Friday, April 27, 2018

Is Steven Pinker too optimistic about the future of liberal democracy?

Steven Pinker’s aim in Enlightenment Now, The case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, is “to restate the ideals of the Enlightenment in the language and concepts of the 21st century” and to show that those ideals have worked to enhance human flourishing.

In response to one of Pinker’s earlier books I was prompted to consider whether Enlightenment humanism is the coherent world view that he claims it to be. In this book Pinker makes clear that he views “the ideals of the Enlightenment” to be synonymous with the open society and classical liberalism.  He argues that four themes tie the ideas of the Enlightenment together: an insistence on applying reason to understand our world; use of the methods of science; humanism, defined in terms of a focus on the happiness of individuals rather than the glory of tribes, races, nations or religions; and the hope for progress through political institutions that are conducive to human flourishing. Pinker regards liberal democracy as “an Enlightenment-inspired institution” and “a precious achievement”.

In my view Pinker succeeds admirably in showing that for the last two and a half centuries application of those Enlightenment ideals has enhanced individual human flourishing. Much of the book is devoted to evidence of the massive progress that has been made in the quality of life enjoyed by people on this planet over that period. I recommend this book and Max Roser’s Our World in Data web site (the source of much of Pinker’s data) to anyone who needs reminding that ‘the good old days’ were not so great.

Turning to the future, Pinker is more of a hopeful realist than an optimist. He recognises that “the darker sides of human nature – tribalism, authoritarianism and magical thinking – aided by the Second Law of Thermodynamics” have potential to push us back. In an early chapter he points out that in a world governed by entropy and evolution, the default state of humankind is characterized by disease, poverty and violence. A large and growing proportion of humanity have been able to escape from the default state through ongoing adherence to the norms and institutions fostered by the Enlightenment.

As I see it, the prospects for further progress in human flourishing in the liberal democracies will be strongly influenced the effectiveness of this form of government in delivering economic policies conducive to ongoing productivity growth. Productivity growth will obviously be required if people continue to aspire to have higher disposable incomes, but it will also be required to generate the additional taxation revenue needed to prevent public debt spiralling out of control. That is because spending on social welfare programs – particularly health care and retirement benefits - is likely to rise as the proportion of elderly people rises. Resort to higher tax rates would be likely to have adverse effects on incentives to work, save and invest, and thus reduce productivity growth.

Pinker notes that with stronger safety nets in place, the poverty rate for elderly people in the United States has plunged since the 1960s and is now below that for younger people. However, generous safety nets have a down-side. People in the liberal democracies face traumatic adjustments in the years ahead if governments are unable to meet public expectations of ongoing funding of existing programs at current levels.

Pinker recognizes low productivity growth and “authoritarian populism” as potential threats to human progress but does not draw out the links between these threats. Most of the populists that he is concerned about do not strike me as being particularly authoritarian, in the sense of enforcing strict obedience to authority. Nevertheless, they are stasists, seeking to undermine the Enlightenment values that have enabled technological progress and international trade to contribute massively to human flourishing since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Pinker’s discussion of the recent causes of low productivity growth is adequate, as far as it goes, but he fails to emphasize the potential for additional damage to be done by populist politicians seeking to capitalise on fears of the disruptive impacts of globalisation and technological progress.  

Pinker makes the important observation:

A challenge for our era is how to foster an intellectual and political culture that is driven by reason rather than tribalism”.

He is scathing in his description of current electoral politics:

Here the rules of the game are fiendishly designed to bring out the most irrational in people”.

In support of this assertion Pinker cites: the rational ignorance of voters; the bundling of disparate issues to appeal to a coalition of voters with geographic, racial, and ethnic constituencies; and media that “cover elections like horse races, and analyse issues by pitting ideological hacks against each other in screaming matches”. He notes:

“All these features steer people away from reasoned analysis and towards perfervid self-expression”.

Pinker’s suggests that for public discourse to become more rational, issues should be depoliticized as much as possible. His discussion of the ways in which issues become politicised and proposals for depoliticization of issues was covered in my last post on the benefits of listening to opposing viewpoints. His discussion ends by noting that the discovery of political tribalism as an “insidious form of irrationality” is “still fresh and largely unknown”. He appeals to readers:

However long it takes, we must not let the existence of cognitive and emotional biases or the spasms of irrationality in the political arena to discourage us from the
Enlightenment ideal of relentlessly pursuing reason and truth”

Pinker may not sound particularly optimistic about the future of liberal democracy, but he may well be too optimistic. Unfortunately, in addition to the irrationality he discusses, we are also confronted by widespread failure to adhere to the norms of self-reliance and reciprocity that underpin liberal democracy. As explained by James Buchanan (see this post for the reference) failure of the liberal order is becoming increasingly likely as a higher proportion of the population becomes dependent on government and voters increasingly seek to use the political process to obtain benefits at the expense of others.  

We seem to be heading toward what might be described as a democratic tragedy. As noted in an earlier post, when interest groups view the coercive power of the state as a common pool resource to be used for the benefits of their members, the adverse impact of tax and regulation on incentives for productive activity is likely to result in outcomes that will be detrimental for everyone. The incentives facing individual interest groups in that situation are similar to those facing users of common pool resources in the absence of norms of restraint.

Perhaps, as more people come to recognize that liberal democracy is confronted by deep problems, efforts will be made to reform political institutions to produce better outcomes. It is not obvious how that can be achieved, but we should not allow ignorance to prevent us from seeking solutions.

In my view Seven Pinker is on the right track in urging people to be hopeful:

“We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing”.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What is to be gained by listening to opposing viewpoints?

It is comforting to listen to people espouse views like our own. Perhaps it makes us feel that our views are being validated.

Listening to an opposing viewpoint can feel challenging. There are several reasons for that. There may be times when we are not in the mood for the intellectual stimulation involved in considering the merits and demerits of an opposing viewpoint.

A more deep-seated reason for feeling challenged arises when we identify strongly with views that are being attacked. We may even feel offended. That has traditionally been seen to be likely when views on politics, religion and sex are being criticized. Ethnicity and culture should be added to that list. People also tend to be highly offended if anyone casts aspersions on the sporting teams they support.

However, taking offence is optional. Many Collingwood supporters, and many people of Irish and Scottish descent even seem to be able to see the humour in some of the jokes made at their expense.

From my childhood memories, in the farming community in which our family lived in the 1950s, there seemed to be greater willingness to listen to opposing political viewpoints than exists anywhere today. There seemed to be widespread acceptance that you need to listen to opposing political viewpoints if you want to argue against them effectively. People steered clear of discussion of religious differences and if anyone had views about sex and marriage that were at variance with conventional morality they didn’t discuss them openly.

The civility of the participants is obviously an important determinant of the amount of heat generated when contentious political issues are discussed. From my own experience, and limited discussions with others, I have the impression that in the 1950s people were generally more intent than they are now on maintaining civility when participating in political discussions. It seemed common for discussions to end in a meeting of minds on some points and respectful disagreement on others. Occasionally, when one of the main participants was intent on giving offence, discussions would end in an exchange of insults, or worse.

Have people become more open to listening to opposing views on other contentious issues since the 1950s?  A few years ago, I would have argued that the shibboleths had diminished as the major religions had become more tolerant of each other and a revolution in attitudes had caused many people to moderate their views of sexual morality.

It now seems that the old shibboleths have been replaced as new issues have become politicised. When issues become politicised it now seems to be much more common for people to parrot the views of the leaders of their political tribe and to refuse to consider opposing viewpoints. The art of listening seems to be disappearing from the public realm.

Steven Pinker has an interesting discussion of the politicization of issues in his recent book, Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism and progress. He refers to research by the Dan Kahan, a legal scholar, who argues that bitter public disputes over science are now “the exception rather than the rule”. The exception arises when certain beliefs become symbols of cultural allegiance. To help make this point Kahan refers to recent U.S. history regarding vaccines for Hepatitis B and the HPV virus (a major cause of cervical cancer). Both vaccines prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Hep B vaccination has apparently been accepted without much opposition, but HPV vaccination has become a political firestorm because of fears that it would encourage teenage promiscuity. Kahan suggests that the difference stems from the way the two vaccines were introduced.  Hep B vaccination was treated as a routine public health matter, but the manufacturers of the HPV vaccine lobbied state legislatures to make vaccination of adolescent girls mandatory. Kahan’s view is supported by Australian experience of a voluntary HPV vaccination program being introduced successfully without the issue becoming politicised.

Issues often become politicized when they are taken up by political leaders. For example, it seems likely that by politicising the global warming debate, Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth made it more difficult for conservatives to acknowledge the merits of any proposed policy action on climate change.

The media also plays a role in politicising issues by converting disagreement on public policy into a spectator sport.  In my view Australia’s public broadcaster, the ABC, is a major offender. The ABC’s charter requires it to inform and entertain, but unfortunately does not require it to encourage the reasoned debate and respectful disagreement necessary for liberal democracy to function effectively. In particular, the Q&A program seems to me to be designed to politicize policy debate. It entertains viewers by providing a forum for activist and conservative tribes to clash on totemic issues. Although some panellists and audience participants do their best to engage in reasoned debate, it would be difficult for any viewers to obtain a better understanding of alternative viewpoints from this program.

How can we have a useful exchange of views on issues that have become politicised? In a recent article on this blog I suggested that people who approach issues from different ideological perspectives would be able to have more useful policy discussions if they could turn their attention to what they can learn from the actual experiences of people in different institutional and policy settings. That is rarely straight forward, of course, because interpretation of experience is not immune to ideological bias. But it is still good advice!

It can also be useful to ask people to explain views you disagree with, rather than asserting that they are talking nonsense. Steven Pinker notes that when people are asked to explain an opinion they often realize that they don’t know what they are talking about and become more open to counter-arguments. That is more likely to occur when they are aware that someone is listening intently to the answer they are giving.

This view is consistent with Leah Goldrick’s conclusion in a recent article about the know-it-all syndrome. On her blog, Common Sense Ethics, Leah writes:

“Thinking is fundamentally driven by questions, not answers. This is why doubt, not certainty, is so important. Doubt is the starting place that leads us to question the assumptions that have lead us to a particular conclusion, and doubt is what drives us to learn more if we will humble ourselves enough to consider that we may be wrong. Constant learning, from a place of humble confidence, rather than a place of arrogance, is the antidote to know-it-all syndrome”.

You are more likely to have useful exchanges of view if you “assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t”. That is one of the rules that Jordan Peterson lists in his recent book, 12 Rules for Life (recently reviewed on this blog). Peterson suggests that we remain threatened by disease, self-deception, unhappiness and many other causes of suffering because we are too ignorant to protect ourselves. There is always potential for us to improve our own lives if we respect the personal experience of our conversational partners.

Some of my readers may be wondering whether there is any organisation they could joint to help cultivate a listening culture and improved communication in the community in which they live. A few weeks ago, the realisation dawned on me that for the past 16 years I have been a member of an organisation whose founder believed that “in bringing improvement in the way of better thinking, better listening, better speaking to individuals we are contributing to the improvement of the society which is made up of these individuals”. The quote is from an article by Ralph Smedley, founder of Toastmasters International, which appeared in the February 1958 issue of The Toastmaster. (The article, entitled, ‘The Toastmasters Club … Its Meaning and Values’, has been reproduced in Personally Speaking: Selections from the Writings of Dr Ralph C Smedley.)

The mission of Toastmasters is to develop communication and leadership skills of individual members so that they can achieve greater self-confidence and personal growth. The benefits that can bring to the lives of individual members are obvious but, as Ralph Smedley maintained, members of Toastmasters - now numbering more than 352,00 – also have an opportunity to contribute to “the building of a better society made up of individuals who must act in groups”.