Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Reality Based Community

I proudly belong to the political party that does not actively revel in being stupid. It is not the Republican Party:
The stupid conservative ... does not look for a higher authority than tradition itself. He is prepared to rest his case simply on traditional authority alone, without seeking to appeal to logic, or reason, or empirical data. For what reason gives, reason can take away.
If traditional marriage needs to be defended by good arguments, then it stands or falls on the validity of these arguments, and where good arguments can be put forward to justify alternative "experiments in living," then the authority of tradition as tradition is overthrown, and whoever comes up with the best argument carries the day. The end result of this process is that intellectuals, trained to be good at arguing, inevitably gain an undue influence in the shaping of public opinion, while those who adhere to traditions simply because they are their tradition are left vulnerable to attack and ridicule because they have difficulty defending positions they have never found cause to question. In such a case, the traditionalist must either abandon his sacred ground, and learn to argue, or else he must be prepared to accept the derogatory label fixed upon him by the intelligentsia. In short, he must not mind too much being called stupid.

In a world that absurdly overrates the advantage of sheer brain power, no one wants to be seen as a member in good standing of the stupid party. Yet stupidity has been and will always remain the best defense mechanism against the ordinary conman and the intellectual dreamer, just as Odysseus found that stuffing cotton in his ears was his best defense against beguiling but fatal song of the sirens.

I gladly cede the terrain to my colleagues on the right, and take pride in valuing sheer brain power to the high degree it deserves.

alicublog via Balloon Juice.

But seriously, is this not terrifying? Even a few years back, as the folks at alicu noted, conservatives at least thought they were the intellectual party. They were wrong, of course, but at least they made motions at respecting intelligence and trying to think through their positions. But over the past few seasons, I've noticed a disturbing trend in which conservatives have adopted an active hostility towards education and critical thought. Certainly, the perverse pride conservatives take in mocking intellectuals and professors is part of the problem, but it's hardly contained itself to the educational sphere. Politically, the anti-intellectual stance emerged in proto-form in George W. Bush, and has reached its full intensity in the Huckabee campaign, which is even frightening some of the right-wing blue bloods (who don't realize he's a beast of their own creation). This is why it is fashionable in some circles to deny global warming -- if the scientists believe it, it must be false. It's a scary trend, and one I am not at all pleased to see hitting full stride.


Cycle Cyril said...

Lee Harris is making an argument without relating the pertinent underlying issues.

The issue comes down to knowledge and how much one person or even a group of people is capable of amassing to account for all the possible permutations a society can produce and need to function smoothly.

The example in economics is the difference between communism and capitalism as highlighted by F. Hayek in several of his books. In brief society is too complex for any single person or group or computer model even to predict or to plan in any rational or reasonable fashion. In capitalism pricing becomes the surrogate means of planning by valuing objects and desires and to balance supply and demand. In communism the price and value of an object or desire is arbitrarily determined and over the long term, as illustrated by the failure of socialism, creates massive imbalances in the needs of society and leads to misery.

Similarly societal norms or traditions have evolved over generations using the experiences of literally millions of people to formulate a system to maintain a functioning society.

To change a tradition on a mere theory however well articulated should only be done slowly and carefully and deliberately. Ideally it should be done with empiric evidence that a change is beneficial.

Of note this is one of the reasons why I believe in a strong federalist system with states being able to experiment with such changes.

The problem today is that too many of the changes are made nationwide and if failing are extremely difficult to reverse - see an earlier post on welfare, enacted in the 1960's, which created worse problems but when partially reversed in the 1990's begot significant benefits.

You might cite some traditions that should never have existed such as slavery. And I would agree with you it should never have existed. (Of note while condoned in the Torah there were significant limitations on it.) But this also highlights my respect for the tradition of Western Civilization in that over time as people thought about slavery, governmental systems and with the changes introduced by technology the West changed that tradition.

The issue of change needs to be based on not idealized words but on true need.

Anonymous said...

I read this article as well and thought it was pretty shallow.

The first problem is that even if everbody agreed that the current state of affairs is a good thing, acting "traditionally" is likely to work as a strategy only as long as the environment is stable. If the environment is changing (especially if it is a dramatic change) then presumably non-traditional actions may increase the chances of survival for those clever or lucky enough to take them.

The second problem is that obviously usually not everybody agrees that the current state of affairs *is* a good thing. So some traditional arrangements are going to be moral, some aren't, and one is still going to be in the position of justifying an action one way or another. E.g. you may not like activists trying to get gay marriage accepted, but what about people curing cancer?

In other words tradition is effective when it's effective and moral when it's moral.

As cycle cyril points out, there is a sound economic argument against centralized decision making, but that seems to me to be a different matter. Moreover, markets are social constructions, requiring, among other things, courts, property rights, contract enforcement and other non-market infrastructure to support them. So we could again turn around and ask how stupidly conservative or arrogantly liberal we should be in setting up and innovating in market construction, and we are back to the same dichotomy.

Even in the case of markets, one can have exactly the same tradition/radicalism debate on the formation of expectation - with static or adaptive expectations being considered conservative, and rational expectations being considered more liberal. (i.e. what's past is NOT prologue, but rather the current price is the net present value of future expectations)

Cycle Cyril said...

Yes, markets are social constructs, but then so are traditions and many times they are incorporated into law, such as common law, which is, in many ways, tradition written over many generations but in the format of laws. And naturally you have the infrastructure to enforce it.

Of course you have traditions that are not, particularly in our present day and age, written as a law.

Additionally tradition, much like law, is used to make society stable and functionally. If you have no traditions of you have chaos and nihilism.

This happened with the 1960's change in welfare entitlements wherein teenagers had no (or fewer) financial worries about having an out of wedlock child. The social fabric of entire segments of society changed, and not to the better. This by the way included Scandinavian countries as well. The 1990's change in the laws, reducing the financial incentives for out of wedlock children is slowly but incompletely repairing the damage done when a tradition was changed by the financial incentives of well meaning but misguided idealists.

PG said...


I know you're very fond of your welfare example, but there's a difference between policy and tradition. They are not precisely the same thing. This is easily evidenced in the statistics on out-of-wedlock births, which even as they have declined recently among teenagers, have gone up tremendously among older women. The Western social tradition for centuries was to abhor out-of-wedlock births among ALL women, to shun ALL women who had them and to make the "bastards" who resulted second-class citizens. At best, the illegitimate children of aristocrats might have some social standing, but one extremely inferior to their half-siblings. The illegitimate children of non-aristocrats -- even wealthy merchants -- were nonentities.

This social tradition has only faded more with time. Our society has decided that women who give birth outside marriage are socially acceptable. (In most of America, a married woman who is seen drinking so much as a glass of wine, during visible pregnancy, will attract more opprobrium than one who isn't drinking in pregnancy but also has no wedding ring. Cf. attitudes as recently as the 1960s.) Dan Quayle's remark about Murphy Brown was a good turning point on which to measure this: there was a debate about it because there was a group of people clinging to the older social tradition in which any woman's giving birth outside marriage was condemned, and another group that held if such a woman was capable of raising the child, there was nothing wrong in bearing it.

The stats on out-of-wedlock births are on the side of the 2nd group, not the first: teenagers who are unable to be responsible for their children are less likely to have them, but adult women with their own income are much more likely to have them. In 2006, 38.5% of all births were to unmarried women -- an increase from 1992, when 30.1% were. The social opprobrium no longer attaches to whether one is married or unmarried; it is about whether makes "responsible" (caffeine, alcohol, nicotine-free) pregnancy and childrearing decisions.

Cycle Cyril said...


Yeah, I've mentioned the out of wedlock example a number of times here. Sounds like you're bored of it. But it is a good example of how, while policy and tradition are different, of how policy can affect tradition by tightening or in this case loosening the levels of societal constraints. In this instance financial incentives removed the constraint of being an unemployed single mother. In the past there might have been a quick wedding, an abortion secretly obtained or a child available for adoption.

While the initial policy has been modified, the tradition (avoiding single motherhood) has changed, probably for good but not for the good of the child involved as compared to a two parent family.

Of course there are a number of other societal changes that has contributed to the greater acceptance of single motherhood. Not the least of those other changes are feminism and the change in sexual mores.

Anonymous said...

PG, Cycle cyril:

It seems to me that key difference between policy and tradition is that policy requires a conscious act of model and planning (at least naively). I.e. the policy maker has some notion of:
a. how the world works
b. how they want the world to work
c. a policy to get there
How explicit these three things are articulated varies, but the point is that a policy is a direct result of human agency, not merely the indirect result of societal history and evolution.

The point of the original article is that hasty, conscious, efforts are doomed to failure because the world is much more complicated than sophomoric theories can capture. However, as I said, since inaction is a choice, merely assenting to tradition is a kind of null policy as well, which means that effectively one is still left to take positions on the a., b., and c. above, and to take responsibility for the outcomes that accrue.

Cycle Cyril said...


You're essentially correct. The only thing (or two) I would add is the comment that due to the complexity of society and our limited insights any change we institute via policy must be small and incremental and reversible.

However one of the problems of the left is the inability to acknowledge a mistake and rectify it. Instead the consequences of policies are either ignored or a new utopian policy is proposed. One of the ways the consequences of failed policies is ignored is via the restrictions of "political correctness". Thus when Bill Cosby or Juan Williams decry the present state of black families for example they are "shut down" by the left.