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"Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice" - Adam Smith

Politics makes us 'stupid' because the world is complex

Written by Sam Bowman | Wednesday 16 April 2014

Ezra Klein has launched his new site,, with an essay on ‘how politics makes us stupid’.

The piece is provocative, and Klein uses some interesting examples. Most striking is the study that shows that people’s maths skills get worse when the problem they’re dealing with has a political element and goes against their political instincts. (Klein seems to have slightly misunderstood the study he’s written about, but his basic point stands.)

The basic claim is that people engage in ‘motivated reasoning’ when they think about politics – in other words, they think in order to justify what they already believe, not in order to discover the truth. This, he suggests, is because the politically-engaged people get more loyalty to their ‘tribe’ than they lose by being wrong.

This ‘identity-protective cognition’, as he calls it, makes sense – a pundit who decides that the other side is right about some particular political issue (Klein uses global warming as an example) has a lot to lose in terms of status within the group they’re part of, and little to gain by being right.

Klein says that this has become worse as political parties have become more ideologically uniform and ideological ecosystems, like think tanks, blogs, media, more expansive. Not only is there the external cost of being wrong, but admitting to yourself that you’ve been wrong for a long time is quite difficult too, especially if you’re politically engaged and some of your sense of self is tied up with your beliefs. You could call this ‘rational ignorance’.

Even though that might seem plausible, I think he is assuming too much and is wrong about some of the phenomena he identifies. I’d like to suggest an alternative understanding of political ignorance that, I think, explains more and assumes less.

I think Klein’s fundamental error is to assume that the truth – or, at least, his mode of truth-seeking – is obvious. Basically, he starts off from the position that most people could reasonably see the light if they wanted to. If that’s right, then it could follow that incentive to disbelieve the truth. And “identity-protective cognition” is an interesting way of understanding that.

But suppose truth is not obvious – that we’re ignorant not because we want to be but because, in Keynes’s words, “we simply do not know!”. In contrast to the rational ignorance Klein is discussing, this kind of ignorance comes about because life is complex. The existence of this kind of ignorance is what allows people to disagree without either being willfully ‘dumb’.

To demonstrate his case, Klein uses examples of ideological dogmatism that are based on rejection of the hard sciences. Here he is assuming that a reasonable default position must be to believe in the usefulness of science, so anyone who deviates from that by disbelieving some scientific point must have an incentive to do so. But if they are simply unaware of the fact that science is usually a good way of learning things, them ignoring scientific consensus is simply a mistake.

Klein may see it as being obvious that science is great. But he has probably spent a lot more time thinking about it than most people – for many, rightly or wrongly, the jury is still out on science, as a great man once said. Error, not group loyalty, may be a simpler explanation for people’s refusal to accept what seems to be a well-established truth.

If the truth is difficult to determine, people who have an interest in politics need some way of sorting the truth from the information they can access. Since there is a huge amount of conflicting data and theory in nearly every area of policy (whether garbage or not), people need some way of sorting the wheat from the chaff.

That’s where an ideology comes in. An ideology, I suggest, is a type of ‘web of belief’ that allows people to use what they already believe to be true to sort relevant and true new information from irrelevant and untrue information. As Jeffrey Friedman puts it, ideology “provides pegs on which to hang the political facts of which non-ideologues tend to be so shockingly ignorant”.

This fits with the fact that ideologues are usually a lot more informed than non-ideologues, an important fact that, so far as I can tell, Klein ignores.

Klein’s view is that political ideology ‘makes us stupid’, but ‘closed-minded’ is probably a more accurate term. The vast majority of the public is shockingly ignorant of basic political facts, with the informational 'elite' also happening to be the more closed-minded. The alternative to closed-mindedness may simply be to be extremely uninformed.

This matters because the things Klein blames for politics making us stupid – ‘gerrymandering, big money, and congressional dysfunction’ – are mostly irrelevant if the view I’ve outlined here is correct. In a complex world where the truth is hard to discover, even the purest politics would make us stupid.

This implies a much more fundamental problem with the democratic process than Klein suggests. The trade-off between ignorance and dogmatism may be unavoidable in politics, making a well-functioning deliberative democracy virtually impossible to achieve. This may imply that less cognitively-demanding ways of making decisions, like markets, may be even more valuable than we realise.

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The progressive approach to immigration looks a lot like the conservative one

Written by Sam Bowman | Thursday 10 April 2014

In a way, it’s refreshing that Yvette Cooper’s speech on immigration today has identified ‘free market liberals’ as the main advocates of freer immigration policies. There aren’t many of us, though, so we usually have to rely on immigration liberals on the left to win the argument over there for decent reforms to take place. Unfortunately, it looks as if they're losing too.

Cooper’s main claims are that immigration reduces native wages and job opportunities, puts public services under pressure, and low-skilled immigrants are exploited by British firms.

The first two of these claims are basically wrong and the third is a little dubious, as I’ll try to show, but even if they were true they would only justify restricting low-skilled immigration. There is basically no decent economic argument against skilled immigration, and I’m doubtful whether even the most wild-eyed worrier about the cultural ‘Islamicization’ of Britain has Pakistani doctors in mind. But, without any explanation, Cooper says that Labour will keep the cap on skilled immigration (despite her admission that “top businesses are worried they can’t get the high skills they need”). Oh well.

On low-skilled immigration, the main focus of the speech, Cooper suggests that liberals support immigration “as cheap labour to keep wages and inflation low”. Ignoring that this is a straw man worthy of the Wizard of Oz, it’s also untrue. According to the impact assessment published by the Home Office last month, low-skilled immigration has, at most, a minor impact on native wages, which in a flexible labour market like Britain’s is temporary anyway. And on the ludicrous idea that anyone supports immigration to keep inflation low, see Lars Christensen – under inflation targeting, a positive supply shock like immigration will lead to more inflation.

The public services point is old and well-worn, and it hardly needs repeating here that immigrants pay more in tax than they cost in services – a phenomenon which over the next few decades will mean the difference between a national debt of over 180% of GDP (in a zero net migration scenario) and just over 50% (in a >260k/year net migration scenario). Presumably nobody really thinks that more high-skilled immigration would have a negative fiscal effect, but I suppose it’s possible that liberalizing low-skilled immigration a lot could change this. In that case, charge immigrants a fee to reside in the UK or restrict access to public services. There is no problem with immigration to which strict immigration controls are the best solution.

The final point is the one that Cooper focuses on the most, maybe so that the dreary conservative orthodoxy of her policies is less obvious. Undoubtedly, some genuine exploitation does take place – Cooper gives the example of agencies advertising in Poland for jobs that turn out not to exist, virtually forcing the victims into grim jobs that they did not sign up for. It may be that the law needs to be strengthened to punish people who defraud immigrants in this way. But there will be negative consequences too – by raising the risk for legitimate employers of employing immigrants, this kind of law will make it harder for immigrants to get legitimate work. The danger is that, as in the case of the Modern Slavery Bill, laws designed to prevent truly terrible crimes will end up curbing whatever legitimate work the government decides it wants to stop as well.

To be fair, there are two positives in Cooper’s speech: taking students out of the net migration figures would be good for the education sector, and taking refugees out is humane. But the fact is that Labour has accepted the “logic” of the net migration cap, is making no reforms to high-skilled immigration, and is basing low-skilled immigration policy on anecdotes instead of evidence. Liberals beware: the ‘progressive’ approach to immigration is starting to look an awful lot like the conservative one. 

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No wonder activists hate the Koch brothers so much

Written by Tim Worstall | Friday 04 April 2014

This ia a rather alarming thing for any activist to read in the daily newspaper. From Charles Koch in the WSJ:

Far from trying to rig the system, I have spent decades opposing cronyism and all political favors, including mandates, subsidies and protective tariffs—even when we benefit from them. I believe that cronyism is nothing more than welfare for the rich and powerful, and should be abolished. Koch Industries was the only major producer in the ethanol industry to argue for the demise of the ethanol tax credit in 2011. That government handout (which cost taxpayers billions) needlessly drove up food and fuel prices as well as other costs for consumers—many of whom were poor or otherwise disadvantaged. Now the mandate needs to go, so that consumers and the marketplace are the ones who decide the future of ethanol.

But, but, if a rich guy is fighting for there not to be privileges granted by govenment then what are we all gonna do? Hundreds of thousands of jobs as well paid activists, demonstrators, organisers of petitions, demanders of special privileges, all will disappear! For the entire foundation of all of this social justice stuff is that the rich are using government to screw the working stiff. If anyone actually catches on to the idea that  it's people buying privilege from said government that is the problem then where go our careers in campaigning for privilege for our guys from government?

No wonder the activists actually hate the Koch brothers. They're not playing that part assigned to them in the great political kabuki play and by refusing to do so they're putting those lovely careers "influencing " DC at risk.

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Can politicians act in an actively stupid manner?

Written by Tim Worstall | Friday 28 March 2014

An interesting question can politicians act, at times, in an actively stupid manner? No, not just be misinformed, a bit dim even, but can they end up enacting policies that are so far from their intended consequences that we can only describe them as having been actively stupid?

The answer, you won't be surprised to find out, is yes. As David Henderson points out here.

To recap the story: under Obamacare there are subsidies to the poor who cannot afford to purchase these new insurance plans. However, the law states that only those who buy their insurance through a State exchange can gain those subsidies. Those who buy through a Federally run exchange cannot get them. One can imagine why the law might have been written this way: let's make sure all the States set up exchanges. As we also know, things didn't turn out that way. Most States did not set up exchanges and most are now Federally run. Which means that most customers signing up at most exchanges are not eligible for those all important subsidies. At which point the IRS says this is absurd and allows customers of the Federally run exchanges to have the subsidies.

This is our first admission that yes, politicians collectively can be actively stupid. If even the people running the tax system tell us all that we've got to ignore what they've actually written into the law this is a difficult judgement to escape.

At which point enter a lawsuit. Various characters trying to insist that the IRS must obey the law as it is actually written and deny those subsidies to people on the Federal exchanges. The response to which is but that's insane: it will completely gut the law! Yes, it would: but this defence is our second admission that the politicians acted in a manner which is collectively stupid. The defence being that even Congress couldn't have been that stupid. But, obviously, they were: for the defence is that to obey the law as written would be stupid but it was Congress that wrote the law.

So, I take it that we've now conclusively proved that politiains, as a group, can act in a manner that is actively stupid. At which point we're back to our standard contention. That there are things that must be done, there are also things that can only be done by government. But we should limit the activities of government only to those things that both must be done and can only be done by government for, as we can prove, government is at times actively stupid.

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No, let's not expand the remit of the Low Pay Commission

Written by Tim Worstall | Friday 14 March 2014

Fundamental reform of the minimum wage is needed to keep the system that was introduced 15 years ago up to speed with the changing world of work, according to one of the policy’s key architects. Professor Sir George Bain helped formulate the scheme to tackle poor wages as founding chairman of the Low Pay Commission, the independent body which recommends pay levels to government. But he now wants the body to take on a wider remit, with greater powers. Prof Bain has worked with the Resolution Foundation think tank towards today’s(Thurs)) release of More Than A Minimum, a review of the minimum wage which recommends new ways to keep the commission relevant, now and into the future. Prof Bain said: “When I helped set the UK’s first minimum wage in 1999, it felt like an embattled experiment. Now the policy has the support of all parties and a powerful academic consensus shows it has raised wages without costing jobs.”

No, let's not do this. Quite apart from anything else that final sentence is blatantly wrong. The Low Pay Commission itself has pointed out that the level of the minimum wage of some years ago probably caused 30,000 job losses.

It simply isn't true that a minimum wage does not cause job losses: what matters is the rate of the wage and the significance of those losses. A minimum wage at £1 an hour would have no job losses because no one at all gets paid that rate. One at £15 an hour would have horrendous job losses. So no, I really don't think we want to have a quango cooked up and expanded by someone willing to deny the most basic point about the area under discussion.

But there's another much more important point here about bureaucracy. It's possible that the Low Pay Commission is indeed irrelevant. At which point we should abolish it of course, not attempt to expand its remit so as to give it something to do. And anyone looking at whether the LPC should expand, contract or continue should have had as part of their field of consideration the null hypothesis. Which isn't something that's going to come from the bloke whose baby it is.

This is all, I'm afraid, straight C. Northcoate Parkinson. We must constantly be on guard against bureaucracy being simply a bureaucracy: existing so as to gain budget and powers. And, I would very gently suggest, we should therefore assume at the beginning of all such evaluation exercises as this one, that the correct response is elimination. Only if extremely strong reasons for continued existence can be found should continuance be allowed. Sometimes this will be fairly easy: Royal Navy? Yup. At others times similarly so. Arts Council? Abolish, simples. But as I say, when the conclusion is that the remit should expand so as to make a bureaucracy more relevant then this is, of course, equivalent to stating that it currently has no relevance. Thus abolish.

If we're not brutal in this manner then we'll never get rid of any of them.

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Amazingly, communism causes malnutrition and stunting

Written by Tim Worstall | Friday 21 February 2014

Isn't it amazing how we keep finding out yet even more about the pernicious effects of communism?

Chinese soldiers have become so much taller and fatter in recent years that they are in danger of outgrowing their equipment, according to a People’s Liberation Army survey. Troopers were on average 0.8 inches taller and two inches fatter around the waist than 20 years ago, the military’s official PLA Daily reported. As a result, it is harder for soldiers to fit into aircraft cockpits and into a tanks designed for smaller personnel 30 years ago, it said. Even the rifle stocks are too short for some, and may need to be lengthened too, so as to not to affect firing accuracy.

When we start to talk about rifle stocks it's obvious that we're talking about something other than people just being a bit porky. And what it is that we're talking about is that nutrition has changed in recent decades.

In fact, the big change stems from the late 1970s as the completely asinine policies of collective farming were overthrown. And in general it's not just the nutrition of a child in its own early years that matters here, there's an influence of the nutrition of its mother in her early years as well.

Do note that there's been no great genetic change in the Chinese population over these years. This is purely an environmental change. They've all, finally, been getting enough to eat as they develop and are thus growing taller.

It is indeed true that we had worries over this sort of thing ourselves, back when we were taking the urban proletariat into the Army in 1914. However, do note that this is something that we solved without slaughtering hundreds of millions and without adopting that, as above, insane method of farming.

In fact, what solved the same problem both times, the nutrition of that working class (which is always going to be the largest portion of the intake of squaddies) was the mechanisation of agriculture in something approaching a free market and private property system. Which leaves us with a question for those who campaign that, for example, African agriculture should not be mechanised, or that private land ownership should not be allowed (as it isn't in some African countries), or even that we should all go back to farming communally ourselves.

Why do they want us all to be both malnourished and shorter?

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You've got to understand a problem before you can try and solve it

Written by Tim Worstall | Monday 10 February 2014

We've yet another dodgy report from yet another dodgy think tank being written up today. You know it's dodgy when the writye ups, to create the narrative, arrive before the full paper can be checked to see what they're really saying. But here's part of the report:

While most people will live to state pension age and beyond, a large proportion are unlikely to get there in good health, especially in more disadvantaged parts of the UK – places like inner city Glasgow, where the healthy life expectancy is just 46.7 years – close to 20 years lower than the national average of 65.

No, that's not really true.

The difference in disability-free life expectancy between women born in the most and least deprived areas was 11.6 years in 2001-04. By 2007-10 it had increased to 13.4.

And that's absolutely not true. The problem, here is that no one is understanding what these numbers are, how they're collected, and they are thus using them in highly inappropriate manners.

Lifespan, healthy lifespan, these are not the numbers from people born in certain locations. Nor of people in certain income bands, social classes or anything else. They are collated from the places and ages at which people die. It's vital to understand this difference.

As an example, consider two people who live at some point in their lives in those inner-city areas of Glasgow. One is born there, joins the Army, retires to Eastbourne and dies at 90. The other is born in Eastbourne, drifts along, gets tied into drug addiction and dies at 40 in some squat in Glasgow with a needle in his arm.

That first person, given that we count these things as where people die, leads to the average age at death in Eastbourne rising: that second, for the same reason, lowers that average age at death in Glasgow. But clearly and obviously neither of them have anythiing at all to do with the average age of death in their birth places. And yes, people do indeed move around: and one of the greatest prompters of people moving is a change in their economic circumstances. So, therefore, a goodly part of what we're seeing here when poor areas have lower lifespans than rich ones is not that living in a poor area kills you but that people self-select into poor or rich areas based upon their wealth.

Another way of approaching the same point is to consider the mistake that Michael Marmot has been making for decades. There is most certainly a link between economic inequality and health inequality. Living in a disease ridden slum will indeed make you more susceptible to said diseases. However, there's also an obvious link between health inequality and economic inequality. One acquaintance was hit with a series of severe illnesses in his mid-40s. Sufficiently bad that he entirely dropped out of the workforce for four years. All terrible of course: but his subsequent economic inequality was a result of his initial health inequality, not the other way around.

If we start to assume that this lifespan inequality is a direct and sole result of economic inequality then we're going to get any plans to solve it all entirely wrong. It's vital that we also accept that health inequality happens, as does movement of the population, and that both of these will lead to the economic inequality that we see.



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Excellent advice to all budding politicians everywhere

Written by Tim Worstall | Friday 03 January 2014

Don Bourdreaux has some excellent advice for buddfing politicians of all flavours and stripes:

If you really wish to serve your fellow Americans, stay in the private sector where those with whom you deal pay you voluntarily – that is, in ways that prove that you are serving them well. In politics, you’ll be spending money taken from others forcibly, so you’ll have precious little reliable feedback on whether you are helping or harming your fellow Americans.


Indeed, it's one of those well known little secrets among economists that people value what politics brings them at less than the cash that it costs politics to bring them to them. Even the US Census agrees that poor people value Medicaid at less than it costs to provide it, food stamps at less than their face value. They'd rather have the cash than what the politicians think they should be getting. Over here the same is true of housing benefit: everyone would far rather have the cash. Thus even the welfare state is value destroying.

And in the private sector, in the absence of politicians deliberately creating a rent seeking opportunity for you, you will only be able to extract from people what they think your actions, activities and services are worth. Less in fact, for there will always be a consumer surplus: so you know that your activities are creating more value than you are receiving.

It's true that we do actually need a government, thus we need people to be part of it. But think about what that government is really tasked to achieve: finding a method of making sure the bins are emptied. And that's no life for a bright and ambitious thing like you. Get off into the private sector and create some value rather than being in politics where you shanghai it at gunpoint then destroy it. And this applies even more, not less, if you have the public good at heart.

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So why do companies pay lobby groups?

Written by Tim Worstall | Thursday 26 December 2013

To the simpler minded among us business lobbies against regulations because such regulations would hobble business. And of course those who would impose regulation upon business are the very driven snow in purity, seeking as they are to restrain the depredations of business upon the citizenry. However, it doesn't really work that way:

But the fact that corporations also fund big-government organizations raises questions about this narrative. If regulation hurts corporations, why are they funding think tanks which promote it? The truth is that most regulation is written by and for incumbent businesses to erect barriers to entry and to buy advantages over their competitors.

I'm afraid that it's true. Big business just loves regulation for it prevents those pesky upstarts from muscling in on their profitable territory. Examples abound: Uber is prevented from offering an electronic method of hailing a cab because this would affect the incomes of the incumbent cab owners. The regulations on copper smelters in the US are such that it would be impossible to build a new one and actually meet them. All of the extant smelters are of course grandfathered in to those same regulations. There can be no future competition. Here in the EU it takes 10 months just to get planning permission to set up a new industrial production line. And yes, they have just made the rules stricter, this applies to any sized production of anything.

Big companies don't mind this as they have the time to fill in the paperwork: and the €10,000 to file it. A new company, an upstart, would find it most difficult to stay alive during a process of such length. Which is why the big companies just love such regulation and there's no countervailing pressure for less regulation of course. For how can the companies that never come into existence impose political pressure for less regulation?

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How hysterically funny about Mazzucato's "Entrepreneurial State"

Written by Tim Worstall | Saturday 14 December 2013

You will recall that a central theme of Marianna Mazzucato's book, The Entrepreneurial State, is that all this gee whizz techno shiny shiny that we see around us really comes from stuff that the government has originally subsidised, invented, come up with or otherwise spirited into creation. And of course, the outcome of this is that all your money belong to us.

And one of the examples she gives is the way that the British government subsidised the work that made Apple's iPhone a possibility. Specifically, on touch capable screens able to understand dual movements (things like "pinch and zoom"), something crucial to the technology.

Ah, sadly no, as my sometimes colleagues over at The Register reveal. In fact, a plucky British inventor did come up with the idea, did indeed go to the government and they screwed around so much and for so long that another inventor got there first and was bought up by Apple.

Fentem submitted a funding application to Nesta in January 2003, while he continued to work on new prototypes. "When I first approached Nesta I was told that I would receive a funding decision within 6 weeks," he says. "However, it took Nesta a year to just write the contract. To put that in perspective, it took Apple only 2 years to conceive, develop and commercialise the entire iPhone."

It's worth reading the whole five pages at Andrew Orlowski has done an excellent job there. And the truth is that Nesta, the British government, did not in fact develop multitouch screens. In fact, they managed to cock up the development process so badly that someone else developed it. An advertisement for government direction of innovaiton this is not.

And it also rather guts Mazzucato's basic contention.

One problem, as I see it, is that it is in fact true that invention doesn't happen in isolation. We're all standing on the shoulders of giants after all. But what that means is that the next incremental improvement in whatever it is is ripe, ripe for the plucking as a result of all of the thousands of years of science and technology that we already have. That in turn means that to pluck it one needs to move quickly. And quick movement is just not something you're ever going to get when the State is involved.

Basic scientific research? Dreaming in ivory towers? Sure, the results will be public goods and there's a good argument for some tax funding there. But it's just not going to work in developing actual products and technologies. As the screens for the iPhone show, whatever the stories that Mazzucato is telling.

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