≡ Menu

A Haidtian Point

Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:

Today’s “Notable & Quotable” reminds me of what is nearly the identical point made 77 years ago by H.L. Mencken in his essay ‘The Politician’: “The truth, to the overwhelming majority of mankind, is indistinguishable from a headache.  After trying a few shots of it on his customers, the larval statesman concludes sadly that it must hurt them, and after that he taps a more humane keg, and in a little while the whole audience is singing ‘Glory, glory, hallelujah,’ and when the returns come in the candidate is on his way to the White House.”*

Mencken was on to something important.  If science is the process of revealing the details of reality and making plain that these are never optional, politics is the practice of masking reality’s details and assuring the masses that their fondest fantasies, no matter how absurd, will all come true if only the state is invested with more power.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

* H.L. Mencken, “The Politician,” as reprinted in A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949); p. 149.


The hard sciences, such as physics and chemistry, have a relatively easy time of it.  These sciences deal with comparatively simple phenomena of a sort that we humans are evolved to take note of with a reasonable amount of objectivity.  Jumping naked off a cliff will always cause you to fall so quickly to the ground that, if your leap is from a height of more than a few feet and onto a solid surface, you will splatter and die.  Always.  Taking six apples from a bag filled with ten apples will leave only four apples remaining in that bag.  Always.

In contrast, economics and other social sciences, when done properly, deal with astonishingly complex phenomena.  Most of the consequences of any given social action are more distant in space and time than we humans are evolved to notice.  For example, the destruction of jobs by minimum-wage legislation is not easily seen by those who have never been fitted with the lenses of sound economics.  Ditto for the bulk of the benefits of international trade.

Consequences and events so difficult to see are easily ignored or denied even when they are pointed out.  Because of social-reality’s complexity, people who long to do so can hang on to their fond wishes, their treasured beliefs, and their fun fantasies.  Our understanding of social reality is much more a stubborn product of the tales that we tell ourselves than is our understanding of physical reality.

This fact does not mean that all beliefs about social reality are valid.  Most beliefs about social reality are, in fact, quite mistaken.  But the epistemological reality that we are stuck with is that even the most wrong-headed beliefs about social reality are very easy to cling to for those who cherish them.


Next post:

Previous post: