“States, Stockholm Syndrome, and Pseudo-Patriotism”


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This article speaks for itself:

States, Stockholm Syndrome, and Pseudo-Patriotism

By Harry Elliott
The Stanford Review

The author would like to thank Michael Huemer for his initial Stockholm Syndrome thesis discussed in his work on anarchocapitalism.

A government has the power, in most cases, to enslave us at a moment’s notice for a war we may not support, and to silence anybody who speaks ill of its military plans. It forces us to send our children to school whether or not we approve of it. It forbids us from agreeing freely with an employer to work for less than $7.25 an hour. It tells us what we may and may not buy, sell, eat, drink, watch, smoke, drive and consent to. Most concerning, it demands up to 40% of the money we make to fuel these acts of coercion, and has the power to incarcerate and fine us if we refuse to pay up.

One would perhaps expect, given we have come to value freedom and individual liberty over the last century or so, that people would loathe the state; yet, to the contrary, any effort to shrink its size or scope is met with indignation. It is hardly surprising that within the structure of a state, individuals seek to maximize their own political and economic interests, unfortunate though the results may be for the bankers and energy companies of this world. It is curious, however, that people not only support the process of the state but also the entity of it. Those who accuse war drafts of being coercive and illegitimate are vilified as traitors. Refusing to pay one’s taxes – or even simply seeking to pay the least permissible – has led to protests against companies whose tax savings have allowed them to employ thousands more people than they otherwise would have. Even fleeing the state to escape its coercion is met with media fury.

There appears to be something deeply embedded into the psyche that many would label ‘patriotism’. However, it is difficult to tell why somebody would feel patriotic to a state which has, does and will deny its citizens vast swathes of rights, which persistently evades transparency measures, and which bullies people into paying for its ‘services’. Patriotism becomes even harder to explain when we consider just how arbitrary nationality is. We have no choice as to when or where we are born, so it seems odd that we should exhibit specific loyalty to the particular government within whose borders we came to be, especially when this loyalty also comprises actively fighting people from other nations.

There is one particular psychological condition, however, which sheds some light on this quandary. It is named after a 1973 incident in which four hostages repeatedly sympathized with and sought to protect two bank robbers who had held them for nearly a week. In the last forty years, a handful more examples of Stockholm Syndrome have occurred, each involving victims showing compassion to criminals, often in improbable and shocking circumstances. Psychological precedent would suggest that four conditions are required for Stockholm Syndrome to develop. First, the criminal must pose a serious threat to the victim. Second, the victim must be isolated from outside influences. Third, the victim must feel completely unable to escape his captivity or to defend himself. Fourth, the victim must feel that some compassion has been shown. This does not entail a bank robber offering burgers and cookies to a hostage, but simply means that captors have not been as aggressive as they theoretically could.

While Stockholm Syndrome is hard to pin down, owing to the panic of most situations in which it occurs and the rarity and range of its appearances, these four conditions remain fairly stable. The first three are necessary to trigger the primal response to which the phenomenon has been attributed. Victims must be powerless, at the mercy of an all-powerful assailant, and far away from others who can help. The fourth condition causes humans instinctively to believe that the otherwise bizarre behavior of capitulation, respect and sympathy is the utility-maximizing action to follow. Stockholm Syndrome seems to be a long-forgotten evolutionary response to large-scale, overpowering threats who nonetheless seem to show even slight signs of mercy towards their victims. This Darwinistic argument is borne out by modern game theory models of outcome-optimizing behavior. If one can possibly overcome the power of an enemy, that would be the logical action to take; if escape were viable, it would make sense to pursue that option. But if neither of these routes is likely to be successful, it seems that the best response to an aggressor who has formerly shown signs of relenting is a charm offensive.

Although most obvious in a hostage-taking context, Stockholm Syndrome has been observed in gangs, cults, and even victims of abuse. Given it was identified as a driver in the Stanford Prison Experiment – where experimental subjects labeled as ‘prison guards’ proceeded to abuse their ‘prisoners’ brutally with little resistance from those being abused, to such an extent that the project was terminated early – it hardly seems impossible to suggest that other institutions may use such psychological leverage.

Let us, therefore, try to link the four defining traits of Stockholm Syndrome to the situation of a citizen within a modern state. First, we must establish that the aggressor poses a threat to its victims. This is, in fact, precisely how the government functions: every violation of the law is met with a series of powerful responses, up to and including life imprisonment. Indeed, if no overwhelming threat existed to citizens, they would have no incentive to obey laws. Second, we must show that victims are disconnected from the outside world. In the context of government coercion, ‘outside influences’ most accurately means people from other countries. However, it then becomes obvious why these outside influences fail to hold back Stockholm Syndrome: they are all also under the power of an oppressive state! Given that hostages exhibit Stockholm Syndrome even alongside other hostages, it follows that this sort of ‘external’ contact has no impact on the condition. Third, we have to show that citizens are unable to escape their captivity or to defend themselves against the force of the state. While constitutionalists like to protect Second Amendment rights for fear of totalitarianism, it is reasonably self-evident that no individual has any hope of defending himself from a modern government. This is arguably most true in the US, whose military spends more than every single other military in the world combined. ‘Escaping’ to another country means nothing when that country is also an oppressor.

Having plausibly satisfied these three burdens, our only task remaining is to show that the state exhibits some compassion towards citizens. Luckily, this is not difficult. The state furnishes children with free education, the unemployed with welfare, pensioners with guaranteed social security, and everyone with roads, hospitals, and other public services paid for in significant part by a small proportion of the population. Even if the thousands of social services the government provides do not seem sufficiently charitable, we can look to political theorists who suggest that our present government is permissible because past states abused their power more. While saying that slavery’s abolition magically makes income taxes legitimate is akin to arguing that carpet-bombing London is acceptable because we could have launched a nuclear missile at it instead, this sort of discourse directly affirms that states could theoretically be less compassionate than they are at present, and yet continue to function.

The above suggests that Stockholm Syndrome may well exist in citizens towards their states. As a result, it is unsurprising to see the symptoms of such a condition in society. People often ignore or actively deny how oppressive their government is, and disregard or rapidly override the harms of coercion when discussing the legitimacy of particular policies. Patriotism – or whichever term you would prefer, since that word has other meanings tied up with it – is a rational response to an all-powerful subjugator, and once entrenched, becomes hard to shed.

The fact that government seems to be an institution for good, not evil, is what makes this thesis so hard to believe; yet, of course, that is precisely the point. Unnatural feelings of support for those within arbitrary borders, and dislike for those without, can only be explained as the product of a deep psychological phenomenon. Breaking free may be hard, even counterintuitive. But unless we do so, we risk being forever engulfed in blind obedience to a state that should command neither our will nor our support without first justifying its existence.

Source: TheStanfordReview

Source: States, Stockholm Syndrome, and Pseudo-Patriotism – Zen Gardner