Bryan Caplan  

Sumner Digest

PRINT
Why I am not a Caplanian... What Would Happen If the Media...
Sumner's latest mini-essay is a thing of beauty.  Highlights:

1. Sumner on the Fundamental Attribution Non-Error:

I think we all listen to our friends, relatives, and colleagues complain about their predicament, and then silently think, "Well what do they expect?  Their predicament perfectly reflects their character."  If they are a lazy spendthrift, then they will go through life thinking that adverse circumstances are always denying them the money they need.  If they are envious, then their colleagues will be unfairly promoted ahead of them.  Etc, etc.

But when we think about ourselves, well then things are very different.  If only we could get out from under burden X, our life would be so much easier...  While reading the Portuguese writer Pessoa, I recently came across this quotation:

Whenever I've tried to free my life from a set of the circumstances that continuously oppress it, I've been instantly surrounded by other circumstances of the same order, as if the inscrutable web of creation were irrevocably at odds with me.

 %$@#& that inscrutable web of creation.

2. Sumner on the Political Corollary of the Fundamental Attribution Non-Error:
When we form a mental image of another democratic country, we don't typically think in terms of the current leader, but rather a much deeper set of characteristics, what you might call the character of a country.  France, Italy, Switzerland, Japan; the names of each of these countries trigger complex mental images for most of us, but how many readers of this blog could even name the leaders of Switzerland and Japan?...
 

For our own country things are much different... [D]on't we all tend to exaggerate the importance of who is elected?  I think this is especially true when the leader is someone you don't like.  Deep down, conservatives feel they have never been given a chance; that the liberal elite runs the media, courts, colleges, and there are enough squishy Republicans that nothing substantive gets accomplished.  I think this excuse is hogwash, but I am pretty sure it is widely held.  In contrast, left-leaning intellectuals often refer to "Reagan's America," or "Thatcher's Britain."  But I've never heard the phrases "Jimmy Carter's America," or "Gordon Brown's Britain."  Why not?  Because if the more liberal candidate is elected, the country will still face the same problems as before, just as Switzerland and Japan will still be Switzerland and Japan regardless of which non-entities happen to hold their highest offices.

3. Sumner on the Power of Zeitgeist (Auf English, daß ist "public opinion.")

Elections are very important, but mostly because of the fact that we have them.  The real action is in changing the zeitgeist, not who ekes out an election victory.  In some ways we will become much more like France, for instance I think we will move closer to universal health insurance.  And in some ways France is becoming much more like the US, as when they deregulated the commercial airline industry and privatized lots of big companies.  But none of these long run trends will be determined by who wins elections.
4. Sumner on Leaders Who Make a Difference
In the 1960s most Americans knew that Mao was leader of China, whereas today very few can name Hu Jintao.  Does that mean we are less well informed?  No.  There was good reason to know who Mao was, he was one of the most important figures in world history, and his decisions greatly affected the lives of millions.  There is no need to know who Hu is (pun intended.)  Fortunately for the Chinese people, Hu could not launch a Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution even if he wanted to.
If you can't imagine how one short essay can stitch all these topics and much more together without leaving a visible seam, read the whole thing.


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (3 to date)
William writes:

Oops, Muphry's law. Anyway, "daß ist" should be changed in favor of "das ist".

ajb writes:

That is why debates about immigration policy ARE important, because demographics will shift the zeitgeist and long run policy regardless of current reasoning. I'd take a lot more welfare statism and even unpleasant left wing policy in the short run if we could eliminate illegal immigration and change the rules to focus on highly skilled workers, those capable of buying admission, demonstrated ability to produce educated low crime descendants, cultural assimilation potential and low likelihood of forming non-Anglo cultural coalitions as opposed to low skilled immigrants who bring in their relatives.

Current writes:

Zeitgeist doesn't mean "public opinion" it means "the spirit of the age" (literally time-ghost). Not just the publics opinion, but' the prevailing mainstream opinion of all important sections of society.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top