… is from page 176 of Steven Pinker’s 2018 book, Enlightenment Now:
Any evidence-based reckoning is bound to pour cold water on programs that seemed promising in the theater of the imagination. Conspicuous by their absence from the list of what works are bold initiatives like slum clearance, gun buybacks, zero-tolerance policing, wilderness ordeals, three-strikes-and-you’re-out mandatory sentencing, police-led drug awareness classes, and “scared straight” programs in which at-risk youths are exposed to squalid prisons and badass convicts.
DBx: What Pinker accurately calls “the theater of the imagination” can be – and often is – a very useful human tool. We conduct experiments in our minds, and use the results to help guide us in making decisions. But this tool works better the more its application is localized and individualized. Jill uses her imagination to explore the likely consequences to her of running up the hill with Jack instead of with Jason; Jack uses his imagination to explore the likely consequences to him of running up the hill with Jill instead of with Jennifer.
Each person incessantly operates the theater of his or her imagination for life-guidance. While the wisest amongst us guides their lives with information in addition to that provided by the theaters of their imaginations, everyone uses his or her theater.
But this theater’s usefulness rapidly disappears when what are staged are non-local, non-individual productions. Few people disagree that the theater of my imagination has no good stage or resident playwright for playing out alternative possibilities for your life. Yet many people lose this natural skepticism when I use my imagination for playing out alternative possibilities for your and countless other people’s lives.
If I, as an intellectual, stage in my imagination’s theater plays telling how a certain hike in the minimum wage might result in benefits for poor families, or how industrial policy might enrich our nation’s people economically as well as fortify our defenses against crafty foreigners, I am applauded as forward-looking, progressive, benevolent, and oh-so-impressively clever and smart. “Let’s have government turn these happy imaginings into reality!” But of course my imagination is too poor a theater to use as a guide for government attempts to craft society. My theater is equipped with far too small a stage and it employs a playwright of only individual human intelligence.
Here I am not being falsely modest, for what is true for me is true for every human being. Human imagination is indispensable for guiding each person’s private affairs. But such imagination produces only real-life calamities when its productions are taken as guides for the state to create dreamy realities.
An additional problem plagues imagination theater used to guide government intervention: unlike with real shows, such as those on Broadway, that are cancelled if they prove to be poor in the eyes of paying audiences, producers of shows staged by the state can compel audiences not only to pay for and to sit through lousy productions, but also to participate.