Bryan Caplan  

21 Short Claims About Political Motivation

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Yesterday I wrote:
If you want lots of X, but are too ignorant to evaluate X's indirect effects, you probably just really love X.  If you want lots of ice cream, but are too ignorant to evaluate ice cream's effect on your health, you probably just really love ice cream.  If you want lots of government, but are too ignorant to evaluate government's overall consequences, you probably just really love government.
Lest you think I'm picking on liberals, I now proceed to broadly generalize my initial claim.

1. If you want lots of defense spending, but are too ignorant to evaluate defense spending's overall consequences, you probably just really love defense spending.

2. If you want lots of liberty, but are too ignorant to evaluate liberty's overall consequences, you probably just really love liberty.

3. If you want lots of education, but are too ignorant to evaluate education's overall consequences, you probably just really love education.

4. If you want lots of labor regulation, but are too ignorant to evaluate labor regulation's overall consequences, you probably just really love labor regulation.

5. If you want to invade lots of countries, but are too ignorant to evaluate the overall consequences of invading countries, you probably just really love invading countries.

6. If you want lots of environmental regulation, but are too ignorant to evaluate environmental regulation's overall consequences, you probably just really love environmental regulation.

7. If you want lots of deregulation, but are too ignorant to evaluate deregulation's overall consequences, you probably just really love deregulation.

8. If you want lots of taxes on the rich, but are too ignorant to evaluate taxes on the rich's overall consequences, you probably just really love taxes on the rich.

9. If you want lots of tax cuts, but are too ignorant to evaluate tax cuts' overall consequences, you probably just really hate taxes.

10. If you want lots of freedom of speech, but are too ignorant to evaluate freedom of speech's overall consequences, you probably just really love freedom of speech.

11. If you want strict drug laws, but are too ignorant to evaluate drug laws' overall consequences, you probably just really love drug laws.

12. If you want to end drug prohibition, but are too ignorant to evaluate drug prohibition's overall consequences, you probably just really hate drug prohibition.

13. If you want much lower population, but are too ignorant to evaluate much lower population's overall consequences, you probably just really hate people.

14. If you want much higher population, but are too ignorant to evaluate much higher population's overall consequences, you probably just really love people.

15. If you want much lower business taxes, but are too ignorant to evaluate business taxes' overall consequences, you probably just really hate business taxes.

16. If you want drastic welfare cuts, but are too ignorant to evaluate welfare cuts' overall consequences, you probably just really hate welfare.

17. If you want much lower immigration, but are too ignorant to evaluate immigration's overall consequences, you probably just really hate immigration.

18. If you want much higher immigration, but are too ignorant to evaluate immigration's overall consequences, you probably just really love immigration.

19. If you want lots of trade restrictions, but are too ignorant to evaluate trade restrictions' overall consequences, you probably just really love trade restrictions.

20. If you want far fewer unions, but are too ignorant to evaluate unions' overall consequences, you probably just really hate unions.

21. If you want lots more government health care, but are too ignorant to evaluate government health care's overall consequences, you probably just really love government health care.

Note that in each case, I say "probably."  There actually is an elegant moral framework that justifies strong moral views in the face of deep ignorance.  I call it weak deontology.  On this view, some policies are morally obligatory unless there is strong evidence that their consequences are very bad.  See the forced organ donation hypothetical or my common-sense case for pacifism

But does anyone really think that ignorant political activists are this philosophically sophisticated?  Emotion-driven stories of the form, "If you want lots more X, but are too ignorant to evaluate X's overall consequences, you probably just really love X" are none too flattering.  But if you listen to the silly way most activists talk, the unflattering story seems very true. 

Disagree?  What if I amend my statement to, "But if you listen to the silly way most activists who disagree with you talk, the unflattering story seems very true"?



COMMENTS (14 to date)
David Friedman writes:

One of the things that has struck me in online climate arguments is that almost everybody who wants strong action against CO2 emissions also believes that the cost of such action is low or negative. There is no particular reason why there couldn't be people who believe that there are large human costs to shifting away from fossil fuels, but those costs are worth paying to avoid the even larger costs of not shifting, but such people seem to be very rare.

Which makes sense in your context. If you really like the idea of government making people change to a more ascetic, more "natural" life style, get away from all that filthy coal and oil, you have an incentive both to believe that the benefits of doing so are large and that the costs are small.

Handle writes:

"13. If you want much lower population, but are too ignorant to evaluate much lower population's overall consequences, you probably just really hate people."

Hmm .. I was expecting it to follow the pattern ... " ... just really love lower population." or "... just really love love lower density." or even "just really hate higher density."

But I guess not. Instead it's, "hate people".

Sure, whatever.

Leo writes:

I see you missed all sides from the abortion issue. I'm glad you see all of them as serious.

Seb Nickel writes:

Or saying you want lots of X could be socially desirable within your reference group.

Good, thought-provoking post.

Fazal Majid writes:

Wanting a lower population does not mean you hate people. Parents in the West make that decision every day by opting to have fewer children so they can devote more resources for each's education, etc.

~FR writes:

Good Morning Professor Caplan,

Can't we go further than this and take in the 'ideal' aspect of X? Since the consequence of X is inseparable from X, the 'love' and 'hate' are actually with the IDEA of X, not X itself.

So:
"If you want much higher immigration, but are too ignorant to evaluate immigration's overall consequences, you probably just really love the idea of immigration."

"If you want lots of defense spending, but are too ignorant to evaluate defense spending's overall consequences, you probably just really love the idea of defense spending."

It's the difference between theory and practice, the ideal and the actual.

Left unmentioned is the signaling aspect- loving the idea that other people think we love X...

roystgnr writes:

21 missing premises: in each of these arguments, you're implicitly assuming that the activist is also *aware* of their own ignorance. This assumption is probably true less often than not.

If I'm in a randomized clinical trial, and the sugar pills I've been prescribed have no non-placebo effect on my illness, does my taking them regularly imply that I probably *really* just love sugar?

LD Bottorff writes:

David Friedman,
I believe in human-caused global warming, but cannot align myself with the global warming crowd. While I think that global warming MIGHT be catastrophic, I think that abruptly abandoning fossil fuels will CERTAINLY be catastrophic.

Bryan Caplan,
I think roystgnr is on to something; many activists are not really aware of their inablility to evaluate the consequences of the policies they support or oppose.

triclops41 writes:

David Friedman,FR and roystgnr make very important points. This'd is why I love this site.
Thanks

Vangel writes:

Isn't it arrogant to think that we can actually evaluate the consequences for policies and actions that affect a complex system like the economy or the climate? And isn't is irresponsible to do an evaluation when the data is known to be seriously flawed and the assumptions that make the analysis possible made for the sake of convenience? I don't know about the rest of the readers here but I get quite tired of seeing smart people overestimate their knowledge and understanding of the issues which they are debating. Methodology matters. Principles and premises matter. Logic matters. If there is a failure anywhere the analysis is worthless.

Philo writes:

" . . . but are too ignorant to evaluate the overall consequences of X . . . ." How ignorant is that? How stringent are your standards for 'evaluating'? As David Friedman remarks, "almost everybody who wants strong action against CO2 emissions also believes that the cost of such action is low or negative." Of course, these people are at least somewhat ignorant: no one has a perfect understanding of climate. But are they *too* ignorant? They have made some (probably quite modest) effort to assess the consequences of strong action against CO2 emissions, and have arrived at an estimate (that the consequences would be not very negative, perhaps even positive). Are you going to complain that they have not put enough effort into their estimate? But how much effort from a private citizen over a public policy issue is ever justified?

ThomasH writes:

Probably. But we still ought to argue as if people we disagree with are just miscalculating the costs and benefits even when they are just enamored with their. It does not help to tell someone, "You just like X" instead of "You fail to consider whether the negatives effects of X, n1, n2, and n3, outweigh the positive effects, p1, p2 and p3. Not doing so leads to sterile arguments about intentions.

ThomasH writes:

@David Friedman

I don't think climate change is the best example. Proponents of carbon taxes to reduce CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere by enough to reduce the effects of climate change to no more than X (with costs of Y) have ideas that it would cost about 1% - 2% of GDP per year. [I'm thinking of the Stern report. Of course if done with inferior policies there is no upper limit to the cost.]

Now maybe that estimate is too low and those who oppose carbon taxes think that the costs are higher. That would be a reasonable discussion. Unfortunately, I have not seen this kind of argument from opponents. Instead, some just say the costs would be "catastrophic."

AS writes:

@Vangel, agreed. Knowledge is local, so let the invisible hand work. No need for centralized policy.

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