Bryan Caplan  

Question for Scott

Murray Weidenbaum, RIP... Endogeneity and the Drug War...
Scott writes:
Would you feel comfortable telling an accident victim in a wheelchair that "his type of person" is disproportionately composed of drunks? If not, be careful in making generalizations about the unemployed.
My question for Scott: Would you feel comfortable telling someone who drove drunk, got in an accident, and ended up in a wheelchair that, "You're to blame for your problem"?  Despite my views on desert, I personally would keep my mouth shut. 

But doesn't the search for truth require economists - like judges - to set etiquette aside and go wherever the evidence leads?

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COMMENTS (19 to date)
Tom West writes:

I'd say that most professionals should be reasonably aware of how their words will be taken by those who hear them.

Everyone here understands that if you tell a general audience that crippled people are disproportionately drunk when injured, many, if not most, will actually understand that almost all accident victims are drunk when they were injured.

In other words, unless you're very careful, telling people certain truths is likely to make your audience *more* ignorant.

As I get older, I find that etiquette (and political correctness in general) is often a countervailing force to the sort of intellectual mistakes that evolution has otherwise made us prone to. It has its costs, but so does the lack thereof.

Andrew_FL writes:

If the person is still behaving in a self destructive manner, you'd almost have an obligation to be so blunt with them. You don't help someone like that by being polite to them.

On the other hand, if the person recognized they needed to change and behave less recklessly, well there's no need to be rude, right? Someone who already knows they had a problem doesn't need to be reminded of it.

Matt H writes:

As an atheist I learned long ago that telling the truth can be an extremely aggressive act.

Andrew A. writes:

I think that Scott's point was about making the generalization to an entire group, without knowing whether any specific individual was drunk during their accident.

Should we dismiss all accident victims because many of them were drunk at the time? We need to be careful about the language when we have the discussion.

Randy writes:

@Bryan; The programs in question are about power and control. That is, the "truth" as to whether political beneficiaries truly "deserve" their rewards is irrelevant. Almost none of them do, but it isn't going to stop.

@Matt H; The truth can be used aggressively, but in my experience it is more often taken aggressively. E.g., the response to truths which are contrary to social norms is often shaming - and noticing this has lead me to the belief that the use of shaming is very strong evidence that the idea that prompts the shaming is not true.

Scott Sumner writes:

Bryan, The truth is that unmarried men are bachelors and unmarried women are spinsters. But I never call unmarried women spinsters. I find that if you use language in a rigorously logical way people won't understand what you are talking about, as most people are swayed by framing effects. You have to talk to people in a way that will get through to them, taking into account their inability to process language logically.

Having said that, I do analyze public policy from the perspective of what you would call "truth" and I would call "beliefs." I believe it is bad public policy to have welfare programs that pay people not to work. I prefer a system of subsidies to low wage jobs (combined with abolition to the minimum wage.)

But I stay away from statements like "the poor are disproportionately lazy, incompetent people" because I know that if I say that statement, the statement that other human beings hear will not have the same meaning as the words had when they left my mouth (or more precisely were being formed in my brain.) I would say the statement in a sort of "lazy implies poor" way and they would hear the statement in as sort of "poor implies lazy" way.

BTW, I often fail to live up to my own advice, and often get misunderstood in my posts.

I hope the post you linked to will make readers a bit less prone to framing effects, and more open to logical arguments, but quite honestly it's a long struggle.

Scott Sumner writes:

Bryan, My previous comment was directed at your second question. Your first point was well taken. My analogy might have been a bit off target. Even so, it helps me to explain just how I'd like people to think about unemployment, using a very different context.

I agree we should search for the truth, but I'd like us to be careful how we make our points.

Philo writes:

@ Scott Sumner:

"I stay away from statements like 'the poor are disproportionately lazy, incompetent people' . . . ." Yet here you have found a way to make that very statement (*inter alia*), suitably framed, and directed at a select audience, composed mostly of people who will understand it aright. It's not the content you reject, it's just a manner of expressing that content that, given the audience, would be too widely misunderstood.

Of course, one can carry this expressive fastidiousness too far: some misunderstanding must be accepted, since no expression is wholly immune from it.

Daublin writes:

Well said, Bryan. You might not *say* the person is underserving, at least unless they start asking you point-blank for support. However, when you consider how much support to give them, you would surely take it into consideration.

This is not to say a wheelchair-bound drunk driver deserves *no* support. Common-sense decency would have me helping such a person a little bit. But only a little.

Andrew_FL writes:

@Daublin-Does that you feel it would be a requirement of common decency for you to help such a person, entitle you to demand of someone else that they conform to your idea of common decency, at gunpoint if necessary?

That's the difference between a personal obligation, and enforcing "common decency" as a matter of public policy.

William Newman writes:

"I would say the statement in a sort of 'lazy implies poor' way and they would hear the statement in as sort of 'poor implies lazy' way."

I remember reading --- maybe in comments at Less Wrong, but since then I've failed to find it in search engines --- an LSAT tutor writing about something like this. As I remember the comment, being able to reason clearly about the basic difference between X implying Y and Y implying X is something the LSAT emphasizes ... and that ordinary LSAT-tutoring customers tend to be bad at. If true, it suggests that most of your audience could have fundamental trouble with the distinction too, which is a different kind of confusion than listening carelessly and inverting the relationship.

Glen Smith writes:

The more appropriate question, since it should not be as offensive and assumes the truth, why are so many wealthy people lazy and unmotivated?

Mark V Anderson writes:
The more appropriate question, since it should not be as offensive and assumes the truth, why are so many wealthy people lazy and unmotivated?

It's interesting how you can make this comment without causing much offense.

BTW, do you have a shred of evidence for this, or do you just say this to get attention?

NZ writes:

Isn't part of the reason we have things like governments so that we can send messages to people in a general non-individualized way?

Through our government, we tell traditional married couples: "Good for you, you're going to start a family and have kids. Intact nuclear families make communities better."

It would be awkward for me to say that to a married couple myself, even if I knew them personally.

So too, through our government, should we be able to say "Get a job, you lazy bum!" I'd never say that to anyone in person--not even to a visibly drunk homeless guy pestering me for change! I know, because it's happened.

But I sure hope that that's effectively what my country's welfare laws say, where appropriate.

Jeff writes:

NZ, you must have a much more reserved family.

Holiday gatherings amongst my family often involve asking: when are you going to get a job, when are you getting married, when are you going to have children.

The first question to those either still in school or not in a sufficiently permanent/suitable employ. The second to those in relationships and the third to those married without children.

I'd never ask any of these questions of a stranger, but I think the sentiments are often strongly expressed to friends and family (at least depending on the culture).

Bryan, I believe there is a lot of conflation going on. I think people, especially normal human beings, do not see much difference between the truths you tell as a writer, and what you "ought to" say in a social situation. For instance, many do not see much difference between a writer's frankness and that of a drunkard. This is not much different from people seeing an ideological disagreement as a sign of personal conflict. I think they also confuse the question, "Is this true?" with "Does this sound nice?"

NZ writes:


Family and close friends are an obvious exception to how normally reserved most people are.

As you said, you'd never ask those questions of a stranger. Most people wouldn't. I'm guessing most of us probably wouldn't ask those questions of coworkers or casual acquaintances either.

My big point was that one of the features of government is that it can make these judgmental statements for us, in a very general impersonal way, plus government can put some teeth behind the statements:

Rather than just "Good for you for getting married," government can add "and here are some financial and legal benefits to help you in your family formation."

Rather than just "Get a job, you lazy bum!" government can add "I'm gonna make you take a piss test before you get any handouts from me."

Greg Jaxon writes:

Hand-wringing over this issue does not excuse the collectivist nature of the statement. Considering that no economic actions are ever taken "as a group", it isn't even clear what kind of economics is being preached here.

MikeDC writes:

This is a really simple question to answer. Etiquette requires we not deliver harsh truths to people who don't want to hear them.

However, it does not require we go to great expense to shape the world to mask those truths. Which is what we routinely do with government action.

I have a cousin with a variety of severe and unusual medical problems that require expensive drugs. She's also a stereotypical "flaming liberal" who thinks drug companies are going to kill her because, in search of high profits, drug companies and insurers charge "too much" for the medicines she needs. She thinks a government run system would be great for her.

The truth as I see it is (wholly) government run systems don't usually result in the creation of exotic and rarely used drugs with limited application. Rare conditions are researched less. Most likely, she'd be dead already.

Am I going to say this? Of course not. But it's also folly to indulge the conceits of the fat, drunk, and unlucky with policies that are counterproductive to everyone.

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