Home > About Me, conservatism, liberalism, libertarians, politics > There is no escaping labels

There is no escaping labels

Adam Ozimek had a great post this morning responding to Caplan and Wilkinson about the benefits or dangers of labels. Here’s the response I left after Adam’s post:

… I think all this talk about labels being beneficial or dangerous tends to miss the obivous point that labels are both beneficial and dangerous. This need not be an either/or proposition.

When I was young, I listened to Rush Limbaugh, called myself a staunch conservative and defended the Republican party from most attacks. In my mind, this was not because I so cherished the label as much as it was the fact that I listened to these people and their arguments seemed to make sense to me. When I slowly began to realize the weakness of their arguments I went searching for new labels, because what was I supposed to believe unless someone told me?

The real issue here is that a coherent worldview is not something that you can really build up from scratch from your own experiences, that’s not enough. An ideology like libertarianism took the lifetimes of many thinkers to flesh out; I couldn’t match that if I tried. Shortcuts are sometimes necessary.

It is also clear that having adopted shortcuts that that will introduce bias; not every problem has an ideal solution and this is an example of that. If you want to understand how that works, just read some Tversky and Kahnman papers… taking shortcuts which introduce bias is a universal problem in human decision making.

As for me, I spent my youth and early adulthood traveling the ideological spectrum from conservative to libertarian to self-concious centrist and finally to liberal/social democratic. In not one of those steps did I change a core belief, but each step I saw the world differently and I reacted differently to events.

I’m sure it helps to try and see the world as your opponents do, but that’s not a solution. There is no solution, except to do the best we can.

I’m not entirely sure if this puts me closer to Caplan (a rare event) or Wilkinson (much more common), but I do have to say that I see a lot of my own journey in what Wil has gone through. You just don’t realize all the subtle pressure to conform to your tribe until you’re on the outside looking in (not to mention the not-so-subtle influence of who you choose to listen to). But then, someone-who-listens to Wil-Wilkinson-more-than-Bryan-Caplan is itself a label.

I think politics, as Wil suggests, really is different, but only in the degree of tribalism and groupthink. I’m inclined to be convinced by Tversky and Kahnman because I’m a person who has been convinced in the past, but that doesn’t mean that they are or were right. Tthey may be those things anyway, but my inclination to believe them comes from my own bias, not from them. This is a form of tribalism… I’m a behavioral economist, and not a neoclassical one. For example I have a couple posts up on a common mistake I think most behaviorally inclined make in dismissing utility theory (a mistake going back to Tversky and Kahnman, incidently)… but I used to agree with them.

A truly rigorously-thought-out idea is a rare and valuable thing. I say keep the labels, but be aware that it messes up your thinking.

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