Preference falsification and Cuba’s future

José Azel.

In his 1995 aptly titled book, “Private Truth, Public Lies,” social scientist Timur Kuran introduces his theory of “preference falsification.” This is a phenomenon akin to what Cubans on the Island have long experienced as their dual morality of holding private truths and expressing public lies.

Professor Kuran defines preference falsification as the act of communicating a preference that differs from one’s true preference. We frequently convey preferences that differ from what we truly desire because the expressed preference is more socially acceptable. In his research Kuran finds an essential difference between what we actually want (our private preferences) and what we say we want (our public preferences). Preference falsification predominates when conveying our preferences to researchers and pollsters. But what are the social and political consequences of this preference falsification?

It turns out that our expressed views are a product of what we think other people think. And, when we hide our discontent with a policy or political regime, we make it harder for others to express their discontent. Over time, preference falsification fosters an intellectual narrowness and ossification that inhibits a community’s desire for change. Social pressure can make ideas, such as freedom, disappear from public discussion. Again, these are phenomena my Cuban readers will readily recognize as part of their experience living under totalitarian rule.

Preference falsification helps explain the high approval ratings sometimes reported by pollsters regarding the leaders of repressive regimes such as Putin or Castro. Polling techniques are mostly unable to capture the sensitivities that make people in repressive regimes reluctant to tell the truth. In other words, typically the public popularity of repressive regimes exceeds its private popularity due to people disguising their discontent.

Kuran’s work helps us understand that communist regimes survive not only because of their brute terror, but also because these regimes foster a pervasive culture of mendacity. It is a culture where people join organizations they despise, follow instructions they consider absurd, applaud leaders they hate, and ignore an opposition they greatly admire. Sadly, this is how oppressed people participate, as collaborators, in their own oppression. They create a narrative for acquiescence.

Nearly 200 years ago, long before we learned about communist regimes or preference falsification, the ever-prescient Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America:

I am trying to imagine what new features despotism might have in today’s world. I see an innumerable host of men, all alike and equal, endlessly hastening after petty and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn into himself, is virtually a stranger to the fate of all the others. For him, his children and personal friends comprise the entire human race. As for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he lives alongside them but does not see them. He touches them but does not feel them. He exists only for himself, and if he still has a family, he no longer has a country.

This perfectly describes the citizenry in totalitarian regimes. As a Cuban-American, who hopes for a democratic future in my country of birth, I foresee the social and political consequences of decades of preference falsification as highly injurious to Cuba’s future. Cubans will need to reconsider the fundamentals of government and their relationship to government. This will be challenging for a society used to the dual morality of holding private truths and expressing public lies.

Again, as Alexis de Tocqueville put it: “It is difficult to imagine how men who have entirely renounced the habit of managing their own affairs could be successful in choosing those who ought to lead them. It is impossible to believe that a liberal, energetic, and wise government can ever emerge from the ballots of a nation of servants.”

Tocqueville was harsh, and hopefully wrong, in his indictment. Yet, dissent is the key characteristic of a free government. Freedom requires that we conquer the timidity that inhibits independent thought. Dissent creates the psychological space for political competition. Freedom, depends on our moral stamina. When we falsify our preferences, when we do not dissent, we are consenting.

Dr. Azel‘s latest book is “Liberty for Beginners.”

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