Five Missing Moods

Read this Bryan Caplan post, it’s short and direct. His thesis is:

You can learn a lot by comparing the mood reasonable proponents would hold to the mood actual proponents do hold.

I could quibble, but at the very least this heuristic has caused me to have new thoughts. Here are some of them:


Missing the mood: Effective Altruism should avoid getting embroiled in standard conflicts over politics & public policy. Political battles have especially low tractability, and often have reputational costs that are hard to predict.

Not missing the mood: Moloch yet controls the national/​state/​local budgets, the campaigns, the military agenda, the news landscape, the taxes and subsidies, the zoning laws, the immigration laws, the financial regulations, and so on. Tragically, we cannot do much about this yet, and if we tried, there would be a great risk of backfire. So we will continue to focus our efforts on more tractable causes, but always with a watchful eye toward the political landscape in case Moloch’s grip slips.

Missing the mood: If we didn’t have the current education system, some kids might not receive [some hazy, questionable benefit]. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! See part V of this ACX post.

Not missing the mood: Yes, huge amounts of childhood flourishing and human potential could be salvaged if we had an ideal school system. Yes, our existing school system does instill a lifelong dislike of math, writing, history, etc. for many (or even most) students. But Chesteron’s fence and several other heuristics suggest that if we simply tore town the current system and distributed the money back to the public, everything might be even worse. Ponder this fact: if you drop a random US high school graduate in a random US city, they will be able to read road signs to get to the transit center, and then mentally compare—quantitatively—the costs of getting home. That kind of literacy and numeracy is a big deal, and it is our system of compulsory schooling that lets us take it for granted. And no, this is not a mundane tradeoff—the direct cost to an individual student is horrendous. But this is the price of modernity. Perhaps we ought to have school assemblies explaining this tradeoff to the students, and honoring their sacrifice and endurance. Perhaps we ought to beg kids for their patience and understanding every single day that we send them to school.

Missing the mood: We have to ban dangerous consumer products and gatekeep risky investments. If we don’t, some impoverished mother will buy Dr. Snakeoil’s magic sulfuric acid elixer and die. Or your hard-working but innumerate cousin will fall for the latest investment scam and lose all their money.

Not missing the mood: To put it bluntly, we must use broad legislation to protect poorly-informed people from their own decisions. Yes, this does mean that a lot of well-informed, conscientious adults will be stymied in improving their own lives. That’s part of the price we pay to be a member of a functioning society. It’s not pretty and it doesn’t feel good, but it’s the right tradeoff. Maybe one day we’ll have some kind of awesome, bottom-up regime built out of liability insurance and incentive-aligned private inspection agencies. But tragically, we still live in a time of widespread economic illiteracy and for now we have to settle for clunkier rules.

Missing the mood: Trolls and disinformation have gotten too powerful. People are going into encrypted chatrooms and getting swallowed by violent ideologies. We need technological & legal infrastructure to stop people from sliding down online rabbit holes and getting radicalized. Perhaps the tech platforms should “de-amplify” the most problematic voices. The internet is a battlefield, and we need to treat it like one.

Not missing the mood: Alright...let’s drop the niceties and circumlocution....You and I are educated and smart. But those people—those gullible, seething masses—are not. Never forget that about half the population has an IQ under 100. We must admit that these people cannot be given responsibility for their own information diets. From our vantage, we’ve watched helplessly in real time as they’ve slid into conspiracy theories and cults, from which they cause real damage. Yes, on the one hand, we know that Facebook will occasionally collaborate in next-gen COINTELPRO-type campaigns. But on the other hand, we are facing literal genocides… The right to freedom of speech and association are granted by civilization, and they must be curtailed or suspended when civilization itself is at risk. No, you should not be free to send encrypted messages to your friend when none of us are yet free from the terror of QAnon and similar mindviruses.

Missing the mood: These supposed “fellow citizens” of ours are hopelessly ignorant. They’re just immune to facts, what can we do?

Not missing the mood:

If you genuinely believe that facts and logic don’t work on people, you shouldn’t be writing articles with potential solutions. You should be jettisoning everything you believe and entering a state of pure Cartesian doubt, where you try to re-derive everything from cogito ergo sum.
If you genuinely believe that facts and logic don’t work on at least 50% of the population, again, you shouldn’t be writing articles with potential solutions. You should be worrying whether you’re in that 50%. After all, how did you figure out you aren’t? By using facts and logic? What did we just say?

-- Scott Alexander, Guided by the Beauty of Our Weapons, Part V

(obligatory meme)