Against Recent Events
By Bryan Caplan
There are many tell-tale signs of a demagogue. Perhaps the clearest, though, is when someone states the words, “Recent events show X.” Which recent events? Virtually any recent events! Yes, every century has a few mighty outliers that sway the fortunes of billions, like Hitler’s sneak attack on the USSR and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the overwhelming majority of recent events are sound and fury, signifying nothing. Serious thinkers don’t base their worldview on what happened yesterday, or last week, or last year. Instead, they endlessly ponder the totality of human history, a body of evidence that makes all recent events combined look small and hollow.
Most people who minimize recent events do so because they don’t like what recent events seem to show. These folks are doing the right thing for the wrong reason. The right reason to minimize recent events is that recent events aren’t probative enough to show anything, welcome or unwelcome. Eschew Social Desirability Bias and you will know this to be true.
The demagogic connection is straightforward. The intellectually lazy masses have no patience for thoughtful arguments or big picture surveys of the evidence. So how are you supposed to persuade them of anything? Simple. Cast all epistemic scruples aside. Wait around for recent events to go your way. Then loudly claim that these events “show” the very thing you’ve long yearned to make the masses believe.
Such demagoguery is hardly fool-proof. It couldn’t be, because your intellectual rivals are using it too! But it works well. That’s why almost every politician and pundit uses it. Deplorable, but hardly surprising: If the totality of human history proves anything, it’s that demagogues rule countries and dominate discourse.
I know some smart people who react to these insights with a cynical, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” On consequentialist grounds, they could be right. My considered judgment, though, is that winning is far from everything. If I can’t be persuasive without pretending that recent events are decent evidence for anything, I choose to be unpersuasive.
P.S. You know what our latest “recent events” are. But I’m writing for the ages. Whatever happens in future years, I promise not to claim vindication by recent events.
P.P.S. Yes, a bet’s resolution is also a “recent event,” so the way a specific bet turns out doesn’t show much either. But people’s ubiquitous reluctance to bet shows something very big: Deep down, most demagogues don’t even find themselves convincing – and neither do the masses who lionize them.