Bryan Caplan  

In Vino Hateful Ranting?

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Concentrated vs. Dispersed Int... The Liquidity Crisis Story...
I never heard of John Derbyshire until a few days ago, but The Nation's inventory of his earlier controversies got my attention.  The most interesting: The Nation accuses Derbyshire of "defending Mel Gibson's racist comments."  A more accurate summary is that Derbyshire excused Gibson's racist comments on the grounds of human frailty:
The guy was drunk, for heaven's sake. We all say and do dumb things when we are drunk. If I were to be judged on my drunken escapades and follies, I should be utterly excluded from polite society, and so would you, unless you are some kind of saint.
Derbyshire continues:
What about in vino veritas? Aren't we seeing the real Mel here? Isn't the courteous, civilized, thoughtful Mel just a mask he wears to deceive us? Well, duh, of course it is! That's what civilization means -- masking the Old Adam with good habits, good manners, nice clothes, social graces, well-constructed sentences full of soft words. The Old Adam is still there underneath, as anyone with any self-knowledge at all knows perfectly well. Fill up Christopher Hitchens with liquor, or Jonah Goldberg, or Kathryn Lopez, or Deroy Murdock, or John Derbyshire, and see what you get. Chances are, you won't like it half as much as you like the stuff we put out when we're sober. Chances are not negligible you might hear something offensively insulting about Jews, or Gentiles, or blacks, or whites, or Brits, or papists.
I oppose human weakness.  If Derbyshire correctly describes the effects of alcohol, no one should ever drink.  But is he correct? 

Probably not.  I suspect that Derbyshire is making the common mistake of overgeneralizing from his own self-knowledge.  Some people - personality psychologists call them "high in Neuroticism" or "low in Emotional Stability" - do indeed harbor strong negative emotions that social norms urge us to conceal.  Derbyshire seems to fit the bill by his own admission.  But plenty of other people simply don't feel much anger.  Maybe the distinction between the "happy drunk" and the "mean drunk" is a Hollywood invention, but it rings true.

I do not drink.  Neither do I associate with anyone who drinks heavily in my presence.  So in all honesty, I can't speak from first-hand experience about the effects of alcohol on human behavior.  Maybe what rings true to me is wrong.  If you know something I don't, please share.



COMMENTS (32 to date)
rapscallion writes:

Are you questioning the effects of alcohol or whether or not most people think and feel things that they would be ashamed of if they were publicly known?

If the former, alcohol affects different people in different ways, but I’m willing to bet that if you get most people drunk enough and turn a recorder on, you will eventually get some good blackmail material.

If the latter, I’m kind of astonished that you’d question whether or not we’re all saints, with nothing to be ashamed of in our deepest inner selves. Either you are Jesus or you have thoughts and feelings you should be ashamed of.

Evan writes:

I have an alternate explanation for Gibson's rantings than alcohol: Society has detabooed all the good non-racist swear words. Or at least, all the good swear words that don't insult somebody's group identity.

In the old days saying d**m or f**k could really shock someone. But now those words have been nerfed by overuse. The only words left that can shock polite society are ones that insult someone's race, religion, culture, sexual orientation, or other group identity.

Make no mistake, that is a good thing. I'd much rather live in a society where the words that shock and horrify people are words the belittle and denigrate entire groups of harmless people than a society that's shocked by synonyms for feces and intercourse. It shows that we have our priorities straight as a culture, that we're shocked and horrified by things that actually deserve shock and horror.

But the price of this is that if someone gets really angry and wants to shock people then the curse words they'll be reaching for will be racial epithets. Even if they're not a racist in their beliefs or normal behavior, they'll do it because it's the only way to get a rise out of people anymore.

Bob Highsaw writes:

B-Cap,

You need to experience the joys of drunken debauchery. It's fabulous. It's a floating, wonderful feeling without a clearly comparable alternative. I'm assuming, of course, this is done in a completely responsible manner (i.e., with a designated driver and no fighting or exertion of force upon another).

Drinking loosens you up. It frees you from inhibitions and allows you a moment of respite from your own thoughts and that nagging voice telling you to constantly behave, don't offend anyone, or you should be worried that you're not studying/working hard enough.

It is liberating because you can just live in the moment. And yes, sometimes that means spouting off some politically incorrect nonsense. Maybe you really believe it, maybe you don't. But it's gratifying to give a finger to all the thought police roaming the world insisting that they're the keepers of all things socially acceptable and graceful.

Drunkenness = I am happy in this moment, and f*ck you.

bluntobject writes:

Robin Hanson reports that the "alcohol is disinhibitory" meme is (or is likely to be) a cultural construct rather than a property of EtOH itself. My experience suggests that he's right, but then again I have a lot of confirmation bias.

Athanasios Ghikas writes:

Let me argue from authority.In the "Laws" Plato has the "Athenian" lecture the ignorant (the Spartan and the Cretan) that drinking parties are good gymnastics for the minds of the young -they learn to hold their tongues under the influence of alcohol(wine).

Hugh writes:

Dr. Caplan,

You write "I oppose human weakness".

I didn't understand what you meant, so I followed the link...and I still don't understand.

Opposition to human weakness would seem futile as it is an integral part of what we are. Attempts to mitigate or channel the effects of this weakness seem more worthwhile - although not guaranteed to succeed.

If you believe that you never give in to human weakness, you need to start worrying. Either you have set the bar vey low, or you do not understand what weakness means.

Jacob AG writes:

"I do not drink. Neither do I associate with anyone who drinks heavily in my presence. So in all honesty, I can't speak from first-hand experience about the effects of alcohol on human behavior. Maybe what rings true to me is wrong. If you know something I don't, please share."

There's nothing wrong with abstaining from drinking, in fact there are clear benefits, but there are also plenty of good reasons to drink.

For one thing, there are physical health benefits. I won't get into them here, they're public information, but you can easily look them up and enjoy them without getting drunk.

Second, mild intoxication (about a 0.08 blood alcohol content) can improve your verbal and creative problem solving ability (see here for example: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053810012000037). Hence its popularity among writers, artists, and at social gatherings like meals and parties.

Third, drinking is just plain fun. If you don't need to drink to have a good time, fair enough, but there's nothing quite like a cold glass of beer (or two...).

Fourth, alcohol consumption can be a transcendental experience. We all need to transcend ourselves and our surroundings every once in a while (at least), whether by going to church, watching bad television, using mind-altering substances like alcohol, or some other method.

Fifth and finally, some of the greatest minds in history have loved a stiff drink; why shouldn't yours? Some of the most famous artists and writers drink (and drank), even (and sometimes especially) as they work(ed). There's also the Persian polymath Omar Khayyam, who wrote a LOT of poetry about wine and drinking. There's no reason why a political scientist couldn't be like Omar Khayyam -- brilliant, yet drunk.

Anyway, drinking is an interesting experience. Maybe you should try it sometime.

MikeP writes:

I never heard of John Derbyshire until a few days ago...

Would it surprise you to know that John Derbyshire is about as anti-free migration as Bryan Caplan is pro-free migration?

Does that change your reading of his defense of people's opinions when drunk?

Nacim writes:

I agree with everything Bob Highsaw said. I've been encouraging you to imbibe at least once for a while now, and I still don't understand the aversion.

Alcohol inebriation is indescribably fun. It greatly opens up channels of banter and communication that would normally be shut off via that little voice in your head. Where an action would usually be preceded by a chain of hesitation, it flows freely and confidently. I find it incredibly rewarding to have brief moments in my life where I am not chained by my own self-consciousness and those moments form some of my fondest memories.

Bryan, I see no reason for you to not try alcohol at least just once. Meet up with some of your best friends and pick wine or anything else that generally leads to a tasty and smooth trip to tipsiness and you'll be set. Just one glass will be sufficient to illustrate its effects.

You'll be much more credible if you choose to abstain after actually trying it :)

Dave writes:

Let me pile on my subjective, anecdotal experience too. I did not drink until I was 30, well-employed with two kids and married for 10 years. (Yes, I married young.) It is my experience that the benefits of responsible drinking far outweigh the negatives. I won't enumerate them here, but I agree with Nacim that abstinence is more credible when you actually have some experience of what you are rejecting. Obviously this isn't always valid, but the risk/reward ratio is good for trying most things once. In my case, my teatotalling was predicated on my ignorance and baseless bias.

That said, I haven't had the experience Derbyshire describes. I'm basically the same person when drinking as when not, but perhaps this is due to my personality type. Regardless, if you've drunk before you know how it affects you and have chosen to put yourself in that state of mind. Therefore, you should still be held responsible for your actions while under the influence.

Nevertheless, we all do dumb things, drunk or sober, and "utter exclusion" is not a great policy in either case.

todd writes:

You seem like a pretty free spirit to begin with, so I think the exhortations to drink based on appeals to the importance of feeling uninhibited will probably fall on deaf ears. Still I will entice you from a different angle: high qualoty alcoholic beverages taste good. They provide low risk access to a variety of innate pleasures.

Jeff writes:
I oppose human weakness. If Derbyshire correctly describes the effects of alcohol, no one should ever drink.

Wait, what? Why? Because if they drink, they might say something mean about Jews? People like drinking. Even if after four beers, yours and everybody else's chances of going on an Anti-Semitic rant were 100%, that still wouldn't be an argument for not drinking. That would be an argument for not drinking around Jews.

John Roccia writes:

I really think I want to get "In Vino Veritas" engraved on a flask.

While I agree with the other posters encouraging you, Bryan, to try a drink, let me encourage you in a different way - how have you never roleplayed drunk?!? Drinking while roleplaying leads to absolute hilarity - and no one has to drive, be around people they don't know, or worry about embarassing themselves (since hey, we're all already pretending to be elves or something).

In relation to the initial post, however, I don't believe drinking excuses Gibson's actions. It might explain them, but not excuse them. I personally believe "in vino veritas," but that just means that you're just as responsible for yourself drunk as you are sober. No "twinkie defense" please! You should be free to do as you please - but you're none the less responsible for the consequences and your own actions when you do. People should be allowed to drink - but if that's what he's like when drunk, maybe Mel ought to have a little more self-restraint. We should all know our limits.

Finch writes:

Leaving aside the positive mental effects, drinking in moderation is quite healthy. Particularly given that Bryan is a father who doesn't exercise, I'd view moderate alcohol consumption as a low cost way of being a better parent (insofar as not dying young is being a good parent). A glass of wine each evening is a much easier commitment to stick to than five miles of running each morning. This is the first well cited piece Google popped up for me:

http://www2.potsdam.edu/hansondj/AlcoholAndHealth.html

"Moderate drinkers tend to have better health and live longer than those who are either abstainers or heavy drinkers. In addition to having fewer heart attacks and strokes, moderate consumers of alcoholic beverages (beer, wine and distilled spirits or liquor) are generally less likely to suffer strokes, diabetes, arthritis, enlarged prostate, dementia (including Alzheimer's disease), and several major cancers."

Curtis writes:

I completely understand your decision not to associate with people who drink heavily in your presence, especially when you do not drink. I was, in my late teens and early 20s, a reliable designated driver because I never drank. Being the only one, or one of a few, sober in a group of drunk people is rarely fun.

Like Dave above, I didn't start drinking in any meaningful sense of the word until after I turned 30. Since then, I've only been drunk twice. I have not made any racist rants due to drinking (or any other cause). After about five or six beers, I tend to just start getting tired.

All that said, I now see my reluctance to drink earlier in life as a form of human weakness. My parents were pastors in a teetotaling church, and I was always taught that alcohol -- not simply getting drunk -- was evil. Because of that, I formed a lot of wrong ideas about the effects of alcohol. My reluctance to drink was due to fear and dogma, not self-mastery. It wasn't until I overcame my indoctrination against alcohol that I felt stronger as a person.

I'm not saying your reluctance is due to fear and dogma. But rather than looking at why you might start drinking (e.g., health benefits, to experience physiological effects of alcohol, etc.), it might be worth reconsidering why you don't drink. Avoidance can be weakness just as much as participation.

One final note, you might take a look at "Ebrietatis Encomium," an 1812 treatise in praise of drunkenness.

Floccina writes:

Unlike some other here I do not like the feeling of being drunk and like even less how I feel the day after being drunk. It an't worth it.

chipotle writes:

Bryan, in this post you reveal that your "bubble" (to which you have happily admitted before) is so thick that it prevents you from making useful insights on many common social phenomenon.

You have noted before that you think that "introspection" is a method that is underutilized by economists. But your severely limited range of experience also limits your capacity for introspection. It is not as if you have been shut up on a single medieval manor for the entirety of your existence. Nevertheless, your self-chosen, severely limited range of experiences does not jibe with what your (correctly, IMO) chosen social science methodology.

You don't drink. Well, for the most part, I don't either. I would say that I consume (on average) fewer than two drinks of alcohol per month. I dislike the taste; I'm naturally gregarious; I don't need the added expense; it's bad for my blood sugar.

But here's the difference between you and me. I HAVE drank. I have even been DRUNK. And I feel good about it. I feel as if it is part of the human experience and almost as if I have a moral responsibility--with this, the only life I have--to experience things. Obviously, things that are lethal, permanently harmful, or prone to forming into bad habits should be excluded.

Bryan, I must ask: Why are you such a Puritan regarding your personal conduct? What do you gain from it? I understand (but do not agree with) people who are suspicious of joy from some sort of religious perspective. But, honestly, what's your excuse? What if there are things that are awesome that you can never experience only because you are so--forgive the term--square?

I have no doubt that you have at least 75 IQ points over me, so I'm genuinely curious about what's going on inside your brilliant but inscrutable head.

But this wasn't even the most absurd sentence of this blog post. This was:

I oppose human weakness.

And I oppose gravity! And the first law of thermodynamics! And evolution.

Bryan maybe you can help me out here. There was a writer, a famous one I think, who wrote, "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed."

Who was that?

Tom Crispin writes:

Regarding the comments advocating inebriation: you need to get drunk to do all that stuff? Sad ...

Yancey Ward writes:

I don't often drink to the point of drunkenness, but I think Caplan is going to be wrong about about disbelieving Derbyshire's main point. I have seen drunk people, and read of drunk people, doing things, utterly dangerous things, that they would never consider themselves doing while sober. I don't think the distinction between saying hateful things while drunk and walking along the top of a narrow wall 15 feet in the air while in the same state to be all that meaningful. I don't think one can know what one will do while drunk unless they have experienced it, or experienced it in the right circumstances. Inhibitions are part of what makes us who we are- they form our self-identity and how we see ourselves while sober. Alcohol lowers those barriers, and I think most of us would be surprised to find what is underneath, what we aren't even aware of otherwise.

Dan Meyer writes:

Evan said:


But the price of this is that if someone gets really angry and wants to shock people then the curse words they'll be reaching for will be racial epithets.

I had a gf in high school who told me she would really hate it if I ever referred to her as a b****. Basically, she primed my brain to reach for that word when I was really angry at her (when I may not have to thought to use it otherwise).

gf : polite society :: "b****" : [the list of words we're talking about]

Bob Murphy writes:

What the heck just happened in this post? Did Bryan actually challenge someone's description of drunken behavior, and then admit he has never been around drunk people?

As Will Ferrell would ask: Am I the only one who sees this?!

Mark Bahner writes:

The only thing I want to know about John Derbyshire's column is...no mention of Belgians???!

Mark Bahner writes:

"If Derbyshire correctly describes the effects of alcohol, no one should ever drink."

John Derbyshire may (or may not) correctly describe the effects of drunkenness. He certainly doesn't describe the effects of alcohol.

chipotle writes:

Bob Murphy wins the thread.

There's no reason to listen to Bryan Caplan on anything pertaining to drunkenness.

ChrisG writes:

Words frequently have consequences. A teenager might be forgiven for being unfamiliar with the effects of alcohol. Mel is not a teenager, although he acted like one. He's old enough to know better. No free pass.

Chris_Y writes:

Drinking, causes problems...
Drinking, helps me solve them...

btf writes:

In "in vino veritas" there is truth.
I'm a nice guy, but reserved by nature. Quiet enough that sometimes sober me seems standoffish in social situations. The biggest benefit of drink is that in those situations it loosens me up, I become more friendly, I make more friends, people like me better. I've often made an embarrassing rant about how much I liked or admired someone. Not so many angry rants.(aside from calling my wife an "old gangster" a while back?)
Anyone who gets angry or acts rudely when they drink I avoid even when they are sober. That to me is the benefit of drinking, getting to better know someones truer nature, when their guard is down.

That and it's fun.

HispanicPundit writes:

John Derbyshire just got booted from NRO for his recent comments about blacks.

Did you hear about that? I'd be interested to see what you think about those comments. I found some of the criticism unwarranted, some warranted.

Your thoughts?

Pandaemoni writes:

I do drink, and so do my close friends, and the notion that we are all suppressing the urge to say "something offensively insulting about Jews, or Gentiles, or blacks, or whites, or Brits, or papists," is, I think, Derbyshire projecting his issues onto the world at large.

I have certainly heard many drunken rant about particular bosses, girlfriends, friends, wives (current and former), the a**hole who cut me off this morning, and various others, but for the most part, in my experience, those rants are about specific individuals, and even when the net is cast more widely it never really crosses the threshold of being particularly derogatory to an entire identifiable group.

Maybe some members of my group are suppressing their real feelings when it comes to racism or the like, but I am very sure I'm not. (If my friends are suppressing their "true" feelings, then they continue to do so even after their fifth martini.) Perhaps I'm the one who's projecting, but given Derbyshire's colorful opinions, I suspect it's him.

Trespassers W writes:

Funny, I can't remember ever making racist comments like that, even at my drunkest. Alcohol can make me non-introverted, jovial, foolish, and loud, but never ill-tempered or evil. It magnifies some aspects of my personality, mutes others. It never creates something that's not already there.

So if I were to overgeneralize from my own self-knowledge, I'd hazard that Mel Gibson is just a big ol' racist. And probably Derbyshire too.

PrometheeFeu writes:

Never having been drunk, I have no idea what would come out. However, I have seen myself chose not to say something on more than one occasion. I have stupid ideas all the time. But usually (though unfortunately not always) my analytical skills kick in and after examining the idea, I might conclude that it was a stupid idea. I sometimes think that my brain is less a machine that constructs and processes ideas, but rather a constant random generator of every possible idea, good, bad, evil, virtuous, smart, stupid and that I then filter and curate to the best of my ability. The filtering and curating is what you should be judged on. Not the random stuff that pops into your head as a result of free association and environmental cues.

I have no idea what Michael Gibson said or thinks (nor do I particularly care honestly) but if indeed alcohol consumption messes with your ability to filter your thoughts and analyze, it might very well cause you say something which you would otherwise have realized was stupid or wrong.

John David Galt writes:

Derbyshire's only racist (or wrong) comment was that blacks are less intelligent.

Everything else he said was spot on, and he has begun, on many blogs, a conversation about race that this country should have had a decade ago. Preferably before it made the mistake of electing a charismatic Communist, which is what Obama is.

Nearly all the maltreatment blacks, especially young black males, receive is because they insist on being at least impolite, and often vicious and threatening, in ways that would be tolerated even less if you or I did them. The only thing racist about people's reactions to that bad behavior is the fact that anyone wants it given a "pass" at all.

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