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Quotation of the Day…

Posted By Don Boudreaux On October 5, 2013 @ 7:44 am In Complexity & Emergence,Other People's Money | Comments Disabled

… is from page 90 of Jonathan Haidt’s fascinating 2012 book, The Righteous Mind [1] (original emphasis; footnotes deleted):

Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments, but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science, and law.  Rather, … we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason.  We should see each individual as being limited, like a neuron.  A neuron is really good at one thing: summing up the situation coming into its dendrites to “decide” whether to fire a pulse along its axon.  A neuron by itself isn’t very smart.  But if you put neurons together in the right way you get a brain; you get an emergent system that is much smarter and more flexible than a single neuron.

The system is smarter than the sum of the intelligence of its individual parts – as in an economy and society in which individual persons are put “together in the right way.”  But what is the right way?

Modern “Progressive liberalism” believes that the right way is largely unlimited majoritarian democracy, often leavened by disproportionately powerful and charismatic “leaders.”  People ‘choosing’ consciously together on each of many proposals across a wide range of issues.  Modern “Progressive liberals,” though, remain surprisingly innocent [2] of even basic public-choice insights [3].  The fact that political settings, institutions, and arrangements typically shield each individual decision-maker from the direct material costs and benefits of his or her choices [4] is a deeply serious flaw of this decision-making arrangement.  It’s an arrangement that encourages each decision-making unit to be irrational [5].

True liberalism (or libertarianism) believes that the right way is largely unobstructed private decision-making by adults within a thick system of private property rights and freedom of contract.  In this setting the consequences – good and bad – of each choice fall heavily on the particular person who made that choice and are not socialized across the entire polity.  People are thereby lead to make more informed and more considered choices - and each person is freed much more than in the collectivized setting from having to bend to the desires, whims, and misinformation of others.  The overall result is a highly complex and highly functional order, one that is “the result of human action but not of human design [6],” in which each individual has maximum possible scope to pursue his or her own life’s plan according to his or her own lights.

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[1] The Righteous Mind: http://www.amazon.com/Righteous-Mind-Divided-Politics-Religion/dp/0307377903/ref=la_B001H6GAXW_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1349785710&sr=1-1

[2] surprisingly innocent: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2008/12/krugmans_tin_ea.html

[3] basic public-choice insights: http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/PublicChoice.html

[4] political settings, institutions, and arrangements typically shield each individual decision-maker from the direct material costs and benefits of his or her choices: http://www.amazon.com/Democracy-Decision-Theory-Electoral-Preference/dp/0521585244/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1270480910&sr=1-2

[5] It’s an arrangement that encourages each decision-making unit to be irrational: http://www.amazon.com/Myth-Rational-Voter-Democracies-Policies/dp/0691129428%3FSubscriptionId%3D1YNZ339ZCHHAKYFSY702%26tag%3Dinvisiblehear-20%26linkCode%3Dxm2%26camp%3D2025%26creative%3D165953%26creativeASIN%3D0691129428

[6] the result of human action but not of human design: http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/y2005/Robertsmarkets.html

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