Magical Thinking and Authority

Recently US Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) attracted attention by calling for an all-out ban on Bitcoin, which he claims is not only “unstable and disruptive to our economy” but encourages “illicit activity.” If Manchin thinks any such law can actually be enforced, he’s delusional. His delusion illustrates a much broader phenomenon: The tendency of those in positions of authority to engage in magical thinking.

Authority is divorced from reality: It does not directly perceive the material impediments to translating its will into action, or receive accurate feedback about difficulties encountered in doing so. The reason for this is simple. As Robert Anton Wilson pointed out, subordinates don’t tell the truth to anyone with a gun — or anyone in a position to fire or punish them.

Power, by its very nature, distorts the upward flow of information. Or in the words of systems theorist Kenneth Boulding, “the larger and more authoritarian the organization, the better the chance that its top decision-makers will be operating in purely imaginary worlds.” The dysfunctional information filtering mechanisms of a hierarchy simply screen out any information that doesn’t correspond to what those in authority want to hear.

So government and corporate officials make grandiose policies without anticipating possible impediments to carrying them out, because pointing out such possibilities to your boss is a great way to get labeled “not a team player.” And that goes double for telling the boss how disastrous a policy was after the fact.

Because those at the tops of organizational pyramids communicate much more effectively with their counterparts at the tops of other pyramids than with their own subordinates, they tend to adopt “best practices” based on glowing reports from each other, keeping each other clueless as to the actual effects of such practices. Hierarchies are machines for telling naked emperors how good their clothes look.

Anyone who works within a corporate or government hierarchy, and has to do their job despite constant interference and irrationality from higher-ups, will recognize the truth of this phrase from Dilbert: “Bossworld, where the laws of time, space and mathematics don’t apply.”

I see this kind of thing all the time in my own workplace. In the age of downsizing, management drafts policies with utter disregard for the material resources required to carry them out. The hospital I worked at went through a Fish! Philosophy motivational campaign several years ago, at the same time it was downsizing patient care to dangerous — not to say criminally negligent — levels. Our mission statement was an absolute marvel of official happy talk (“provide extraordinary patient care and enrich the lives in the communities we serve”). And we got newsletters full of nonsensical statements like this: “We can provide excellent customer service regardless of our abundance or lack of staffing.” Um, yeah. And Pharaoh said, the Children of Israel can produce excellent bricks regardless of their abundance or lack of straw.

In short, when it comes to expectations for subordinates, the senior management of all hierarchies lives in a gnostic world of pure light and energy, where the mere willing of a thing is sufficient to bring it about, without regard to the material resources provided to do so.

O’Brien suggested something very similar to Winston Smith in Room 101. “If I see the rock float on water, and you see it, then it floats.” Like the kid in the Matrix who sees the spoon bending despite the fact that it does not exist, the boss “sees” positive effects of her decisions that in fact exist only in her imagination. That’s because, as a result of the distorted feedback they receive from their institutional surroundings, those in authority perceive the larger environment in much the same way as an individual experiencing a psychotic break with reality.

The same is true of the possibility of disobedience. Our management sent us a nasty memo threatening to ticket employee vehicles parked in the convenient lots close to the hospital, and to tow us if that didn’t work. The problem is, everybody I’ve ever talked to threw away their employee parking stickers when they got them, so there’s no way to identify their cars. We also have an employee ethics handbook that solemnly reassures us it’s a violation of company policy to carry out reprisals against employees who make complaints to the ethics hotline. Um, wasn’t the stuff we’re reporting also against company policy?

It’s good that people like Manchin live in this kind of imaginary world. But magical thinking is not good for the rest of us. Most of the power of those at the top results from our willingness to obey — the little cop in our heads. We need to kill that cop.

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