My Weekly Reader C 19 June 2019.

Why does any of this historical background matter?  It matters, first, because—in these contested times—I have to insist that Belief Systems evolve in response to changing conditions.  For two centuries and more now, Liberalism, Conservatism, and Socialism have all had to make their peace with Reality.[1]  It matters, second, because I’m getting fed-up with people who spout off their “smarmy, silly, half-baked opinions”[2] without any historical context.

Nineteenth-Century Liberals didn’t like Democracy.  In their minds, the “common man” wasn’t capable of dealing with the complexities of modern life.  If all men got the vote, then a horde of ignorant, selfish, short-sighted, and grasping voters would be led around by a ring through their nose.  They would vote for stupid people and stupid things in hopes of making their own lives materially better over the short-run.[3]  To a historian, this amounts to the Leninist criticism of labor unions: dumb-ass working people will prefer higher pay and shorter hours to Revolution.[4]  (Historical events have demonstrated that Lenin foresaw things accurately.)

Scholarly investigations by psychologists recently have added to our understanding of democratic choice.  One of the most important of these observers has been Cass Sunstein.[5]  His book Nudge[6] argued that people suffer from cognitive biases and mis-perceptions that inhibit the “rational choice” beloved of economists.  As a result, individuals often make choices that re not in their material best interests.  Moreover, people are effort-economizers.  They will choose the easiest thing at any given moment.[7]  Sunstein and Thaler proposed requiring people to “opt-out,” rather than “opt-in” to things like retirement savings plans, and that people who failed to choose a health plan should be assigned to the best available.  It’s easy to see how such an approach might be generalized.

What if the duty of the liberal state today is to liberate people from making errors?  People often do stupid things, either out of a lack of information, or bias, or lacking the time to study complex issues, or stupidity (d’uh).  Should the liberal state seek to “guide” choices in critical areas?

If the answer is yes, then who determines the “best” choice?  Bureaucratic and academic experts?  Once upon a time, eugenics had wide support upon educated people.  Today, the majority of Alabama voters oppose abortion on virtually any grounds.  Today the New York State legislature has approved a plan to oppose climate change.  All are examples of experts going nuts.  Then, what happens if people defy the approved “best” choice?

If the answer is yes, then where do we draw the line?   Donald Trump is, to my mind, plainly unfit to be president of the United States.  However, he won enough votes in the Electoral College to become president.  Should expert opinion over-ride the constitutional system?  If so, who controls entry into ranks of “expert opinion”?

[1] Whereas, Soviet Communism did not.  RIP.  Well, actually, Roast in Hell.

[2] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9hkhKVq5rM&t=10s

[3] See: anything at all in the NYT since November 2016.

[4] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_5bH-MLblE

[5] On Sunstein, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cass_Sunstein  See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Kahneman on the underlying research in psychology.

[6] Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2008).

[7] For example, racial prejudice is what might be called a “heuristic device.”  Saves time and thought.  Alas.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s