What's Worth Overcoming?
By Bryan Caplan
If I were allowed to retitle Robin’s blog (and I am not), I would call it “Reaping the Fruits of Bias.”
“I see “overcoming laziness” or “overcoming fear” or even “overcoming inadequate love of Sichuan chili peppers” as often a more important problem than “overcoming bias.”
A clear analysis of the value of overcoming bias begins with a simple axiom: If a person values exactly the right things and has exactly true beliefs, he will always do the right thing. A corollary: Wrong values and/or false beliefs are the cause of all wrong actions. These truisms suggest a series of questions.
1. Why talk about “overcoming bias,” when the real problem is “overcoming error“?
Simple: A bias is an identifiable tendency to make certain kinds of error. Saying “fight error” is analogous to telling investors “buy low, sell high.” Saying “fight bias” is analogous to specifying when prices tend to be low and when they tend to be high.
2. Assuming someone’s values are not exactly right, does overcoming bias necessarily tend to improve his decisions?
Nope. If the Nazis had severely biased beliefs about how to commit mass murder, they would have been less effective, and done less wrong.
3. Assuming someone’s beliefs are not exactly right, does changing his values in the right direction necessarily tend to improve his decisions?
Again, nope. For example, I’ve previously argued that given voters’ beliefs about economics, crass voter selfishness would lead to better outcomes.
4. Forget “necessarily” – in the world as we now find it, do marginal improvements in values and beliefs normally lead to more righteous actions?
In The Myth of the Rational Voter I argue that given the political motivations of the typical voter in the modern Western world, less biased beliefs are very likely to lead to better policies. (Here’s why; see also here). And while I maintain that greater political selfishness would partially mitigate the harm of economic illiteracy, there are many other value changes that, at the current margin, would lead to more righteous actions. Movement away from patriotism and piety would be a good start. Maybe Tyler is right to put laziness and fear on the list too, but I’m less sure about those – should the typical person really consume less leisure and take more risks?