The Situationist

Deep Capture – Part III

Posted by Jon Hanson on November 19, 2007

“Blind Faith” - Image by Marc Scheff at is the third of a multi-part series on what Situationist Contributor David Yosifon and I call “deep capture.” This post, like Part I and Part II, is drawn from our 2003 article, “The Situation” (downloadable here).

The most basic argument behind the prediction of deep capture is that if people are moved by internal and external situation (particularly while believing themselves to be moved primarily by disposition), then, in order to move them, there will be a hard-to-see or hard-to-take-seriously competition over the situation.

Part I of this series explained that our “deep capture” story is very much analogous to the (shallow) capture story told by economists (such as Nobel laureate George Stigler) and public choice theorists for decades regarding the competition over prototypical regulatory institutions. Part II looked to history (specifically, Galileo’s recantation) for another analogy to the process that we claim is widespread today — the deep capture of how we understand ourselves. This post picks up on both of those themes and explains that Stigler’s “capture” story has implications far broader and deeper than he or others realized.

(Situationist artist Marc Scheff is providing the remarkable images at the top of each post in this series.)

* * *

“[T]here have been opened up to this vast and most excellent science, of which my work is merely the beginning, ways and means by which other minds more acute than mine will explore its remote corners.”

–Galileo Galilei

1. Some Deep Implications of Shallow Capture

In identifying the phenomenon of capture, Stigler and his contemporaries obliterated the once-conventional view of regulation. They refuted the naive presumption that had long been protected behind the ambiguous (and, therefore, easily defended) concept of “the public interest,” and provided a far more realistic (albeit disturbing) account of the sources and effects of regulation. Regulation was “caused” less by public-spirited and well-advised regulators and more by the situational constraints imposed upon them by competing economic entities, with the most powerful entities wielding the most influence. In other words, Stigler, identified and substantially overturned what might be called the regulatory fundamental attribution error. The older “public interest” regulatory theory maintained a kind of dispositionist view of a constant figure, evaluating influences, measuring public welfare, and making decisions accordingly. Regulatory theory essentially rested on a view of the regulator as a rational actor whose stable preferences were in the public interest. By studying the regulator’s actions and ignoring the regulator’s words, economists like Stigler were able to see new patterns and surmise some of the situational influences that generated them.

But Stigler’s work barely breaks the surface of situationism and identifies only a very shallow form of capture. When one takes seriously the power of the situation–exterior and interior–one can begin to understand the potential depths of capture. There are several ways in which capture is likely to run much deeper than Stigler, or others applying and advancing his insights, have recognized.

2. The Depth of Capture

Again, returning to Galileo’s story may help make evident what is invisible in our midst. First, as the Catholic Church’s efforts revealed, there are other capture-worthy and capturable institutions and individuals beyond merely administrative regulators. Recall that Galileo had no official regulatory authority either in the state or in the Church. What he had was a certain level of public legitimacy, and therefore power, as a renowned scientist. His theories, evidence, and conclusions were important as a confirmation of, or challenge to, the “truth” of the Church’s teachings. As a result, Galileo’s positions were well worth capturing. Similarly, today any institutions or individuals capable of influencing existing wealth and power distributions will be subject to the pressures of capture. In this sense, Stigler and those who subscribe to his theory are, like the public-interest theorists they replaced, far too shallow.

If administrative regulators are vulnerable to the forces of capture by certain interests, as most everyone agrees they are, then the likelihood of a deeper capture seems undeniable. There is nothing special about administrative regulators–except, perhaps, the general concern that they may be captured. Virtually every other institution in our society seems just as vulnerable. After all, contemporary scholars and commentators have rarely even considered, much less taken seriously, the problem of deep capture. Given that nescience, one would expect other institutions to be constructed without heed to the dynamics of capture. In a world without foxes, a farmer will not guard the hen-house. And because deep capture occurs situationally–outside of view by, and with the induced consent of, the captured–any loss of eggs will either go unnoticed or will be perceived as natural and just.

There is a second general way in which traditional capture theory is too shallow. To see this, it is necessary to look deeper than the behavior of the captured institutions and individuals. Beneath the surface of behavior, the interior situation of relevant actors is also subject to capture. Indeed, much of the power of deep capture comes from the fact that its targets include the way that people think and the way that they think they think.

The Catholic Church would have been far less troubled by Galileo, we suspect, if he had not been writing and publishing his ideas broadly in an attempt to persuade others to reject then-conventional wisdom. Eschewing the scientific conventions of his day, Galileo published many of his discoveries not in Latin but in Italian. He was committed to altering the opinions of people in his society, not simply to recording his measurements for a narrow scientific audience. It was the danger Galileo posed to the Church’s basic knowledge structures–which were embraced by most of the intelligentsia and lay people of the time–that led forces, including vested academic interests, to urge the Church to literally capture Galileo. Galileo’s work went beyond offering a simple challenge to established propositions such as geocentric cosmology; it advocated an entirely different intellectual and moral approach, one that aimed to discredit the “cult” of tradition. Thus, when Galileo advanced heliocentricism, as he did in his famous letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, he did so in the context of a more comprehensive rejection of the view of knowledge as nothing more than a set of pre-ordained revelations:

[W]ho wants the human mind put to death? Who is going to claim that everything in the world which is observable and knowable has already been seen and discovered? . . . [O]ne must not, in my opinion . . . block the way of freedom of philosophizing about things of the world and of nature, as if they had all already been discovered and disclosed with certainty. Nor should it be considered rash to be dissatisfied with opinions which are almost universally accepted . . . .

The message that common sense notions should be challenged was deeply threatening to the Catholic Church of the seventeenth century, which defined faith as it had since the Middle Ages–as obedience to the teachings of religious authorities. The highest crime an individual could commit was that of heresy–the word itself deriving from the Greek word hairesis, meaning “choice.” In order to prevent the wider populace from realizing that a “choice” existed, Galileo had to be silenced.

Those in power thus captured the institutions and individuals that threatened their dominant position, including an individual scientist capable of altering ideas or knowledge in a way that might weaken their power. They did so through a process intended to suggest that Galileo freely chose his recantation and resultant silence. Galileo, wisely, did not proclaim that he was being forced to recant under the threat of death; he stated instead that he was trying to clarify the possible confusion that his errors had created and make clear that he, upon reflection, “abjure[d], curse[d], and detest[ed] the above-mentioned errors and heresies . . . .” The Church thus applied situational pressure to generate the appearance of “dispositional” recantation. And the people at that time, inasmuch as their knowledge structures and understanding of the world were influenced by the Church, and insofar as the Church managed to squelch other ideas or knowledge structures, were also deeply captured.

Understanding that capture is directed at both our exteriors and interiors clears up some confusion andquotation5.jpg debate in the shallow capture literature. When Stigler’s evidence of capture emerged, economists, political scientists, and public choice theorists got busy trying to identify the precise mechanics of the regulatory black box that Stigler mostly ignored. True to form, they began with the rational actor model of human behavior and sought to explain capture as the consequence of the self-interested, maximizing dispositions of individual regulators. Yet, while simple formulations have given way to increasingly elaborate ones, public-choice theory is still dogged by the fact that it is unrealistically “cynical” (meaning that the assumed dispositions of regulatory actors are perceived to be unrealistically selfish). After all, many governmental actors and regulatory agents often claim, and actually seem to be, motivated by the public interest and try to act that way; that is, many regulators’ actions appear more consistent with their ideological beliefs than with a narrow conception of self-interest.

The problem with shallow capture is not that it cannot always explain the part played by the dispositions of regulatory actors, but rather that it takes dispositions so seriously in the first place. Deep capture makes clear that people’s intentions and beliefs may have little to do with their behavior and that, insofar as they do, those intentions and beliefs are part of what interests compete to capture.

When Catholic astronomers of the seventeenth century stated that they believed, as most profoundly did, that the Earth was at the center of the universe, deep capture was at work. Their astronomy was part of a larger, interconnected set of truths taught to them in seminary and reinforced at many turns–some seen, some unseen–in their society. Similarly, lay people had no reason to dispute those truths and faced situational influences just as powerful, despite being less visible, as the gun to the head or fire to the feet that Galileo experienced. That a regulator may act out of ideological dispositions no more implies that she is free from capture than the changing lengths of shadows on a summer afternoon implies that the sun is revolving around the Earth.

The question that should be asked is not: “Who among the regulators is corrupt or so selfishly motivated as to disregard the ‘public interest?”‘ The question that should be asked is: “Who among us is the most powerful and most capable of deeply capturing our exteriors and interiors and, even, of capturing what we mean by the ‘public interest?”‘

3. The Invisibility of Capture

By “deep capture,” then, we are referring to the disproportionate and self-serving influence that the relatively powerful tend to exert over all the exterior and interior situational features that materially influence the maintenance and extension of that power–including those features that purport to be, and that we experience as, independent, volitional, and benign. Because the situation generally tends to be invisible (or nearly so) to us, deep capture tends to be as well.

This raises the question: if deep capture is so hard to see, then why is it so obvious in the Galileo example? There are several reasons. To begin with, at the time, we doubt that it was so visible. We suspect that few observers saw anything untoward or illegitimate about Galileo’s inquisitorial experience or any reason to doubt the “knowledge” that it produced. The situational pressures that, to us, were glaringly excessive during the Inquisition were probably not perceived as excessive at the time.

The situational forces confronting Galileo may be easier for us to see now because we live in a radically different environment. We are looking at another generation of people in another country whose situational worldviews we reject and whose victim, Galileo, we revere. They are “them,” and Galileo is “us.” People are motivated to attribute bad outcomes to out-group members. The contrast is heightened by the historical construction of the event as a lesson on the horrors of the Inquisition and the dangerous distortions that result when religion is allowed to dominate (or, we might say, “capture”) science. The role of disposition and deep capture in the Galileo story is, today and to us, conspicuous, almost palpable. But seeing our own situation and its deep capture is not.

* * *

Part IV of this series takes up that difficult challenge of looking for the deep capture of “us.”

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7 Responses to “Deep Capture – Part III”

  1. [...] Deep Capture – Part III [...]

  2. Grue said

    I know everyone likes to pick on the Catholic Church, but does your blog entry explain why the Church (Inquisition) formally allowed (and in a sense even solicited) the publication of his famous _Dialogue_, which relentless argues for the heliocentric view?

    The church never did much to actually silence Galileo’s views, and his research and education was supported by many in the church. So this isn’t a great example society’s bias working against the greater good. In another 50 years after the _Dialogue_, pretty much all the educated people agreed with Galileo.

  3. [...] David Yosifon and I call “deep capture.” This post, like Part I, Part II, and Part III, is drawn from our 2003 article, “The Situation” (downloadable [...]

  4. [...] the process that we claim is widespread today — the deep capture of how we understand ourselves. Part III picked up on both of those themes and explains that Stigler’s “capture” story has [...]

  5. [...] the process that we claim is widespread today — the deep capture of how we understand ourselves. Part III picked up on both of those themes and explains that Stigler’s “capture” story has [...]

  6. [...] the process that we claim is widespread today — the deep capture of how we understand ourselves. Part III picked up on both of those themes and explains that Stigler’s “capture” story has [...]

  7. CBDenver said

    Some have argued that the Galileo controversy was not so much between the Church and Galileo but rather between Galileo and the then-dominant Aristotelian scientists. The Aristotelians supported the idea that the sun rotated around the earth while Galileo, following Copernicus, argued that the earth rotated around the sun. One could say that is was the Church that was “captured” by the Aristotelians and was used by them to punish their enemy Galileo.

    This is important because moderns tend to see scientists as objective reporters of truth instead of self-interested supporters of popular theories. In this sense, they are mis-identified by many as always the “good guys” much as regulators are viewed as neutral protectors of freedom.

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