Confidence Tricks

I. Accidentally Correct

In Principles, Ray Dalio describes his earliest investing experience as a kid. He bought some cheap airline company stock during a bull run in the 1960s. He bought it precisely because it was cheap, with no further information. He didn’t know that the business was fundamentally struggling, and he had no inside information that it would soon be bought out, but as it happened both were true and he tripled his investment. Winning for bad reasons increased his confidence in his competence and in the sanity, simplicity, and benevolence of the world. It may have provided him with the energy to actually learn more about investing and later pursue it as a career choice- but it also reaffirmed false beliefs.

Privilege is a function of how much of your social reality you can safely ignore. Sometimes, though, you also need Gri-Gri (also sometimes referred to here and elsewhere, often discouragingly, as ‘koolaid’).

II. Disparate Contexts

Like many people, I lived near Actually Existing religious fundamentalism as a kid. From that position, the New Atheist critique made a lot of sense to me. It took time to realize that the success of Rationalist/Atheist Youtuber’s critique was somewhat accidental: their literalism in interpreting texts and creeds is a shared hermeneutical preference with actual fundamentalists, but was an obvious misfire to many modern theists [and casual non-theists] operating in a ‘richer’ context (or at least a different episteme). The Rationalist’s outside view only just happens to be a mimic of the fundamentalists’ inside view. They were ‘right’ against evangelical fundamentalists for reasons that didn’t apply broadly, and seem silly in some other contexts.

I checked up on to some of those old channels recently, and sadly several of them have not developed their thinking any further. Some of them have taken the same rhetorical weapons onto new targets, applying the same over-simplistic outsider takes (posing as disinterested objectivity) to social justice and feminism, for instance. While this was not necessarily inevitable, it is sort of clear how their hermeneutical tools would lead them here- once again, they wield a pure naive Outside View, they are clearly unable to pass an Ideological Turing Test on their targets, and so their straw-men only connect with the most specious versions of their perceived opponent. It’s the same technique that they’ve always used, supported by youtube algorithms and an outrage economy that we have a better vocabulary for now than back in 2006.

“Generals still fighting the last war” is a common pattern of behavior. Often how the last war was won is not so clear, anyway.

III. Storytelling

Americans tend to overread Presidential elections. It’s not that the results aren’t consequential. It matters which party, and which person in which party, is in the White House. The mistake is to interpret the election as an index of public opinion (itself something of a Platonic abstraction).

In close elections, such as those of 1960, 1968, and 1976, the vote is essentially the equivalent of flipping a coin. If the voting had happened a week earlier or a week later or on a rainy day, the outcome might have been reversed. But we interpret the result as though it reflected the national intention, a collective decision by the people to rally behind R., and repudiate D. Even when the winner receives fewer votes than the loser, as in 2000 and 2016, we talk about the national mood and direction almost entirely in terms of the winning candidate, and as though the person more voters preferred had vanished, his or her positions barely worth reporting on.

Millions more Americans voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and in 2012 and for Hillary Clinton in 2016 than voted for Donald Trump, but the Trump voter is now the protagonist of the national narrative. People talk about how Americans want to roll back globalization—even though most Americans who voted appear to want no such thing. The United States is one of the few democracies that does not have a coalition government, and a winner-take-all electoral system breeds a winner-take-all punditry. 

Political and rhetorical legitimacy is often a bit of a confidence trick. The View From Nowhere is not accessible to us.

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