Caplan, Kahneman, Bastiat, and the First Amendment
Bryan Caplan’s post earlier this week, “Eureka! Economic Illiteracy as Mental Substitution,” is one of his best ever. And that’s a high bar.
Bryan applies the insight from Kahneman–that people answer the question they want to answer rather than the question that was asked–to explain the difficulty most people have in understanding economics. It also applies to many other political discussions, which should come as no surprise.
Specifically, it fits in with my discussion of Bastiat last week. I’ll requote a section of the Bastiat quote that I used last week:
When we oppose subsidies, we are charged with opposing the very thing that it was proposed to subsidize and of being the enemies of all kinds of activity, because we want these activities to be voluntary and to seek their proper reward in themselves. Thus, if we ask that the state not intervene, by taxation, in religious matters, we are atheists. If we ask that the state not intervene, by taxation, in education, then we hate enlightenment.
Basically, it comes down to whether you’re willing and able to make distinctions. I don’t know about most people’s ability; but we see ample evidence of most people’s lack of willingness.
We are used to this from undergrads in economics classes. But we also see it in newspaper reports. One news item in today’s Monterey County Herald is the story about a First Amendment case that the Supreme Court is considering. The story is about TV broadcasters asking the Supreme Court to throw out “decency standards” for TV and radio. Recall that the entire content of the First Amendment is:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Each day, the Monterey County Herald chooses one news item to which to attach a “Herald Question of the Day.” What would be a good question for such a news item? Oh, I don’t know, maybe, “Do you think broadcasters should be free to broadcast indecent language or indecent images?” That’s what’s at issue.
But what does the Herald choose as the question? Here’s what:
Are you offended by the amount of nudity and curse words on TV?
I know my answer to that question: absolutely, I find it disgusting. I hate it when louis ck, for example, spices up his great, relatively-clean routine with disgusting language. I could give many more examples.
But my answer to that question has nothing to do with the case before the Supremes. The Herald has substituted, to use Kahneman’s and Caplan’s language, an easy-to-answer question for the real question at hand.
It gets worse. It’s not only the Herald that substitutes; it’s also many of the Supreme Court justices who are hearing the case. Here’s what Chief Justice John Roberts said:
All we are asking for, what the government is asking for, is a few channels where … they are not going to hear the S-word, the F-word, they are not going to see nudity.
Now there’s some scary content. All we are asking for? Roberts apparently caught himself saying that he’s not just taking the government’s side in a contested case but is the government’s side.
“Asking for?” I do not think the word “asking” means what Roberts thinks it means. No one is asking. The issue is whether the government gets to tell. If all Roberts, oops, I mean “the government” was doing was asking, this would not be a Supreme Court case. In fact, it wouldn’t be a legal case at all.
And, finally, note that Roberts discusses the case entirely in terms of what’s decent, what our kids will see, etc. and not at in terms of the actual principle that he swore to uphold. Now that’s Kahneman-style substitution.