Many advocates of free markets, reason, and liberty are content to just sit back and let things take their course, thinking that the right ideas will win out, by virtue of being true and therefore in accord with the objective reality. Sooner or later, these people think, the contradictions entailed in false ideas – contradictions obvious to the free-market advocates – will become obvious to everybody. Moreover, false ideas will result in bad consequences that people will rebel against and begin to apply true ideas. While this view is tempting – and I wish it reflected reality – I am afraid that it misrepresents the course that policies and intellectual trends take, as well as the motivations of most human beings.
Why does the truth not always – indeed, virtually never, up until the very recent past – win out in human societies among the majority of people? Indeed, why can one confidently say that most people are wrong about most intellectual matters and matters of policy most of the time? A few reasons will be explored here.
First, the vast majority of people are short-sighted and unaware of secondary effects of their actions. For instance, they see the direct effects of government redistribution of wealth – especially if they are on the receiving end – as positive. They get nice stuff, after all. But the indirect secondary effects – the reduced incentives of the expropriated to produce additional wealth – are not nearly so evident. They require active contemplation, which most people are too busy to engage in at that sophisticated a level.
The second reason why truth rarely wins in human societies – at least in the short-to-intermediate term – is that people’s lifespans are (thus far in our history) finite. While many people do learn from their experiences and from abstract theory and recognize more of the truth as they get older, those people also tend to die at alarming rates and be replaced by newer generations that more often than not make the same mistakes and commit the same fallacies. The prevalence of age-old superstitions – including beliefs in ghosts, faith healing, and socialism – can be explained by the fact that the same tempting fallacies tend to afflict most unprepared minds, and it takes a great deal of time and intellectual training for most people to extricate themselves from them – unless they happened to have particularly enlightened and devoted parents. If all people lived forever, one could expect them to learn from their mistakes and fallacies eventually and for the prevalence of those errors to asymptotically approach zero over time.
The third reason for the difficulty true ideas have in winning is the information problem. No one person has access to all or even a remote fraction of the truth, and certainly no one person can claim to be in possession of all the true ideas required to prevent or even optimally minimize all human folly, aggression, and self-destruction. Moreover, just because a true idea exists somewhere and someone knows it does not mean that many people will be actively seeking it out. Improving information dispersal through such technologies as the Internet certainly helps inform many more people than would have been informed otherwise, but this still requires a fundamental willingness to seek out truth on the part of people. Some have this willingness; others could not care less.
The fourth reason why the truth rarely wins out is that the proponents of false ideas are often persistent, clever, and well organized. They promote their ideas – which they may well believe to be the truth – just as assiduously, if not more so, than the proponents of truth promote their ideas. In fact, how true an idea is might matter when it comes to the long-term viability of the culture and society whose participants adopt it; but it matters little with regard to how persuasive people find the idea. After all, if truth were all that persuaded people, then bizarre beer ads that imply that by drinking beer one will have fancy cars and lots of beautiful women would not persuade anyone. The persistence of advertising that focuses on anything but the actual merits and qualities of the goods and services advertised shows that truth and persuasiveness are two entirely different qualities.
The fifth reason why the truth has a difficult time winning over public opinion is rather unfortunate and may be remedied in time. But many people are, to be polite, intellectually not prepared to understand it. Free-market economics and politics are not easy subjects for everybody to grasp. If a significant fraction of the population in economically advanced countries has trouble remembering basic historical facts or doing basic algebra, how hard must economic and political theory be for such people! I do not believe that any person is incapable of learning these ideas, or any ideas at all. But to teach them takes time that they personally are often unwilling to devote to the task. As economic and technological growth renders more leisure time available to more people, this might change, but for the time being the un-intellectual state of the majority of people is a tremendous obstacle to the spread of true ideas.
It is bad enough that many people are un-intellectual and thus unable to grasp true ideas without a great deal of effort they do not wish to expend. That problem can be remedied with enough material and cultural progress. The greater problem, and the sixth reason why the truth has difficulty taking hold, is that a sizable fraction of the population is also anti-intellectual. They not only cannot or try not to think and learn; they actively despise those who do. Anti-intellectualism is a product of pure envy and malice, much like bullying in the public schools. It led to the genocides of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union under Stalin, Communist China under Mao, and Communist Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. In Western schools today, it leads to many of the best and brightest students – who know more of the truth than virtually anyone else – being relentlessly teased, mocked, suppressed, ostracized, and even physically attacked by their jealous and lazy peers as well as by some egalitarian-minded teachers.
But enough about why most people are unreceptive to true ideas. Even those who are receptive have substantial problems that need to be overcome – and most often are not overcome – in order for the truth to win. The seventh reason why the truth rarely wins is that most of the people who do understand it are content to merely contemplate it instead of actively promoting it. They might think that they are powerless to affect the actual course of affairs, and their sole recourse is simply the satisfaction of knowing that they are right while the world keeps senselessly punishing itself – or the satisfaction that at least they are not an active or enthusiastic part of “the system” that leads to bad outcomes. This, I regret to say, is not enough. Knowing that one is right without doing anything about it leads to the field of ideas and actions being wholly open to and dominated by the people who are wrong and whose ideas have dangerous consequences.
Everyone who knows even a shred of the truth wants to be a theorist and expound grand systems about what is or is not right. I know that I certainly do. I also know that theoretical work and continual refinement of theories are essential to any thriving movement for cultural and intellectual change. But while theory is necessary, it is not sufficient. Someone needs to do the often monotonous, often frustrating, often exhausting grunt work of implementing the theories in whatever manner his or her abilities and societal position allow. The free-market movement needs government officials who are willing to engage in pro-liberty reforms. But it also needs ordinary citizens who are willing to write, speak, and attempt to reach out to other people in innovative ways that might just be effective at persuading someone. To promote the truth effectively, a tremendously high premium needs to put on the people who actually apply the true ideas, as opposed to simply contemplating them.
Read other articles in The Rational Argumentator’s Issue CLXXXVI.