The Rationality of Seemingly Irrational Political Beliefs

When I was younger, I used to believe that the world was forever inching toward rationality. And to the extent that smart, rational people got involved in mainstream political systems, those systems would improve and become more rational.

That’s no longer something I believe.

In my old age, I now understand that irrationality is built into the system. I no longer am surprised by events that seem irrational or inexplicable in politics. Instead, when I see such an event, I try to look at those who may benefit from the irrationality and then observe what political alliances have caused that phenomenon to emerge. When you see a phenomenon that doesn’t seem to make sense, you know you’ve hit on something important.

Usually, seemingly irrational political phenomena emerge when a subgroup of the population sees its survival threatened by the development of a seemingly rational social order. And that subgroup creates a new political movement to subvert what many see as that rational political order. This isn’t about an isolated event or some sort of rare political phenomenon that is isolated to our times: rather, it lies at the very essence of politics.

Cronyism vs. Rationality

The ever-brilliant Kevin Simler recently wrote a blog post about crony beliefs – beliefs that aren’t about what’s true but rather what stands to benefit us personally. It’s brilliant (and long), but I recommend reading it in its entirety.

The part that struck me most was the following:

I worry that the social influences on our beliefs are sorely underappreciated. I, for one, typically explain my own misbeliefs (as well as those I see in others) as rationality errors, breakdowns of the meritocracy. But what I’m arguing here is that most of these misbeliefs are features, not bugs. What looks like a market failure is actually crony capitalism. What looks like irrationality is actually streamlined epistemic corruption.

In fact, I’ll go further. I contend that social incentives are the root of all our biggest thinking errors.

My summary of his piece goes like this: Cronyism and irrationality aren’t errors of the system that we might eliminate someday. They are features that are built into the fabric of the system itself. Or, perhaps more accurately, they are the system.

To give just one example, the United States recently elected a president who lost the popular vote in the general election, but won the office because of a construct that was created long ago called the Electoral College. This construct flipped the result of the election.

That’s not very rational. Why would we have such a system? The reason is that it’s an artifact of the cronyism of the founding fathers. The reason we have the Electoral College isn’t because it’s in the most rational way to choose a government official – it’s because it was the only way the founders of the country could convince the less populous states to join the union. Stated another way, it was a bribe made 230 years ago from larger population states to smaller population states to convince them to be a part of the union – and it still has massive political reverberations to this day.

Whenever I read an article about the stupidity of the Electoral College, it makes me chuckle.

Of course the Electoral College is irrational! Of course it makes no sense! But that doesn’t mean that it’s ever going to go away. The states that benefit from this quarter-millennium-old bribe understand its importance. And there’s no way they’re going to give it up.

The system is cronyism. Cronyism is the system.

The Fireman Problem

Here’s a fun game to play at a dinner party: Tell all of your friends that one of the biggest problems your local government faces is how much firefighters get paid. You might as well rip off a giant fart at the dinner table. Watch people squirm!

But here’s the thing: It’s true.

Fire rates and fire death rates in North America and around the developed world have plummeted over the last century. In the last 20 years alone, annual fires have decreased by 50% while the number of career firefighters has increased by 50%. If you talk to any firefighter about what they do on a daily basis, it has very little do with fire. Most firefighters spend the majority of their time as highly paid EMTs or coroners, attending to business that has nothing to do with fires. Almost all of their work has little or nothing to do with their preparation or training.

It would seem that our political treatment of firefighters is, on its face, irrational. We should reduce budgets toward firefighters and reallocate those budgets to different emergency personnel.

But, after 9/11, where 343 firefighters died in the worst terrorist attack in our nation’s history, what American politician is going to a run on a platform of reducing money to firefighters?

The answer is no one.

To do so would be political suicide. And so the negotiating leverage of a small subgroup of the population trumps the rational needs of society as a whole. No matter how noble any one firefighter or any group of firefighters are, it’s irrational to keep pouring money into fire departments. But it wouldn’t matter if we invented a fire-proof building material that forever prevented the possibility of fire – we’d still keep increasing budgets to firefighters year after year, because that’s what politicians need to do to get elected.

The fireman problem is one of many ways in which rational systems are subverted to urgent political realities. This happens in small ways that have marginal consequences (such as the firefighter example) and big ways that have the potential to destroy the system as a whole (the Weimar republic could be cited as an example). I could have cited prison reform, the national debt or pension deferral, but the reality is that irrational cronyism in politics isn’t the exception. It’s the rule.

(Remember this the next time you watch the Daily Show or John Oliver.)

The Below-Average American Problem

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the following is true:

Living conditions for near-average and below average-IQ North Americans and Europeans have been getting worse over the last 30 years. Also, living conditions for above-average non-North Americans and Non-Europeans have been improving for the past 30 years.

Imagine you’re an American living in Amarillo, Texas with an IQ of 80. Imagine you’re from the Philippines and you have an IQ of 120. If both were born in 1945, the person from Amarillo would have almost certainly had a much better quality of life than the person from the Philippines, despite falling at opposite ends of the talent-distribution curve. The sheer good fortune of geographic birth of the American would have been enough to overcome any talent differential. Now, if the same two people were born in 1990, with the internet, globalization, outsourcing, and overall improved technology, the person from the Philippines might have an advantage over the person from Amarillo.

[This isn’t to say that all supporters of the current president are below-average intelligence. There are some exceedingly intelligent fans of the current president. But it’s safe to say most his supporters are anti-free trade and anti-open borders — policies that most rational economists support.]

This example is a caricature of those that might be helped and those that might be hurt by globalism. It may or may not be true that life is better for the above-average Filipino compared to the below-average Texan. But what is certainly true is that a significant percentage of Americans do not perceive globalization or increasing world assimilation and cooperation as in their best interests. Whether or not globalization, open borders, and free trade are better for the country and the world as a whole, it is entirely rational for those that perceive it not to be in their interests to form a political alliance or political alliances to put an end to it.

This specific brand of cronyism may therefore be totally rational for some, even if it is not rational for our country as a whole.

Rational Systems Are Only Helpful If They Are Both Actionable and Beneficial to One’s Own Personal Survival

Now, imagine that someone were to invent a technology that 1) benefits society as a whole but 2) forever eliminated your chosen profession and permanently impacted your ability to earn a living going forward.

Under that scenario, it would be perfectly rational for you to join whatever political constituency made that technology illegal. Even if that political alliance had dubious connections to things you had previously found objectionable.

What’s more, our brains are trained to construct systematic belief systems that will help us survive, because survival is more important to our genes than the truth. We will incorporate into our thinking and promote whatever information and news will help keep us alive, whether that information is true or not. The distinction between real news and fake news, between opinion and advocacy, between rational and irrational, matters little when it comes to our lives and our status in society.

This isn’t a “left vs. right” phenomenon. It’s an “us vs. them” phenomenon. As long as there are advantages to be gained from acquiring power and influence, subgroups will ally with each other to promote ideas that are in their own interest, but not in the national interest. And in the process they will acquire whatever irrational beliefs they need to form an alliance that will help them obtain that power.

That’s how it has always been; that’s how it always will be.