Archive for the ‘Rationality’ Category

I wrote earlier about Pew research findings that Republicans are happier than Democrats, and, generally, conservatives are happier than liberals. Here was my explanation:

I think it’s likely that happy people are more likely to be Republicans, while unhappy people are more likely to be Democrats, for unhappiness gives one an incentive to seek change, and happiness an incentive to resist it. But the causal link goes in the other direction as well, for Republicans stress freedom and individual responsibility, which lead people to feel in control and take action that changes their lives for the better, while Democrats assign blame to institutions, which makes people feel powerless and discourages them from undertaking ameliorative courses of action.

Now we get a new explanation:

Conservatives rationalize social and economic inequalities.

Regardless of marital status, income or church attendance, right-wing individuals reported greater life satisfaction and well-being than left-wingers, the new study found. Conservatives also scored highest on measures of rationalization, which gauge a person’s tendency to justify, or explain away, inequalities.

Oh, really? And how did they measure ‘rationalization’?

The rationalization measure included statements such as: “It is not really that big a problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others,” and “This country would be better off if we worried less about how equal people are.”

In other words, conservatives placed less value on equality than liberals. That’s not surprising, but it has nothing to do with rationalization.

And how do conservatives “rationalize” inequality?

To justify economic inequalities, a person could support the idea of meritocracy, in which people supposedly move up their economic status in society based on hard work and good performance. In that way, one’s social class attainment, whether upper, middle or lower, would be perceived as totally fair and justified.

Hard work? Good performance? Why is this “rationalization” rather than the adoption of an Aristotelian theory of distributive justice? Moreover, the researchers confuse descriptive and normative issues. Do conservatives think that hard work and good performance are rewarded (which doesn’t seem controversial to me) or that they should be rewarded (which, again, doesn’t seem controversial to me)? Which are the researchers denying by calling this rationalization?

Ann Althouse makes an additional point:

They [liberals] especially lack the rationalization powers that would allow them to frame conservatives as anything but ***holes. These liberals must starkly confront the brutal reality that conservatives are too heartless, stupid, greedy, or cowardly to perceive. At least that’s the way the liberals like to frame it.

Why couldn’t we reframe the issue as follows? Modern societies are immensely complex. Inequalities arise for many reasons—most of which are justifiable, and a few of which aren’t. Conservatives are capable of understanding complexity, so they recognize that inequality per se is not a good indicator of injustice. Liberals, who cannot understand complexity and, like children, insist on collapsing complex matters into simple categories, misunderstand this and see inequality itself as injustice. Conservatives don’t rationalize inequality; they understand it.


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That’s a capsule summary of the George Mason University economics department (HT: Brian Hollar):

Adjunct professor Arnold Kling offered a terser précis of the GMU way. “My simple way of describing it is that at Chicago they say, ‘Markets work; let’s use markets.’ At Harvard and MIT they say, ‘Markets fail; let’s use government.’ And at George Mason, we say, ‘Markets fail; let’s use markets.’” This seeming paradox means, that GMU sees plenty of deviations from the “perfect neoclassical paradigm,” which requires “perfect information, perfect competition,” but that unlike Harvard or MIT, they do not automatically “ring a bell and say, ‘We need more government.’ Markets come up with solutions to problems of information.”

Though the slogan sounds peculiar, it makes sense, not only because markets themselves solve problems of information, but also because government too faces serious problems of information, as John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Hayek, and others have stressed. In fact, it faces much more serious problems. Markets can incorporate vastly larger amounts of information than government agencies can.

Markets can fail from lack of information; they can also fail from collective action problems—prisoners’ dilemmas, tragedies of the commons, etc. Government faces these sorts of difficulties as well. Earmarks illustrate the problem perfectly. It makes sense for each individual representative to seek benefits for his/her own district, given the behavior of everyone else. But, if everyone does so, everyone, representatives and represented alike, can end up worse off. I call this “the tragedy of the Congress.” Just as shepherds tend to overgraze the commons, so representatives tend to overuse the federal budget—in fact, government authority in general, whether exercised in spending, regulatory activity, oversight, or some other form—leading to everyone’s being worse off.

A simple way to put the point: Markets fail; before resorting to government, however, we should verify that government is more likely in the relevant circumstances to outperform the market. In a slogan: Markets fail; governments do even worse.

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Shrinkwrapped discusses the psychological basis for “counterknowledge,” the absurd conspiracy theories that seem to be enjoying more credence these days.

We are living in dangerous times. Anxiety over the future and the pace of change (change ushered in by magical technologies that no one can fully understand) naturally produces powerful regressive forces in a culture. Our rationality can be so subtly and easily subverted that we usually don’t recognize it until far too late. Worse, those whose grasp of reason is weakest, either through limited native intellectual abilities or poor pedagogy, are most susceptible to adopt the easy solutions of irrationality.

Just beneath the surface of even the most stable and reasoned mind exists a cauldron of irrationality.

I’ve often been struck by the fear of change and the reactionary nostalgia evident in certain streams of leftist thought. Marx and Engels:

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left no other nexus between people than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstacies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.

In short, the chief problem with capitalism, for Marx and Engels, is what Schumpeter called creative destruction.

I heard something similar in the Democratic debate a few days ago, in which Clinton, Obama, and Edwards competed to see who could denounce trade agreements more fervently. They each made their case on the basis of preventing change. Increasingly, the left is the voice of the status quo, or even of reactionary longing for some imagined golden age.

Indeed, an increasing number of leftists seem to be Luddites. Environmentalism is partly a rebellion against modern technology. The conspiracy theories surrounding voting machines are another example. Here’s someone involved in the New Hampshire primary recount on the conspiracy theorists:

They are absolutely down-right horrid…. Check [Blackboxvoting.org] out sometime if you want to see some terrible, biased reporting. Another commentator has been a man who is involved in the citizen’s militia – really nasty man. He is quoted as saying the Oklahoma City bombing was orchestrated by the CIA. People like this frighten me.

Fear of change, hostility to technology, irrational refusal to consider evidence—all seem to be becoming more common. They are not restricted to the political left, but they do appear to be especially evident there. If Shrinkwrapped’s analysis is right, furthermore, we can expect more of the same. The pace of change is accelerating; the world’s danger level is high and shows no sign of receding significantly anytime soon. That portends more fear, more displacement and denial, and more irrationality.

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Fallacy of the Day

Greg Mankiw discovers a fallacy in Mike Huckabee’s response to Fred Thompson.

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Sleeping Beauty

The philosophical community in the United States is increasingly focused on the Sleeping Beauty Problem:

Some researchers are going to put you to sleep. During the two days that your sleep will last, they will briefly wake you up either once or twice, depending on the toss of a fair coin (Heads: once; Tails: twice). After each waking, they will put you to back to sleep with a drug that makes you forget that waking. When you are first awakened, to what degree ought you believe that the outcome of the coin toss is Heads?  

UPDATE: There’s an excellent web page devoted to sleeping beauty and related issues here

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A few days ago I talked about flaccid strategies for iterated prisoners’ dilemmas, noting that strategies without retaliation cannot win. I remarked:

Many Western leaders seem committed not only to avoiding retaliation but to responding to defection on an opponent’s part with forgiveness and even more extensive cooperation. [Emphasis added.]

That inspires a further thought. Robert Alexrod and others have investigated strategies for iterated prisoners’ dilemmas. In the real world, however, and especially in politics, people and nations interact along many different fronts, cooperating or defecting on many different issues. Cooperation can be limited or extensive. That suggests that we might do better to model interactions as sets of iterated prisoners’ dilemmas. Ideally, certain kinds of interactions can not only affect what happens within a set but generate or foreclose new sets. (Think of businesses entering into a joint project, for example, or countries agreeing to join transnational organizations such as NATO.)

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Going for It

David Romer has studied football coaches’ decisions on whether to punt or go for it on fourth down. He has written a paper arguing that, generally, going for it makes much more sense than punting. Yet NFL coaches go for it on fourth down only in very circumscribed situations. This leads Romer to conclude that people often fail to choose the most rational option to achieve their goals.

Interestingly, since Romer’s findings have become known, NFL coaches have become more conservative in their play calling in fourth down situations. So, pointing out this case of irrationality has actually made coaches less rational! (Hat tip: Greg Mankiw.)

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