Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

Posts Tagged ‘Burke

Berkeley Students Are So Conservative

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They, like most people, are small-c Burkean conservatives about life in general.  They have a strong status quo bias, but rather than admit this like Edmund Burke, they feel compelled to invent reasons why status quo things are good.  Berkeley psychology prof Seth Roberts said “Most of my students, for better or worse, were very conformist. My conclusion…. is that the reasons we give for our beliefs have roughly zero correlation with the actual reasons and shouldn’t be taken seriously (e.g., argued with).”  Robin Hanson said the same about George Mason students:

  • Ask random colleges student random policy questions and they will feel compelled to come up with opinions.
  • Ask them for reasons for those opinions and they’ll feel compelled to come up with such reasons.
  • Such opinions strongly tend to support the status quo – mostly whatever is, is assumed good.
I am thinking along similar lines today after discussing organ markets with my students.  Students say that legal markets in human organs would be bad mainly because it would lead to organ theft.  Even supposing there would be more organ thefts, it is hard to imagine there would be enough to outweigh the deaths of 9000 Americans every year caused by our current ban on organ sales.  If people were used to a functioning market in organs, I have to think they would be horrified by someone saying we should ban organ sales and consign thousands to death in order to reduce theft, just as it would seem crazy to ban day-laboring to protect laborers from employers who stiff them after a day’s work (stealing is already illegal!).  It is easier to think there must be a good reason for the status quo, that we live in the best of all possible worlds and aren’t doing something horrible.  Indeed, there is more right with the world than wrong with it; there is a reason status-quo-biased people continue to survive and thrive.  Further, it is dangerous to think that those who disagree with you must do so out of some ignorant bias; call this the “bias bias”.
In general though, if we are trying to figure out the truth, we have to fight pro-status-quo bias more often than its opposite.  The reason for this is wired into our brains: our dominant trait is to rationalize, not reason.  One part of our brain is dedicated to coming up with a reason for anything, whether it makes sense or not.  In extreme cases, paralyzed people can come up with all sorts of reasons to explain why they aren’t really paralyzed; their brain is acting as an apologist for what is done, not a reasoned truth-seeker (Seriously, check out that link- it is way more interesting than my post, even if you have heard of the phenomenon before).
I am optimistic about getting people who think of themselves as non-conformist or politically liberal to consider new ideas by telling them they are being conservative conformists.  Put name-calling to good use!
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Written by James Bailey

October 17, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Would Edmund Burke have opposed the war in Iraq?

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Edmund Burke, the 19th century British statesman and writer, is something of a patron saint to conservative intellectuals- the same people who spent countless hours arguing about whether the war was a good idea, the same people who largely decided that it was. So I was quite surprised to realize that I’ve never heard this question asked before.

Burke’s most celebrated book, Reflections on the Revolution in France, put forward the most basic conservative idea- that human institutions have evolved as they have for good reasons, and even seemingly unjust and arbitrary institutions should be changed gradually rather than completely overthrown. It is not obvious why overthrowing a government and trying to rebuild a country from the ground up is a better idea in the Iraq of 2003 than it was in the France of 1789. There are arguments to be made, of course, for why this time is different; but, by and large, they were not made. The problem was ignored.

Less famously, Burke was a leading anti-imperialist of his time, advocating a lighter hand in Ireland and India, and supporting the American revolutionaries. He was not a man to easily support the occupation of another nation.

This is the problem with having dead heroes. When they would agree with you, you take comfort in the fact and proclaim it. But when their condemnation should ring loud and clear, we do our best to silence their nagging voice.  When people we claim to respect cannot speak with their own voice, we must remember their words, whether they are convenient for us or not.  This sort of intellectual honesty, practiced widely, could have made for some very different recent history.

Written by James Bailey

July 14, 2008 at 4:19 pm