Bryan Caplan  

How Would the World Change If Everyone Shared Your Factual Beliefs?

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If you're reading this blog (or any blog!), you probably have some controversial factual beliefs. Suppose you managed to convince everyone that you were right on each and every controversy. How would the world change?

Initially, you might assume that whatever policies you favor would instantly become the law of the land. But think again. I only stipulated that your beliefs about the facts would be universally accepted. In the hypothetical, values remain unchanged.

So now you face the tough question: Are other people's values so different from yours that changing their factual beliefs wouldn't matter very much? If your values are very conventional, but your factual beliefs are controversial, then you should predict sharp changes.


But people who are contrarians about facts also tend to be contrarians about values. Take me. Leaving aside my numerous controversial views about the facts, I am also well outside the mainstream of American values. Consequences aside, I'm a staunch libertarian. I'm extremely meritocratic. I disagree with the aims, not just the methods, of egalitarianism. I look down on patriotism and piety of every kind. The list goes on.

So suppose my book led the world to reject anti-market, anti-foreign, make-work, and pessimistic bias in all their forms, with all their empty promises? How much would policy change as a result? My best guess is that policy would be a little less libertarian than Milton Friedman would have wanted. We'd still have substantial redistribution to relatively poor Americans and the American elderly - much of it funded by surtaxes on guest workers. We'd see educational vouchers, not the separation of school and state (my first choice); and those vouchers might not even be means-tested. In short, we'd have big changes, but I'd still have plenty to complain about.

That's me. How about you? If your factual views swept the world, but values stayed the same, what do you think would happen?


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COMMENTS (19 to date)
Franklin Harris writes:

Marijuana possession would be legal, but you still wouldn't be allowed to smoke it because of second-hand smoke. (I believe most opposition to "second-hand smoke" has nothing to do with factual health concerns, despite claims to the contrary, and everything to do with people who just don't like the smell of it.)

Gary Rogers writes:

Sure, there would still be plenty to complain about. But if you or I could eliminate the anti-capitalist thinking in this country, we would all be so much better off that those complaints would seem trivial. With all the evidence comparing socialist and free market societies, how could a rational person think otherwise? The irrationality comes from our base instincts that falsely lead us to follow our fears of exploitation and victimhood. The evidence is there. We just need to continue teaching the truth!

I love the story, though I doubt that it is really true, about the president of Estonia only having "Free to Choose" by Milton Friedman as a guide for running their economy. Thinking this is the way everyone does it in the West, he patterned the Estonian economy on those principals and has seen tremendous growth ever since. What is important is how well free market principles work.

Phil writes:

Many adherents feel a need to deny facts they feel threaten their values. If you convinced them of inconvenient facts, that would force them to change their values in order to avoid cognitive dissonance.

Suppose you convinced anti-medical-marijuana people that cannabis is indeed the only effective treatment for many patients, that they would suffer horribly without it, and that legalizing it for those patients would not lead to more illegal use by teenagers. (These all qualify as facts.)

Under those circumstances, I'd bet those people would find a way to change their minds, to avoid looking (and feeling) stupid and evil.

It's the same idea, that people who are friends with devoted monogamous gay couples can't be anti-gay for long, because they lose the ability to deny that gay couples really love each other the same way as straight couples.

So I think that if you could convince everyone of your factual beliefs, a very large change in values would follow.

Unit writes:

I tend to agree with Bryan, although I have a hard time imagining the hypothetical scenario where everyone shares my factual beliefs. So I looked at a smaller scale: my friends. There it's a fact: I've at times been able to have them all share some of my factual beliefs yet their individual policy outlook rarely changed. So Bryan might be on to something.

Matt writes:

Try this hypothetical Brian.

Assume that instead of a government of 150 million voters we had a huge, semi-monopoly clonglomerate. Instead of 150 million voters we had 50 million shareholders in the corporation.

How much less fraud, corruption and bubble making would go on if we traded the former with the later? My guess is we get half as much.

I try to understand what the problem with large organizations and voter delegation. The voter loses immediate feedback, the large organization has a long update cycle, and the monopolistic form leads, always, to fraud.

Edward O'Connor writes:

I find it hard to reconcile "people who are contrarians about facts also tend to be contrarians about values" with the terms of the hypothetical: "I only stipulated that your beliefs about the facts would be universally accepted. In the hypothetical, values remain unchanged." I don't think the former correspondence is a coincidence, so I find it very, very hard to imagine a world in which you have fact-convergence independent of value-convergence.

Steve Sailer writes:

I think most people share my beliefs about facts when their self-interest or that of their children is on the line, so I don't think much would change.

I do not believe that facts and values can be so cleanly separated
within any given human psyche. Philosophy of science books which I have
been reading recently tell that a person has to be trained in a certain
system of values to be able to perceive certain facts. People with radically different
values than your own will not acknowledge the same set of facts as you do, I believe.

See:
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn
What Is This Thing Called Science? by A. F. Chalmers
The Sensory Order: An Inquiry into the Foundations of Theoretical Psychology by F. A. Hayek

Zubon writes:

I think a substantial number of libertarians get to smuggle their values in the back door via Ayn Rand. Rand believed that "every is implies an ought," so if you believe that statement to be factually true, you win and everyone also gets your values.

There are also many people who believe in "moral facts." They get their values in the factual door, too.

Leon Lassovsky writes:

If my views would sweep the world, all steps would be taken to reorient the GNP of the US to make me immortal, to make my wife a constant source of hormonal titillation, and to give me the vim and vigor of a twenty-year old.

There are but a few other minute details of reality that need changing, however, if we would universally reach a consensus about my views, there would be no need to search for anything other than obtaining homeostasis based upon my most primitive instincts. Does anyone differ? Can anyone suggest a more important or worthwhile goal for everyone to follow?

Daniel Klein writes:

Consider the following claim:

Government (forced) redistribution is unenlightened.

Factual?

If not, why not?

Is it not a fact that, generally speaking, enlightened people oppose forced redistribution? Is it not a fact that opposing forced redistribution generally hangs together with enlightened policy views?

If the claim is counted as factual, then Bryan's post is wrong.

Daniel Klein writes:

Or this one:

Drug prohibition reduces social well-being, on the whole.

Factual?

If not, why not?

R. Richard Schweitzer writes:

"The true (empirically provable) nature of facts and their relationships to one another often (usually?) has less effects than the perceptions of those facts by those affected by them." Aphorismms of RRS, notes, 2000.

So, controlling perceptions to eliminate conflicts, or acheive congruence, with one's own can be exceedingly dangerous in the event of one's own misperceptions.

R. Richard Schweitzer
s24rrs@aol.com

R. Richard Schweitzer writes:

One is reminded of Learned Hand's quotation of Oliver Cromwell before battle, addressed to the opponents:

" I beseach thee, in the name of Christ; think ye that YE may not be mistaken?" (emphasis added)

R. Richard Schweitzer
s24rrs@aol.com

B.H. writes:

I think you miss a key point.

Facts are important. Values are important. But interests are also important; I am saying interests are something different than values.

Here is a dispute about facts: income tax cuts raise, not lower, tax revenue.

Here is a dispute about values: rich people should suffer a higher average tax rate.

Here is a collision of interests: I like the mortgage interest deduction because I have a big mortgage. No argument about facts or values will change the interests or lobbying efforts of the real estate lobby.

Is the policy debate about ethanol really about facts, or values, or about the interests of, and political power, of the farm lobby.

On issues of fact, we do science. On issues of values, we do philosophy. On issues of interests, there is nothing to do but negotiate and politic; argument is a waste of time.

8 writes:

Multiculturalism is bad. A diverse society is less trusting and the more society balkanizes, the better the chance for institutional breakdown and a collapse of the welfare state. So if everyone agreed that multiculturalism was bad, it would probably strengthen the welfare state.

School vouchers work. The most likely plan to reform education will result in most private schools accepting state money. Education will improve slightly, but the chance for real ingenuity will be stifled by government regulation.

Mostly free markets. The difference between nations would be increasingly cultural, not economic. I see that world as potentially more hostile to American interests. Or another way, currently America "owns" (with a few others) free markets, and anti-Americanism is often just masked anti-capitalism. While it would lose some enemies, it could lose more friends who currently place economics above culture because they are poor. Also, I'm relatively confident that some American advantages, like the military, are substantially economically supported.

TGGP writes:

Consider the following claim: Government (forced) redistribution is unenlightened. Factual? If not, why not? Is it not a fact that, generally speaking, enlightened people oppose forced redistribution? Is it not a fact that opposing forced redistribution generally hangs together with enlightened policy views? If the claim is counted as factual, then Bryan's post is wrong.

"Enlightened" is undefined, and most likely undefinable without going into "no true Scotsman" territory.

Drug prohibition reduces social well-being, on the whole. Factual? If not, why not?

"social well-being" is also undefined.

Keep your is and your oughts separate. Never the twain shall meet.

David J. Balan writes:

Nice subtle Simpsons reference.

Mary C. Blige writes:

Obivously your factual beliefs do not matter. You can not change the world no matter how much you complain. Learn to deal with it, you can only live for yourself...

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