The Virtue of Excellence

But in addition to these particular answers, all of which in my judgement have substance, the appellant made the general answer that this was a free country and a man can do what he likes if he does nobody any harm. And with that observation the appellant’s case takes on at once an entirely new aspect. If I may use an expression which I have used many times before in this Court, it is like the thirteenth stroke of a crazy clock, which not only is itself discredited but casts a shade of doubt over all previous assertions.

From “Is It A Free Country,” in Uncommon Law, by A.P. Herbert.

A few years ago, I was talking international politics with a relative, and we were in great agreement. Then, as a seamless part of the conversation, he added “…and of course this is all because of the way MOSSAD destroyed the Twin Towers.” Wait. Whaaaaa? Now, this doesn’t really discredit his other views on international relations, any more than Newton’s weird religious views discredit his physics, but it’s nevertheless a jarring sensation. It turns out the whole time, our discussion had been one footstep away from the crazy ledge.

Now, while I’m certainly not calling Aretae crazy (for one thing I don’t know him), I get the exact same feeling reading his blog. 90% of the time I find myself in complete agreement with him, then 10% of the time he says things that seem right off the deep end. And worse, he seems to view those ideas I vehemently disagree with to be necessary supports of ideas I agree with. In other words, reading his blog is fun, but frequently vertigo-inducing.

Latest example: we have a back-and-forth regarding schooling. I conclude with: “In order to evaluate whether schools are teaching “obedience” and “propaganda,” you need to evaluate why people listen to the “superiors” that they do. The H0 must surely be that they do so because it’s rational. This idea that people have all been brainwashed by a false consciousness seems to be a claim without content.” Aretae fires back here:

People believe things PRIMARILY for social reasons. All people. My super-smart readers. Bryan Caplan and Scott Sumner. Me. EVERYONE. In-group agreement is MOST of why almost everyone believes everything (everything more complex than, say gravity sucks). We should not expect that libertarians, economists, or formalists are immune to this phenomenon. Maybe a few fully autistic folks are largely immune. Anyone suggesting rationality as the primary reason a group of people believes something cues a laugh-track in my head.

Now, to be clear, I am not suggesting weird, Eliezer Yudkowski-style “rationality.” I just mean people doing the best they can, thinking logically based on the best available data, taking the most sensible cues and responding to feedback, while remaining rationally ignorant. Now perhaps I am a bad example, because I’ve never cared about being part of an “in-group,” so perhaps I am one of the autistic types aretae is talking about. So let’s give the example of my mother, who is a fine example of a status-chaser. She absolutely determines what view to express for the reasons aretae suggests – a wish “to fit in” (in her words). It’s actually something I’ve repeatedly called her on. So if a surveyor canvassed her, you might think her views are determined by status. But here’s the thing – I know her better than the surveyor. I know what her real views are, and I can tell when she’s lying. For example, she acted all concerned for asylum seekers at a dinner-party the other week to impress her hosts, but I happen to know that she’s more than a little racist.

In other words, people think pretty much rationally, but then they lie for status. This is why “public opinion” can turn on a dime, even on well-worn subjects. Everyone does not suddenly change their minds about a subject they’ve been thinking about all their lives – these changes occur gradually, in response to feedback, generational change, etc, but people are shy of expressing the minority view, so the change is hard to see. But over time a critical mass builds up, and one day enough people realise that the formerly minority view has become the majority one, and suddenly popular opinion flips, and now adherents of the formerly majority view are the ones lying or downplaying their true opinions.

Example: voting. Throughout the 1990s, Conservative voters were reluctant to admit it to pollsters, because they wanted to be “in-group” with the canvassers. But their true preferences, as revealed by secret ballot, were different. And this was such a well-known phenomenon that opinion polls had to try and build it into their models.

The contrary view – that people just follow status – seems nonsensical. Why does this only work for political/sociological ideas, not practical stuff? Why would views ever change, let alone as frequently as they do? How do people determine what is their in-group? What even is status, according to that model? According to aretae, status seems to be this weird, exogenous thing, whereas I’d say that experts have status according to how well their predictions conform to the reality as observed by the public. So my model says: the disasters of the 1970s caused the experts to lose their status – the public were getting feedback that this shit’s not working. They wanted new thinking, and started the Thatcherite experiment. The previous experts lost all remaining status with the 1981 budget, the experiment went well, and so a different group of experts gained status. I don’t know how aretae’s model can possibly explain this. It’s not merely that my model better follows Ockham’s Razor, but mine has explanatory value, whereas it seems like aretae’s has none.

Prediction: if the economy recovers well, Osborne will have high status, almost everyone will say “I supported austerity all along,” and a few on the left will say “of course austerity helped the economy, but look at the social cost.” If the economy does not perform well, Osborne will have low status, almost everyone will say “I said they were cutting too much from the beginning,” and a few on the right will say “of course austerity harmed the economy in the short term, but it was necessary.” In either case, some people will be convinced, and others will be playing along for status. That’s my rational model of people’s views, status levels and in-group affiliations, complete with a prediction for the future about which I’m very confident. Can anyone seriously disagree?

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