Sunday, November 9, 2008

the value of ignorance

human beings are complex critters. behavior isn't always easy to understand. because value is subjective, there are virtually limitless things that individuals may choose to do with given time and resources. though this is true, there are often trends that appear in the behavior of human actors. this is consistent with the material world and the psychological world.

to obtain material goods, one must expel a certain amount of stored wealth, time, resources, etc. generally, the quality of the goods obtained will decline as price declines. the same is true for what may be called psychological goods like beliefs, opinions, factual knowledge, etc., but to a much greater degree. if one has no understanding of the differences in quality of food, or if quality is of little relevance, one may be tempted to buy food at the cheapest possible price and in bulk. the same is true for ideas. because any opinion can fill the desire of the consumer to have an opinion, then those with little regard for quality will buy cheap and in bulk, meaning that they will put very little effort of thought into opinions or beliefs, because they only recognize their own desire to have opinions, regardless of how good they are.

there is an added perceived benefit to holding such low-quality beliefs: they are often comforting, utopian visions, shielding one from the harsher realities of life and reinforcing cherished biases. but, as with everything, these goods that are economical in the short run, can have long-term disadvantages in cost-of-ownership.

for instance, one may believe that gravity doesn't exist, rather than going through the trouble to understand what gravity is and how it works. it isn't worth it to this hypothetical individual we will call "isaac". isaac may be able to go through his entire life without being affected by this belief, as someone who buys a cheap good may be able to use it without any problem for a long time. unless isaac lives on a jagged mountain range, his belief is unlikely to have any ill effects in the short-term. as isaac moves throughout life, however, it becomes more and more likely that he may be negatively affected, by walking over a ledge, jumping from a high place, standing under a falling object, etc. so, isaac's choice to adopt a very faulty belief in the non-existence of gravity may very well lead him to very high costs in the future. conversely, it ascribes a certain value to ignorance. for isaac, ignorance is preferable to knowledge because of its ability to fill a need now (the desire to have an opinion) at a low cost. this is an illustration of the economic theory of time preference, or issac's preference for consumption now as opposed to later.

this phenomenon and its long term effects can be seen trending in american society today. the general trend in american society, as was witnessed in the recent elections, is for a high time preference concerning beliefs and opinions. most choose to believe falsehoods such as "the military fights for my freedom", "'politician 'a' will make 'change' and this is a good thing", "socialism will not suffer the same consequences in my country that it has in every other country", "men, placed in positions of power can override the laws of economics through legislation", "the free market is a logical scapegoat for the failures of socialism, corporatism and central intervention in general", "politicians can/should be trusted", etc.

little may be felt from these "feel good" opinions in the short run. the effects of impoverishment and loss of freedom may come so gradually that the illusion may persist for quite a while that no real consequences come from holding such positions. the effects, in the long run, will be undeniable and highly costly. as unemployment rises, GDP growth slows, stops or reverses, inflation soars and general quality of life recedes, the high long term cost of "buying cheap" on the market of ideas will begin to impose itself on an increasing scale.

there is no problem with people bearing responsibility for their own actions. unfortunately, the high time preference for "idea market" consumers will ultimately affect even those who have invested the proper resources to obtain high-quality ideas by subjecting entire populations to the effects listed above. holding false beliefs is no crime in itself, but acting on such ideas (as those motivating the general public in the last election) in a way that will affect others is criminal, because it subjects others to losses of value (through inflation, taxation, intervention, etc.) that they have not agreed to either explicitly or implicitly.

even in the realm of ideas there is risk. there may even be risk to uninvolved parties. holding certain ideas may come with the same criminal risk as operating dangerous machinery, like weapons, cars, or power tools, if used to hurt others through political implementation. though justice may never be served, those seeking to implement such ideas should be ready to assume the moral costs of their actions as well as the physical costs. this fact should be understood (but, by its nature, is unlikely to be) by all those placing a high value on ignorance.

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