Bryan Caplan  

A Critique of Wisdom

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Almost ten years ago, philosopher Roderick Long wrote an uncommonly wise piece on political correctness.  The opening commands my instant assent:
There are two ways of letting political correctness control your mind.

One is to reject viewpoints, not because they're false, but because they're politically incorrect.

The other is to embrace viewpoints, not because they're true, but because they're politically incorrect.

We libertarians are seldom guilty of the first mistake. But we are often guilty of the second. Those who commit the second mistake are as much slaves of political correctness as those who commit the first.

At an academic reception I once saw a libertarian introduce himself to a female professor with the winning line: "Are you a feminist? I hate feminists." Libertarians describe the PC crowd as hypersensitive and too easily offended. The charge is often valid. But being hyperinsensitive, and too easily offensive, is no improvement.
Long then applies these insights, offering a series of thoughtful arguments.  Despite the merits of his arguments, however, I think his conclusions are largely mistaken.  Let's go through them one by one. 

Rod:
For example, because it's politically correct to attribute gender differences primarily to cultural rather than to genetic factors, many of us seem to revel in embracing the opposite position. That this rush to sociobiology is often motivated more by emotional than by intellectual factors is suggested by the fact that in arguing for such positions, libertarians will often permit themselves the kind of sloppiness they would rightly excoriate in, say, economic discussions.
Rod then offers two strong examples:
For example, I've heard libertarians argue: "Psychological differences between men and women have neurophysiological correlates, so such differences must be genetically rather than culturally based." Does this mean that acquired psychological traits, unlike innate ones, don't have neurophysiological correlates?
As a Szaszian, I have to agree with Rod: Neurophysiological correlation, though often invoked, proves nothing.  At the same time, however, it is easy to improve this argument.  Instead of pointing to mere correlations, innatists can (and do) emphasize that the correlations appear early in life before culture could plausibly have much effect.  Indeed, the correlations appear prenatally.

Rod continues:
Here's another: "If full sexual equality is possible, desirable, and consistent with human nature, how come no society in human history has ever achieved it?" Try substituting "libertarian freedom" for "sexual equality" in that sentence to see why it's an awkward argument for our camp to be espousing.
Once again, Rod's right.  This is a silly argument for libertarians of all people to make.  Yet this argument too is easy to improve.  If you're looking for signs that a radical change is realistic, focusing on its full achievement in an entire society is silly.  Radical change fails to meet this standard almost by definition.  Yet some radical changes have turned out to be entirely realistic.

If you're looking for signs that a radical change is realistic, you should focus on actually-existing precursors.  Check and see if the radical change has been approximated in some notable social niches

By this more reasonable standard, sexual equality still does poorly, and libertarian freedom does quite well.  Even staunch feminists typically treat men and women very differently.  At minimum, they use statistical discrimination when they weigh the chance that a man will be a violent criminal, or a woman will be a good babysitter.  On the other hand, as libertarians often point out, even staunch statists respect person and property in their daily lives.  They merely refuse to hold governments to their ordinary moral standards.

Rod goes on:
Libertarians -- including, sadly, many so-called libertarian or individualist feminists -- have been quick to embrace Christina Hoff Sommers' distinction between innocuous "liberal feminism" and scary "gender feminism." Liberal feminism accepts the institutions and practices of our society more or less as they are, and argues only for a more equal role for women within those institutions and practices. For gender feminism, by contrast, the institutions and practices of our society are deeply shaped by a socially constructed patriarchal order that systematically reinforces the disempowerment of women; hence such institutions and practices must be reformed in radical ways before equality can be achieved.

Well, gee. If those are my choices then hell yes, I'm a gender feminist!
I wish Rod had considered another choice: that gender equality is no more morally required than a 0% interest rate on loans.  At risk of sounding unromantic, gender relations are basically a barter market.  Men compete for women, women compete for men.  If there happens to be a high male/female ratio, terms will be unequal in women's favor; if there happens to be a low male/female ratio, terms will be unequal in men's favor.  The same goes for the countless other factors that shift supply and demand.  For example, if male-dominated hobbies like videogames became more fun, demand for women (a.k.a. supply of men) falls, and women typically get a worse deal in their relationships.

Non-libertarians will be tempted to dismiss this as an amoral perspective, but libertarians know better.  You can simultaneously morally defer to the price set by supply and demand and morally insist that people honor their agreements in letter and spirit.  (Of course, it's logically possible for a libertarian to advocate voluntary gender equality, just as it's logically possible for a libertarian to advocate a voluntary 0% interest rate.  But once you internalize basic supply and demand, it's hard to see why one market price is any "fairer" than another.  If you object that the status quo isn't a free market, see my previous exchange with Rod on this general point).

Rod continues:
It is of course quite true, as libertarians charge, that a) many gender feminists have taken this idea to absurd extremes, and likewise that b) the solutions for which gender feminists call typically involve an increase in state violence. But with regard to (a), there's no position so reasonable that it hasn't had proponents who've defended it in absurd or extreme forms. (Some libertarians, e.g., profess to find the constraints of deductive logic "coercive.") And as for (b), outside libertarian circles nearly everyone tends to appeal to state violence as the solution to any given problem. That gender feminists' proposed solutions are unacceptable to us does not show that they have not identified any important problems.
Rod is wise as usual.  But it's easy to fix the arguments Rod is criticizing.  Here's where I'd start: I don't see that women in modern First World countries receive worse overall treatment than men.  In fact, people take male suffering less seriously than female suffering.  Consider the endless jokes about male prison rape.  Furthermore, existing First World law generally favors women in both the labor market (e.g. discrimination and sexual harassment law) and the marriage market (e.g. child support and child custody). 

Next, Rod switches topics:
Another issue that inflames many libertarians against political correctness is the issue of speech codes on campuses. Yes, many speech codes are daft. But should people really enjoy exactly the same freedom of speech on university property that they would rightfully enjoy on their own property? Why, exactly?

If the answer is that the purposes of a university are best served by an atmosphere of free exchange of ideas -- is there no validity to the claim that certain kinds of speech might tend, through an intimidating effect, to undermine just such an atmosphere?
Fair point.  But what does this have to do with actually-existing speech codes at American universities?  Does Rod really doubt that the main point is to discourage criticism of the orthodox left-wing views that university professors really do heavily favor?
Or if the answer is that universities, as recipients of tax-supported funds, are representing the public and must therefore administer those funds in a nondiscriminatory manner -- does that mean that welfare recipients, too, must be prevented from spending their relief checks in a discriminatory manner? If taxation is theft, as we claim to believe, it's hard to see how tax funds for universities with speech codes are a worse violation of rights than tax funds for universities without speech codes. The real problem is that universities are being funded by extortion at all.
Question for Rod: Suppose the government could use tax funds to (a) feed orphans, or (b) pay farmers to destroy their crops, driving up the price of food.  (a) and (b) both violate taxpayers' rights.  But (b) is much worse, because consequences matter, too.  Why not say the same about using tax funds to (a) foster an open discussion of ideas, or (b) leftist indoctrination?

Rod concludes:
Is it not true that the contributions of women, minorities, and nonwestern cultures have traditionally been marginalised and excluded? One needn't want to give George Washington Carver more pages in the history textbooks than George Washington to agree that the PC folks are on to something here. And look at the anti-Muslim, pro-war hysteria that's sweeping the country these days. The PC crowd, bless 'em, are certainly on the right side of that one. Libertarians should regard the PC crowd the way we regard conservatives: as potential allies. Often infuriating and wrongheaded potential allies -- but nonetheless people to cultivate, not to insult.
On the marginalization/exclusion point, I agree in moderation.  The same goes on the pro-war hysteria; the left was noticeably better until they regained the presidency.  On the last point, I agree with Rod emphatically.  He's a model of the friendly libertarianism that I preach and try to practice.


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (24 to date)
Doug writes:

"We libertarians are seldom guilty of the first mistake. But we are often guilty of the second. Those who commit the second mistake are as much slaves of political correctness as those who commit the first. "

This is only true if political correctness has zero correlation to truth. If you take a random position that has some loading on political correctness the question is should we bias ourselves' for or against the politically correct side, or not bias ourselves at all?

That is does political correctness have positive, negative or zero correlation with truth? The position Long espouses of neutrality presumes that the correlation is zero.

I heartily disagree. First a position can only be classified as one of political correctness if it is controversial. A belief that the politically correct classes hold is not necessarily politically correct if it is universally accepted. For example I am sure that nearly all professors of Women's Studies believe that the Earth revolves around the sun. Yet this is not a politically correct belief because an equal near unanimous number of all people also believe this.

Thus we conclude that if an issue has loading on political correctness it means that the traditionally politically correct classes espouse it and there is broad-base resistance among society as a whole.

Nearly all politically correct beliefs are supported by a combination of the coercive and propaganda arms of the state. Nearly all PC beliefs have vast rivers of cash and power attached to them, allowing millions to make lucrative and prestigious careers from crusading for them.

In contrast the anti-PC side has virtually no material benefits attached to it. In fact in many circles even if you're rich or powerful, even mentioning anti-PC beliefs is enough to ruin your career or worse. Just look at James Watson.

The only reason anti-PC beliefs will ever survive is because they have strong evidence on their side. If they didn't the vast power of the state and PC complex would virtually wipe out any resistance. Some people will always murmur that the emperor has no clothes, even if the emperor is powerful and tyrannical.

Empirically this plays out. On nearly every relevant debate the anti-PC side is virtually always the conclusion that an independent assessor would come to using available evidence and Occam's razor. PC positions almost always require highly strained circuitous explanations.

Thus I can say that one should be highly biased against PC beliefs based on these facts. The sheer fact that some belief is politically correct should automatically make you doubt it until you see proof otherwise.

Vipul Naik writes:

Doug, you make an intriguing point, but I think there is one angle that you miss here: there are many many other sources of beliefs other than modern-day "political correctness" and epistemic truth. Religion is one (even if you're religious, you might agree with the point regarding *other* religions). There are many sources of beliefs with vested interests and strong emotional attachments behind them that don't have much to do with "political correctness" as the term is commonly understood. Caplan would take the example of patriotism.

Setting aside patriotism, consider the debate on evolution. All the arguments you make could be used to argue that people believe in evolution because of "political correctness" -- there are loads of scientists who get loads of money in research grants from state agencies, and loads of educators who make money through the state, who have a material interest in promoting evolution. There are many atheists (such as Richard Dawkins) who use their evolutionary backgrounds to promote atheism and undermine traditional religion and morality (in the view of some) meeting strong resistance from society. The majority of Americans (and people in many other societies) are very skeptical of evolution. Occam's Razor clearly suggests that man was created in his present form -- why would God bother to evolve him for thousands of years from apes rather than creating him directly? Evolution requires highly strained circuitous explanations compared to a direct creation account. So, going by this, evolution is an example of political correctness and we should have strong priors against believing it.

Mr Denmore writes:

My experience is that 'political correctness' is a term applied to ideas with which one does not agree.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

"If there happens to be a high male/female ratio, terms will be unequal in women's favor"

Tell it to the North Indian women--the area suffering from 25% excess of male births over female.

Indeed, the fewer women are, the more fiercely the male compete and then the males leave the market and coerce women and the terms are extremely bad for women (both living and those unborn).

Thus, the market models are limited by their application to market-like situations. Whenever the actors refuse to play by market rules, one can have quite different outcomes.

BFH writes:
At risk of sounding unromantic, gender relations are basically a barter market. Men compete for women, women compete for men. If there happens to be a high male/female ratio, terms will be unequal in women's favor; if there happens to be a low male/female ratio, terms will be unequal in men's favor.

Men compete for men. Women compete for women.

I don't see that women in modern First World countries receive worse overall treatment than men.

Is that because the treatment isn't worse, or because you don't see it?

8 writes:

Here's another: "If full sexual equality is possible, desirable, and consistent with human nature, how come no society in human history has ever achieved it?" Try substituting "libertarian freedom" for "sexual equality" in that sentence to see why it's an awkward argument for our camp to be espousing.

I thought he was going to crimethink there for a moment. Crisis averted.

Tracy W writes:

On the gender feminist point, speaking as a woman and a feminist (at least in my eyes), I'd say yes, radically reforming our institutions and practices does strike me as scary.

For a start, there's no consensus on what a institution or practice that isn't "deeply shaped by a socially constructed patriarchal order that systematically reinforces the disempowerment of women" looks like. So no matter how pure the intentions of the people who formed the newly shaped institution or practice, someone else could still accuse said institution or practice of being the result of a socially-constructed patriarchal order & etc, and there would be no way of proving the accuser wrong, particularly as the people doing the reform would of course have grown up in this socially-constructed patriarchal order (unless there's some recent advance in social theory I've missed). People's own preferences can be ignored under this theory, as they're the result of socially-constructed patriarchal order etc and must be overthrown. There could be no stability under gender feminism as defined here, it reminds me of radical communist reforms, or the French Revolution. Practices and institutions could always be attacked as being counter-revolutionary, and thus got changed sharply again and again, until some strongman got effectively absolute power, with all the deadly results that produced.

Secondly, assuming that no absolute power is handed to gender feminists (thus avoiding the French and Soviet outcomes), then liberal feminism, gradually changing existing social institutions, strikes me as far more likely to be successful than radically reconstructing things, as it can be done by an alliance with those who quite like existing institutions but are happy to make some changes around the edges. It's also easier to get consensus on small changes than radical rewrites from the ground up.

Thirdly, the practices of our society as they are now, aren't that bad by historical standards (a low bar but an important one). And we don't know much about how to change society in desired directions. So the downside risk of radical changes strikes me as scarier than the downside risks of more moderate changes. Sometimes radical reforms are necessary, but completely changing a social order?

steve writes:

" Those who commit the second mistake are as much slaves of political correctness as those who commit the first. "

This is only true if PC targets untrue and true beliefs equally.

If you were in the business of trying to control what people were allowed to think/talk about what would you be more concerned about, inconvenient reality or inconvenient BS? If the latter than your prior, from a bayesian perspective, would be "if politically correct then probably false, or trivial".

BTW

"If full sexual equality is possible, desirable, and consistent with human nature, how come no society in human history has ever achieved it?" Try substituting "libertarian freedom" for "sexual equality" in that sentence to see why it's an awkward argument for our camp to be espousing."

He is basically asking libertarians to ignore history, ignore the data.

Tracy W writes:

On speech codes: firstly, yes, university speech codes should not be as flexible as what we are allowed on our private property. Universities do need to let people be able to get on with their study, and other daily life, so there's certainly a role for restricting speech to permit that. (Eg a student shouldn't be permitted to disrupt a lecture, or people studying, or sleeping, or whatever in their pursuit of free speech).

And there's existing laws against threatening or harassing other people, in or outside a university. Roderick Long doesn't say whether he thinks that the Klan costumes and blackface students violated the laws against threats. He doesn't make any case for going beyond this, and he doesn't address any of the fears of chilling effects of wider-ranging speech bans.

steve writes:

he commits the classic PC non sequitur - you shouldn't believe X is mostly genetic because then some people will think X is all genetic.

he assumes that PC is equally concerned with false and real beliefs, despite the fact that non-PC beliefs supported by the most data are precisely the ones that drive PC types the most crazy.

he talks about culture and genetics as if they were independent, ignoring the fact that the space of all possible cultural events are limited by genetics. (i.e try teaching your dog about gender)

he asks libertarians to ignore the fact that most people across space and time are not libertarian when trying to construct a libertarian society, cause that would be "awkward".

he claims an "atmosphere of free exchange of ideas" is aided by speech codes. It even seems as though he prefers government funding coupled with speech codes to government funding that isn't (in academia at least).

he offers several dichotomies, completely ignoring obvious alternatives. what about those of us who recognize muslim culture is not desirable yet none the less, do not want to go to war?

anyway, if one were to try and talk me out of libertarianism this would be a good place to start.

Ted Levy writes:

Mr Denmore writes: "My experience is that 'political correctness' is a term applied to ideas with which one does not agree."

Well, yes, of course. But that's not ALL there is to political correctness. The idea you must balance your checkbook on a regular basis is one with which I do not agree, but I wouldn't call proponents of regular checkbook balancing politically correct.

steve writes:

i dont want to belabor this but I really cant get past it...

he claims that those of us who consider all past data (aka history) in determining the likelihood of a set of cultural expressions (of gender norms for instance) to be "slaves of political correctness". its just too funny

FredR writes:

"For example, because it's politically correct to attribute gender differences primarily to cultural rather than to genetic factors, many of us seem to revel in embracing the opposite position. That this rush to sociobiology is often motivated more by emotional than by intellectual factors is suggested by the fact that in arguing for such positions, libertarians will often permit themselves the kind of sloppiness they would rightly excoriate in, say, economic discussions."

As I understand it, Roderick Long believes that praxeology disproves the theoretical possibility of their being genetic causes to any differences in behavior, whether along gender or racial or individual lines.

RA writes:

As I understand it, Roderick Long believes that praxeology disproves the theoretical possibility of their being genetic causes to any differences in behavior, whether along gender or racial or individual lines.

Thanks. I read the first paragraph of the link and it confirms what you're saying. I was going to read some of Long's material because the titles looked interesting, but this ensures I will not.

Individuals only have limited time and mental energy. A smart way to ration that time and energy is to ignore everything said by a person who takes a position so completely contrary to empirical evidence and common sense.

Ken B writes:

@FredR: Interesting link. I often get the feeling from Austrian sites that they are at war with biology.

RA writes:

Long writes:

Is it not true that the contributions of women, minorities, and nonwestern cultures have traditionally been marginalised and excluded? One needn't want to give George Washington Carver more pages in the history textbooks than George Washington to agree that the PC folks are on to something here.

The question is, starting from a neutral standard, what percentage of ideas and innovations that have taken us from hunter-gatherers to modern citizens came from white males and what percentage come from women and minorities. The only attempt I've ever heard of to actually come to a quantifiable answer is Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment.

If white males are responsible for 99.5% of human achievement but receive 99.9% of scholarly attention, then that is a problem. But if women and minorities only received 0.1% of the attention, it is obvious that the PC left wouldn't be happy by getting women and minorities the full 0.5% that they deserve. In fact, they have achieved much more than that, and are still not happy.

Whatever the historical case may be, it is clear to me that in the modern curriculum women and minorities get more credit than would be deserved by any neutral criteria.

All this assumes that Charles Murray is right that pretty much all human accomplishment came from white males. If he is wrong, then someone should do the research to refute him.

Nicholas Weininger writes:

I don't think there's much worth saying about political correctness that isn't more productively said about the more general phenomenon of mood affiliation/cultural cognition (see http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2012/12/ideology-motivated-reasoning-and-cognitive-reflection-an-experimental-study.html). To put it briefly, there are all sorts of situations where people will believe things out of a desire to signal and/or feel group loyalty. Talking about this rather than about "political correctness" is useful in part because the use of the term "political correctness" is itself loaded with group loyalty connotations, so not using it is one way to discipline your own thinking and to make it easier to persuade others.

Bryan, when you say:
"In fact, people take male suffering less seriously than female suffering. Consider the endless jokes about male prison rape. Furthermore, existing First World law generally favors women in both the labor market (e.g. discrimination and sexual harassment law) and the marriage market (e.g. child support and child custody)."

your examples actually serve to make the opposite point. The trivialization of prison rape is part of the trivialization of rape in general, and particularly the suggestion that some classes of rape victims somehow deserved it; the same people who perpetrate the one tend to perpetrate the other, and likewise those protesting the one tend also to protest the other. And laws against discrimination and sexual harassment are comparatively very recent responses to extremely old and deeply embedded sociocultural phenomena. There's plenty wrong with those laws from a libertarian standpoint, but nonetheless libertarians should be the last people to say that statutory equality implies social equality-- would you conclude that a country is drug-free because it outlaws drug possession?

Ken B writes:

"The trivialization of prison rape is part of the trivialization of rape in general"

Bryan's point is telling precisely because this is untrue, and obviously untrue. You can lose a senate seat for an unthinking comment about raping women, but "don't bend over in the shower" jokes are a staple of the comedy circuit.

Foobarista writes:

I've always thought that the "inclusive" approach to history ended up glossing over the actual effects of oppression and slavery by trying to argue that slaves and the oppressed were doing "interesting things". They weren't, and that's the point: they were no more participating in history than horses participated in early battles; sure, cavalry couldn't win without them, but the horses didn't control anything and were simply used as tools.

They weren't allowed to, and that's the point.

Brandon Berg writes:

The thing about political correctness is that, when you talk about it in the vague, nonspecific terms which Long is using, it sounds quite reasonable. The specific proposals, not so much.

Mike W writes:

On the other hand, as libertarians often point out, even staunch statists respect person and property in their daily lives. They merely refuse to hold governments to their ordinary moral standards.

Oh I really like that one!

Ken B writes:

I think PC has a special place unlike most forms of mood affiliation. The thing is, PC is the particular set of codes currently being enforced (explicitly and socially) on campuses in America. That's special. It fully justifies pointing out and dealing with it explicitly. There are lots of stupid laws, but there is astill good reason to bang on about pot laws in America today.

Ann S writes:

Bedarz -

"the market models are limited by their application to market-like situations"

Excellent point! In China as well, the shortage of women has often led to women being kidnapped as wives. After having been forced to live with a man for a while, the women are often too embarrassed to return to their families even if they get a chance to escape. Greater demand doesn't affect the "market price" in the expected way if there are no property rights.

Foobarista -

I agree completely that the push to pretend that slaves and the oppressed were leading interesting and highly productive lives trivializes the effects of slavery and oppression. Rather than revealing the problems with what actually happened, they're trying to use the history books to instead pretend that the world was the way they wanted it to be.

In addition to wishful thinking, perhaps they prefer this approach because it makes it easier to argue that things are worse now than they have been in the past?

Mike W. -

I had missed that quote but agree that it's a good one.

Lemmy Caution writes:

"Thus we conclude that if an issue has loading on political correctness it means that the traditionally politically correct classes espouse it and there is broad-base resistance among society as a whole."

There is something to this. Looking at the last 50 years, political correctness has had a string of victories where ideas from the universities have spread by restricting the range of acceptable speech among everyone else. Would gay rights have spread without such control over representations concerning gay people and taboos concerning derogatory speech? I really don't think so. Controls over representations and speech also were involved in the politicization of rape. Nobody would release a film like "High Plains Drifter" or even "revenge of the nerds" today.

Can this process get out of hand? Probably, but the results of these tactics have been pretty beneficial in general.

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