Over the last few decades, behavioral economists have found rational limitations or biases that, they claim, prevent individuals from pursuing their own good. State agents who intervene to correct individual biases, however, are typically not subject to biases that would prevent them from implementing the common good. (See my recent Reason Foundation paper.) But what if the state instead fuels dangerous individual biases?

Consider the “Big Chief bias,” a new bias that, I suggest, behavioral economists should add to their long list. It describes the tendency of many individuals to blindly follow the big chief of the group—tribe, nation, race, party—they identify with. If the state fuels this bias, the consequences will likely be more detrimental than they would be in a purely private context. We recently observed a few instances of that:

  • In a widely circulated video, a cartoonish redneck gets out of a pickup truck and attack an anti-Trump demonstrator outside a rally held by the president in Cincinnati, Ohio, on August 1.  The aggressor’s bias hit reality—I mean current legal reality—when he was quickly arrested and charged with assault.
  • In a sadder event a few days later, the Big Chief bias partnered with a past brain injury when an army veteran attacked a 13-year-old boy who had not taken off his hat during the national anthem. The boy apparently suffered a concussion and fractured skull, and the attacker was charged with felony assault. According to his attorney, the good soldier thought he was following orders from his “commander in chief”—the same commander in chief who had harshly criticized football players who did not stand up during the national anthem.
  • A much more dramatic instance of the Big Chief bias may have been the mass shooting in El Paso on August 3. From what we know, the killer drove 900 miles to go and kill presumed Hispanic immigrants. In what is widely believed to be his manifesto (although, perhaps strangely, the authorities have not yet confirmed it), the killer made clear that he targeted “invaders.” The second sentence of his manifesto reads: “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” In several tweets and declarations, President Trump had previously described Hispanic immigration as an invasion. The Guardian calculated that the 2020 Trump campaign has run 2,199 Facebook ads using the word “invasion.” The killer’s manifesto explicitly tries to exculpate Mr. Trump, writing that “some people will blame the President” but that “my opinions on automation, immigration, and the rest predate Trump and his campaign for president.”

Of course, there is no way to know how influential Mr. Trump’s hate appeals and occasional or muted praise of violence have been. Anyway, the guilt of the individuals who actually committed aggressions remains undiminished. “Just following orders” is not a redeeming excuse for individual crimes. Yet suspecting that the Big Chief bias played a role does not seem unreasonable. It wouldn’t be the first time in history.

This would confirm the risk of counting on state intervention to correct the biases of individuals. Political processes are more likely to worsen than to dampen the consequences of individual irrationality. A related lesson is suggested by Jason Brennan in his book Against Democracy:

Politics … makes most of us worse people.