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The Religious Impulse, for Knowledge and Government

September 3, 2007

Humans thirst for knowledge. This impulse is rational in our daily practical life. The more you know about your immediate environment the more likely you are to make good decisions. We’ve become excellent knowledge-foragers, especially in the internet era. Yet Caplan’s recent book makes the case that in the realm of political opinions, especially economics ones, we have a strange propensity in believing falsehoods and in chasing chimeras. Just like religious dogmas, our political beliefs are often just a parody of knowledge. They make us feel as though “we know”. In fact, the appeal of conspiracy theories is their convoluted logic which often seemingly explains many puzzles at once.

What is knowledge anyways? Max Stirner famously warned against enslaving oneself to ideas. Does a rational Bayesian, a’ la OvercomingBias, “know” anything? Caplan advises people who don’t know economics to just admit their ignorance and remain neutral. So it seems that agnosticism is often better than knowledge. Likewise, government is the quintessential impersonification of knowledge. The sole act of taxation implies that certain human activities be made public in increasingly perverse detail. Government wants to know what’s going on: who are these illegal immigrants? who’s talking to whom? who’s paying whom and for what? Government also wants to tell you what you should know, so that no one will develop strange thoughts. Government doesn’t like surprises because it feels accountable. When something goes wrong people question their knowledge and government is their knowledge. If government knows, then things will be taken care of, or so we’d like to believe.

Laissez-faire economists on the other hand say that is often better if government closes its eyes, remains ignorant, restrains itself from intervening. This is very hard to sell to the voters: “if you elect me I’ll stay as ignorant as possible. In fact, I’ll reduce government, slash some departments, the eyes and ears of the state, etc, etc…” Such strategy is hopeless. I actually believe that a government that practices agnosticism and is aware of its harmful interventions would have a lot to do. Most of the effort would be directed at discovering its own harmful ways, its own biases. Here Robin Hanson is perfectly right: the main job of government should be to find out and correct its biases. An agnostic politician should invest most of his energies in barring the various branches of government from handing out favoritisms, in making sure its laws, that pretend to know what is right and what is wrong, are actually needed. Agnostic politics is not a cool slogan but it would be so cool.

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From → Government, Religion

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