Alberto Mingardi  

Politics, complexity, and confusion in the social media sphere

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Very few people have used the seemingly sensible argument that there is little use in arguing against public debt when borrowing is so cheap.
debt clock.jpg "El vulgo admira mas lo confuso que lo complejo." My rough translation: the people admire more what is confused than what is complex.

This is an aphorism of Nicolás Gómez-Dávila, a fascinating Colombian philosopher who may change your view (if you hold it) that aphorisms are best left to adolescence, as memorable but seldom meaningful little sentences. Here's a review-profile of Nicolás Gómez-Dávila in Modern Age.

I thought a great deal about this aphorism in the last few days, for Istituto Bruno Leoni has chosen to do something rather unusual, by think tank standards (or, at least, by our standards) for the upcoming Italian election.

Since 2010, we have been running on our website a 'debt-clock', which forecasts the monthly trends of Italian public debt. Italy didn't have a 'debt-clock' before and we placed it online, regularly updating with new data from the central bank, and making it available for any website that wants to use it.

As in this electoral campaign, the natural tendency of politicians to promise the moon to voters seems to be particularly pronounced. We chose, with a considerable effort (again, for our own standards), to put the 'debt-clock' as an ad on the maxi LED screens of the biggest train stations in Milan and Rome. It runs 855 times a day, in places where 900,000 people pass by every day.

We didn't use this ad to propose any "solution" (like privatisations) to the Italian humongous public debt: we only wanted to remind people that, well, there are no free lunches.

The reactions have been interesting. Quite a few people contacted us asking for information and clarification. On social media, we have found ourselves at the center of quite a storm: insulted and accused typically from groups on the extreme left (by which I mean: basically communists) and the extreme right (by which I mean: basically fascists).

A few of the accusations were weird but interesting. For example, we have been accused of "criminalising" common people, instead of politicians who are more directly responsible of the state of Italian public finance. Of course, we were trying to inform "common people", whose demands politicians should take into account. Very few people have used the seemingly sensible argument that there is little use in arguing against public debt when borrowing is so cheap. Most criticisms (and death threats and the like) came from people who subscribe to some kind of version of MMT, who believe that quitting the euro and renominating debt in good old liras will solve all problems, and who think that "democracies" should borrow at will, without being strangled by "markets" (by which they mean: creditors).

Here Gómez-Dávila comes in handy.

At first sight, these arguments do not look simple. They are actually constructed to seem elaborate. They are also fashionable because they have something of the mystery religion: if you buy into this, you're like admitted to share secrets that the rest of the world do not want you to access (the "mainstream"). They are elaborate, and by being elaborate they constitute a call to arms.

At the same time, these arguments are simplistic. They do not take into account complexity, let alone the complex interconnections of social events in a modern economy. They point to a deus ex machina (monetary sovereignty) which will solve all problems. They do still confuse money with wealth: a fallacy Adam Smith pointed out quite a few years ago. But that gains traction, because the opposite, sober, but uncomfortable viewpoint is presented as a contrivance of "the elites."

I think this mixture of being elaborate and being simplistic is what would go with Gómez-Dávila's "confused." This confusion is what substitutes for complexity.

Is this the secret of successful mobilisation in the contemporary social media sphere?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (2 to date)
IVV writes:

People feel smarter if they believe an argument that seems complex but is fully understandable to them. That makes the argument more attractive.

Francois Godard writes:

Very insightful comment on populism. The (Italian) election campaign is utterly depressing, there is no party of the élite in sight -- no Macron, no Clinton. Monti's cabinet survived barely a year. Then we read today the name of Prodi associated to Manafort. Mingardi's work is long term, in bocca al lupoo!


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