Bryan Caplan  

"Faith" Means Not Wanting to Believe What is True

Pre-historic free trade?... More Gas for Washington...

You may have heard the odd factoid that faith in government drastically increased immediately after 9/11. Impossible, you say? Surely when a great tragedy happens, the organization charged to prevent it will lose credibility, not gain it?

The factoid checks out; there's an excellent write-up by Gary Langer in Public Perspective. The facts:

There is a long-running survey question that reads:

How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right - just about always, most of the time, or only some of the time?

The results of interest:

Survey Date            % Answering "Just About Always" or "Most of the Time"
3/30-4/2, 2000 30%
9/25-9/27, 2001 64%
1/21-1/24, 2002 46%

In short, the percentage of people who did not answer "only some of the time" more than doubled just two weeks after 9/11. About half of the jump faded out by January.

I see this as prime evidence of the public's irrationality in almost any sense of the term. A striking, well-publicized failure of the federal government leads not to less trust, but to more. Madness. Does trust in GM rise if its cars start spontaneously combusting? If the CEO goes on TV and proclaims a war against spontaneous combustion after the defect becomes obvious?

You could say that 9/11 was not the government's fault, but that cuts against all actuarial logic. When your car gets hit, your rates go up. Probabilistically speaking, they should. Even if the accident isn't legally "your fault," the truth is that you could have done a better job of prevention. In the same way, your can blame your alleged protectors for failing to stop a "surprise attack." There's a reason why we call it "Getting caught with your pants down."

Langer tries to defend the reasonableness of the public's change of heart. If you probe more deeply, you learn that trust in the government's policy on social issues is way lower than trust in the government's policy on the war on terrorism. Admittedly, that's not as crazy as watching the Twin Towers collapse and thinking "Our Social Security woes are history!"

Still, there is every reason to think that trust in the government's anti-terrorist efforts shot up after the disaster. (Unfortunately before 9/11, there probably wasn't any such survey question around). And at risk of repetition, that's nuts.

But perhaps Langer's most fascinating finding is the partisan breakdown of the rise in trust. There is a clear pattern: The more conservative you are, the more dramatically your faith in government rose after 9/11. The facts:

Party/Ideology           Trust 3/30-4/2, 2000   Trust 9/25-9/27, 2001
Liberal Democrat 44% 55%
Moderate Democrat 40% 67%
Independent 27% 62%
Moderate Republican 30% 69%
Conservative Republican 22% 75%

That's right. Liberal Democrats only gained 11 percentage points of trust. Conservative Republicans gained 53 percentage points. Egad.

You can bend over backward trying to rationalize this, but it's a fool's errand. What went on after 9/11 was a kind of secular religious revival meeting. Instead of "Onward Christian soldiers," it was "United we stand." And as Nietzsche says, "'Faith' means not wanting to believe what is true." Nationalist fanaticism correlated strongly with ideological position. So conservative Republicans whooped themselves up into a frenzy of delusional patriotism, while liberal Democrats just half-heartedly sang a few hymns.

In short, the liberal Democrats were closest to the rational response to 9/11 - reduced trust in government. They didn't quite get there, but I'd still like to give credit where credit is due. Or at least less blame where less blame is due.

TRACKBACKS (2 to date)
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The author at chicagokarl in a related article titled Blindly Trusting the Government writes:
    [Blindly trusting the government after 9/11]( > Nationalist fanaticism correlated strongly with ideological position. So conservative Republicans whooped themselves up into a frenzy of... [Tracked on March 31, 2005 3:38 AM]
The author at ActonInstitutePowerBlog in a related article titled Faith in Government writes:
    There's a provacative post from Bryan Caplan over at EconLog about "the odd factoid that faith in government dramatically increased after 9/11." [Tracked on April 5, 2005 12:31 PM]
COMMENTS (20 to date)
Jody writes:

Isn't this just an example of the tendency to rally round the President in a time of war?

DeadHorseBeater writes:

Ooga ooga!
Bog Tribe kill member Me Tribe.
Make Me Tribe Collectivist.
Collectivist give powerful mojo Statist!
War health of state!

El Presidente writes:

Faith means not wanting to believe what is true.

It is the height of foolishness to distinguish between faith and knowledge as though they were mutually exclusive. What arrogance does one require to claim that denial and delusion are the only causes fo faith? Degrees of certainty are present in every bit of human knowledge on the individual and aggreagte levels. Never does the degree of certainty reach 100%, and for good reason. We have limited perception. Faith closes the gap between the evidence we perceive and the truth we believe it represents. Nietzsche's vanity is evident in his supposition that a truth can be known in a faith vacuum. Faith is a necessary component of knowledge and vice versa. The counsel this offers is that we need to be very clear in disclosing our application of faith and perception when we discuss our conclusions with other people.

People behave in a remarkably similar way in times of extreme stress or uncertainty no matter their nationality. They prefer a quick answer to a delayed and protracted one. Emergency is rarely a comfortable environment for comtemplative self-examination. This is, I believe, self-evident. Survival is the priority in consequential dilemnas . Certainty is nice, but it's a distant second. This is the terrible tragedy reflected in the survey numbers. The exercise of faith is an honest, positive, and admirable behavior. The object of faith (government) is highly illogical and ultimately detrimental. It is a confession of ignorance and not, as Nietzsche might suppose, denial of the truth. There are many situations in which there ought to be no shame in ignorance. Feeling shame in such circumstances is either an honest confession of personal failure or vanity. Unfortunately, leaders can and do prey on this fearful reaction and usually by engaging in denial.

ex. Don't forget to fight terrorism by shopping at your local mall. And do it for the troops, of course.

etb writes:

I wonder if these numbers would have been different had the President at the time been a Democrat. That is to say, you had the party in power "rallying" around "their" leader while the party out of power was more skeptical (perhaps in part in this case because a residual notion that it *didn't* happen on the Democrats' watch (even if, extending your logic, the failure of defense stretches back much further in time than W's first year)). The question is, if 9/11 had happened under Clinton, would the Dems have found a hugely renewed faith in government while the Reps shied away? Not that we'll ever know the answer.

Bruce Cleaver writes:

Part of the problem is this particular set of attacks was so imaginative and hard to forsee. To some extent, it is a forgiveable error, because individuals ask themselves if they could have forseen and prevented the attacks (the answer should be in the negative if the self-examination is honest). A bit of projection, I suppose.

Now that the ingenuity and patience of the terrorists is understood, the government will do (and probably has done) other words, faith in improved future performance is probably not misplaced.

Mark Horn writes:
It is the height of foolishness to distinguish between faith and knowledge as though they were mutually exclusive.
Thank you!
Tom Myers writes:

It might be useful to distinguish between passive claims of fact and active choices of strategy. The survey question is supposed to be checking claims of fact, but the people being surveyed may not be thinking in such terms at all. They may mean, as in Jody's "rally round the flag" response, that they choose as a strategy to place increased trust in their leaders. In particular, they will not resist initiatives (e.g., the Patriot Act) that they would otherwise have mistrusted. It's not clear to me that this choice of strategy is irrational. (It may be, and my own response to the Patriot Act was to send a bunch of money to the ACLU, but so far as I can tell this was then spent on making Los Angeles County take the cross off their seal...)

Back in the 70s when I was a compsci graduate student writing modal-logic theorem-proving code, I certainly believed that you could model human strategies as "prove a theorem of the form I should do X and then do it", thus blurring the distinction between claims of fact and choice of strategy, but somehow I've lost faith in that approach. Think about Gladwell's Blink; it may not be rational to spend too much of your time thinking in terms that guys like me, and apparently you, consider rational.

David Peterson writes:
That's right. Liberal Democrats only gained 11 percentage points of trust. Conservative Republicans gained 53 percentage points. Egad.

But in that same time period, we also went from the scourge of the conservative Republicans to the scourge of the liberal Democrats. That probably explains at least 40 points of the gain in conservative Republicans.

David Peterson writes:

To clarify:
What we have is two things; a new intercept and a new slope. What you are saying Bryan (correct me if I'm wrong) is that 9/11 accounts for both the new intercept and the new slope. I think that you can account for the new slope by the change in parties and you can explain the new intercept with 9/11.

Mike writes:

I had thought the goal of retrospectic analysis was to explain behavior. All that your analysis seems to do is to demonstrate that your theory is inadequate to explain the behavior of large groups of people.

Tom writes:

Of course liberal Democrats didn't rally around Republican Bush. You call that "rational"? If there's one thing the central government might be good for, it's dealing with foreign threats to Americans and their interests. Better late than never. Consider Pearl Harbor: It happened, then we got our act together and dealt with it.

The only "faith" here is your studious misinterpretation of the facts. It reflects an extreme (and extremely foolish) bias against all forms of government action.

John Thacker writes:

The rational response to 9/11 - reduced trust in government.

But there's also If you probe more deeply, you learn that trust in the government's policy on social issues is way lower than trust in the government's policy on the war on terrorism

So perhaps people's idea of what the government is spending its time doing changed from "mostly doing social policy" to "mostly engaging in national defense." Since there are rational reasons to believe that a government needs to engage in the common defense but is a lot less effective at foreign policy, it seems rational to me. "Well, now that the government is spending its time using the military on bad guys instead of arguing about whether it has gays in it, I'm happier." Or even, "I still hate all those other inefficient things that the government is doing, but it added a lot of things that I approve of, like fighting terrorism and making war. So my average like for the overall activies of government went up."

Still, there is every reason to think that trust in the government's anti-terrorist efforts shot up after the disaster. (Unfortunately before 9/11, there probably wasn't any such survey question around). And at risk of repetition, that's nuts.

Really? Nuts? Why? Why couldn't someone think pre-9/11 that the government was ignoring terrorism and letting it fester, but now-9/11 the government is doing what it needed to do, taking the fight to terrorist strongholds and challenging dictators?

Feel free to disagree with that argument (plenty of room to do so rationally), but it's certainly not nuts.

And of course I echo the objection that there are two factors between these polls-- a switch in party of President and 9/11.

Lawrance George Lux writes:

The real reason is political leadership always promise vast change after some major Crisis, and Conservatives are simply more gulible. Case in Point: Even New Deal Democrats were getting sick of FDR by the summer of 1941. He is a great national leader because they did not throw him out of Office soon enough. lgl

there is every reason to think that trust in the government's anti-terrorist efforts shot up after the disaster

And, in hindsight, it was a correct judgment. There haven't been any successful attacks on America since.

Eric Slusser writes:

I think the dramatic change of responses reflected doesn't have to be attributed to actual changes in the perception of the effectiveness of government. They can be attributed to changes in the perception of the question. When the question was asked pre-9/11, people were considering whether the government was a well-run organization. Post-9/11, people were considering whether government has any competency at all. People didn't change their opinions. They were effectively asked a different question.

dylan writes:

Eric Slusser - beat me to it.

LGL - ' Conservatives are simply more gulible'? Are you basing this on the data indicating that conservatives has a higher increase in trust post 9/11 than liberals without noting the extremely low level of trust of the conservatives compared to liberals pre 9/11? Your argument would then seem to apply to independants and moderate liberals - perhaps the only truly enlightened and properely jaded members of society are the liberal democrats?

Frank DeWith writes:

Maybe the respondents were being rational. Is it irrational to avoid any appearance of opposition to the state when the state and all its citizens are searching high and low for enemies??


Duane Gran writes:

Patrick R. Sullivan said, And, in hindsight, it was a correct judgment. There haven't been any successful attacks on America since.

I believe the White House press secretary has on many occasions referred to Iraqi insurgents, who attacked and killed American soldiers, as terrorists. Possibly you were referring to attacks on American soil, but I believe the most people would include American interests, domestic and foreign, into the consideration.

As for the larger topic, if we project ourselves back to 11 Sept 2001 we will remember that people of all stripes were looking for some solidarity or something to believe in. For many, it was religious faith, but for many others it was confidence that the state would respond. If one expects the state to respond, one might as well believe they are capable of it. It is sort of like the psychology of horse race betting. Once a person has purchased their ticket they become more certain that it was the right choice. The faith Caplan saw in government is most likely attributed to optimism.

Sile writes:

To borrow your car accident analogy, I don't trust my 16 year old son to do what is right every second that he is driving. But I do trust him to do what is right if he is in an accident. I am trusting him to respond well to a crisis, and I recognize that his sterling character may not be so much in evidence when everything is okay and the radio is on and pretty girls are in the vicinity.

I think the people surveyed instinctively know enough about human behavior that they think the government will respond better to a 9/11 than it will to every banal bureaucratic brouhaha.

RD writes:

Call me crazy, but although I would have replied "some of the time" to this survey, it makes a lot of sense to believe the government was doing a lot more about security post 9/11 than pre 9/11. The question was not "Do you think that in hindsight you should have trusted the government to do the right thing lately?" My trust in Washington overall might not have increased to merit a "most of the time" directly after 9/11, but it would have increased insofar as security. Not to say they had done an optimal job before, but directly after - oh, baby! Once you can get away with by telling everyone how sophisticated al-Qaeda is and how inept the previous administration was. Twice would be political death. Simple politics would have had *anyone* in power just then doing everything feasible to increase security (including pushing through instrusive, unconstitutional acts past an intimidated nation...)

Recently in my city there was an outbreak of deadly food poisoning - pardon that I forget the name - from a Chi Chi's, something in the onions I believe. Chi Chi's parking lots had nothing in them but old newspapers playing the urbanized role of tumbleweed for ages after the media got a hold of the story... but I went there. Are you kidding? Chi Chi's was probably the safest place in the world to eat just then. They would have been checking and double-checking all the food and handling.

I would also like to give a nod to the statement that knowledge and faith are not mutually exclusive. While the example of this topic is extreme, faith is based on knowledge and at times knowledge is faith. My "knowledge" of atomic strcture is based on the "faith" that those who have seen and can understand the proof of it aren't just all in on a big ruse to fool everyone else. Religious faith has to connect at some level with personal knowledge. . . or else the faith ceases. And note that *every political group polled* showed an increase in trust. . . which seems to suggest that even in those who didn't like Bush, or didn't like the Cabinet, or didn't like some of the most influential members of Congress, or who didn't like the military or the federal intelligence agencies to whom the question of national security falls. . . everyone had enough basic knowledge of human nature to know that the kraken was going to turn from its games and get its act together to a reasonable degree.

Now, that being said, and stood by firmly, I can also concede that there was some wishful thinking going on. At the time the question was asked, the people were insecure. They could trust the supporters of those who had just used our jets to kill us and damage our property. They could trust other governments. They could trust the U.S. government. . . i.e. the government of said jets, people, and property. Whatever qualms about the ineptitude of it, which are probably put into perspective at a time like that (lobbyists and waste aside, our government has not lead The Great Satan without being reasonably effecient), trusting the lattermost was probably the best bet to those surveyed.

Also, the survey question said "to do the right thing". . . which implies asking whether the government is *moral*, not effecient, as we have all been debating like good little economists and super-amateur economists. Pre-9/11, people questioned the governments morals on things like sanctioning a culture of death, not reaching out to the poor, not showing sensitivity to minorities, keeping "God" in the court oaths (or taking it out), etc. Post-9/11, people would be asking "Would the government do *that*?" and the answer to most would be, "Oh, heavens, no!" (Some soon felt doubts with The Dangerous Warmonger and Abu Ghraib and such, but most American minds still think Washington superior to whatever foxhole bin Ladin currently inhabits.) So just bear in mind that those being surveyed were probably thinking of morals and not competency questions. Though I'm still willing to debate the latter.

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