Megan’s article reminded me of some thoughts I have had in the past about political polarizations.
There are several commonly held intellectual blinkers, or, to use a Robin Hanson terminology, roads to rationality ruin, that prevent us from properly appraising the value of a political position. This is true with respect to positions we support as well as those we oppose. In the past, I have blogged or linked to articles about several of these. One that is unfortunately rather common among people who feel alienated from the thinking of the masses is the pleasure they derive from believing something different than most people. As Hanson says, this pleasure is evil because it clouds rational thinking. Another that seems to afflict a lot of people of every political stripe these days is to assume bad-faith on the part of their opponents. Megan’s article, linked above, is a great take on this issue. Then, there is the confirmation bias, which means that we tend to put more weight on evidence that agrees with things we already believe in, and discount those that don’t.
There is a common way in which many of these biases express themselves when actually appraising a political position. In a way, this expression is so common that people rarely write about it. However for precisely that reason I will repeat it here. And that is simply this, when evaluating a policy proposal, people tend to disproportionately look at only one side of the cost-benefit equation. (Those who support it, mainly look at the benefits, those who oppose it, mainly look at the costs). I am not saying that people are unaware of the other side, simply that they put far less effort in making an intellectually honest appraisal of it. This is related to but not the same as the confirmation bias. Think of the confirmation bias as a kind of blinker that biases evidence-gathering, and this as a blinker that biases decision-making.
Sometimes this blinker leads to contradictions within the views held by the same person. To start with an almost trivial example, polls show that most people favor cutting taxes. Yet, they also want the government to provide for a lot of things that would be impossible unless accompanied by extremely high levels of taxation. Clearly there is a wide gap between what most people want and what most people are willing to pay. This is an example of the kind of dissonance I have been talking about. When thinking of benefits they want, people often fail to properly appraise the cost that is necessary to provide the benefit.
But at least the issue of taxation, when posed in a plain-vanilla style, is one that unites most people. So it is not really an issue that causes political polarization. Things get trickier when one moves on to more subtle questions.
For instance, should some version of the Glass-Steagall act, that was weakened over the years and ultimately repealed by Clinton, be reinstated? Most progressive say yes, conservatives and libertarians say no. And anyone who follows politics seems to have an opinion on that matter.
What seems to clear to me however, is that most people have something of a blinker on when appraising this issue. Progressives rarely consider in a detached manner the question of whether there are gains of uniting commercial and investment banking. Very few have read papers like this which argue that unified banking is actually safer, while they have all certainly read Krugman’s pieces. They tend to forget that that without the repeal of the Glass-Steagall, many of the acquisitions that mitigated the effects of the crazy financial meltdown in 2008 would have been legally impossible. On the other side of the spectrum, conservatives tend to ignore anything written by a liberal economist. This is perhaps justifiable when the issue is one you have thought deeply about already but such is rarely the case, especially about questions on current affairs which are politically charged. For instance, if asked whether unified banking (repeal of Glass Steagall) led certain institutions like Citi to make riskier ventures than they would have otherwise (this question, which is a very different one from whether the effects of the repeal were a net negative, has in my opinion the correct answer Yes), many conservatives would reflexibly answer no.
So my prescription to those wishing to seriously understand a subtle political issue is this. See what you initially think of the proposal. Do some research. Form an opinion. Then, look around. Think seriously about practical and philosophical objections to your position. If you are supporting a law under discussion, have you really considered its fiscal, social and moral costs? If you oppose it, have you considered its benefits? Even if your morality/basic philosophy impels you to take one side, it is still important to research both sides. This is because of two reasons. One, you may otherwise overlook some opposing point that is also morally relevant to you. Two, because your moral philosophy can sometimes change or get more refined when faced with new arguments and evidence.
In short, do not claim to have a well-formed opinion on an issue until you have exhaustively researched the opposing view. Anything less is intellectual laziness.
Talking of intellectual laziness, I am struck by two different contexts in which the word ‘extreme’ in used in politics.
One of them refers to people with political opinions that are fringe or out of whack with the mainstream. But having an opinion that is out-of-whack but well-considered should really have no negative connotation attached to it. If anything, it is among these people that one usually finds the visionary thinkers of each era. Furthermore, it is very difficult to evaluate out-of-whackness. What do you call someone who does not neatly fit into the conventional left-fight spectrum, for instance? Yet, the words extreme and extremist are bandied about in this context with implications that are not particularly positive.
The second, very different, context in which the word ‘extreme’ is used is with respect to strongly held political feelings, rather than fringeness of views. At the edge, it refers to people who are bitter, violent or reactionary in their political expression. Going through the blogosphere, I would estimate that about 80% of those who regularly comment on partisan blogs fall in this category. They tend to demonise the opposing view, assume bad-faith from the outset, are verbally vicious and show remarkable little evidence of having deeply considered both sides of the matter. Of course, it is possible I am wrong about some of them; after all, one reason to write is to quickly release frustration. Nonetheless, I do think that many of these people, which include not just a lot of commenters but also certain popular writers and journalists, radio and TV show hosts, and film directors, suffer from all the biases I have mentioned above. In short, whether they are right or wrong, they certainly are intellectually lazy, and thus do not deserve to be taken too seriously. People like those are much more deserving of the epithet extreme in a derogatory sense.
Now I of course realize that those who are extreme in the one sense are occasionally extreme in the other sense, but the difference between the two meanings is worth emphasizing.