Borrowed opinions

We usually think it a sign of intellectual laziness for a man to passively absorb his beliefs from his comrades.  Even when someone has proved a reliable guide on one subject, that doesn’t mean we should blindly trust him on others.  But then there’s the dilemma that I’ve brought up often before:  democracy asks us to have an opinion on every issue, and very few of us have the time or intelligence to think through each issue independently.  We prefer to think through a few issues that we care most about, choose our political allegiances accordingly, and then remain agnostic on questions where we have not earned the right to opine.

Even this proves difficult to do.  When one chooses a political team, this usually affects what periodicals one reads and which writers one thinks trustworthy.  It affects what arguments you are more often exposed to.  So, for example, a man may become a conservative over abortion and not care a bit about gun rights.  But once he starts reading, or trusting, conservative journals more than liberal ones, he’s going to see more anti-gun control arguments than pro-gun control arguments.  His beliefs on the issue will drift, especially if he doesn’t give this issue much conscious thought.

Back when I was more-or-less a neoconservative, I read lots of smart neocon publications–or at least they seemed smart to me at the time.  I kept running across pro-free trade articles, and I more-or-less assumed that free trade was the intelligent position to take.  Then I broke with the neocons over philosophical issues that had nothing to do with foreign trade.  I kept reading their journals for a while, but eventually it got too frustrating, because they kept missing (what I now take to be) the point.  I still check them out occassionally, but only in the same way that I’ll check out a liberal author (usually through Arts and Letters Daily)–as someone who might have something interesting to say, but who has alien commitments and should not be trusted.  Now that the paleos were my team, I started seeing more protectionist arguments, and now I lean protectionist.

Now, I have some defense for this.  A big difference between the neos and the paleos is the latter’s commitment to the integrity of regional communities.  A degree of economic independence can easily seem to be part of that.  So my molding extraneous beliefs to fit my new “team” had some justification.  Still, it kind of bothers me.

3 Responses

  1. We live… we learn… we are human. I don’t think you need to be defensive about it: such a switch is the sign of a mind open to a better position. This is a rare trait, especially among intellectuals. If we aren’t committed to the truth, what is the point?

    There are a number of positions I held in 2007 when I started blogging that I no longer hold. I think of it more as “intellectual growth” than as “borrowed opinions.” I say, good for you!

  2. I’m not sure it makes sense to “lean protectionist” in a general sense. There are very sound arguments for free trade on the grounds of both economic efficiency and liberty, and free trade is the sensible “default” position. Protectionism should only be supported in particular cases for particular reasons, whether the integrity of regional communities, strategic considerations, limiting the power of particular domestic blocs, or whatever.

    In my move from libertarianism to reaction, I found that the arguments I used to make are not so much erroneous as irrelevant. I am not thinking and writing about the same things that I was ten years ago.

    To take an example, protectionism “in particular cases for particular reasons” is a recipe for massive corruption if the decisions are going to be made democratically. But a powerful monarch takes all that public choice theory which excited me so much as a libertarian off the table: it’s not wrong, it’s just not relevant.

  3. Social scientists sometimes call these intellectual enclaves “plausibility structures.” This is an abstract way of describing the books you read, the organizations in which you participate, the people you associate with. This structure will determine the plausibility of any proposition you may encounter because it will determine the data, arguments, and attitudes against which that proposition is tested. In other words, it determines your Burkean “prejudices.”

    Some people affect to have transcended all plausibility structures, to be “free thinkers.” When they are not just ordinary liberals, they are (in my experience) people with deeply incoherent beliefs. They remind me of those pseudo-chefs whose culinary “creations” are just weird messes of miscellaneous ingredients. The point is not to transcend plausibility structures (a.k.a. tradition), but to pick a good one. A man cannot will a belief, but he can will himself into a plausibility structure within which that belief will very likely sprout.

    Plausibility structures are not always altogether coherent, but those that have been around for a long time usually are. “Contradictions” (in the Marxian sense) lead to instability, change, and disappearance. So I would say, the older the tradition, the more confidence you can have in the integrity of its beliefs.

    With respect to the specific example, Bonald: you are more justified in trusting the opinions of paleocons than you were in trusting the opinions of the neocons.

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