Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Real vs. Superficial Arrogance

You wouldn't even believe what Google images returns
when searching for "Cocky"!
This is a post I've been thinking about and wanting to write for a very long time... Probably years, actually... But for whatever reason, I've been in some conversations over the last few weeks in which it's come up and I think it's finally time to really pull the trigger.

The topic for today is the very substantial difference between what I believe is real arrogance, and what is the cosmetic bravado many people define as arrogance, and mistakenly believe is a problem.

Let's start with definitions...
offensive display of superiority or self-importance; overbearing pride.
Ok. So, this is pretty much exactly what I'd define as superficial arrogance. It's an arrogance of appearance. I'm definitely guilty of this appearance - particularly when it comes to my online presence. See: Title of this blog.

Now, some of it, in the case of the blog (and my twitter handle, etc.) is more for the purpose of snark than anything else and I hope most people who know me or who have interacted with me in a sane manner have understood that I don't take myself overly seriously. I also am pretty scrupulous about admitting when I've made mistakes and am wrong, mostly because I really do like being right. If you're wrong, clinging to that position for the sake of your ego doesn't really get you anywhere, and can often be wildly counterproductive.

But we've all known people who are over-confident, overbearingly prideful, and who believe they are better than everybody else. They're obnoxious, they get laid a lot more than they should, and in business, they're the kinds of guys who can drag a company down with stupid decisions that they won't back down from. In arguments, they're usually just blowhards and eventually you have to ignore them.

I hope not to be one of those people at all. If I ever have been, it has been a mistake, and I do apologize for it.

But as annoying as that superficial arrogance can be, on the grand scheme of things, it's really not that harmful, and it's just not that big of a deal intellectually. It's just a guy who's wrong, and who's emotionally attached to being wrong. People like that can, and often eventually will, change. Or they won't... And they'll keep going to bars and picking up drunk girls. Either way... That's fine.

What concerns me is what I call "intellectual" or "epistemological" arrogance. This calls for another definition for those not familiar with the deeper depths of philosophy...
a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.
When someone is epistemologically arrogant, at least in my view, they are overly certain of conclusions they've drawn about the nature of reality and the premises from which they've built arguments. They are also overly confident about the ability of human beings - either as individuals or even in groups - to know enough about the world to plan out the future.

The epistemologically arrogant are those who believe that the economy is a machine with levers, like fiscal & monetary policy, to "pull" whenever we want it to improve (no mention of which levers were pulled to make it go bad, of course). The epistemologically arrogant are those who believe that we can, or should, dictate who gets to interact with whom and on what basis. The epistemologically arrogant are those who believe that they can predict the climate, global ice flows or animal populations 100 years into the future.

These are just a few examples...

It is also epistemologically arrogant to assume that individual human beings are capable of being perfectly objective or perfectly "rational".

The highly punchable face of astounding
epistemological arrogance.
This line of reasoning underlies virtually all of the calls for more, bigger and more powerful government. Ironically, I've found that Keynesians & "Progressives" in particular often mistakenly believe that free markets require "perfect knowledge" and "perfect competition" when they absolutely do not (indeed, imperfect & dispersed knowledge is the primary reason that free markets work best), and yet those same fans of a powerful state fail to understand that perfection in human understanding is the hidden false premise sabotaging all of their wonderful utopian schemes.

For a government to be able to effectively plan an economy (or any other aspect of human society, such as the culture, artistic zeitgeist or even a language), the people operating that government must not only have up-to-the-second information about all of a thousand variables regarding individual preferences, available supplies of raw, capital & final goods, as well as the whereabouts, current deployment & skill-set of the whole labor force under their command; they must also be perfectly, unerringly rational, not to mention perfectly "good" and wise.

But no one person or even 100 people - no matter how smart and informed they may appear to be - has an almost infinitesimal fraction of the requisite knowledge... and no one is that "good", or wise. Period.

This is just the base logic of the economic calculation problem, and it doesn't even touch on the practical (and highly disturbing) reality that if you were to hand over the level of control over an economy that full-on central planning requires, in order to get it "to work", you'd literally need to treat individual human beings as fooseball men on a stick. They must go where you tell them to go, do what you tell them to do, act how you want them to act.

Humans in that situation are parts of a machine you're trying to build, and if they don't operate "the right way" (i.e. your way), the whole "machine" doesn't work. In short, you need totalitarianism. Anything short of that and you just have a broken machine.

The epistemologically arrogant types wind up making claims like, "My new jobs policy will save or create 2 million jobs", or to be politically "fair", they might claim that a $300 Tricky-Dick Funbill"rebate" check will get it going again. These types fail to understand the basic lessons of trade offs and opportunity costs and the role incentives play out in an economy... not to mention the reality that individual people all have different values and cannot be lumped into broad macroeconomic aggregates.

Of course, here I am mostly speaking about economics, but this is true in other areas as well - epistemological arrogance also underlies arguments people sometimes make for the power of people like scientists and other authoritative "experts" to have all the answers. Most scientists I've met and know personally are pretty good about being epistemologically humble - but reporters certainly aren't, and neither is Al Gore, so no matter what caveat a scientist puts on his work, it will often be interpreted to being the word of (no?) God.

In any case, I can no more plan an entire economy than I can effectively dictate even what you should want to have for lunch... That much should be obvious by now...

But I should also not assume that I can know everything about myself.

We all make cognitive errors, and we are all - from time to time - blinded to our own little intellectual black-outs. It's very difficult, if not impossible, to know when and why we're making mistakes in judgment or reasoning.

Now, let's be clear. Contra the absurd statists of the world, just because individuals err, and because human beings aren't perfect or even great at reasoning from time to time does not mean that someone else can do it better on their behalf.

The point here is that there is a massive difference between being a cocky jerk, and holding a core of philosophical ideas that assume knowledge to which no human has realistic access.

Here's the real kicker... A cocky jerk can also exhibit epistemological humility, and one of the most philosophically and truly arrogant people on the planet might come off as a genuine, caring, and wonderful person.

So I guess if anything, my point in writing this is to suggest that anyone who is bothered by arrogant people should take a step back and ask themselves if it is just the superficial arrogance of a type A frat boy, or it's the true (and extremely dangerous) arrogance of an overly-confident intellectual or public official imbued with the power to influence the way people act by force?

The trick is that sometimes the most humble people by outward appearances hold the most epistemologically arrogant views. This is where things get difficult. Most people pay far more attention to style, and almost no attention to substance - it's easy enough to understand why, but it's entirely unreliable.

So... Quit paying so much attention to the style of someone's delivery, or how nice they appear to be. Pay attention to the ideas, and to hell with how they're delivered!

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