Links for 11/14/20
Feral bears and something about voting
How well can anyone know what’s best for the country?
I don’t exactly recommend Jeffrey Friedman’s book, Power without knowledge: a critique of technocracy, mainly because of its turgid prose. However, I think he has some interesting ideas about political polarization, voting, and expert judgment. The following is a summary of some of his shorter, but still turgid, essays and articles.
If we take the purpose of our democracy as a way to elect people who will advance the common good of the country, it implies that voters understand a couple of things:
They need to know which social and economic problems exist or may occur during a politician’s tenure and whether they are capable of being solved.
Further, they need to know which social and economic problems are important enough to try fixing since the government does not have unlimited time or resources to solve every problem.
They need to know what causes the important social and economic problems they expect government to try to fix.
They need to know which policies address the actual causes of real, important social and economic problems without doing more harm than good or causing significant unintended consequences.
Finally, they need to know which politicians and parties have the ability to pass net-beneficial policies that address the causes of important, solvable social and economic problems.
Some of this knowledge is much harder to come by than it seems. Lots of very serious and important people spend their careers trying to determine whether various social and economic problems are really problems, what causes them, and the best way to fix them. Many people who spend their careers studying these things still disagree. If even the experts disagree what are the chances the average citizen or even the “well-informed” one can pick the right politicians and the right experts to solve these problems?
And yet many people still vote. It turns out that most voters, despite being very uninformed, don’t actually believe themselves to be uninformed and don’t find choosing between political candidates particularly difficult. Many are “radically ignorant”—unaware not only of the knowledge they need but even the fact that they need it. Instead, they assume the relevant problems, their causes, and their solutions are mostly self-evident and easily discernible with a little intuitive thought. And because the relevant problems, their causes, and their solutions are mostly self-evident, the fact that the government continually fails to solve them is not considered evidence of our elected leaders’ ignorance in confronting a complex reality that can reasonably create different interpretations of what it takes to achieve the common good and that can swamp even the best of intentions with unintended consequences.
Instead, most people attribute politicians’ failure to solve these problems as some combination of:
Political gridlock. Problems don’t get solved because politicians spend too much time bickering.
Laziness. Problems don’t get solved because politicians are lazy.
Special interests. Problems don’t get solved because politicians aren’t actually trying to solve problems; they’re catering to rich benefactors and corporations.
Electing a leader then becomes a matter of finding the person with the energy, good intentions, and independence of thought to do what needs to be done. And what needs to be done is more or less obvious. As a corollary to this, if the relevant problems, their causes, and their solutions are obvious and self-evident, then people who have opposing opinions are some combination of (1) stupid, (2) mentally ill (i.e., authoritarian, racist, etc.) (3) liars, (4) selfish and bought-off by special interests, or (5) just evil.
Political disagreement can be civil only if we understand our political opponents’ disagreement with us as a result not of villainy, but fallibility. This would require us to explain how our opponents might have innocently reached mistaken conclusions. The explanation would have to turn either on the inadequacy of their knowledge or the inadequacy of their reasoning. But either of these explanations could rebound against ourselves in a way that attributions of villainy cannot.
Each of us knows that we aren’t villains, or crazy, or liars, or evil. Uncharitable accusations work only when applied to the other side. But unlike uncharitable interpretations of the other side’s disagreement with our side, charitable interpretations of our opponents can apply to ourselves. Each of us knows that we can make logical errors and that we aren’t omniscient. Nobody’s perfect. So if logical error or inadequate information may explain the views of our political opponents, logical error or inadequate information may also explain our own views. It’s hard to hate one’s political opponents if they, like we, are merely victims of their humanity. But it’s also hard to continue viewing them as opponents, because a recognition that we suffer from the same human limits as our opponents would undermine our confidence in our own political judgments.
The Town That Went Feral (The National Review) When a group of libertarians set about scrapping their local government, chaos descended. And then the bears moved in.
Downward mobility (City Journal, 1994) The City University of New York, once a premier institution, is paying the price for abandoning academic standards in the 1960s. Very old article but still interesting. CUNY’s graduation rate still seems pretty low although it appears to have improved since the 90s.
Inside the New York Times’ heated reckoning with itself (NY Magazine) In the Trump years, the New York Times became less dispassionate and more crusading, sparking a raw debate over the paper’s future.
Meet the customer service reps for Disney and Airbnb who have to pay to talk to you (ProPublica) Arise Virtual Solutions, part of the secretive world of work-at-home customer service, helps large corporations shed costs at the expense of workers. Now the pandemic is creating a boom in the industry.
Story behind the rogue Chinese biologist who created the first CRISPR babies (STATNews, 2018) I didn’t follow this story when it first appeared but pretty crazy.
Yes, we are in an ideological competition with China (Scholar’s Stage)
Popular theories on the rise of political polarization (Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 4a, David Weakliem)
Recently Finished Books
Two Cheers for Anarchism (James C. Scott) Highly recommended. More to follow.