"The problem with the [Ron] Paul movement is that it has become a cult. Far too many of the cultists not only are willingly blind to their leader's faults but have also begun to internalize his beliefs as they justify his writings and actions."
I have always been interested in the phenomenon of cults. I have often tried to fight cult beliefs with logic, and I am used to getting bombarded with disappointed and/or angry email from people who subscribe to beliefs that I find illogical. Still, I should say that I have always had difficulty coming up with a good definition of "cult."
As an aside, Nobel Laureate George Akerlof also found the phenomenon of cults interesting. He gave a classic lecture on procrastination, in which he suggested that the process of joining a cult consists of thinking that you are temporarily suspending rationality but forgetting to lift the suspension. So, just as a smoker says "I really have to quit...tomorrow," a cult-joiner says, "Before I join this group, I really have to take a step back and question some of their strange beliefs...tomorrow."
Examples of Cults
The groups that have seemed most cult-like to me up close were the National Caucus of Labor Committees and Amway.
The National Caucus of Labor Committees was a Trotskyite group that formed around a man named Lynn Marcus in the 1970's. He gave talks at Swarthmore when I was there, and he was a spellbinding speaker. But my friend Jeff Frankel and I noticed that his followers lost interest in everything else, had no sense of humor, and believed strongly in conspiracies. Those were signs of a cult. Since then, the group has changed its political outlook and its leader changed his name to Lyndon LaRouche.
Amway, when I encountered it almost thirty years ago, was a well-known multi-level marketing organization. If you're not familiar with multi-level marketing, let me explain it this way. If you sell for an ordinary business, someone above you in the organization pays you, and you're better off if the number of other salespeople in your areas is limited. If you sell for a multi-level marketing outfit, you pay the person above you, and it seems as though what you want is for the number of salespeople in your area under you to be unlimited.
For the typical participant, multi-level marketing necessarily collapses for the same reason that chain letters collapse. If you thought it through logically, you would not become involved. So multilevel marketing organizations evolve cult-style indoctrination methods in order to get participants to suspend logical thinking. In fact, one of the saddest aspects about multi-level marketing is that when people become committed to it, they tend to shut off contact with all of their former friends, apart from trying to convince them to join the scheme.
What is a Cult?
So, I still have not defined "cult." For now, let's say that you are in a cult if you have a set of beliefs where your emotional defense mechanisms have shut down any receptivity to what others would consider reasonable doubt.
Again, I am not sure that this is a rigorous definition. If your doubts about the theory of evolution seem reasonable to you but not to me, does that mean that from your perspective I belong to the "cult" of evolution?
Are the global warming believers a cult? Are the deniers a cult? Both? Neither?
My opinion is that the believers are a cult, because in my view the doubts are more reasonable than the believers allow. Nonetheless, the believers may turn out to be right. Of course, if the believers do turn out to be right, then it will be difficult to argue that today's doubts are reasonable, and therefore it will be difficult to characterize believers as a cult.
The Fair Tax Cult
The responses I got to my essay on the Fair Tax from FairTax supporters seemed very cult-like.
My argument was one of simple logic and arithmetic. I pointed out that under our current tax system, a significant proportion of revenues come from taxes on high-earning, high-saving individuals. If we maintain the same level of government spending but switch from an income tax to a consumption-based tax, then government will lose a lose a lot of that revenue. To make up for that lost revenue, the government must collect more taxes from other people, primarily people lower down the income scale.
I'm not saying that I like our current tax system. I would prefer a consumption tax. However, I think that in order to get rid of the income tax, we need to reduce government spending. If we keep government spending where it is but get rid of the income tax, then you have to stick middle-income individuals with higher taxes. That is simple arithmetic.
The FairTaxers respond with all sorts of gobbledygook about "embedded taxes" and the like. I received several comments and emails, all with the same talking points. They said that I do not understand the details or the subtlety of the FairTax. But no details can be so subtle that they repeal the laws of arithmetic.
Mass Politics and Cults
Are all mass political movements cults? I tend to think so.
Many well-meaning libertarians signed on to the "Ron Paul revolution." At first, this only required accepting his pro-life and anti-immigrant stances as libertarian, contrary to the leanings of many libertarians. More recently, a journalist for The New Republic found some newsletters that were circulated under Ron Paul's name in the 1980's and 1990's that included angry, racist rhetoric. Ron Paul himself disclaims having such sentiments, and he says that the writing was the work of someone else operating with lax supervision.
I do not know Ron Paul. He may be wise. He may be decent. But to dismiss all doubts about his judgment and his character would be to succumb to a cult.
Let me hasten to add that I do not think of the Paul cult as unique. I am equally loathe to join the Clinton cult, the Obama cult, the Guiliani cult...you name it.
For me, democratic politics is a "lesser of evils" game, and I'm never sure how best to play it. But I have to say that when I read that this year's New Hampshire primary had a record turnout, it made my heart sink rather than warm. Not that I'm against voting, but I hate to think of people as buying into anyone's political campaign.
For libertarians, I recommend focusing on institutions that compete with government: families, private schools, charities, and religious organizations (short of becoming cult-like in your devotion). I recommend developing your logical reasoning skills and applying those skills to questioning what politicians say. But I do not recommend joining mass political movements. Instead, treat them as cults.