By Bryan Caplan
Sumner’s latest mini-essay is a thing of beauty. Highlights:
1. Sumner on the Fundamental Attribution Non-Error:
I think we all listen to our friends, relatives, and colleagues
complain about their predicament, and then silently think, “Well what
do they expect? Their predicament perfectly reflects their
character.” If they are a lazy spendthrift, then they will go through
life thinking that adverse circumstances are always denying them the
money they need. If they are envious, then their colleagues will be
unfairly promoted ahead of them. Etc, etc.
But when we think about ourselves, well then things are very
different. If only we could get out from under burden X, our life
would be so much easier… While reading the Portuguese writer Pessoa, I
recently came across this quotation:
Whenever I’ve tried to free my life from a set of the
circumstances that continuously oppress it, I’ve been instantly
surrounded by other circumstances of the same order, as if the
inscrutable web of creation were irrevocably at odds with me.
%$@#& that inscrutable web of creation.
2. Sumner on the Political Corollary of the Fundamental Attribution Non-Error:
When we form a mental image of another democratic country, we don’t
typically think in terms of the current leader, but rather a much
deeper set of characteristics, what you might call the character of a
country. France, Italy, Switzerland, Japan; the names of each of
these countries trigger complex mental images for most of us, but how
many readers of this blog could even name the leaders of Switzerland
For our own country things are much different… [D]on’t
we all tend to exaggerate the importance of who is elected? I think
this is especially true when the leader is someone you don’t like.
Deep down, conservatives feel they have never been given a chance; that
the liberal elite runs the media, courts, colleges, and there are
enough squishy Republicans that nothing substantive gets accomplished.
I think this excuse is hogwash, but I am pretty sure it is widely
held. In contrast, left-leaning intellectuals often refer to “Reagan’s
America,” or “Thatcher’s Britain.” But I’ve never heard the
phrases “Jimmy Carter’s America,” or “Gordon Brown’s Britain.” Why
not? Because if the more liberal candidate is elected, the country
will still face the same problems as before, just as Switzerland and
Japan will still be Switzerland and Japan regardless of which
non-entities happen to hold their highest offices.
3. Sumner on the Power of Zeitgeist (Auf English, daß ist “public opinion.”)
Elections are very important, but mostly because of the fact that we have them. The real action is in changing the zeitgeist, not who ekes out an election victory. In some ways we will
become much more like France, for instance I think we will move closer
to universal health insurance. And in some ways France is becoming
much more like the US, as when they deregulated the commercial airline
industry and privatized lots of big companies. But none of these long
run trends will be determined by who wins elections.
4. Sumner on Leaders Who Make a Difference
In the 1960s most Americans knew that Mao was leader of China, whereas
today very few can name Hu Jintao. Does that mean we are less well
informed? No. There was good reason to know who Mao was, he was one
of the most important figures in world history, and his decisions
greatly affected the lives of millions. There is no need to know who
Hu is (pun intended.) Fortunately for the Chinese people, Hu could not
launch a Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution even if he wanted
If you can’t imagine how one short essay can stitch all these topics and much more together without leaving a visible seam, read the whole thing.