This is a reprint of my February 28, 2012 post. I intend to pick up this irrationality theme this week. It's Memorial Day, so this seemed like a good time to repost it. — Dave
Anyone who has read this blog for some length of time knows that humans are not working hard to fix the large problems confronting them in the 21st century. Why is that? The answers are complex in the details, but can be boiled down to a few simple precepts in the abstract.
One answer states that for humans, the economy is everything. We don't do anything about the imperiled crude oil supply and anthropogenic climate change because we need energy to support growth, both of populations and the economies which support them. In the former case, human generally deny that peak oil is a concern, despite mounting evidence which suggests we're at the top of the production curve, because it is literally unthinkable that we might not have enough of the stuff (along with coal and natural gas) which allowed human populations to grow and grow in the 19th and 20th centuries. With respect to global warming, fixing that problem would also mean the end (and no doubt a reversal) of growth in populations and economies. See my posts The Inherent Contradictions Of Pro-Growth Environmentalism and Carbon, Energy And Craziness. Growth is an ineluctable imperative for the human species.
Another answer states the inarguable view that humans are flawed and corruptible. At all times since the rise of complex human societies, and in all places, it is guaranteed that some portion of the human population will be attracted to, seek out and attain great wealth, power and influence which is all out of proportion to the rest of society. In short, all complex societies which may be called civilizations have been run by elites sitting atop the wealth and power pyramid. There are no significant exceptions to this rule. The hierarchical nature of complex human societies is not an accident. Such outcomes appear to be inevitable, and the resurgence and strengthening of such elites in the declining Amercian Empire is simply one example among the countless others which five thousand years of history records. Ronald Wright's A Short History Of Progress, which I read recently, discusses this unsolvable dilemma at some length.
Update: I recently posted about Wright's book in Gauguin's Questions, published May 10, 2012.
Despite these intractable problems, which appear to be deeply rooted in Human Nature, I see the same fallacy repeated over and over again in modern times. We might call this fallacy the Imputation of Rationality, meaning that the speaker assumes that humans are rational problem solvers, despite ample empirical evidence to the contrary.
I will provide one telling example today, but I intend to return to this subject in the future, for there is no dearth of good examples to pick from. Woody Brock, founder of Strategic Economic Decisions and author of American Gridlock: Why the Left and Right Are Both Wrong, is upset about the political paralysis in Washington. I will quote from his interview with Aaron Task (video below).
The people in Washington know the K-Street system is not working... The rascals [our Washington elites] are going to be thrown out [in 2016], or pitch-forked out, as I prefer [to say]. So, once you show them there are win-win policies that don't screw the left or screw the right, which they do not understand right now, and that's why I wrote [my book] ... you show them that there's a way that their constituents will be very happy that a problem gets solved, and they're not eating [that problem], do you see what I'm saying? It's win-win.
You might ask what planet is Woody living on? and that's the right question, because it's certainly not Earth. His thesis is that if we only show our political elites that there is win-win opportunity ripe for the plucking, they will end all this petty bickering and our elected government will once again start solving problems instead of creating them. This is the Imputation of Rationality in a nutshell.
What is missing from Woody's tidy little explanation? Many, many things, too numerous to list here, but I'll list some. Where is the simple understanding of human motivation? Of the unalterable nature of opposed human groups? Of the shared but irrational belief systems which bind those groups together? What about the overwhelming human impulse (among strivers and sycophants) to wield influence and attain great wealth and power? What about simple corruption, aka. money in politics, which paves the road to that influence, wealth and power? What about the crucial role of media propaganda designed to shape the views of pliant (and ignorant) voters?
I could go on and on. This is all Human Nature 101, a course no university offers.
If all that were necessary was to simply demonstrate to our Washingon elites that there are rational, win-win solutions to our problems, assuming these exist at this late stage in our history, those problems would have been fixed long ago. That's the Imputation of Rationality in a context which is anything but reasonable. Humans are not rational problem solvers, which goes a long way toward explaining why humanity in general and America in particular are in such deep trouble today.