The Contrarian Vice

by Don Boudreaux on August 11, 2006

in Weblogs

Tyler Cowen is one of the smartest, most able people I’ve ever known.  He’s also among the wisest.  I mention his wisdom — sincerely so — because in his recent post at Marginal Revolution on The Libertarian Vice Tyler accurately describes himself as a contrarian.

Being contarian is admirable because it keeps the mind open and exploring; it’s of a piece with one of the finest of all intellectual dispositions: skepticism.

But even a disposition as admirable as contrarianism has its downside — what I might call "the contrarian vice."  The contrarian vice is to weigh cleverness too heavily against wisdom.

Not all contrarians commit the contrarian vice; Tyler doesn’t.  But the contrarian vice is a hazard of being an accomplished contrarian.  Contrarians run great risks of rejecting some piece of wisdom simply because it is widely accepted — and of confusing the possible for the plausible.

I very much like Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s definition of widsom: "To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom."  Not all facts are significant, and most facts come at us in a barrage, raw and unsifted.  Knowledge and smarts are important tools to use in organizing facts and in distinguishing the more-relevant and reliable ones from the less-relevant and unreliable ones.  But that elusive quality that we call wisdom is also key.  Because wisdom is not (in my opinion, anyway) highly correlated with cleverness — unless, perhaps, negatively — and because being contrarian is highly correlated with cleverness, I fear that too many contarians are content to bask in the brilliance of their cleverness even if this brilliance blinds them to wisdom.

But to be contrarian for a moment, I point out  that Abelard said that "The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth."

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