Bryan Caplan  

ADHD Shall Save Us

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Back in 2012, I wrote:
The median American is no Nazi, but he is a moderate national socialist - statist to the core on both economic and social policy.  Given public opinion, the policies of First World democracies are surprisingly libertarian.
Since then, popular yearning for national socialism has grown even more pronounced.  But I still don't expect policies to get too much worse.  The same psychological force that thwarted the masses' wishes before 2012 continues to shield us.  What is that force?  For want of a better term, ADHD - Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.  Populist policy preferences go hand-in-hand with intellectual laziness and intellectual impatience.  As a result, populist voters fail to hold their leaders' feet to the proverbial fire - allowing wiser, elitist heads to prevail.

Take protectionism.  Keeping imports out of our country is perennially popular.  Never mind centuries of economics classes on the wonders of comparative advantage; the masses are convinced that cheap foreign products make us poorer.  Given public opinion, then, it's amazing that trade barriers are as low as they are.  What's particularly striking is that presidential candidates routinely make protectionist noises to curry favor with the masses.  Once elected, however, they get convenient amnesia.

Why would vote-seeking politicians show so little follow-through?  Because talking about foreign trade, titillating at first, gets old fast.  And actually measuring the change in trade barriers bores the masses instantly.  As a result, protectionist promises are cheap to break.  The masses delight to hear politicians vow to get "tough on China," but they don't want to have to think about Chinese imports months after the election, much less monitor their leaders' concrete efforts to cut China down to size. 

The same goes for the War on Terror.  Americans were quick to back the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in their early stages.  After all, they were angry.  But after a year or two, their minds wandered.  If they combined their anger with determination and follow-through, we'd now be well into World War III.  Millions would be dead, and American soldiers would occupy most of the Middle East, fending off ten thousand guerrilla armies.  ADHD spared us these horrors.

Emotionally, I look down on the public's ADHD.  When I get an idea into my head, it stays there until someone (possibly myself) argues me out of it.  I'm a puritan.  Once convinced something is true, I tenaciously act on it.  But I'm the first to admit that these are conditional virtues.  If you've genuinely figured out the right thing to do, determination and follow-through are wonderful.  Otherwise, though, they're a menace. 

Mankind can and should shape up across the board, but it won't.  I'll bet on it.  And since mankind won't discover a passion for rationality anytime soon, we should be thankful its ADHD isn't going away either.

COMMENTS (21 to date)
Eric W. writes:

Yes, clearly you've got everything right...

fliket writes:

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December writes:

Yes, the masses consistently fail to organize or remain focused on issues for a lengthy enough period of time, which gives the people in power the opportunity to enact policy that the majority otherwise wouldn't support. All fine and good, but that will only "save us" if the people in power have the *correct* philosophy and objectives, and where is the guarantee they will?

Generally I don't think the argument that most people don't support a policy should really carry that much weight in most circumstances, especially in cases where the subject matter is technical or complicated enough that a majority judgement simply isn't informed. But on other matters, such as decisions regarding the composition of the people in the country, I think majority vote should carry a lot of weight.

arilando writes:

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Brian Martens writes:

To me, the public's ADHD, as you call it, is one of the most depressing things I see day-to-day, to the point where it is almost self-reinforcing. Why should I spend time out of my day to educate myself about the history of research behind the effects of immigration on wages if nobody cares and nobody listens? This is the reason why I tend to never argue with people. Chances are, either they are wrong or I am. Either way, I know how to find answers to the questions I have, and the internet is a much better pool of knowledge than any single mind. The truth is that most people don't talk politics with their friends to find answers, only to reinforce the beliefs that they already hold. They only want the satisfaction of winning an argument.

Jon Murphy writes:

Interesting post.

Do you think this may be a conditional virtue of democracy? After all, in a dictatorship, if someone gets an idea in their head, they can relentlessly pursue it whereas in a democracy, you do need to keep inspiring a group of people with "amnesia".

Shane L writes:

People may desire protectionism, but they also desire economic growth and prosperity. Perhaps political elites can, by satisfying the latter, buy the political capital to neglect the former. Voters might be annoyed by the lack of protectionism, but they are simultaneously pleased by the economic prosperity.

Suppose the politicians responded to popular demands for protectionism, and thereby damaged the economy. It's plausible that the voters would be enraged and vote for the opposition. They might not know why the economy was struggling, but they lose faith in the incumbents. Hence maybe politicians have a rational interest in avoiding harmful policies like protectionism because they know that it will damage the economy and a bad economy annoys people even more than free trade does. It may be that, rather than voters lacking focus on the issue of protectionism, they are rather more focused on prosperity and very sensitive to changes in that.

Brian Donohue writes:

Interesting post. It caters to my cynical side a bit more than I might like, but there is definitely some truth in there.

Sarah Skwire writes:

(I posted this comment on Facebook, but will duplicate here in hopes of increasing the odds it gets seen. My apologies to anyone who ends up seeing it twice.)

Bryan, I take your larger point, but the notion that ADHD has anything to do with intellectual laziness is both glib and inaccurate. Kids and adults with ADHD probably work harder than anyone else you know to try to concentrate, to try to focus, and to try to accomplish the necessary intellectual work to get through their jobs and to get through their school day. The chemistry of their brains will not allow them to do so. It has absolutely nothing to do with laziness on their part.

Other people on Facebook with ADD/ADHD has noted that they found this post's attribution of laziness to people ADHD mildly offensive. I do too, on behalf of my daughter who has ADHD and who works very hard every day to fight her brain chemistry and accomplish what she needs to do.

I wish that you had been more intellectually rigorous and found a more accurate word to describe the problem you see with the American voter.

Jim writes:

This blog is interesting as illustrating the contempt with which the American elite view the common American people.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

"Hence it is that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and in general have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths... A republic, by which I mean a government in which a scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect and promises the cure for which we are seeking." James Madison, Federalist Papers No. 10 (1787).

Toby writes:

Bryan, should I read you here as arguing that rational ignorance is saving the electorate from its rational irrationality? Or should I read you here that humanity is fortunate that ADHD and intelligence correlate? Or perhaps a bit of both?

Daublin writes:

I don't follow your World War III example. Why do you think that an American electorate angry and Al Qaeda, would want to raze all of the Middle East?

I do not remember much call for such a thing even in the early days after the World Trade Center attack.

Mark V Anderson writes:

Wow, what a cynical post. I think it is partly true, but if it were wholly true then we really would need to worry much for our society. As December says, there is no reason to think that our leaders are particularly benevolent or competent. If the people were that easily fooled, I think we would more often end up with Hitlers or extreme incompetents.

I think Shane is partly right, in that when leaders totally muck up the economy, the voters rebel, so at least the politicians can't mess things up real bad.

Also, I think the masses for the most part do believe what "experts" tell them, even if they will tend to choose these experts based on what the masses want to believe. Unfortunately there are professional economists out there that believe in protectionism, and that's who the masses will point to. But even the protectionist economists are not so nuts that they believe that totally shutting out imports would help us. I think that's at least partly what has saved us from the worst of it.

Based on this, I think it shows that Trump can't become President, because he is so far out he can't even find an outlier expert to agree with his nutty ideas. IF Trump succeeds, then I'll need to re-evaluate.

But for the most part, I think the key to convincing the masses that an idea makes no sense is to convince an overwhelming majority of the elite of this. I believe that democracy is ultimately run by intellectual ideas of the elite. It's just that the elite isn't as smart as they think they are.

Chris writes:

I think rather than ADHD, I'd attribute it to simple hypocrisy. For the protectionism topic, people complain about losing jobs to China and say they want protections, but happily march down to Walmart and buy lots of cheap Chinese crap.

Kenneth A. Regas writes:

"Never mind centuries of economics classes on the wonders of comparative advantage; the masses are convinced that cheap foreign products make us poorer."

Actually, they believe that those cheap products make them poorer. And to the extent they're near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, they're right. Cheap shirts are a boon to you and me, not so much for the one who, absent the cheap imports, would have been the shirtmaker.

The average standard of living in my country and in the shirt exporting country both increase due to free trade. But in my country, that increase amounts to a gain for me but a loss for the erstwhile shirtmaker, who already had a lower standard of living.


Don Boudreaux writes:

I wrote, at my blog Cafe Hayek, this response to that of "Jim" (above).

Mark Bahner writes:

To Sarah Skwire: My sympathies.

It's outside of my field, my impression is that knowledge of the chemical/physical (electrical) workings of the brain are improving rapidly. So I think and hope the future will bring more and better help to your daughter and your family.

Best wishes,

Ike writes:

Perhaps we should instead have pointed out that the average attention span of an American adult is six seconds, as we have reprogrammed our consciousness with various stimuli and devices.

(The attention span of the goldfish remains at eight seconds, which means that more goldfish made it to this paragraph than humans.)

Weir writes:

"If they combined their anger with determination and follow-through, we'd now be well into World War III. Millions would be dead, and American soldiers would occupy most of the Middle East, fending off ten thousand guerrilla armies. ADHD spared us these horrors."

The Germans lost World War I. And then they lost World War II.

But let's imagine an alternative 1940. Churchill says, "We shall not fight on the beaches. We shall not fight on the landing grounds."

FDR says the Nazis are just a JV team. The war in Europe doesn't interest him. He talks about a war on women, but he doesn't mean Polish or French civilians raped by German soldiers. When the president says "we're going to punish our enemies," he means the GOP.

I'm a pacifist, so I'm entitled to my own facts, made up by me. The French still surrender in 1940, but this is a disastrous setback for the Germans. The Normandy landings are great news for Hitler. Losing the Battle of the Bulge makes the Germans stronger than ever.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki prolong the war for several years, but Japanese colonial administrators rule Bangalore by 1951 and Baltimore by 1952.

Likewise in World War I. August 8th 1918 is "the black day of the German Army" according to Ludendorff, who then leads the German army to victory.

In my counter-factual history, because I'm a pacifist, the Surge doesn't work, the Anbar Awakening doesn't happen, and the specific details of Iraq's history in 2008 are of no significance at all.

Obama wasn't interested in what Maliki was telling him in 2011. Obama wanted zero Americans in Iraq. As for the horrors that followed, it might look like World War III to the victims of Islamic State. But we are pacifists, and there are no bad consequences to ignoring what happens in other countries.

pgbh writes:

Bryan's phrasing may offend, but he won't change it. That's because it's not a mistake; it's a completely accurate description of his views on the idea of "mental illness".

I don't know if this is Bryan's view exactly, but I don't even see a difference between a "lazy" person and one with ADHD. A lazy person is simply someone who prefers not to focus on challenging tasks for an extended period. Sounds just like ADHD to me.

The fact that people make a big deal over which condition people "really" suffer from fits perfectly with Bryan's Szaszian views, where psychiatric diagnoses are really value judgments masquerading as medical ones. I'm glad Bryan would rather kick the whole edifice over than worry about "offending".

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