Michael Huemer: The Irrationality of Politics at TEDxMileHighSalon (Full Transcript)

Michael Huemer

Here is the full transcript of Michael Huemer’s TEDx Talk: The Irrationality of Politics at TEDxMileHighSalon conference.

Michael Huemer – TRANSCRIPT

My topic for today is going to be the irrationality of our politics. Now, I’m going to start by giving a couple examples of what I mean by political irrationality, and then after that I’m going to give a theory of how we wind up with irrational policies, and then finally, I’m going to try and draw some lessons for us as individuals about combating the problem of political irrationality.

So I start with two examples; this is my first example of what I would consider political irrationality. It’s the war on terror. Now, this graph shows the number of fatalities due to terrorism in the United States. The RAND Corporation has an excellent database of terrorist incidents, and so this is from their database. What you can see is there have been about 3,200 fatalities, this is just in the United States, over the course of about 50 years.

You can see the big spike is the 9/11/2001 attack. The smaller spike that you can barely see, that’s the Oklahoma City Bombing. There’s a couple of other incidents, but they’re too small for you to see on the graph. Now, it’s interesting to compare this to two other things. This is the cost of the problem that we have to deal with, and it’s interesting to compare this, first of all, to another problem.

So, compare it to the number of people who’ve been killed by murderers in general in the United States. Now, I don’t know if you can see it, but on this graph, the red is, again, the terrorist murders: people murdered by terrorists in the United States. The blue is the people who were murdered by non-terrorists in the United States over the same time period – the last 50 years. The terrorists killed about 04% of the total.

The non-terrorists killed 802,000 people, or 996% of the total. Now, this initially makes it difficult to understand the priority that’s been placed on terrorism by the United States government, by the media, and even by the general public. Now, the other comparison that I think is interesting is comparing the costs of terrorism to the costs of war on terror. So I have this on the next slide.

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On the left are the people killed by terrorism, and on the right, this is just Americans who’ve been killed fighting the War on Terrorism. That’s the deaths of US serviceman, it’s about 6,300, most of them in Iraq, but also a lot of them in Afghanistan. Now, but that is actually only the tip of the iceberg as far as the cost of the War on Terror goes, so on the next slide, on the far right, these are the people who have been killed in foreign countries, most of them civilians. It’s over 230,000, and again on the left, you have the people who were killed by terrorism. I don’t have time to talk about all of the costs of the war on terror; this is only the most obvious, and I also don’t have time to talk about what alternative policies would be.

But I just want to make the suggestion that if you have a policy that kills 70 times as many people as the problem you’re trying to solve, then that’s usually a prima facie indicator that it might be an irrational policy. All right, now my second example – I don’t know if it will be popular among the same people – my second example is protectionism. Protectionism is a policy whereby the government attempts to discourage foreign imports in order to protect domestic industries.

There are two ways they do this. The first is quotas: this is where there’s a legal limit on how much of a foreign good you’re allowed to import. The second way they do it is tariffs. This is where the government places special taxes on imported goods, the purpose of which is to drive up the price of the good in order to help domestic manufacturers. There are a lot of people who support this, both among the general public and among political leaders.

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Now, I don’t have time to talk about all of the arguments that people give. I’ll just say, virtually every economist is against it, and that includes liberal economists who are generally pro-intervention. The reason is that they think protectionism harms your own economy. By adopting these measures, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. As an example, this is the quotation from Paul Krugman, the famous liberal economist.

He says, “If there were an Economist’s Creed, it would surely contain the words ‘I understand Comparative Advantage, and I support Free Trade.'” Now, as I say, I don’t have time to talk about all the arguments surrounding this policy, but I would like to suggest simply that if you think that the community of experts on this subject are wrong, and especially if you think that while being unable to state their arguments, then you’re almost certainly the one who’s wrong. So that was it for my two examples of irrationality.

Now what I want to talk about is why this comes about; why do we have irrational policies? First, there’s a theory about political ignorance. I want you to consider the following observations.

The first observation is political information is costly, so you have to spend a lot of time collecting political information. You might even have to spend a little bit of money maybe buying newspapers or magazines. Mostly, it’s just a whole lot of time to become informed.

Second, as a general rule, people will accept a cost only if they expect to receive greater rewards than the cost that they’re taking. That’s just a general principle about human behavior, right? The third premise I want you to consider is the expected rewards of political information are negligible.

They are approximately zero. The reason for this is that most people know that their individual information is not going to change public policy. In other words, if you go out and become more politically informed, you personally are probably not going to change the policy of the United States government, and so for that reason, if you’re doing the calculation in a purely selfish manner you would say, “It’s not worth the costs.” The conclusion of this is that most people are not going to become politically informed. Now, I just want to take a brief survey of the audience.

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How many of you know who your congressman is? A show of hands. Okay, so that’s maybe a majority. How many think that you can identify the last vote that he made in congress? Yeah, he or she. How many? Look around the room, do you see any hands? There’s like one hand in the back. That’s the problem of political ignorance.

That is not the only problem; the other problem is the problem of political irrationality, which I am even more exercised by. Now the premises here are very similar. First, political rationality is costly. Why is that? Well, if you’re rational, then you don’t get to believe whatever you want to believe. In other words, if you’re committed to rationality, then you’re putting your belief system at risk every day. Any day you might acquire more information and then be forced to change your belief system and it can be very unpleasant and emotionally disturbing, right?

The other thing is it just requires a lot of effort to be rational because you have to exercise effort in order to overcome your biases. To identify your biases, and then figure out how to overcome them. Again, most people will accept a cost only if the expected rewards exceed the cost. But, again, the benefits in this case are negligible because most people realize that the probability that they’re going to change the outcome of an election with their vote is very close to zero. It’s not zero, but it’s maybe one in 10 million or something like that.

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