Nuggets of Wisdom

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Is Big Think Over-rated?

One would assume that a blog site called Big Think wouldn't publish small-minded posts in defense of small-minded concepts like gun control, wealth redistribution, pedophilia, and bestiality; but apparently, the site is only Big Think in name only.

One of its bloggers David Berreby recently wrote a post titled "Is Individual Liberty Over-Rated?" The crux of the post is that individuals cannot be trusted to govern themselves because--shocker!--they make mistakes! And because of this, individuals need a "paternal state" in order to govern their lives for them.

This is hardly a novel objection to individual liberty. It's as old as Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan!

Again, this site is apparently Big Think in name only!

Thankfully, plenty of readers were able to detect the bogosity within the post and point it out in the comment section.

So rather than share a selection from the post itself, I'm going to share a conversation within its comment section. Trust me, it's far more enlightening than the article:
Mary Ritenour: While sensitive to the the problem of individuals making bad decisions, I am concerned about institutionalizing the impacts of paternalistic decisions that, in retrospect, are "bad". A bad decision at an individual level is potentially catastrophic for the individual, but its impacts on society as a whole are minimal. A bad decision at a society level (paternalistic, regulatory, etc, no matter how well intended) has an impact over a wide range of individuals, some of whom will be hurt and some helped by the decision. But even more critically, the feedback loop of learning ("Oh, That was stupid - I won't do that again") is severed by centralized decision making. If the decision maker is not impacted by the decision, he/she has less motivation to admit he/she was wrong, and being in a position of power, more inclined to protect her/ his position rather than acknowledge a very human error.

Until we become perfect, I prefer to make and learn from my own mistakes, rather than impose or be imposed on with others'

Jason Wexler: The only quibble I would have with your comment is that much of the new research seems to indicate that people aren't learning from their mistakes, which is why it is non-rational/post-rational. Rational individuals recognize and learn from their mistakes, non-rational people don't recognize and therefore can't learn from their mistakes, while irrational people recognize their mistakes but refuse to learn from them. Further complicating things is the fact that as Mr. Berreby said all of us fall into each of those categories at least some of the time.

Mary Ritenour: Agreed. Some people never learn from their mistakes. But some people do learn and make different choices. Some people take years to learn. Others learn after one bad mistake.
Additionally, the "lesson" we think someone should learn from a "mistake" may be only our perspective - we may not have all the facts (or different ones). I can't tell you how many times I thought someone was being really dumb until I sat with them and listened and suddenly their actions made sense.

We are too different as individuals, too varied in our experiences, our motivations and our needs to be classified into "rational" and "non-rational", learners and non-learners, etc.

I understand and appreciate the frustration and sadness in watching someone choose to be less than what we believe they can be, but it is not our life, our lesson. It is theirs and it is the ultimate disrespect (and dismissal of of any capability to change) to assume that we know better and demand control over their lives "for their own good". By doing so, we create the very victims we were trying to save.

Jason Wexler: I seem to run into this problem frequently, I look at the collective group while many people are interested in the individual components. I agree that this can suck at the individual level, but on many questions large numbers of people are consistently making bad decisions and not learning from them, and the consequences often go beyond them, to harm others around them or even people they never meet in the case of foolish politics.
When your bad decisions hurt me as much or more than you, I have an interest in mitigating your ability to make them freely.

Jace Clark: By foolish politics do you mean pointless, petty? Or politics you (rationally, natch!) disagree with? Coercive paternalism seems quite frightening to me for any democracy. Legislative bodies (the people's voice) could pass law but the real power would reside in it's implementation, as Cass could tell you. A nudge here, a push there and duly enacted laws could effectively be nullified or even produce the opposite result.

And I can't imagine a bad decision (note: not already proscribed by law) I make hurting you more than me. Certainly not to an extent where you have the right to mitigate my free will.