Arrogance a mile wide and an inch deep

There’s this thing that Canadian left-progressives tend to do when you an express an opinion with which they disagree — I presume it’s the same with most politically-minded folks in most countries, at least among the ones who don’t just murder you, but I mostly associate (and disagree) with Canadian left-progressives.  (Occupational hazard.)  They give this little sigh, roll their eyes in what they think is a subtle manner, put on a talking-to-slow-children voice, and explain to you that you don’t have your best interests at heart.  This might happen, for example, when they get to talking with farm workers who’re insufficiently pro-unionObviously the third-year International Studies major from suburban Vancouver knows agricultural labour policy better than the migrant worker whose dues are being extracted from his paycheque.  If the latter thinks he’d be better off without a union, that’s just ignorance — perfectly understandable from someone in a socially disadvantaged position and not at all judgementally applied, you understand.  If you hold the wrong opinion, it’s unimpeachable evidence that you’re not qualified to hold any opinion at all — you’ve been deceived, lied to, kept in the dark.

Students of tu quoque will be interested to learn that I’ve seen the contrapositive as well, in which an ardent supporter of the BC Liberal Party got himself increasingly (and entertainingly) agitated when a friend of mine — who runs a small software-contracting concern out of his living room — steadfastly refused to “admit” that the recently-passed HST was a ray of pro-business sunshine piercing the dark veil of regulatory cloud that grinds entrepreneurs under its mixed-metaphorically booted heel.

Anyway, I used to think of this as a knee-jerk response to dangerous levels of cognitive dissonance — I believe I’m helping you; why don’t you support my beliefs?! — but apparently this is taught in part as a response to market failure.  Well, perhaps learned is a better verb than taught, as it seems to be a misapprehension on the part of the student rather than the instructor.

Man, a bit of market failure theory can really screw you up.

Recall that the First Welfare Theorem shows that, under an idealized set of sufficient conditions, market outcomes cannot be improved upon.

Normal economists recognize that the conditions fail and that, when they do, there may be room for ameliorative government policy. Policy would still need to be assessed to see whether it’s welfare improving; we need comparative institutional analysis.

Abnormal economists say that whenever one of the conditions fails, we can throw all of economics out the window.

I’m generalizing Dr. Crampton’s argument, here, but only slightly.  In the above quotation you can read “market outcomes” as “deciding for yourself what you want”, and “government policy” as “someone else dictating your outcomes… for your own good“.

In some places (read his post), this shows up as a steadfast refusal to admit that anyone can actually enjoy a drink.  Researchers Collins and Lapsley, who appear at first glance to be the sort of people who buttress my prejudices against social science, claim that “drug users” — by which they mostly mean people who like to drink on occasion — are utterly incapable of the high cognitive tasks associated with real, genuine enjoyment:

Being fully informed about the private costs of abuse requires the abuser to have access to, and have the ability to process and evaluate, epidemiological information on the effects of drug use. It also requires the drug user to be able to evaluate the probable future health and other costs resulting from the drug use. It is difficult to believe that drug users, by their nature, are fully-informed, or even well-informed, about the costs of their abuse.

The perceptive reader may detect a certain amount of contempt, but the point should be well-taken.  Of course drug users don’t have complete information about the costs of their drug use, unless perhaps they’re snorting melange off of the nekkid bosoms of Bene Gesserit witches.  Even a cursory examination of any damn existentialist work you’d care to name will indicate that people cannot fully grasp the consequences of their actions, but are condemned to be responsible for them regardless.

Of course, the same goes for the nannyists.

Don Boudreaux points out another instance:

We are first of all treated to this delightful opinion:

Seeking to dictate what other people eat, Elizabeth Newton opines that “In a perfectly functioning economic world, all consumers would receive perfect education about good nutrition and then simultaneously demand that fast-food companies and grocery stores start offering healthy options, thus forcing Big Food to supply what the people demand.  Until that happens, we need regulation of Nestlé, Monsanto, McDonald’s and the rest of the moguls that dictate our diets” (Letters, Aug. 11).

Notice a few things about the detestable opinions proffered by Elizabeth Newton:

  1. She expects consumers to “receive… education about good nutrition”.  This is credentialism at its most drearily obvious.  There is no room for autodidacts in Newton’s vision of the future.  People — well, not extraordinary visionaries like her — are merely to be passive receptacles who receive education.
  2. I visited a grocery store not five hours ago.  It offered plenty of “healthy options” by anyone’s standards, whether you’re a paleo proponent like Mark Sisson, a committed vegetarian in the vein of the Mayo Clinic, a carbs-and-grains true-believer like the government wants you to be, or a protein-obsessed strength nerd like me.  Y’know why this grocery store orders, stocks, and sells all these different and often-incompatible foods when it would be far cheaper for them simply to force us all to buy easily-stacked and long-shelf-lived products like reconstituted milk and bulk ramen?  We, the consumers, have demanded it.  It would begin to seem that Newton’s “Until that happens” has in fact happened.
  3. If uneducated consumers are so powerless to resist the siren call of Big Food’s advertisements, why haven’t they all switched from cattle ranching to soybean cultivation?  I’d hazard a guess that tofu is far cheaper to produce, ship, and stock than beef, so if consumer self-determination is so vastly outweighed by advertising money, why can I still get a hamburger?  Granted, I have one of those graduate-school book-learned edumacation things, so I might be a little bit better at coming up with good ideas than the average bear, but Monsanto — among others — has the budget to hire hundreds of people at least as clever as me.  Surely I’m not the first person to think of this possibility?
  4. Blah blah blah regulatory capture you know the drill.

As Dr. Boudreaux puts it:

She assumes that “Big Food” earns higher profits by selling products that consumers really don’t want than by selling products that consumers really do want.  This startling proposition requires for its justification more than Ms. Newton’s presumption that she knows other people’s true preferences better than do those people themselves, and better than do the entrepreneurs who, in competitive markets, earn their livings by satisfying those preferences.

The argument, then, goes something like this: Individual choice is okay as far as it goes, but it’s only valid if perfectly informed.  Since it’s impossible for any individual to be perfectly informed, “ameliorative government policy” must be put into place to correct for the inevitable mistakes of those individuals.

How the individuals formulating and enforcing that “ameliorative government policy” are to be made perfectly informed is left as an exercise for the reader.

Of course, this argument proves too much.  It can be applied, quite easily and with far more urgency, to mass democracy itself.  Individual voters are asked to choose among a field of candidates, each of whom claims to be willing to apply various platforms if elected.  Those voters can’t possibly comprehend the full consequences of their choices; therefore, voting itself should be regulated by the government in order to ensure that nobody bad gets elected.  The dystopian novel practically writes itself.


3 Responses to “Arrogance a mile wide and an inch deep”

  1. August 12, 2011 at 05:13

    The common phrase here in the States is “voting against their interests”. As in, “The GOP keeps harping on ‘liberty’ and ‘morality’ to dupe poor rural voters into voting against their interests; we enlightened progressives would give them the social programs and business regulation they really need.” The idea that some people may actually value liberty more than social programs is, I think, one that’s never entered the average progressive head.

  2. 2 perlhaqr
    August 12, 2011 at 18:32

    Yeah, I’ve gotten the “you’re too stupid to know what you really want so of course I’m justified in taking your money to pay for what I know is best for you” spiel regarding public education, too.

    Sadly, being a principled libertarian / anarcho-capitalist, it actually makes me sick when I try to even facetiously use the same argument to demonstrate why this style of argument fails by, for instance, telling them that this same thing applies to torture in Guantanamo Bay.

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