(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 27 March 2013)


Those who have seen the film Lincoln would conclude that the President, who abolished slavery and ushered in the Republican era, was a master heresthetician. Heresthetics is about structuring the world so that you can win in politics. The world is of course never a blank sheet of paper to write on as you please or a featureless landscape to shape as you will. It is always a canvass strewn with messy marks and objects.


The ability to comprehend this messy picture, find a way of reordering it, persuade others to join the reshaping process, keep your alliance together, successfully ward off defectors, attackers, and pretenders, and accomplish your goal is the political art of heresthetics. Politicians need to be able to persuade others to join their coalition and alliance if they are to succeed. They need to master not only rhetoric, which is concerned with the persuasion-value of sentences, but most importantly heresthetics, which is concerned with the strategy-value of sentences and aims to win in politics. To understand the function of rhetoric and heresthetics, we need to understand what is politics.


Heresthetics, Art of Politics


Politics is about making choices that would apply to all people. It is about collective action, not individual action. Economic choices in the market place are typically exemplified by voluntary individual actions. In a supermarket Chi Keung may choose to purchase some apples and May Fung may choose to buy some oranges. They are not compelled or coerced to make those purchases.


free choice is the rule insofar as individual action is concerned. But in politics the choices are different because they have wider implications. A decision to select apples as the standard fruit would imply that everyone would have to consume apples. For those who do not like apples this would represent coercion. A combination of apples and oranges in some proportion is still coercive. Coercion cannot be avoided in politics unless everyone has the exact same preferences. Collective action is necessarily coercive in some ways.


If people have different preferences, does that mean they have to be persuaded or bribed to change their positions? Interestingly both measures were employed by Lincoln to get the Thirteenth Amendment approved. Does that mean in politics we have to misrepresent the truth and practice the so-called art of half-truths or false-truths (語言偽術)? And does the end justify the means?


To address these sets of questions we must understand, first, why heresthetics is necessary in politics; second, what rhetoric is and what role it plays in heresthetics, and third, how we decide what is moral in politics.


Heresthetics Unavoidable in Politics

Heresthetics is the logical consequence of the impossibility of determining what the people want. The idea that there is a common will of the people is now known to be an illusion. This can be best illustrated with an example. Consider for simplicity a community of three individuals: Person A, Person B and Person C, who each have three choices: Choice X, Choice Y and Choice Z. Their preference rankings are as follows:


Preference Ranking Alternate Expression of Preference Ranking
Person A X > Y > Z X > Y, Y > Z, X > Z
Person B Y > Z > X Y > Z, Z > X, Y > X
Person C Z > X > Y Z > X, X > Y, Z > Y
Community (A+B+C) X > Y > Z > X X > Y, Y > Z, Z > X (and also X > Z)


Person A prefers X to Y and Y to Z, therefore, he must prefer X to Z. Person B prefers Y to Z and Z to X, therefore, he must prefer Y to X. Person C prefers Z to X and X to Y, therefore, he must prefer Z to Y. Given these individual preferences, the community’s aggregated preference (based on a simple majority rule) of the three individuals is intransitive. That is X > Y > Z > X; in other words, we have at the same time Z > X and also X > Z.


If we now ask the community to first choose between X and Y then Persons A and C will prefer X (i.e., X > Y). Using a simple majority rule, Choice Y can be eliminated. Next we ask this community to choose between X and Z. Persons B and C will prefer Z (i.e., Z > X). According to a simple majority rule, Choice Z becomes the winner.


But now suppose as President you do not like this outcome and prefer Choice X. You must be smart enough to figure out that through manipulation you may alter the sequence of pair-wise election. In a contest between X and Z alone you know that Choice X will lose because there are two persons who prefer Z (i.e., Z > X). You must therefore manipulate the sequence of voting so that Choice Z is eliminated in the first round of voting, making Choices X and Y the only available choices in the second round. You must also be smart enough to figure out that in the first round of voting you must limit the voting options of the community to choosing between Y and Z only so that Choice Z can be eliminated successfully.


The reason why manipulation is present stems from the unavoidable fact that the preference rankings of the community yields the paradoxical result of X > Y > Z > X. This phenomenon is called the cycling of preferences, or Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem named after the Nobel economist Kenneth Arrow. It reveals that public opinion cannot be a reliable guide for decision-making for collective action because the community is not able to rank what it wants in a consistent way. The idea that the people have a common will is therefore a mistaken belief held by many generations of political philosophers. Without a common will of the people, any political outcome can always be manipulated. This is the cardinal truth of positive political science and of politics in practice.


For manipulation to occur members of the community cannot possess full information for otherwise manipulation would not be feasible. Manipulation always involves the partial and strategic release of information to different parties at different times.


And even if members of the community did possess full information, the community would still not be able to decide what it wants because its preferences are cyclical, i.e., X > Y > Z > X. With intransitive preferences the community’s collective decision-making power is paralyzed. It is because of this that misrepresentation and manipulation in politics make collective action possible, and avoid paralysis in collective decision-making.


Where does heresthetics fit into this? Heresthetics is the art of ensuring a strategic victory for Choice X through manipulating the sequence of pair-wise voting options so that the Y-Z pair will be voted upon first. The ability to uncover the true conflicting preferences of members of the community and to effectively control the voting agenda is the art of heresthetics, as Lincoln showed.


Lincoln’s political genius was to successfully push for the Thirteenth Amendment to be voted on in January 1865 before the war ended. In so doing he accomplished three goals: he dictated peace terms, ended slavery, and ushered in 72 years of Republican rule, and thus created the foundations for the American century.


To achieve the Amendment’s passage, Lincoln had to gain the support of the conservative Republicans with the help of Preston Blair; tame radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens; and turn some of the loose members of the Democratic Party over to his side through persuasion and bribes. At the same time he had to persuade all parties, even his own cabinet, to push for a vote in January before a negotiated peace materialized.


If peace had arrived sooner, the support of the conservative Republicans for the Amendment would have fizzled out. While Lincoln reluctantly agreed to Blair’s insistence that permission be granted to meet with envoys from the South to negotiate peace, he was careful to stop the envoys from coming to Washington and thus stalled peace negotiations before the vote on the Amendment took place. Most significantly, Lincoln then denied peace negotiations were taking place but did not mention that he was responsible for preventing this from happening. His actions were a classic exercise in strategic agenda control and manipulation through partial release of information.


Lincoln talked to Thaddeus Stevens, asked him questions and told him facts; he offered arguments, gave reasons for believing his arguments were true; and he described the current situation, importing into his description an argument for the necessity of temperance from the strong-minded Stevens. The following dialogue in the movie successfully captures that encounter:


Abraham Lincoln: Since we have the floor next in the debate, I thought I’d suggest you might…temper your contributions so as not to frighten our conservative friends?


Thaddeus Stevens: Ashley insists you’re ensuring approval by dispensing patronage to otherwise undeserving Democrats.


Abraham Lincoln: Well, I can’t ensure a single damn thing if you scare the whole House silly with talk of land appropriations and revolutionary tribunals and punitive thisses and thats…


Thaddeus Stevens: When the war ends, I intend to push for full equality, the Negro vote and much more. Congress shall mandate the seizure of every foot of rebel land and every dollar of their property. We’ll use their confiscated wealth to establish hundreds of thousands of free Negro farmers, and at their side soldiers armed to occupy and transform the heritage of traitors. We’ll build up a land down there of free men and free women and free children and freedom. The nation needs to know that we have such plans.


Abraham Lincoln: That’s the untempered version of reconstruction. It’s not…it’s not quite exactly what I intend, but we shall oppose one another in the course of time. Now we’re working together, and I’m asking you…


Thaddeus Stevens: For patience, I expect.


Abraham Lincoln: When the people disagree, bringing them together requires going slow till they’re ready to make up the…


Thaddeus Stevens: I shit on the people and what they want and what they’re ready for! I don’t give a Goddamn about the people and what they want! This is the face of someone who has fought long and hard for the good of the people without caring much for any of ’em. And I look a lot worse without the wig. The people elected me! To represent them! To lead them! And I lead! You ought to try it!


Abraham Lincoln: I admire your zeal, Mr. Stevens, and I have tried to profit from the example of it. But if I’d listened to you, I’d have declared every slave free the minute the first shell struck Fort Sumter; then the border states would’ve gone over to the confederacy, the war would’ve been lost and the Union along with it, and instead of abolishing slavery, as we hope to do, in two weeks, we’d be watching helpless as infants as it spread from the American South into South America.


Thaddeus Stevens: Oh, how you have longed to say that to me. You claim you trust them…but you know what the people are. You know that the inner compass that should direct the soul toward justice has ossified in white men and women, north and south, unto utter uselessness through tolerating the evil of slavery. White people cannot bear the thought of sharing this country’s infinite abundance with Negroes.


Abraham Lincoln: A compass, I learnt when I was surveying, it’ll…it’ll point you True North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what’s the use of knowing True North?


In the House debate, Stevens denied that he regarded white and black people as equal, only that he regarded them as equal before the law. In the movie, Lincoln’s wife Mary is surprised by Steven’s self-control: “Who’d ever have guessed that old nightmare capable of such control? He might make a politician someday.”



Where does rhetoric fit in?


In 440 BCE, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus used the term rhetoric to mean the art of speaking the truth. For him the truth will successfully persuade. Rhetoric as the art of persuasion is merely the application of reason and logic. For Herodotus heresthetics is irrelevant because manipulation is not necessary.


Fellow historian Thucydides writing The History of the Peloponnesian Wars (431 BCE), used the term rhetoric to mean the art of persuasion. Thucydides, observing politicians in democratic Athens, found the meaning of rhetoric could no longer be restricted to speaking the truth. Manipulation and misrepresentation for political victory had become an essential part of political life and the art of rhetoric. Sophistry (詭辯術) was prevailing, an art in the use of rhetorical sleight-of-hand and ambiguities of language in order to deceive and to support fallacious reasoning – the art of half-truths or false-truths (語言偽術).


Sophistry regards the actual logical validity of an argument as irrelevant; it is only the ruling of the audience that ultimately determines whether a conclusion is considered “true” or not. By appealing to the prejudices and emotions of the audience, one can garner favorable treatment for one’s side and cause a factually false position to be ruled true. Mark Antony’s Funeral Oration after the assassination of Caesar is a classic appeal to the emotional sentiments of Romans rather than to reason.


Rhetoric is thus merely the linguistic expression of heresthetics, with manipulation and misrepresentation revealed in language. Heresthetics cannot be avoided if collective decision-making has to take place given that the common will is a fiction. In modern economic language it is the consequence of the intransitivity of social preferences.


In my essay next week I shall discuss if the necessary and inevitable use of heresthetics in politics can be morally acceptable.

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