The Elite Thinks the Peasants are Revolting

Jeff Guo writes,

On a wide range of issues, bureaucrats believe that Americans are ignorant. For instance, over half of them say that the public knows little to nothing about government crime programs, child care programs or environmental programs.

He cites a new book that sounds interesting. A couple of my thoughts (not having read the book).

1. I do not think that the problem is so much that the civil servants under-estimate the knowledge and competence of citizens. I think that the problem is that civil servants over-estimate their own knowledge and competence.

2. In a specialized world, it is dangerous to look down on people just because they do not know your own specialty. Of course a typical citizen does not know what a government agency does. But I would argue that a typical government bureaucrat would need a lot of training to work in a modern farm or factory.

3. It is almost as if the bureaucrats are thinking, “Citizens, you are ignorant about the specifics of what we do to run your lives. That ignorance is proof that you are not competent to run your own lives. Therefore, we should have even more power to run your lives.”

Scott Alexander on The Revolt of the Public

He wrote,

Systems are hard. Institutions are hard. If your goal is to replace the current systems with better ones, then destroying the current system is 1% of the work, and building the better ones is 99% of it. Throughout history, dozens of movements have doomed entire civilizations by focusing on the “destroying the current system” step and expecting the “build a better one” step to happen on its own. That never works. The best parts of conservativism are the ones that guard this insight and shout it at a world too prone to taking shortcuts.

Thanks to a commenter for recommending the post. Martin Gurri’s fear in The Revolt of the Public is that exactly the form of nihilism that Alexander fears is what the Internet facilitates.

Here is a thought: If you could push a button that would destroy everyone’s faith in government, in order that they would become receptive to libertarianism, would you do it?

Maybe the question is too ill-specified. But my answer would be “no,” and in that sense I am conservative. I certainly would like to see people change the way that they think about government, so that they wish it to take on more less responsibilities and face fewer more constraints, but I do not want to blow things up so that we can start over.

My view on Clinton vs. Trump has been different. I see Trump’s authoritarian tendencies as almost certain to be restrained by the media, by left-wing elites, and by important elements of the Republican establishment. Even if we grant that Clinton is cautious, how would she react to, say, a government debt crisis or continued escalation of he costs of Obamacare? My guess is that her response would be authoritarian, with more regulation and controls. And there would be no effective institutional opposition.

However, it is not an easy call. I agree that a Trump victory would probably harm conservatism and libertarianism more than a Trump defeat. And that is worth taking into consideration.

The Status of Status Games

A commenter asks,

If beach volleyball is made an Olympic sport, does that lower the status of Usain Bolt? No probably not, but it does raise the status of beach volleyballers. What evidence is there that status is zero sum?

Within each status game, it is zero-sum. The 100-meter race can have only one winner.

But what about multiple status games? Does adding a status game lower the status of existing games?

I hope instead that with multiple status games, more people can be winners. I recall Tyler Cowen arguing that having multiple status games would be more conducive to social peace. Instead, if there is only one ultimate game, so that “status” can be reduced to a single dimension along which everyone has a rank, then conflict seems inevitable.

Status Games

Tyler Cowen writes,

In essence, (some) media is insulting your own personal status rankings all the time. You might even say the media is insulting you. Indeed that is why other people enjoy those media sources, because they take pleasure in your status, and the status of your allies, being lowered. It’s like they get to throw a media pie in your face.

With material goods, we can play a positive-sum game. With status goods, the game is zero-sum. In a footrace, someone finishes first, someone finishes second, and so on. If I move up, someone else must move down.

Political power tends to act like a positional good.

How to Change Minds

Maria Popova writes,

Nearly half a millennium before modern psychologists identified the three elements of persuasion — attunement, buoyancy, and clarity — French physicist, philosopher, inventor, and mathematician Blaise Pascal (June 19, 1623–August 19, 1662) intuited this mechanism as he arrived at a great truth about the secret of persuasion: Pascal came to see that the surest way of defeating the erroneous views of others is not by bombarding the bastion of their self-righteousness but by slipping in through the backdoor of their beliefs.

Pointer from Olivia Goldhill.

Borrowing a Hansonian locution, I would say that argument is not about changing minds. Instead, it is about playing status games. You make points that lower the status of those with whom you disagree, and this in turn raises your status among those with whom you agree.

As Popova’s article explains, if your goal is to change someone’s mind, then the best approach is to start by talking about what seems right about the person’s beliefs. Then allow the person to come around to the problems with their thinking and, ultimately, to the better alternative.

Perhaps my Three Languages of Politics can be useful in this regard.

A Searle Thought to Ponder

In Making the Social World, John R. Searle writes,

If we assume that democracies are defined in part by majority rule as expressed in elections, then another feature of successful stable democracies is that few, if any, of the important problems of life are determined by elections. Such questions as who will live and who will die, who will be rich and who will be poor, cannot be decided by elections if the country is to be stable. Why not? Elections are too unpredictable for people to be able to plan and live their lives based on the outcome of elections. If you knew that if your opponents won the next election, you were likely to be thrown into a concentration camp, or executed, or have all your property confiscated, you could not make stable and enduring life plans. In successful democracies, it does not matter who gets elected. . .I have noticed that life pretty much goes on after the election as it did before, regardless of who gets elected.

Some thoughts.

1. It is of course in the interest of political activists and journalists to argue otherwise–that “this is the most important election in history,” that the wrong choice will lead to disaster, etc. Their warnings typically do not turn out to be valid, although some day that could change.

2. This is an argument for keeping the stakes in politics low, and thus the argument tends to weigh in on the libertarian side of things. However, I doubt that those who favor activist government will think much of the point that “elections are too unpredictable.”

What I’m Reading

1. Philosopher John R. Searle’s The Making of the Social World, published in 2010. One excerpt:

How do governments, so to speak, get away with it? That is, how does the government manage to be accepted as a system of status functions superior to other status functions?. . .governmental power is a system of status functions and thus rests on collective recognition or acceptance, but the collective recognition or acceptance, though typically not itself based on violence, can continue to function only if there is a permanent threat of violence

…All political power is a matter of status functions, and for that reason all political power is deontic power.

For some reason, my brain keeps wanting to read “deontic” as “demonic.”

Anyway, I think of a status function as a social convention that assigns people or objects certain properties. I think of a deontic power as a right or obligation.

So, imagine a busy intersection. We could put up a traffic light and by general consent give it a status function to regulate traffic flow. Or we could let an individual direct traffic. For the status function to work, we need to be willing to follow the social convention of obeying the signals, either from the stoplight or from the individual.

Next, suppose that we recognize that the individual wears a uniform and a badge, and we recognize that the individual is permitted to impose fines on people who do not obey. These are stronger deontic powers, and they will deter drivers from trying to cheat the system. We can think of that move as a metaphor for government by consent (although the consent may not be explicit or universal).

As of this writing, I have yet to finish the book. By the time this post goes up, I may have finished a first read, but the book will require some re-reading. It seems to me that Searle is likely to turn out to be on my side of a disagreement with Michael Huemer.

2. Ryan Avent’s new book (not yet out) The Wealth of Humans. I attended a discussion of the book the other night. As the conversation jumped around, I found myself frequently thinking, “Show me the model.” That is out of character for me, because I have spent a lot of the last few years criticizing economists’ use of formal models. But as people tried to speculate about capital accumulation, wealth distribution, and productivity differentials, I found that I could not follow what was being said. I needed to think in terms of supply and demand curves crossing, income adding up to output, and output equal to labor input times output-per-worker. It was hard to get that in a purely verbal discussion, particularly when people were speaking extemporaneously.

Haidt, Cosmides, and Tooby on Socialism’s Attraction

Self-recommending. I went to the event with high expectations, and I was not disappointed. I will post on the substance once I have watched a re-run. Each of the speakers had problems. Jonathan Haidt was flustered by technical difficulties which delayed the start of his talk. Leda Cosmides had a sore throat from a cold. And John Tooby reminded me of Paul Samuelson, in that it appeared that his mind was working much faster than he could talk, giving the listener the feeling of missing out on insights that were in the speaker’s head but never made it out of his mouth.

In general, I wish the event had been longer.

Reviewing a Cold-War Era Book

I review The Quest for Community, by Robert Nisbet.

Nisbet warned that weakening of ties of work, family, and religion would give people a sense that they have lost control of their destinies, producing this sort of alienation. It seems to me that the support in this year’s Presidential primaries for the socialist politics of Bernie Sanders and the caudillo politics of Donald Trump, which shocked many observers, would not have surprised Nisbet. Nor would the recent work of Robert Putnam or Charles Murray on cultural decay.

Why You Don’t Have to Change Your Mind

James Surowiecke writes,

Obamacare is being hobbled by the political compromises made to get it passed. ..

Conservatives point to Obamacare’s marketplace woes as evidence that government should stop mucking around with health insurance. In fact, government hasn’t mucked around enough: if we want to make universal health insurance a reality, the government needs to do more, not less.

Pointer from Mark Thoma.

A while back on twitter, someone pointed me to a passage from David Deutsch.

The key defect of compromise policies is that when one of them is implemented and fails, no one learns anything because no one ever agreed to it.

So, one side says that the stimulus failed because stimulus does not work. The other side says that it worked, but there was not enough of it. One side says Obamacare has not achieved its objectives because it is a flawed concept. The other side says that “government hasn’t mucked around enough.”

If you wanted to create accountability in politics, you could say, “You can have your way, but if the results do not conform to your promises, you lose power.” But things are never that clean.

With markets profits and losses ensure accountability. When your firm loses enough money, you can insist that you were right all along and just ran into bad luck, but nonetheless you go out of business.