Thursday, April 8, 2010

Smart Liberals Have More Fun

Apropos of hardly anything, this post advances the theory that veteran journalists tend to rely too much on what they think they know about a new development on an issue with which they're conversant, instead of asking questions. One of the commenters suggested that this is an explanation for the dreaded "liberal bias in the media", and I rose to the bait. But it got me to thinking.

There is, of course, a fairly well-entrenched narrative about liberals being smarter than conservatives. As somebody who's moderately conservative and who likes to think of himself as pretty smart, this meme always causes me to hunch my shoulders a little bit and feel defensive. Part of that defensiveness stems from a sneaking suspicion that the narrative is probably right. God knows that there are plenty of knee-jerk, reactionary, know-nothings on the far right of the conservative spectrum. These are not people with whom I identify, although I share more of their political impulses than I do with, say, the far left.

Needless to say, I'd love to rationalize my position here. And I believe that I have found a way:

A while back I wrote about the seductiveness of policy interventions. When you understand an issue, the temptation to engineer a solution to the problems surrounding an issue becomes almost overwhelming. Indeed, it's almost irresistible to fiddle with an idea in your head, playing what-if games, seeing if you can come up with something that appears to be bullet-proof. It's fun!

On the other hand, you hopefully remember that the odds of successfully intervening in a complex system and actually making things better are pretty remote. If you're a smart conservative, you try to keep this thought close at hand whenever you start playing with policy ideas.

But that is ultimately a boring, not-very-fun idea. A true idea, an important idea, always a good policy idea, but not very fun. At the end of the day, most people would rather be Pooh than Eeyore.

So imagine now that you are a smart person who's interested in politics and policy. (Hopefully, you are a smart person and don't have to imagine very hard.) Probably the reason that you are interested in P&P is because you think it's fun to think about. So: are you going to have more fun as an interventionist liberal or a grumpy old Hayekian conservative? The answer is, hopefully, obvious.

This seems to be a perfectly good explanation for why there are more smart liberals than there are smart conservatives. Smart liberals get to play with hundreds of issues and propose all sorts of innovative solutions for their problems. Smart conservatives pretty much get to apply the following three ideas to every policy problem:
  1. Complex, non-linear systems can't be engineered.

  2. There are limits to what you can know, even if you could engineer a complex system.

  3. Human nature isn't perfectable, and most policy interventions for most issues require nearly-perfect humans to successfully manage them.
No fun. Most people like to have fun, especially smart people. Smart people tend to be liberals, because liberals have more fun.

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