t know what he was teaching. Maybe I was wrong in that conviction, but the fact remained that I was confident. I didn’t mind failing a course that was poorly taught and incompetently tested. I did fear the consequences, but my reaction was to suspect everything I was taught. I learned to give the answers they wanted without incorporating that knowledge in my belief system.
While I personally escaped the fear trap described for medical students, I recognized going through the same trap and having the option to begin believing what I was taught. The accidents of my life circumstances allowed me to escape. Those accidents were life disappointments outside of academics. Had those disappointments not occurred, I can easily see myself more fully committed to learning to the point of believing what I was taught.
My masters degree did end in a dissertation of a research project, and part of that included my defending a claim that explicitly contradicted something that I was taught. It is in the published dissertation, but the actual claim I was making was diluted by explanations of possible experimental errors. Even that probably started my obsession of preferring observations over theories. Ironically, the fear factor of threatening my academic prospects had the opposite effect of encouraging me to disbelieve the theories. That said, I fully agree that such fear following course failure will encourage most people to believe in what they are taught instead of just getting the test questions right.
The recent experiences with social media exhibits a very similar dynamic with the above described academic situation. In the academic environment, the threat is expulsion from a degree program, or at least from the scholarships that would fund it. This is tantamount to a cancellation. Once expelled, a person will likely be unable to pursue a goal of higher academic achievement at least in the timeframe that will benefit his life. Earning a PhD in middle age is much less valuable than the same when still in one’s twenties. The advent of the social media recently implemented safety-and-trust policies that bans people for not complying to a prescribed pattern of behavior. This is very similar to the academic situation where the banning results in the often permanent exclusion of that individual from a cherished forum.
Following the academic model, the standards of behavior implements a strike system where a strike is similar to failing a course. Accumulating three strikes expels the participant just like failing 3 courses would likely expel one from studying, or at least from qualifying for financial aid and discounts.
In the modern times when many interpersonal relationships and reputations are mostly in the online space, the stakes are very high for losing access to an online or social-media presence. The first strike will shock a person as deeply as it would an ambitious first year medical student. In either case, the person would come back to try to erase that bad mark not only with avoiding similar failures in the future, but subconsciously believing in the theories behind that disciplinary action. The person will come out of it believing that the bad grade was disserved even when he previously trusted his reasoning that led to the bad mark.
The point here is that there can be a strategic use making people experience the fear of imminent expulsion traceable to their action or inaction. When sufficiently motivated, as most people would be, the person would respond not only to comply with expectations but also to change his belief system at a subconscious level to the point of becoming an avid defender of those expectations for future new comers.
I speculated earlier that our ancestors were more immune to this kind of manipulation because they had already learned how to approach fear. They learned these lessons from the ultimate threat of expulsion, the real and frequently observed death or crippling of people in their own lives. They went through similar circumstances that harmed others and through that experience they learned to respect fear both in the warnings it offers, but also in the dangers it presents. I imagine the earlier generations of the electorate and leaders of the republic where more immune to the threat of expulsion from the consequences of their risk taking.
This immunity to poorly responding to fear is possibly a necessary requirement for a well run democratic republic. I suggest that the modern population does not have this immunity. Consequently, we are facing the risk of losing the republic, if it is not lost already.
In this blog, I describe an alternative form of government that gets humans out of the process of enacting enforceable policies. Machine intelligence would select the optimal policies using trusted data sources of recent observations. The public would decide what objectives to optimize, and what data sources to trust. The public would also decide when a policy would be needed. The policy would expire quickly so that the public would have to request a renewal or replacement.
The benefit of such a government is that the public is well aware of the prioritized objectives that the policies need to optimize when the public demands a new policy. I assume that the machine intelligence would faithfully evaluate these objectives to select the optimal policy. I imagine that these policies will favor future benefits for the survivors of the current circumstances. Consequently, these policies would at least consider sacrifices in the present to gain some future benefit or to avoid some future hazard.
I call my imagined version of this government a dedomenocracy. Foremost in the priorities of a dedomenocracy is to have a population that provides it with the best possible data to evaluate. I described earlier that the dedomenocracy prefers full liberty because this permits observing human behavior without bias from some imposed rule. To find the policy most likely to deliver a desired outcome, there is a need for an accurate assessment of what to expect from the current population. Given the above discussion, I would add that the beneficial outcomes also depends on the population being free from developing beliefs out of some reaction of fear.
There are many possibilities for how a government by data could be implemented. There are also many ways that a democratic republic could be implemented. In either case, there will be only a few possibilities that would be successful in the long term. There is an important distinction between a republic and a dedomenocracy: the republic favors law making that is easier to enact than to repeal, while a dedomenocracy avoids any long lasting law. However, both are similar in their requirements for a properly prepared electorate.
I propose that both forms of government require a population that is well inoculated against inappropriate responses fear. Both forms of government should fear the response to fear itself. Republics needs a population that can maintain their wits during crises to properly argue to select the optimal response. Dedomenocracy needs a population whose behavior is as close as possible to the behaviors of future populations, and this requires them to be free from beliefs imposed by past experiences of fear. A robust government alternative to tyranny requires diligence in preparing the population to react rationally when facing fear.
When a population succumbs to fear, they will readily welcome a tyrant.
In this discussion, I apply metaphors of medicine to fear as if fear is a contagious disease. I describe the need for a population have some level of immunity to fear itself either though direct experience or some kind of controlled indoctrination. This is similar to the concepts currently discussed concerning the pandemic where we strive for a herd immunity to a virus by building immunity either through directly recovery from the virus, or indirectly from a properly functioning vaccine.
There may be a closer relationship between the virus and fear. Recently there has been an increasing popularity of discussing terrain theory of disease as an alternative to contagion theory. In the terrain theory, the observed sickness, including the observed microscopic intruders, are the healing response to some prior insult or injury caused by what the the perhaps previously experienced. That insult may be poison, or trauma, internal imbalances, or excessively emotional responses. In either case, the body will enlist microbes in an attempt to repair the damage. That strategy may at times get out of control to the point of threatening life, but the denial of the initial response may have similar ramifications by not allowing the body to heal naturally.
I am not taking position as whether terrain theory has any merit, but I do note that one of the possible insults might be improperly controlled fear. Fear might lead to a healing response by the body. According to terrain theory, attempts to medically interfere with this healing process could exacerbate the situation so that the treatment is what causes the worsening disease and death. We end up treating the healing instead of addressing the improperly controlled fear that is causing adverse bodily consequences.
In a post I wrote last year, I wondered about the specific demographics most vulnerable to this virus. For a virus that exploits an innate vulnerability of certain cells, I would expect the vulnerable population to be more broad. In particular, I would expect that the age group of infants to toddlers to have comparable vulnerabilities to the aged with comorbidities. Both age groups have less than optimal immune systems. Yet we observe the older age group to be highly vulnerable while the youngest appear to be unaffected by the virus at all.
I acknowledge that the disease theory can explain this with different types of immunity or cell vulnerability avilable to infants. Even granted that, it is surprising to have this kind of differentiation of populations from the simple mechanism of a virus that exploits a particular receptor on cells commonly found in lungs.
From a terrain theory, there is another distinction between infants and elderly. That distinction is knowledge and believes. Infants are too young to learn about things like biowarfare, pandemic contagions, virus mechanisms, and the exclusivity of vaccines as a treatment for viruses. Part of the reason they survive unscathed is that they don’t comprehend the fuss going around them.
Within the elderly, there is another distinction where the more vulnerable are people with so-called comorbidities or pre-existing conditions. The accepted explanation is that the body’s efforts to deal with these other issues leave it too exhausted to fight off a virus. I am bothered by the list of comorbidities most vulnerable to the virus. Prominent in the list are hypertension, diabetes, and obesity. These are not intuitive to me. The list of vulnerable comorbidities includes just about every type of medical condition. The implication that anything short of perfect health is a risk factor for getting serious complications from a solitary type of virus.
Just as I am suspicious about the specificity of age groups vulnerable to a virus, I am suspicious about the generality of all of the possible preexisting medical conditions that can make a person vulnerable. There may be a similar explanation from a fear perspective. People with preexisting conditions are undergoing treatment or at least have a medical prescription for managing a condition that they are informed might kill them.
People with these conditions are more aware of the nearness of their deaths than people without these conditions. These patients are receiving frequent medical visits to monitor their progress, and they have daily reminders of their conditions both through home testing and through medications. Both testing and medications communicate to the body’s physiology that something is to be feared. The body is trying to heal itself both from the condition and from the results of the medical interventions.
Psychologically, these patients may react more negatively to news of new pandemic, and especially with news reports of sudden death of people who did not exhibit symptoms a day or so prior. Their current treatment regimens have primed them to fear what can happen next. When they get sick, or think they are getting sick, they may overreact thinking that this going to be worse for them. The resulting decline is real, but the extent of the decline may be determined by the prior conditioning of managing some chronic illness that they already are convinced puts them at a higher risk of dying.
Everyone is justified to have some level of fear each time he experiences a sickness. The difficult to answer question of how bad it can be allowed to get before seeking medical help. People in the young adult age group are more likely to trust their bodies will manage the illness and they will be less likely to seek medical help. People with a frequent relationship with a doctor managing their chronic illness will bring up their sickness at the very next opportunity. This information is important for the management of the preexisting illness.
Once the medical profession gets involved, there is a new element of the fear within the medical establishment. This is compounded by the number of actors in the medical system. The doctor has his own way of dealing with his fears for and by his patient. The nurses will have their own fear behaviors. The administrators of the facilities and of setting standards of practice will have even different fear behaviors. Introducing any patient into this environment subjects the patients to the potential harms from poorly adjusted reactions to the fear.
I noticed this early in the pandemic with the steep rise in hospitalizations and high death rates. That was a year ago. After the initial spike, there were much lower rates of infections to hospitalizations and deaths. The disease explanation is that the virus naturally weakened as a consequence of the evolution preferentially selecting viruses that do not immediately kill the host. The fear explanation is that medical establishment learned to overcome their worst fears and begin to manage the cases more competently.
Meanwhile, there continue to be severe outbreaks in care homes. While these centers have some medical background, most of their patients do not require acute medical care. When an outbreak occurs at a care home, there may be a similar fear reaction that was initially seen in hospitals. The fear reaction is reasonable because it takes a while to figure out what is going on and by the time the situation is better understood there already many deaths and people with illnesses advanced to the stage of being unlikely recover.
Another aspect of the past year’s experience is the observation of different government responses. The virus itself is simple (compared to lifeforms) and targets a cell vulnerability inside every human. This would suggest that every nation would by now have the same experiences in terms of infection rates, and in terms of ratios of infections to hospitalization and death rates. Nations sharing borders and with similar climates have very different experiences of outcomes from the disease. Consistent with the fear hypothesis I have been discussing, the worst performing nations are those with the most advanced health care systems and medical expertise. The increased confidence in the virology may be a source of fear that will cause the more advanced medical systems to react more aggressively when a less aggressive and calmer approach may work better.
The government responses include publicly announcing periods of lockdowns, social distance requirements, occupancy restrictions, suspension of non-essential occupations, and mask wearing. We now have over a year of data comparing multiple areas with different timelines and different policies. There are many examples where the imposition of stricter policies were followed by very high increases in infection rates, hospitalizations, and deaths. In most cases, the policies had the intention of halting a trend observed prior to the policy, but that trend is unnoticeable when compared to the subsequent rates. Looking at these graphs, it is reasonable for a layperson to conclude that the stricter policies caused the worsening conditions. Evidence that comparable territories had lower infections and hospitalizations despite not imposing any restrictions.
I suspect fear may play a role in these trends as well. The simple announcement of more restrictive measures alarms everyone that the situation is likely to get worse. This will lead to more people seeking testing, and more people checking their symptom with the health system. Once in the health system, the health professionals would also be primed by the government’s announcements to suspect the worse and over treat people, causing the patients to lose confidence in their own situation. All of this can compound into higher rates. These rates may accurately be attributed to the virus, but actual root cause is the fear monger that gave the opportunities for the virus to exploit. On the other hand, I suspect the rates includes cases solely related to the fear responses that the government policies encouraged.
I return to my concept of a dedomenocracy. This type of government spends most of its resources on collecting data about human behavior with as little government interference as possible. I envision a distant time when such a government has been operating for multiple generations so it has good data about human responses to crises. That data should tell the algorithm that humans are prone to fear reactions. It will also tell the algorithm that an over protected population lacks the experience of handing real fears.
When confronting a new crises, the dedomenocracy would take into account the fear vulnerability of individuals and of entire groups. It would pick policies that avoid making things worse by provoking fears that the population is unprepared to handle. It would pick policies that would give the population a chance to learn about facing a real threat.
The policies would presumably avoid existential threatening levels of deaths, but it would be more tolerant to a low level that is nonetheless much higher than what our democracy is able to tolerate. Managing the pandemic instead of attempting to eradicate it will give the population an opportunity to build up herd immunity, both to this virus, and to fear itself.