It’s now part of the daily routine, sticking my head out the window at 7 p.m. and pounding a frying pan with a spoon. My neighbors in the Bronx are banging and clapping from their windows and balconies, and someone a few blocks away is sending up fireworks every evening. It feels good to join the tribute to our health-care workers, but when the noise ends, I worry where this feeling is leading us.
We’re all reveling in the joy of “encompassment,” as the economist Daniel Klein terms this primal yearning to share an emotion that involves everyone around us. When we sing in church or cheer at a football game, we tap into that same feeling experienced by ancient hunter-gatherers as they chanted and danced around the campfire.
This feeling of encompassment was adaptive on the ancestral savannah, providing an emotional cohesion that helped hunter-gatherers survive by voluntarily cooperating to achieve a goal understood and shared by everyone in their band—perhaps 25 to 100 people, whom they knew well enough to trust. But we don’t live in such bands anymore, and therein lies the problem, especially during a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic.
Extracted from the cohesion of the tribe, we transfer that innate desire for communion to a much larger group of strangers, imagining that we’re in sync with the rest of the nation, and that salvation will come from everyone working together for the common good. That sounds wonderfully fulfilling and altruistic, but in practice the only way to coordinate a nation of strangers is by giving new powers of coercion to a small political elite, with its particular goals and limited knowledge of (and concern for) how to deal with our problems.
Encompassment is an atavistic emotion, a remnant of the Stone Age that produces dysfunctional big government today. Why do so many people instinctively look for a national solution to every problem? Why does socialism’s appeal endure despite its repeated failures? In large part because of people’s yearning for encompassment, according to Klein, a professor at George Mason University, who has tested its power in experiments and analyzed its historical role in political movements.
He’s not the first scholar, of course, to notice people’s desire for sublime emotional communion. In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, the sociology classic published in 1912, Emile Durkheim noted how religions develop thanks to the feeling of “effervescence” produced by rituals like chanting and singing in unison. “In the midst of an assembly animated by a common passion,” Durkheim wrote, “we become susceptible of acts and sentiments of which we are incapable when reduced to our own forces.”
David Hume, the Enlightenment philosopher, noted the pleasure that a theatergoer takes from sharing “every sentiment” with his “fellow-creatures” in the audience. Adam Smith recognized this desire in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. “Nothing pleases us more,” Smith wrote, “than to observe in other men a fellow-feeling with all the emotions of our own breast.”
The economist Friedrich Hayek recognized the enduring power of this Stone Age impulse in a prescient lecture in 1976 titled “The Atavism of Social Justice.” He described “social justice” as a meaningless concept—you can define it to be whatever social goal suit your personal values—that nonetheless sounds meaningful because “our emotions are still governed by the instincts appropriate to the success of the small hunting band,” in which everyone shared the same goal and values.
In a small test of Hayek’s theory, Klein found that people appreciate this encompassing sentiment enough to pay for it. His research team explained to a group of four people that three of them would sing a song together, and that the fourth person would sing along only if the others sacrificed some of their own cash. Most people were willing to pay to make sure the whole group participated, and they reported higher enjoyment if everyone sang together.
“We are well aware of the significant differences between the situation of the experiment and the situation of actual political life,” Klein and his colleagues wrote in 2015. “We nonetheless discuss the experiment as a parable for a penchant toward political collectivism, a parable that helps to clarify the role of encompassment in the sentimental facets of Hayek’s ideas about the psychology of political collectivism.”
This desire for encompassment is shared across the political spectrum, but it’s manifest in different ways. On the right, it inspires patriotic country music and political demands for Americans to unite against foreign threats by building up the military, fighting terrorists, and strengthening the border. But conservatives put less emphasis on big government because they tend to satisfy their yearning for emotional solidarity in churches and the other “little platoons” of civil society praised by Edmund Burke.
On the left, though, solidarity usually requires big government. The desire for encompassment inspired Marxists to dream of workers uniting to create a classless utopia, and it continues to inspire what Klein calls “The People’s Romance,” the popular affection for government as a binding communitarian force.
“If people see government activism as a singular way of binding society together,” Klein writes, “then they may favor any particular government intervention virtually for its own sake—whether it be government intervention in schooling, urban transit, postal services, Social Security, or anything else—because they love the way in which it makes them American.”
This affection explains why leftists often rail at the power wielded by large corporations but favor government monopolies in transportation and health care. It explains why, despite their concern for income inequality, they support the public school monopoly and other policies that disproportionately hurt the poor, like green-energy programs that raise utility bills and rent-control regulations that create housing shortages. No matter how badly these policies turn out, Klein writes, they remain popular because they “are packaged with a feel-good, effervescent gloss of collective action, good intentions, and encompassing effects.”
And no matter how many mistakes politicians make in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, there’s still that urge to give them more power. Joe Biden calls the crisis “an incredible opportunity” to “fundamentally transform the country.” Opinion surveys show strong support for the unprecedented shutdown of the economy and curtailment of individual liberties. Fewer than 10 percent of Americans say that the federal government has overreacted, while 40 percent wish that it had done more, and there’s similar enthusiasm for government at the state level. Even in Michigan, where singularly draconian rules inspired public protests, only a quarter of residents say that the state has overreacted.
The public has cheered Congress for adding trillions to the national debt, and that seems to be just the beginning. When asked in one poll if there should be yet another stimulus package, only 13 percent of the respondents agreed that “Congress should stop spending money the country doesn’t have.” The rest supported further new outlays to deal with the pandemic, to send more checks to workers, and to expand America’s infrastructure—just the sort of collective endeavors that sound so appealing when we’re clapping together every evening. I’m happy to share in the gratitude for our health-care workers, but I hate to think of the price to be paid long after the clapping stops. That bill will encompass us all, too.
Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images