Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

Returns to Like-Mindedness and Diversity

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I’m spending this week at a seminar put on by the Institute for Humane Studies, which involves people listening to lectures on lots of topics from a libertarian perspective and drinking free beer.  It is odd being in a place where most people around me also love to talk about economics and libertarianism, since the vast majority of Americans are not libertarians or economics majors.  But is this newfound consensus a good thing?

In some ways its great; conversations can flow at a much higher level when you can presume that most participants have taken the same classes and read the same books.  There aren’t many other places people laugh at my “how many Austrian economists does it take to screw in a light bulb?” jokes.

On the other hand, there is the potential for “groupthink”, the lack of imagination and the lazy arguments that are so easy to succumb to when there is no real live person to represent opposing views.  So a diversity of opinion can be good just to keep everyone on their intellectual best behavior.

But there can be a greater benefit to diversity than merely avoiding groupthink.  Sometimes the interplay between varying ideas allows great progress to be made; there can be an intellectual division of labor and specialization.  Richard Feynman said that other physicists thought him a math genius, but in reality he was not better at math than them, he just had a different approach; and though their approaches may be equally good on the whole, they would only come to him with problems to which their approach had failed.  There’s no reason this can’t apply in economics, or even to some extent in political philosophy.

Another way of thinking about this is the diminishing marginal returns of a political philosophy; perhaps a conservative could come here and argue libertarians out of the worst 10% of their ideas, or vice-versa in the real political world if a minority of libertarians can keep the worst 10% of the ruling party’s ideas from becoming policy.

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Written by James Bailey

July 12, 2009 at 5:51 pm

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