David R. Henderson  

Check Your Base

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In our book, Making Great Decisions in Business and Life, my co-author, Charles Hooper, and I have a chapter titled, "Biases Affect the Best of Us." I thought of one section of that chapter when I read co-blogger Arnold Kling's quote from Robert Higgs and then went to the original Higgs post. In the post, titled, "Who Is Most Likely to Oppose Totalitarianism?," Higgs had written:

I have devoted much of my scholarship over the years to studies of the state--its nature, its growth, and its relationships with other aspects of social life. I have been struck repeatedly by a certain fact about episodes of sudden or extraordinary expansion of the state: when push came to shove, those who resisted--often to the death--tended to be people of faith. In U.S. history they included primarily Anabaptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other marginalized Protestant sects. In Nazi Germany, many of the regime's opponents were Roman Catholics, as were the opponents in Poland under Communist rule. Atheists as a class did not distinguish themselves as resisters of tyranny or totalitarianism, although some individual atheists did resist.

In one section of our chapter, titled, "Check Your Base," Charley and I wrote:
Many people make the mistake of not checking their base. The following example explains what we mean:
Person A: I was surprised that I met this really serious person from California. I thought everyone in California is relaxed and mellow.
Person B: There are 35 million people in California. Many of them are serious.

At a truly national event, such as a scientific conference or a square dancing convention with people from all over the country, you would have a much higher chance of finding a serious person from California than from another state, such as Iowa. This is true even if Iowans in general are more serious; there are just so many more people from California. Say one out of three Californians is serious and that double that fraction of Iowans, that is, two out of three Iowans, are serious. Given California's population of 35 million and Iowa's population of three million people, there are about 12 million serious Californians versus only two million serious Iowans. You are six times as likely to come across a serious Californian as a serious Iowan, even though Iowans are twice as likely to be serious. The real question is what you're doing at a square dancing convention looking for serious people. :-)


There were probably way more religious people than atheists in each of the cases Higgs cites. So what we would really want to know is the probability that a given religious person would oppose tyranny and the probability that a given atheist would oppose tyranny. I have no prior view on that and, unfortunately, Higgs doesn't give evidence on that. I think very highly of Bob Higgs--both as a person and as an analyst. So here's a case where our chapter title applies: biases really did affect the best of us. Higgs forgot to check his base.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Methods



COMMENTS (12 to date)
ThomasL writes:
Higgs forgot to check his base.
Do you know that Higgs did not analyze it this way or are you assuming that he did not?
John Thacker writes:

Your point is well taken, but I think that the type of religious people he is talking about are pretty rare. Most people are neither atheists nor really religious.

Paavo writes:

There is some base checking as these sects are not the most numerous ones.

Atheists just have one less reason to fight the losing battle that fighting a totalitarian state is. Probably the atheists that believe in some greater cause or another (like human or animal rights or democracy) are more likely to oppose the powers that be.

God is one greater than your personal life cause, if you exclude that you will have less activity that is not rational within your personal life. Opposing tyranny is rarely good for your personal well being.

VangelV writes:

I do not see why anyone would be surprised by Higgs' observation. After all, Catholics have been taught about natural rights. The basis of their teaching comes from both their religious belief system and from logical reasoning. Atheists are far more likely to be moral relativists and to accept the idea that rights come from the state rather than from our humanity or a deity. As such they would be far more tolerant of totalitarian actions than people who oppose those actions on either religious or logical grounds.

David R. Henderson writes:

@VangelV,
You missed my point. Higgs might be right. My point is that he didn’t present evidence for it, for the reason I stated.

Bob Murphy writes:

I think very highly of Bob Higgs--both as a person and as an analyst.

David, you need to check your base: With so many Bobs running around, statistically you should expect at least one of us to be a good economist.

Bob Murphy writes:

Bob Higgs wrote:

Atheists as a class did not distinguish themselves as resisters of tyranny or totalitarianism, although some individual atheists did resist.

David, I think there is another potential problem with Higgs' statement, in addition to the one you mention. (And if it matters to anybody, I'm actually predisposed to like Higgs' claims, so I think it's more that he is making a loose argument for a true conclusion.)

I think people of a certain faith identify that as a distinguishing "class" to which they belong, far more than most atheists think of themselves as being part of the atheist club.

For example, suppose Higgs said, "I notice that as a class the people who were born on odd days of the month didn't really resist the Nazis, as much as the Quakers did." That would be a weird thing to say.

Jim Glass writes:

Brain researchers have found what ISTM is the most pernicious element of bias: Political partisans get an endorphin kick from believing their own side's lies, and it is literally addicting. Note, not a kick from exposing the other side's lies, or fighting them, or having "two-minute hates" or whatever, but from believing *their own* lies.

If you are addicted to believing your own false biases, this makes it difficult to check them.

IMHO, a fine current example of someone "who didn't check his own base" likely due to this effect is Menzie Chinn at Econbrowser, who right now has a top post up slurring Edward Lazear for saying in the WSJ in May of 2008 (while heading Bush’s CEA), "The data are pretty clear that we are not in a recession."

Chinn says that for a person in Lazear's position and with his resources to say this, he had to be either "deluded or mendacious. You take your pick" ... one who "issues reckless statements in a partisan atmosphere, damag[ing] the credibility of the institutions he works with, as well as his own"... etc. etc.

Then we find, of all blogs, Econbrowser in July of 2008 reporting the BEA numbers for Q2, including that very May, thusly...

Not quite a recession
The Bureau of Economic Analysis reported today that U.S. real GDP grew at a 1.9% annual rate in the second quarter of 2008, less than many analysts had been predicting a week ago, but substantially better than the 6-month-ahead predictions for that number that we were hearing back in January.
Today's report contained some good news. The main reason that the final GDP number was weaker than predicted was the big drawdown in inventories. Without that negative contribution from inventories, real final sales grew at a robust 3.8% annual rate...
Chinn not only didn't check his own base, he didn't check his own blog!

Now, unless he thinks the BEA, when releasing those numbers with 2 1/2 months more data in, was also "deluded or mendacious" (in spite of being approvingly quoted by Econbrowser) it seems he owes Lazear an apology.

But I have no doubt at all that Chinn genuinely, honestly feels that Lazear is deluded and mendacious still to this day, the comment thread speaks for itself ... and that that righteous feeling feels rewarding (endorphins) ... and he's not going to give up that bone. But who actually is being deluded or mendacious here?

For the record, still another two months later, *after* Lehman's collapse, the Fed in its next meeting held rates steady, citing "high inflation" and balanced risk between inflation and recession. (It's hard to predict the present in economics.) Though we've all re-written that history in our memories.

Good people don't let their friends become addicts and certainly don't become addicts themselves. After all I've seen I really believe that if one becomes a political partisan (even for libertarianism!) one *will* be corrupted, intellectually at least. Perhaps for a good cause, so it may be worth it -- but don't kid oneself. It's a choice.

To remain maximally able to check one's base and biases one must remain genuinely non-partisan (not pretend non-partisan). Which is difficult, because we all *want* that something to believe in. It's in our genes and our brain chemistry.


Ken B writes:

FWIW, in the early stages of nazi gleichschaltung, the groups that resisted the most were Jehovah's Witnesses and communists. In the early stages they were the only large scale groups that did. I would guess communists represented a large segment of the atheists in Germany in 1933.

True enough the communists just wanted a different form of tyranny, but they did resist the one on offer.

Murphy's point is a good one but for most communists I think seeing them themselves as atheists was quite explicitly part of their self identity.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Bob Murphy,
I know many Bobs who are good economists. You are one of them. On your other point, it might surprise you, because you know that I’m an atheist, but my gut feel was that Higgs is right. My point was much narrower. A number of the other commenters missed that.
Good point about people born on the odd days of the month.
@Jim Glass,
Thanks. I hadn’t known that Menzie Chinn story. I think you go too far in your conclusion, though. I’m a partisan but I try, and I think mainly succeed, to judge my side’s arguments critically and to listen and think about what the other sides say.
@Ken B,
Good point about the communists.

Kevin L writes:

If communists were resisting only one type of tyranny while championing another, I'd hardly say that gives any evidence of atheists standing up against tyranny. I suppose you could say that Christians wanted total control by the church, and Nazi tyranny was in competition with religious tyranny, but that claim is at least not as obvious as the one about communists.

I do think a stronger point could be made if you could show that religious people oppose tyranny in the name of religion, whereas few, if any, atheists oppose tyranny in the name of atheism. As a follower of Christ, I hope that the motive is adherence to "Love your neighbor as yourself" and not a desire for religious tyranny, but I don't deny that both could be true.

Robert Higgs writes:

I am quite sure that I never wrote any other two-paragraph post, merely raising a question for the most part, that elicited so much reaction on the blogosphere.

For the record: when I write a two-paragraph blog post, I am not offering it as a treatise, a scholarly article, or even as a meaty blog post. I did not claim to have any evidence other than an impression gained from decades of study -- indeed, study of other things, rather than of the specific question I raised in the two paragraphs.

Yet I have been faulted for, among many other things, ignoring and leaving out all sorts of relevant information and factors and for analytical flaws of all sorts. Jesus! If you find someone who can present a compelling treatise on a complex question in two short paragraphs, please e-mail me to tell me about it.

I will say, however, with regard to the base issue, that I'm quite sure that the Jehovah's Witnesses who constituted about 3/4 of all those imprisoned for refusing to comply with the draft laws in World War II, were indeed represented far out of proportion to their share of the overall population of draftees.

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