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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

The prediction of my theory is that most people will not be rational about political issues. That is the problem. Now, what can we do about this problem? I want to say this: It seems to be pretty easy to convince most people that most people are irrational about politics. But the reason why I talk about irrationality is not to convince you that other people are irrational so that then you can dismiss other people’s opinions. The reason why I talk about it is to cause you to reflect on yourself to see whether you might have certain biases and irrational tendencies, so that you could hopefully correct them.

How could you correct the problem of irrationality? Sorry, the first thing is why is it important for you to correct the problem of irrationality? The reason is, though it is kind of in your self interest to continue to be irrational, it’s against the interest of society as a whole. You’re imposing serious risks on the rest of society. Now there’s only a small probability that you’re going to change public policy with your attitudes, your behavior, and your beliefs, however, the consequences to society as a whole are very large. And, of course, if a large number of people are irrational, which is in fact the case, then it’s a virtual certainty that society is going to suffer negative outcomes. Now, I claim that this is the most serious social problem.

The worst social problem that we’re facing is not the problem of world poverty, or the problem of pollution and destruction of the environment, or even the problem of war. The most serious problem that we’re facing is the problem of human irrationality because this is the problem that prevents us from solving the other problems. If you’re going to solve a problem, you generally have to have accurate beliefs about it. Take, as an example, suppose that you have a doctor who is trying to cure one of your illnesses, and the way that he’s going to come up with a cure is, he’s going to reach into a hat and pick something out. You’re probably going to be made worse off, right? You’ll be lucky if he doesn’t make you worse off, he’s certainly not going to cure the problem.

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This is roughly how I see our political system, right? Because if you’re forming beliefs in an irrational manner, it’s like you’re picking out of a hat. What could you do to combat irrationality? My claim is, at least the first step is to identify the problem. The first step is admitting you have a problem. You’ve heard that before, right? I can’t tell you all of the steps because that would take too long. I will just tell you these are some signs that you might be irrational.

The first thing is if you’re becoming angry during political discussion. Now, I don’t mean if the other person is insulting you or punching you, but I mean if another person is advancing a political position and arguing for it, and that makes you angry, that is a sign that you have certain biases that might be preventing you from thinking objectively about the subject.

The second sign you might be irrational is if you have strong opinions about a subject before acquiring relevant empirical evidence about it. Now, most of these political issues that are discussed in our society, there is a lot of evidence out there about them. For most of them, there’s actual academic literature, and people have done studies, and collected all kinds of statistics.

If you haven’t looked into any of that literature but you have an opinion about it, it’s probably irrational. A related sign is if your opinions do not change as you gather evidence, that is a sign of irrationality. Of course, it could be that you’re just lucky and you happen to get the right answer without having evidence, but what’s more likely is that you have a phenomenon known as dogmatism, where you just stick with your existing opinions and when new information comes in, you just fit it into your existing opinions.

A couple more signs of possible irrationality: I didn’t put these up as examples of the irrational people, although it could be taken that way. I put this up as an example of people who are used as information sources. If you collect your information only from sources that you already know you’re going to agree with, that is a sign that what you might be trying to do is to reinforce your existing beliefs rather than to learn new things. The people that you’re most likely to learn something that you don’t already know from are people who disagree with you.

The last sign you might be being irrational is, if you think that people who disagree with you must be evil. Now, there are some evil people in the world, however, it is unlikely that a large segment of the population are evil. So if you’re under that impression, the most likely explanation is, again, that you’re suffering from this problem of dogmatism, whereby you’re unable to see the arguments for another position.

My last slide is – this is if you want to learn more about this. There’s an interesting book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, by Bryan Caplan, which is the source of the theory of irrationality that I was explaining. And this is my essay about why people are irrational about politics. That’s on my website at the University of Colorado. It looks like that’s all we have time for, so thank you.

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