The Fallacy of Composition – a powerful insight into social dynamics

Last week I read an interesting piece at ‘Bloody Shovel’ discussing the Cultural Revolution in China. The author, ‘spandrell’, sought to explain how it came to be that during this period the Chinese came to worship wax mangoes, which had been presented by the President of Pakistan as a gift to Chairman Mao on a state visit. His/her explanation was that this odd behaviour was the end result of rational behaviour on the part of each agent, in a system where the incentive structure encouraged people to engage in increasingly accentuated ‘Mao worship’ while discouraging moderation and making dissent a suicidal folly.

spandrell quotes from an original piece on the topic by Marquez:

The [Mao] cult thus appears here not only as a mobilization device pushed from the top, but as the unintended consequence of loyalty signalling by lower levels of the party, which tended to keep the overall level of flattery relatively high, and inflationary pressures steady; and it was clearly fuelled, though not fully explained, by the undoubtedly high popularity of the party and the prestige of Mao as its leader during the early 1950s.

And then explains:

The party wasn’t happy about this, but Mao surely was, and the bureaucracy is diffuse; it doesn’t have a will. It’s like a biological species, individuals cooperate, but they also compete, and if the environment is not set up properly the competition can spiral out of control against the interest of all individuals. But that’s how it works. Have you heard that these days everybody’s sending five telegrams and lyric poems about how Mao inspires you to wake up every morning? Your superior doesn’t like it, but fuck him, with a bit of luck Mao sacks him and puts me in his place. Just gotta write a very good poem …

The personality cult became a weapon. Remember how it grew because the bureaucrats found it useful for their internal battles. Once everybody does it, you need to follow the cult if only to keep your job. And once the minimum amount of zeal keeps growing, by what Marquez calls “flattery inflation”, well everybody has to see the bet, or else you’re out of a job, and most likely dead. So no matter how high your rank, your best bet was to see the bet, and raise it as much as you can, if only to avoid someone else raising it and making you look bad in comparison. Lin Biao, the main goon of Mao’s purges, understood this perfectly.

Now you’d think that all this madness must have some natural limit. The problem with political ideology is that people have to believe it. Surely all the bureaucrats weren’t writing lyrical poems and making their children draw pictures of Mao as being bigger than the sun out of cold careeristic calculation? After the country started going to hell, with the economy collapsing, people starving, trading their children with the neighbors so they could eat them without feeling guilt; surely people’s faith on Mao must have dropped to the ground?

Well it most likely did, but what are you gonna do about it? The fact remains that going public with your doubts was likely to get you fired or killed, so you better keep up with the flattery and write some more poems. Because the guy right besides you has written three already, and rumor has it he’s getting a promotion, and he wants you fired …

And so the demand for sincere belief was met, through a massive supply of Maoist agitation. The whole country was paralized by the crazy religious fervor of the population, who could know dedicate themselves to flatter Mao with total sincerity. Now they actually believed Mao was the greatest man ever.

Which kinda made things worse. Previously, the cult of personality had grown by becoming the common currency with which bureaucrats could compare themselves with each other. Rivals were denounced for insufficient zeal, and promotions given to friends on the grounds of all those poems to Mao that they had written. But now the bureaucratic calculus had morphed into sincere religious zeal. Not that this actually changed the essence: people were still using loyalty to Mao as a tool to denounce their enemies and promote their friends: but now the hypocrisy had gone deeper into the unconscious, so people were doing it automatically. And it trickled down from the party apparatus: now everybody was doing it. The Cult of Mao was the common currency to value social interactions across all domains. You hate your boss at the factory? Say he doesn’t love Mao. Your brother is an asshole? Say he doesn’t love Mao. You like that girl but she has a boyfriend? Say he doesn’t love Mao! Never fails.

My brief interpretation, which seeks to build on the author’s interpretation, is that a rational response to an incentive structure, when replicated across an entire society and not only left unchecked but encouraged by the powers that be, caused that society to descend into the madness of the Cultural Revolution. A situation in which no-one was safe.

When I was about half-way through the essay, an impression leapt out at me from the page: ‘This is a problem caused by the Fallacy of Composition’.

For those who haven’t heard of it before, the Fallacy of Composition arises when an individual assumes that something is true of the whole just because it is true of some part of the whole. In the form of a syllogism:

A is part of B
A has property X
Therefore, B has property X

As the more observant and learned of you will have noticed immediately, the fallacy arises as a result of the middle term, ‘property X’, not having been distributed.

The classic example of a Fallacy of Composition is that of a person, sitting in the bleachers at a stadium, who stands up to get a better view of the action taking place in the arena below. His actions cause the people around him to stand up, either to avoid missing out on the improved view (‘He is getting a better view than I am – I should stand up as well’) or to remove this new impediment to one’s vision (‘He’s standing in front of me, I need to stand up to regain my view’). Soon, everyone is worse off than they were in their initial state – they are now all standing up, rather than sitting comfortably, but their view is no better than it was before.

The people in the Chinese bureaucracy faced just such a situation. In a system where flattery of the leader was at first good for recognition and promotion, and the supply of flattery was limited only by the number of hours in a day, people worked to generate flattery. Once everybody ‘caught on’ to this idea, and saw the punishments meted to those who were insufficiently grateful to the leader, people had to work harder to differentiate themselves. The result was an escalation to extreme behaviour, culminating in people showing their loyalty to the leader by taking the law, such as it was, into their own hands and murdering those that they deemed disloyal.

In seeking an advantage for themselves, and seeking to avoid a disadvantage, people’s rational behaviour created social behaviour which left everybody at a disadvantage. This is a classic outcome of a Fallacy of Composition.

The scars from this tragic episode remain which the older generations in China today. The leadership especially place emphasis on the importance of ‘stability’. And, around the time of the fall of Bo Xilai, who had sought popularity through the revival of Cultural Revolutionary memes, slogans and mass rallies, then-Premier Wen Jiabao said:

Reform has reached a critical stage. Without successful political structural reform, it is impossible for us to fully institute economic structural reform and the gains we have made in this area may be lost.

The new problems that have cropped up in China’s society will not be fundamentally resolved, and such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution may happen again.

We can also see elements of the Fallacy of Composition in the ongoing increase in house prices here in Australia. People – couples, young workers, soon-to-retire households – are all seeking a financial advantage, and seeking to avoid financial disadvantage, by borrowing money and buying property. This process is facilitated by a significant supply of loanable funds from the banks. As a result, the process has begun to feed off itself: investors bid up prices with borrowed money, encouraging others to avoid ‘missing out’ by entering the market with even more borrowed money, further bidding-up prices, etc. In the end, each person’s rational response to the situation they are in creates a situation where nobody is better off: people have simply indebted themselves to ‘bid up’ the price of land, without there having been any noticeable change in the quality or quantity of that land, so that everyone is now worse off than before.

Lastly, I saw elements of the fallacy in the hysteria surrounding the reaction of the media and community institutions to the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Indonesia recently. The hysteria grew as public figures, reporters and opinion writers sought to outdo each other in their emoting. The culmination of this idiocy was the Australian Catholic University’s decision to create scholarships in honour of the two drug smugglers. This was the step too far that caused the community to pause and reflect, and thankfully the hysteria has since then begun to abate.

I had no idea the Fallacy of Composition could be such a useful analytical tool. I’ll keep it in mind in future, when considering other strange and tragic social situations.


About Stebbing Heuer

A person interested in exploring human perception, reasoning, judgement and deciding, and in promoting clear, effective thinking and the making of good decisions.
This entry was posted in Formal fallacies in reasoning and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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