Scott Sumner  

You're not special

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Carl Menger 2016 Essay Contest... Migration and Welfare in Maois...

You may like your outgoing and family oriented culture, or your introspective and individualistic culture. But that fact, by itself, doesn't make your culture better than another. (Put aside the question of whether it is better, a much more difficult and controversial proposition.) You may be a Muslim because you were born in Tehran, or a Catholic because you were born in Naples, but that fact doesn't make your religion special. Similarly, you may have distinctive, well thought out political views, but so do lots of other people, who are just as smart as you and I. There's no objective reason to view your or my political views as being superior to those of any other person.

Update: David Henderson points out that, as written, my post makes no sense. In the previous sentence I meant "any other similar person". Mea culpa.

Then why do I aggressively promote my views in the blogosphere? Because that's my job. I am a small worker ant in a vast intellectual edifice called "economics." It's my job to study the issues and report what I believe to be true. I know that other worker ants will do the same. One named Paul Krugman will reach different conclusions, advocating a larger role for government than I think is wise. The hope is that if all economists research their issues, and report their conclusions, then society will consider all of these arguments and enact good public policies. Not all the time, but at least more often than not. And when you look at North Korea or Afghanistan, there's reason to believe the developed countries have done many things right.

Nonetheless, there is no objective reason for me to assume that just because I inhabit Scott Sumner's body, my ideas are somehow special. I just do my job.

When I debate issues like immigration, I find that some commenters want to argue that admitting lots of this or that sort of immigrant will lead to bigger government. The implicit assumption is that since the commenter and I both think big government is bad, then admitting those immigrants is a bad idea. I wonder if they realize how arrogant they are being? Their view of the optimal cultural make up of America in 2116 is a country with the same economic views as they have. Not the economic views of Paul Krugman. Not the economic views of Joe Stiglitz. (Both Nobel Prize winners). Rather the views of the commenter.

While I tend to agree that small government is best, I also know that there is nothing special about my opinion. I'm not smarter than lots of economists with different views. It's not my job to decide whether future Americans should be predisposed to prefer my views on economics or Krugman's. Thus I should not take political inclinations into account when deciding on which groups should be allowed to immigrate to the US. And I apply this rule to lots of other issues as well. When deciding whether the Electoral College or the popular vote is the best way to pick a president, I pay no attention to which party is helped (it's not clear in any case, and FWIW I favor the popular vote). Ditto for the parliamentary political system (which I prefer). I don't care which party it helps. And referendums, another idea I support.

To be fair to the other side, I think there are some cultural attributes that are almost universally viewed as bad, such as high levels of corruption. So if someone wants to argue that admitting a certain type of immigrant will lead to more corruption, that's a fair argument. But it's not kosher to advocate an immigration policy expressly for the purpose of favoring your particular political party, or your view on the size of government, when other people who are just as bright hold differing views. Sorry, but you're nothing special.

I do understand that the illusion of personal identity creates the related illusion that we ourselves are special, and that our precious views of things are special. But we aren't, and they aren't.

When the aliens say "take me to your leader", they don't mean you. Just do your job.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy




COMMENTS (28 to date)
Richard writes:
To be fair to the other side, I think there are some cultural attributes that are almost universally viewed as bad, such as high levels of corruption. So if someone wants to argue that admitting a certain type of immigrant will lead to more corruption, that's a fair argument.

Doesn't seem to me to be much of a distinction. "You can reject immigrants if they bring corruption, but not socialism." Some are confident about things other than corruption, like certain demographics will make the country worse.

Is it just a matter of certainty? If I'm just as sure that socialism is bad as I am that corruption is bad, then I can reject immigrants for bringing socialism? What if I think socialism is worse than corruption, meaning I subscribe to the argument that it's better to live under a robber baron than busy body do gooders?

Scott Sumner writes:

Richard, You said:

"Is it just a matter of certainty? If I'm just as sure that socialism is bad as I am that corruption is bad, then I can reject immigrants for bringing socialism?"

No, your level of certainty is not important, as it's likely to be biased. If other experts all (or almost all) share your view, that's more meaningful. But when a person says they are sure about something, it's utterly meaningless.

Again, no disrespect, but you are not special. Paul Krugman has a Nobel prize, and you don't. (And I say that as someone who probably agrees more with you than Krugman.)

Now if by "socialism" you mean Venezuela, rather than Bernie's Danish Paradise, that's a more defensible claim. I think experts pretty much agree with you about that type of socialism being dysfunctional.

Mark writes:

I have to say, your argument seems kind of preposterous to me. You more or less seem to be saying that one is arrogant for believing his opinions are right, when it is logically absurd not to believe one's opinion is right, since in that case it would cease to be one's opinion. Maybe you're attacking the confidence in our own opinions, but that's another way of saying we should all be closer to accepting either that all opinions are equally probable as our own, or that we should accept the consensus opinion (which is also absurd, since one might just as well assume that the consensus opinion only remains the consensus because people accept it because it's the consensus.)

You also assume that your opinion is the default 'non-arrogant' opinion; the belief that immigration shouldn't be restricted by any of these criteria. In truth that position enjoys no epistemological advantage over the position that favors excluding immigrants with low IQs or freckles. The absence of criteria is no more likely to be the best policy than any collection of arbitrary criteria, according to everything else you say.

I generally sympathise with fewer immigration restrictions, but your argument here doesn't seem to make sense. You seem like a guy who shows up at a melee with hundreds of people, declares to them all that the odds of any one of them winning is almost zero, so they should all humble themselves and home, but then stays there himself expecting to claim the prize after everyone else has gone home.

Oliver Sherouse writes:

What an odd argument. Of course political and religious belief systems can be better or worse than one another, because they are claims of fact.

The relative value of the religion of a Catholic from Naples or a Muslim from Tehran lies in the question of whether Jesus was the Son of God, whether Mohammed was the seal of the Prophet, or whether neither of those are true. But certainly the value is not subjective in nature.

Similarly, Libertarianism is better or worse than Progressivism based on whether they have selected the morally correct ends for government and recommend morally permissible means that are effective and efficient. Krugman is right or wrong, but he isn't--a la Zaphod Beeblebrox--just this guy, you know?

I suppose if you want to assume that the universe is indifferent and that all morals are subjective you can get to where you are, but philosophically, you need a bit more than a foot-stamping assertion to say, for example, that a civilization that tortures people to death for fun is not meaningfully worse than one that doesn't.

Greg G writes:

I love it when an excellent economist is also an excellent writer. Thank you for this one and all of them, Scott.

I'm often not sure how often I agree with you but I keep coming back because I know I'll find an eclectic mix of good writing.

Philo writes:

Well, I think there are "objective" reasons to prefer the political views of Madison to those of Marx. And I prefer the views on monetary policy of Scott Sumner to those of, say, Richard Fisher because of the *reasons* that Sumner has given.

One should respect the fact that some people disagree with one's views, but let's not overdo it!

DanielD writes:

I see tension between two of your claims. One, it's illegitimate to vote to restrict the immigration of those who disagree with me on economic views. Two, it's legitimate for others to vote to restrict my economic liberties. I fail to understand why the liberty to migrate is more sacred than economic liberties.

Mark writes:

If Scott is going for plain subjectivism here, if nothing else, his zeal in his opinions makes as little sense as my zealous opposition to people's preference for vanilla over chocolate ice cream, and economics being his job has no more meaning than whittling being a hobby of mine does.

Perhaps rather he's arguing the epistemological equivalent of EMH. What does one opinion matter against the whole market of ideas. Perhaps he has a Darwinian argument in mind to defend this position. In that case, he makes a mistake many non-biologists make when referring to Darwin: that Natural selection leads to the optimal outcome. In fact, if the optimal version of an organism is not present in the population to begin with then it can't win the Darwinian contest. Is it arrogant of me to think that my new idea surpasses all the ones that currently exist? Perhaps. It would also be arrogant of that one last cheetah alive in the work many millennia ago to expect that not only would her species survive but that that the litter she would birth would one have descendants numbering over 100,000 one day.

Anonymous writes:

So you've been reading Hanson too, huh?

James writes:

"Nonetheless, there is no objective reason for me to assume that just because I inhabit Scott Sumner's body, my ideas are somehow special"

Are you aware of anyone who thinks the correctness of his ideas follows from who he is? This seems like a straw man except that I cannot even tell what the more reasonable view is that is being chariacatured.

"There's no objective reason to view your or my political views as being superior to those of any other person."

Aside from logic and evidence, that's exactly right.

"But it's not kosher to advocate an immigration policy expressly for the purpose of favoring your particular political party, or your view on the size of government, when other people who are just as bright hold differing views."

The people who are advocating those policies may not care about whatever you are calling "kosher." Given the errors here, they have no reason to.

Scott Sumner writes:

Mark, You said:

"I have to say, your argument seems kind of preposterous to me. You more or less seem to be saying that one is arrogant for believing his opinions are right, when it is logically absurd not to believe one's opinion is right, since in that case it would cease to be one's opinion."

No, I'm saying that I have no reason to suppose my opinions are more worthy of respect than the opinions of other equally well informed people with different views. That's kind of obvious isn't it?

Oliver, You said:

"What an odd argument. Of course political and religious belief systems can be better or worse than one another, because they are claims of fact."

That has no bearing on my post, read it again. Yes, one view can be better than another, as I indicated. But it isn't better merely by virtue of the fact that I happen to hold that view.

Thanks Greg.

Philo, Yes, but is there any "objective" reason to prefer my views on the size of government over Krugman's views? Clearly not, any preference for me would be subjective. Indeed the only objective facts favor Krugman, who has the Nobel Prize.

Daniel, I'm not saying one right is more sacred than another, I'm talking about procedures for deciding policy issues in a world of uncertainty. Let's admit that we don't know which economic policy is best, and not bias public policy in favor of those who happen to hold our political economic or religious views. Do we really want immigration laws to favor certain religions, political views, or economic views? (Unless all reasonable people agree the views are bad---thus I'd be OK with excluding Nazis and totalitarian communists.)

Mark, You said:

"Perhaps rather he's arguing the epistemological equivalent of EMH. "

Yes. Look, obviously I'm only human, so my ideas are very precious to me. But speaking objectively, I'd rather put my faith in the marketplace of ideas when policies are actually being implemented. In other words, I'd rather live in a democracy than a country where I was the dictator.

Anonymous, Yes I do read him, although I've always held this view, even before Robin started blogging. If you say he agrees with me that's great, because I trust Robin's views on philosophical questions much more than I trust my own.

James, You said:

"Are you aware of anyone who thinks the correctness of his ideas follows from who he is?"

Isn't that what some of the commenters above are claiming?

Most people I meet seem absurdly overconfident in their views on everything from politics to sports to films. I presume their overconfidence comes from the fact that these views are their own views.

philemonloy writes:

Scott, this is confused. From your belief that:

(1) There is no objective reason for me to assume that just because I inhabit Scott Sumner's body, my ideas are somehow special (i.e., that they are objectively right).

It doesn’t follow that someone else—including someone who holds a belief contrary to yours—is wrong. It’s entirely possible that the other person is right, and you have no objective reason to assume that *you* are right.

But you don’t just believe (1). You seem to have derived it from this:

(2) There is no objective reason for anyone to assume that just because he or she inhabits his or her body, his or her ideas are somehow special (i.e., that they are objectively right).

Now, if (2) is *objectively true*, then obviously, it would follow that just as there is no objective reason to assume that you are right, there is also no objective reason to assume that your opponent is right. Ok. But two problems:

First, is (2) itself objectively true? Do we have objective reasons to believe it? If there isn't, you are in no position to conclude, of someone who doesn't believe in (2) and holds a belief X contrary to yours, that there is no objective reason for the person to believe X. If there is objective reason supporting (2), you have objective reason to believe that someone who believes not (2) is objectively wrong, which is in tension with your holding to (1).

Second, and more importantly, maybe (2) is a bit of a red herring. People worth talking with normally believe what they believe not *just* because they happen to be the ones believing it, but because they think they have reasons.

Yes, it’s possible that the reasons are post hoc rationalizations. It’s possible that they came to believe what they believe *causally* because they grew up in Tehran, Naples or New York. It’s possible that they are absurdly overconfident in their views because those views are their own views.

But if they are trying to persuade us—they had better don’t say: “I believe that X, and you should too—just because *I* believe that X…” (note: not even “because I, who happen to know about this because I am an expert), or “…just because I grew up in Tehran/Naples/New York…” If they do, we should probably ignore them. Rather, they want to give us a *justifying because*, something that, upon our appreciating it, give us a reason to believe X too. But conversely, it’s also rather uncharitable to presume that they are confident just because it’s their own view. There’s really no need to go there at all—let’s just consider the proffered reasons. If they are no good, they are not good.

That said, I do think you are on to something. I think the best version of what you are trying to say is that everyone could do with more intellectual humility. Yes, we may all believe what we believe, and even upon what we think are weighty reasons. But we should always be open to the possibility that we have missed something, that we are wrong. Second, if what you are trying to do is to convince others who don’t share your views, or are not part of your tribe—or worse still, you are trying to get legislation passed that will affect both those who share your view or are part of your tribe, and those who don't share your view or who are not part of your tribe, then “do X because it will favor those who share my views or are part of my tribe” goes nowhere and hopefully should go nowhere. I'll say amen to that.

Philo writes:

When you think that the objective facts, taken together, neither support nor undermine a certain hypothesis, you should suspend judgment about that hypothesis (unless, perhaps, it is a hypothesis about your own mental states). In particular, you yourself should suspend judgment about the desirability of small government (and Krugman, if he agreed with your epistemological point, should also suspend judgment). What is your excuse for *believing* small government is better, in the absence of evidence supporting that proposition?

Maniel writes:

Scott,
I appreciate your humility. When any of us are called on to comment on an issue – e.g., immigration – it is helpful to look at both (assuming there are just two) sides. My wife, who teaches advanced English-language-learners, makes this point to her students through debate, where she gives participants the question ahead of time, but they only learn which side of the question they will argue just prior to the start of the engagement (I know, sort of like real Debate). In my opinion – and you are free to disagree – this approach offers a reasonable chance of exposing “facts,” free from attribution, rather than unsupported opinions. Caveat: winners do get bragging rights.

Mark writes:

So, you're assuming that the popularity of a belief strongly correlates with its a priori probability of being accurate?
This is not something I agree with.

Suppose I believe (I do) that a great deal of what people, even brilliant people, believe is primarily a factor of their self image, their culture, what they'd like to be true, and other things not correlated with the accuracy of the belief.

To me, this is like arguing that a type of clothing must be practical because it's so popular.

Don Boudreaux has a good point perhaps related to this on min wage: people who believe in minimum wage rarely put their money where their mouths are and take advantage of ubiquitous monopsonies. This is why actual markets are essentially different from the proverbial market of ideas; in the latter your compensation or loss doesn't depend on how right they are.

john hare writes:
Yes. Look, obviously I'm only human, so my ideas are very precious to me. But speaking objectively, I'd rather put my faith in the marketplace of ideas when policies are actually being implemented. In other words, I'd rather live in a democracy than a country where I was the dictator.

I think this is the heart of the discussion. I believe that I am right, but not that I am omnipotent. This attitude serves me well with employees. The ones that think I'm(john) is always right don't bother to check facts on the (construction work)ground and have a far higher problem rate than those that merely think I'm(john) usually right.

Take my word for it is a recipe for problems on any issue that seriously matters, regardless of the source.

mico writes:

This is a weird and perhaps unique brand of intellectual nihilism.

If no one should advance any political view where a reasonable and comparably intelligent person advances any competing view, who could possibly advocate anything at all? How could any decision whatsoever be made?

And you certainly have no get-out that you are a tenured professor. Not only are there lots of tenured professors who disagree with you, the job requirement of a tenured professor is to have a pulse, not to aggressively promote new ideas about political economy.

foosion writes:

There's a difference between believing a particular end is good and believing a particular means is an effective (or the most effective) way to achieve that end.

Ends tend to be subjective and less amenable to rational argument. Means to achieve those ends tend to be more objective and to depend on facts and logic.

The dividing line isn't always completely clear, but for the most part the distinction can be made.

James writes:

Scott wrote:

"Most people I meet seem absurdly overconfident in their views on everything from politics to sports to films. I presume their overconfidence comes from the fact that these views are their own views."

Did you stop to consider that you are overconfident in your own presumption? Unless you have some actual reason (not just presumption) to believe this, it is you who are overconfident.

AN writes:

This post is disappointing since it does not discuss the crux of the matter: evidence. Beliefs must be evaluated on the basis of evidence. Beliefs only have meaning based on their predictive power, and the only way to measure predictive power is via evidence.


To prevent overfitting and to maintain accountability, one must evaluate evidence for a belief via the history of its predictions. A prediction is only validated by the extent of its risk, and beliefs, being mere ideas, don't risk anything. Therefore, we must evaluate the believers as a proxy for the beliefs themselves.

To first approximation, one can do the following. Pick a spokesperson for a belief system, look at his past predictions, and see if they came true. The more he risked on the basis of those predictions, the more weight you should put on the result of the prediction.

For example, we can look at your favorite Noble Prize winner, say Krugman, and consider his historical record as an editorial columnist. I haven't systematically done this, but my impression is that his record isn't that good. Even more tellingly, columnists like him don't have any particular incentive to get things right (he gets more readers by saying the things they want to hear, not by making true predictions) -- so his blog is close to worthless from my standpoint (at least in the first approximation).

Going one step further, we can evaluate Sumner's above blog post from this perspective. He's saying that we shouldn't value our opinions based solely on the fact that they are our opinions. Put in the language of prediction and put in the context of his other recent posts, I interpret this as saying that online econ blog discussion will be more productive if it moves more towards dispassionate discussion of facts rather than political tribalism.

It's hard to estimate the predictive weight (i.e. credibility + risk assessment) we should assign to this post. Generally speaking, Scott has been fairly risk-indifferent in his academic career, publishing in the style of Friedman, the economics of common sense not of physics envy. The fact that he has been recently more widely recognized despite this is a point towards his credibility. Moreover, he has lately been taking a strong anti-Trump line on his personal blog which risks antagonizing his readership, not just the pro-Trump crowd but also the "only want to read econ, no more politics" crowd. Moreover, writing philosophy on an econ blog is inherently more risky than writing plain econ. Therefore, I would place a higher risk value on this blog post than on most blog posts in general, even after restricting ourselves to Scott's blog posts which tend to be riskier than the average blog post.

It's hard to measure Scott's thesis. Assuming Scott's personal blog will promote fact-based discussion over tribalism, the popular of his blog could serve as a proxy for the success of his thesis. So far it hasn't been doing to well, compared to blogs focused on tribalism and/or entertainment.

I will argue that you, Scott, are something special. Not all worker ants are equal. There exist media in my view of our society, media that include: newspapers, universities, and funded blogs.

A given medium will position some worker ants in visible, prominent positions, to trumpet in support of the goals of the medium. To me it seems there is a fair amount of competition among common worker ants to get into a limited number of visible, trumpeting positions.

You say it is your job to post your opinions, which I suppose means you get paid for publishing your opinions. That is I high accomplishment (or gift)! Whatever, I wish I had it. But you are special.

Mark writes:

Anyone remember the joke: two economists are walking down the street; one says 'look, there's a $20 bill on the ground.' The other economist, not looking down, declares 'no there isn't; if there were someone would have already picked it up.'

That seems to encapsulate Scott's view. I think he also has way too much confidence in the ability of Darwinian selective processes to rapidly optimize a system and eliminate inefficiencies (I suppose in this case, bad opinions), an error social scientists seem to make a lot when trying to make use of Darwinian theory.

Scott Sumner writes:

Philemonloy, You said:

"People worth talking with normally believe what they believe not *just* because they happen to be the ones believing it, but because they think they have reasons."

I agree. But what people forget is that those with different views also have good reasons for their views, at least in many cases. And yet people overestimate the probability that their view is correct, and underestimate the probability that the alternative view is correct. Most people think they are above average drivers.

Philo, No, it's important for society that I form an opinion on what type of society is best, and not just slavishly accept the views of others. It's also important that I understand that it is just my opinion.

Mico, You said:

"If no one should advance any political view where a reasonable and comparably intelligent person advances any competing view, who could possibly advocate anything at all? How could any decision whatsoever be made?"

I agree, so they should advance their views.

James, You said:

"Did you stop to consider that you are overconfident in your own presumption?"

No, because it's logically impossible for most of them to be right, since their views conflict with each other.

Mark, You said:

"Anyone remember the joke: two economists are walking down the street; one says 'look, there's a $20 bill on the ground.' The other economist, not looking down, declares 'no there isn't; if there were someone would have already picked it up.'"

Actually just the opposite. Read my new post and see if you can understand my point better. Replace the guy seeing the $20 bill with the hedge fund manager. Pick up the bill! But don't recommend that other people look for $20 bills.

Hans writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

michael pettengill writes:

My context for reading based on the title was the first four episodes of Hawkings "Genius" in which he guides "ordinary" people to think like a genius, based on his premise that "anyone can think like a genius".

Of course, the conclusion of the fourth episode was "the center of the universe is the end of your nose", the end of everyone's nose.

We are all special because we are all the center of the universe. Everything radiates out from us, each of us.

Danyzn writes:

Great post, and obviously correct. In fact, it is a theorem.

James writes:

Scott:

You wrote "No, because it's logically impossible for most of them to be right, since their views conflict with each other."

Do you think it logically follows that, to quote you, "their overconfidence comes from the fact that these views are their own views."

That was the presumption I initially asked you about (with quotes) because it was the one you stated. So far you have given exactly zero reason to believe it. People might be overconfident for any number of reasons besides the one you offer.


Tom P writes:

As far as the immigration point goes, I'm not convinced.

Sure, if the crowd is like a market, and contains informed people and taxes BS (as Alex Tabarrok puts it), that's good. But isn't voting different? People just vote for whatever their parents voted for, and have little incentive to look into the issues. So it's quite easy for crowds to be unwise in making choices at the ballot box, at least theoretically.

Empirically, US citizens are good voters — economic outcomes support that. To oppose immigration, one only needs to prefer rule by current US voters to rule by a different crowd — one certainly doesn't have to be so arrogant as to think that he/she is smarter than all crowds.

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