Bryan Caplan  

Does It Matter If We're "Reality-Based"?

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Lots of bloggers identify with the "reality-based community." At first glance, it's a rather cultish self-description; after all, even the "faith-based community" thinks it's "reality-based." (Ever seen the bumper sticker where the Jesus fish marked "Truth" swallows the Darwinian land-fish?)

On further consideration, though, the label actually means something. If you say you belong to the reality-based community, you practically have to believe that if other people knew what you know, they would favor different policies.

For example: If you as a member of the reality-based community make a big deal out of the fact that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, you practically have to believe that if other people admitted this fact, they would have been less likely to support the Iraq War.

Similarly, if you as a member of the reality-based community make a big deal out of the fact that immigrants have a small effect on American wages, you practically have to believe that if other people admitted this fact, they would be less opposed to immigration.

Obvious? Apparently not. Here's how Steven White of the American Prospect reacted to my Cato talk (coming eventually to C-SPAN's BookTV):

It's easy to think economists have all the right answers when you're an economist in a room full of people that agree with you. But it probably strikes most average people as absurd. These people aren't irrational. They just have different values.
I've heard this story before. I don't deny that different values explain some fraction of political disagreement. But quotes like this suggest that different values are the sole reason for political disagreement.

That's just crazy. Would opponents of the teaching of evolution keep resisting if you convinced them that evolution were true? Would opponents of immigration stand their ground if you convinced them that immigration makes 90% of native-born Americans better off? Indeed, how many people who favored the Iraq War would have changed their position if they foresaw what actually happened?

The lesson is that the reality-based community already implicitly rejects what I call the Myth of the Rational Voter. The reality-based community questions many popular beliefs about how the world works, and thinks that changing those beliefs will change many popular beliefs about what policies we should have.

In short, if differing values explained all political disagrement, the reality-based community is wasting it's time. Why argue about the facts, if the facts have nothing to do with people's policy positions anyway?


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Kimmitt writes:

That's not necessarily the case; as a member of the aforementioned, I'm well aware that many disagreements come from values. What I fight is the tendency to back up those values with truthiness instead of actual facts; that is, if you think it's more important that your kids be protected from being exposed to facts that might interfere with their taking on your religious faith than from drug-resistant tuberculosis (to name one of many things which the theory of evolution is key in understanding), then that's a decision -- just don't lie about what the nature of scientific theory is to create a faux background for your political preferences.

It is a desire for the debate to take place at the level of values, rather than at the level of facts.

mgroves writes:

Who are these immigration opponents? I know a lot of illegal immigration opponents, but I think immigration opponents are a pretty narrow segment that are not usually in the conversation.

Bill writes:

Indeed, how many people who favored the Iraq War would have changed their position if they foresaw what actually happened?

Before the war, a friend asked me how long the US would need to be in Iraq if we invaded. I told him that we'd be there for fifty years. I was under no illusions that it would be easy.

Would opponents of immigration stand their ground if you convinced them that immigration makes 90% of native-born Americans better off?

What do you mean by "better off"? Richer? Do you really believe that money is the only standard by which to measure quality of life?

Matt writes:

Take immigration. The popular beleif is that in a country of 300 million we whould be able to fill all the slots without resorting to immigration. Ecpnomists who advocate the benefits of immigration have to explain how big an N we have to have before we are a self-regulating demographic. 300 million seems to be enough, so what is it we are doing that demands more immigratnion?

The issue of the Iraq war was simple, a large group of people wanted to fight the battle for reasons indirectly related to 9/11. 9/11 was simply a convenient excuse.

Evolution has the same problem. People will simple choose to go along with creationism as long as it gets them another goal, such as a role for Christians in politics.

Values determine beliefs in politics. Econoists, who are interested in politics, modify their bekeifs to accommodate their values.

Boonton writes:

What do you mean by "better off"? Richer? Do you really believe that money is the only standard by which to measure quality of life?

No but suppose immigration does make 90% of Americans richer. What are these 'other measures' you would use to offset that benefit to mount an argument that immigration is a net evil?

Take immigration. The popular beleif is that in a country of 300 million we whould be able to fill all the slots without resorting to immigration. Ecpnomists who advocate the benefits of immigration have to explain how big an N we have to have before we are a self-regulating demographic. 300 million seems to be enough, so what is it we are doing that demands more immigratnion?

Let me tell you a story. I went to HS in a town called Dover, NJ. At the time it was known as a hispanic heavy community but I would have guessed it was roughly 60% white, maybe 30% hispanic and 10% black. It's downtown had lots of empty storefronts despite it being a rather important train stop with lots of commuters to NYC

Today Dover has a lot of illegal immigrants as well as many hispanic legal immigrants. The business street downtown is alive with lots of little shops, bakeries etc. Where there used to be one taxi cab company there is now maybe 4-5, all the new ones Spanish. The area by the train station has groups of maybe 20-40 men hanging out, waiting for contractors to pick them up for day labor.

I once went in one of them but left because the counter person couldn't even speak enough English to tell me what the price of something was. However I have gone, since, to a coffee shop which is kind of like a big version of a Spanish Starbucks. When I needed to use a taxi service, I always used one of the new companies since they were just as good as the old-school Dover taxi but always cheaper.

I asked a few people about the incident when I couldn't get what I wanted at the bakery. How could a teen be in America and not even be able to talk prices, in English, at a retail job? I learned that the teens manning many of those downtown stores are not Americans or illegal immigrants but citizens of South American countries. For their summer break they come up to the US to vacation with relatives...and will take a few jobs in this small enclave of Spanish speakers.

What's the point of all this? It isn't about 'filling slots'. Ten plus years ago all the slots were filled in Dover's downtown. There just wasn't much business going on and that was that. Now what seems to have happened is the immigrants (legal and not) earn money and spend it there. That has caused new business to pop up which increases the rents in the area which increases property values. At least up until the real estate bubble recently burst with the subprime fiasco many white Americans used those increasing property values to take out equity loans and rennovate their homes (generating income for the day laborers keeping the cycle going). So even whites rather removed from Dover's downtown are now living in homes that are much, much nicer than they were.

Now does it bother me that sometimes I can't communicate without a hassle in those little shops along Dover's mainstreet. Yea but not much. If they had something I wanted I could make the sale happen. A vacant store speaks no language at all other than saying "trouble is ahead". Overall it's a net improvement, not because of slots being filled but because people freely interacting in the market contribute to the overall good. More people freely interacting means a greater contribution.

Don't think too much of this. This 'downtown' I'm talking about is maybe 3 blocks or so. This isn't any New York City or anything. But I hope it illustrates the point.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

The popular beleif is that in a country of 300 million we whould be able to fill all the slots without resorting to immigration.

Economists do not believe there are a "number of slots", but instead they tend to believe (based on reality) that economic growth depends largely on specialization, and to allow people to take on more specialized roles, you need more people!

The US creates ~100,000 new jobs every month. The "number of slots" keeps rising.

El Presidente writes:

Hmm. Sounds like we forgot about Keynes.
"In the long-run we are all dead."

To answer the question directly, YES, it does matter whether we are reality-based. However, our ability to be so is limited. As Etzioni puts it, we posess bounded rationality. It should not be taken for granted that a consensus of limited knowledge somehow equals the whole of reality. It matters, and not one of us is entirely reality-based.

Perhaps if we acknowledge that we are living within a closed system (per Einstein, a pretty good thinker) then we think differently about what reality might be. I certainly think that understanding reality is a very valuable tool when making decision about how to interact with it. I would say that reality is multi-dimensional and yet a closed system. We tend to focus on "truth" in one dimension at a time. If something is true in one dimension is it no less true. However if something is true in more than one dimension it is even more real, or relevant. To use the oft abused example of evolution . . . Science and observation have given us a better understanding of the phenomenon of genetic mutation. This is undeniable. We call a series of mutations that are beneficial to the organism in question evolution. So, evolution happens and we can demonstrate that, if only on a very basic level; a few genetic mutations in sequence. That can be seen as truth or reality in one dimension: scientific knowledge in the present. In my opinion, evolution as an explanation for the origin of species is a leap of faith. It requires that one believe the closed system was arranged in specific ways at specific times which we can postulate, argue for, interpolate, or otherwise justify but cannot experientially prove. So when we begin to take what we know and unilaterally claim it proves what we do not know, but in good faith expect to be true, we have reached beyond the dimension in which our knowledge was most relevant.

The same could be said with economics as it relates to immigration. We have long known that a class society impedes the free flow of information, one of the keys to rational decision making. We have long known that a class society impedes the creation of wealth because it dictates whom is eligible to receive such wealth without regard to personal merit. These are thing we have known. And yet we say that having an influx of immigration in a poorer class is a good thing because it drives GDP by increasing the total production and decreasing the average cost of that production leaving greater profits, the holy unmitigated good of economics. This is saying that if we can rearrange the deck furniture in the short-run so that it looks fuller then we are better off. Well, I'm not so sure. True the numbers are more in line with what we have learned to see as progress. True that means that there is greater wealth, but what good is it? To say that one government, one nation is responsible for a greater part of the world's consumption and production, if we are in a closed system, is to say that the rest of the world is now responsible for a smaller portion of each. If resources are limited then how is it we can countenance this redistribution? What merit have we? So, the truth we hold dear in our economy, the magical, altogether unscientific, "invisible hand" of Adam Smith has been adopted as an article of faith that has brought us to justify things without due diligence. When we don't account for the whole system, or the many dimensions within it, our truth is limited and must be restrained so as not to falsify itself in other realms.

8 writes:

Your arguments don't follow. Your question on immigration is like saying, if you could prove to Evengelicals that evolution is a fact, then they would have to support abortion in eugenics. You're assuming anti-immigration people disagree with you on economics, but most of them agree with your economic analysis (although you've generally ignored the tax-eating side of the economic debate), so it is a values question.

Another example: many libertarians will argue that free markets create the greatest prosperity. Yet some of them argue for policies that might lower economic growth in favor of liberty. If you proved without a doubt that a statist policy increased wealth, they would still reject it because it infringed upon liberty.

The question of 9.11 shows how out of touch with reality everyone was and is. I knew before the war what the mission was, to install a friendly government in the Middle East. Bush never linked Iraq to "9.11 the event", he said it was part of the larger war on terror. But some idiots thought there was a connection, and anti-war people said there was no connection, so we don't need to go to war. But they were making a false argument, like arguing that Saddam didn't have anything to do with the Oklahoma City bombing. If you casually watched the news, and Bush said this is part of a global war on terror, and his enemies said, "But Saddam had nothing to do with Oklahoma City!" you might conclude that Saddam did have something to do with Oklahoma City. It was the left that convinced Americans that Saddam had something to do with 9.11 and Bush either intentionally or unintentionally exploited their utter stupidity.

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