Monday, June 25, 2007

Pandering Contests

Bryan Caplan writes:
Almost everyone takes this for granted, but it still freaks me out: Audiences in presidential debates applaud just because a candidate says something they agree with... Why not just hold up big signs that say: "TELL US WHAT WE WANT TO HEAR"?

Keep this in mind the next time someone blames politicians for the low quality of political dialogue. The hard truth is that politicians are just responding to the perverse incentives that the people give them.

Democracy is only as bad as the demos. Unfortunately, at present we suck. Not intrinsically; I don't think the general public is irredeemably stupid, or anything like that. It's a simple attitude problem. Most people, it seems, don't care about honest inquiry. Our social norms encourage pandering, close-mindedness, and intellectual dishonesty. It's shameful.

What can be done? Two things, I suppose:
(1) Model good practice. "Be the change you want to see in the world," as Gandhi put it.

(2) Apply social pressure to create better norms. Praise intellectual virtues, and scorn those who wallow in cognitive vice.

Sound right?


  1. is it posible to design a system that wont get compromised by these sorts of uninformed tribes forming?
    what changes would one have to make in order to stop them forming?


  2. [You might as well call me your resident scoffer. Gandhi failed. India and Pakistan are never getting back together.]
    I take it for granted if people don't think on their own a "good example" (1) sure won't do the trick--they have to be prodded into it (2), and then still they are still a herd.

  3. I think your problem is htat tribalism is intrinsically rewarded - afterall it is the very act of supporting your own meme.

    There is a certain equilibrium of tribalism one could expect and I expect that we are not all that far from that equilibrium.

    Studies on strategies like altruism and so forth have come up with similar results (ie we do what could be expected - and htat our degrees of altruism and selfishness are not surprising).

    what happens is that if too many people cooperate it becomes a very good strategy to cheat.

    I think you might find that you would need a LOT of guidance to push that water uphill.


  4. Sure, human nature being what it is, I don't imagine we could avoid tribalism altogether. I just think we should come up with a better tribe -- one that values critical thinking, etc.

  5. yes.. so where can we start as individuals? getting shirty at ideologues or far left/right people?

  6. the unthinking "demos" aside, i find the quote kind of strange. surely clapping in support of a candidate's statements does not at all imply that such support is given only for propositions which people like (as opposed to those they think are right or just).

  7. Ace - sure, but the point is that politicians are under pressure not to challenge voters' preconceived ideas (including about what is right or just). That's unfortunate. People should be encouraged to question and think about these things. (Especially in a so-called "debate"!)

    Anon - depends what you mean by "far". I'd suggest that one's position on the first-order political axis doesn't much matter. What matters is their meta-political stance: do they treat politics as a form of inquiry or warfare? That is, are they sufficiently open-minded to be willing to deliberate with "the other side" (insofar as their civility is reciprocated)?

    So yes, I'm all in favour of "getting shirty" with close-minded ideologues. I'm not sure how else to change the political culture.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.