A foolish consistency

Political unreliability is a moral and intellectual virtue.

Consider the following three pairs of alternatives:

1. If a person is in a persistent vegetative state, that person should (should not) be kept biologically alive for as long as possible.

2. Terri Schiavo is (is not) in a persistent vegetative state.

3. Public opinion favors (does not favor) removing Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube.

Logically, these are three independent questions. But in fact, if you know someone’s opinion on any one of them, you can make an excellent guess about his opinion on the other two. Thus Mickey Kaus finds it “bizarre” that I believe that Terri Schiavo is persistently vegetative and that keeping someone in that situation biologically “alive” is ghoulish, but doubt that the public agrees with me as strongly as the recent polls indicate.

It may not be bizarre, but it’s highly unusual; at least, so far I think my position is unique in Blogspace.

The mechanism of cognitive dissonance explains the correlations. Holding apparently dissonant beliefs is hard work. One definition of a liberal education is that it is the process of strengthening and disciplining the mind to make it better able and more willing to do that work.

In a situation of factional struggle, one’s loyalty to a side is judged in part by one’s consistency in holding all of the opinions that side professes. That’s the mechanism of “political correctness,” regardless of which party line determines what is “correct”: that’s the point of Glenn Loury’s classic paper on self-censorship. Living in a world in which you’re better off saying what everyone around you says makes it all the much more tempting to believe what everyone around you believes.

Still, intellectual and moral laziness are vices, and those of us who pride ourselves on being “reality-based” should cultivate the corresponding virtues, firming and toning the mental and spiritual muscles that make it possible to hold simultaneously in consciousness two (or more) apparently contradictory ideas. Yes, dumb single-mindedness sometimes has operational advantages in a political struggle, but just think how undignified it is.

The White Queen claimed that, with practice, it was possible to believe six impossible things before breakfast. (She is now, I am told, writing speeches for GWB.) Perhaps it is; practice does make perfect. But instead of practicing belief in the impossible, why not practice the opposite?

So here’s an exercise I commend to you, dear reader: once a day, try to believe something that you would prefer not to believe, and that will make the people you normally agree with doubt your loyalty to the cause.

As Socrates says, it’s better to disagree with your friends than to disagree with the universe.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com