Friday, October 12, 2012

Henderson on Friedman and the intellectual diversity of New York intellectuals

A very interesting discussion by Friedman here.

Warning: if you wander into the comment section you will see that some punk named Daniel Kuehn is raising quite a ruckus.

I was actually surprised by that. I thought my point was pretty non-controversial... until it turned out it was very controversial. I've given a few other examples from the other side of the aisle and a little background on the source of my skepticism, and hopefully that clears up the non-controversial nature of what I'm trying to say.

I'm not saying Friedman was making things up. I'm not saying New York intellectuals didn't have a pretty decided view of Goldwater. And I'm certainly not saying that there aren't ignorant assholes out there who manage to distinguish themselves. I just think you've got to remember that this is from Friedman's perspective - which is one perspective that has blindspots - and this didn't happen randomly and therefore probably says as much about Goldwater as it does about New York (after all... New Yorkers probably felt about the same way about Goldwater's supporters!).

When person A holds a view that person B considers nonsense and has a counter-argument to B that B considers poorly informed and worthless, certainly it could mean that A is just presenting straw men and has no exposure to people who think like B...

...but it could also:

1. Be a misconception on B's part because B is similarly devoted to his cause.
2. Be a better argument than B gives it credit for, but B is so poorly informed about why A thinks the way A does that he thinks A is poorly informed.
3. Be that B is right about A but the same is true of B and nobody is really a model of intellectual inquiry because we as a society just haven't chewed on it long enough.
4. Be that B is right about A but inappropriately makes inferences about people that have the same general views as A because he's so mad about the handful of A's that he encountered.

Or any number of other reasons.

And since there are lots of A's and B's in the world there's probably a little of all of this!

I have seen far too many complaints like this complaint of Friedman's for me to take any single assertion like this particularly seriously.

There is probably a grain of truth in what Friedman says. I don't know how big that grain is.

True or not, it is a good reminder to broaden your horizons and engage with people you disagree with.


  1. I reread Henderson's post to make sure I'm not being completely unfair here, and am struck by:

    1. The fact that I was initially and still am really interested in what Friedman has to say, and

    2. I really, really didn't (and don't) think this point is all that controversial! I'd level it against anyone that says things like Friedman is saying. This is like confirmation bias 101, guys, and you don't have to think Friedman was some kind of dishonest wacko to claim this (I don't think that).

  2. Well, Friedman's criticism wasn't that New York intellectuals rejected Goldwater's ideas (after all, most of the country also rejected them). It's that they had little to no familiarity with his ideas or the arguments in support of those ideas, because they had never been exposed to them. That's a big difference. I would venture to guess, for example, that most of the 1964 Columbia faculty were not Communists, but they were probably more familiar with the ideas and arguments for Communism than they were Goldwater's arguments and ideas.

    It's true that a lot of people make this sort of charge and they aren't always right. It may be that it's the person making the accusation that isn't familiar with the other side's ideas, or they may be so biased that they can't properly evaluate matters. But when it's Milton Friedman making the claim about the New York intelligentsia re Goldwater in 1964, these objections aren't plausible. The idea that Friedman just wasn't familiar with liberal ideas is laughable. And Friedman's reputation in debate and success in persuading to move towards his point of view would be hard to believe if he didn't have an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the other side's arguments. By contrast, New York City has a well-deserved reputation for being isolated from conservative people and ideas.

    1. You start off the comment with "well," which, in light of some of the comments at EconLib, makes me wonder if you're thinking I disagree. I don't. I agree with everything you say up to the end of "that's a big difference".

      I'm not sure if I agree with what follows or not...

    2. I'm not sure if I agree with what follows or not...

      Let's start with the easiest bit. Are you really not sure whether Milton Friedman was familiar with liberal ideas?

    3. Oh I meant the Goldwater/Communism bit.

      Yes, Friedman was certainly familiar with liberal ideas.

      You know... the way he talked about liberal ideas in some of his public outreach was pretty dumbed down. But I can't imagine that reflected his own grasp of claims.

    4. You know... the way he talked about liberal ideas in some of his public outreach was pretty dumbed down.

      Certainly. Such is the nature of the popular debate.

      Re: Goldwater vs. Communism, I recall some Saul Bellow quote about how to be a New York intellectual back then one either had to master the finer points of Marxist dialectic or spend several hours a week in psychoanalysis.

  3. Another point. As Jonathan Haidt and others have documented, conservatives tend to be better at understanding the liberal point of view than liberals are at getting where conservatives are coming from. So all else equal, we ought to be more inclined to accept this kind of statement coming from a conservative about liberals than visa versa.

    1. I have not really jumped into Haidt's world yet. Haven't read much of anything he's written.

      I find that to be a weird claim. Lot's of people have been bitten in the ass by saying things like that, and it seems like it would be very sensitive to how you're defining things and how you're measuring "getting at where people are coming from".

      I remember a paper by Tim Groseclose in the QJE that tried to do this sort of thing with news organizations, think tanks, and Congressional statements. In their ranking they considered the Urban Institute to be just as extreme as PETA, and both Cato and AEI were closer to getting a non-extreme score than the Urban Institute, which makes the whole exercise extremely dubious in my mind.

      I am guessing Haidt uses similar methods (he has to, right?) and is probably no more convincing unless you come into it wanting him to be convincing.

      I'm very happy to hear more, of course. But I have doubts these people are nailing these things down as successfully as they'd like to think. The fact that it comes out with such an implausible conclusion makes it even more suspect in my mind.

    2. Haidt's ideas are based on surveys of individuals rather than trying to classify organizations or anything like that. If you go here you can take some of the surveys yourself.

      Haidt's theory is that people rely on what he calls "moral foundations" when making arguments (Haidt lists roughly six foundations, though the number and definition has changed slightly over time). Self-described conservatives tend to rely on all the different foundations about equally, whereas self-described liberals rely more exclusively on two (fairness and harm-minimization). So when a liberal makes an argument based on harm, a conservative has an easier time understanding it because he also relies on that foundation, whereas when a conservative makes an argument based on one of the foundations that liberals don't much value, it's harder for them to grok.

      Haidt's book is quite good. I would recommend it if and when you have the time.

    3. Hmmm...

      I'm having trouble with this idea that because you hold something to be a foundation you have trouble understanding other foundations. I'm relatively consequentialist myself (I know this isn't a category that Haidt refers to... it's just the tiny corner of ethics I can grasp on to). Maybe I can't see myself being a deontologist in the near future, but I I can't see how that would make me be unable to grasp deontological arguments or unable to understand particular principles that deontological ethics uses.

      Likewise I'm sure others can process the idea of a cost-benefit analysis.

      These seem like different issues to me.

      If anything two people that share a basis in "fairness" but have a different understanding of what is "fair" are going to be less able to understand each other than someone that comes at the question with no personal attachment to "fairness" at all.

      I can understand why people who believe in a flat tax think its "fair" and why people who believe in a progressive tax think that's "fair", but you'd have a hard time convincing me that they more fundamentally get each others' perspective than I get each of their perspective.

      In fact from a "fairness"-based flat taxers perspective I would imagine the progressive taxer looks like someone that hasn't thought very deeply about what fairness in taxation is, and vice versa.

  4. Not relying on a particular moral foundation doesn't make it impossible to understand arguments based on that foundation. It just makes it harder.

    If you want a good intro to the theory, you might try Haidt's TED talk, perhaps supplemented by taking one of his online surveys.

    Also, my understanding is that one of the refinements Haidt has made to the original system is that he split fairness into two different foundations (one based on merit, one on equality). So you may be on to something with your particular example.

  5. 1. It is doubtful that Friedman was exposed to a statistically valid sample of intellectuals in New York.

    2. Daniel said: "True or not, it is a good reminder to broaden your horizons and engage with people you disagree with."

    No. Life is short. There are no end of whack jobs out there with elaborate theories that are the intellectual equivalent of perpetual motion machines (for example, the whole Libertarian movement or the Romney Ryan tax plan). You do not have to listen to any of them past the point where they expose themselves as lunatics (for example, by self identifying as a Libertarian or a supporter of the Tea Party). You have no obligation to listen to such people anymore than you have an obligation to listen to a religious missionary going door to door. In Friedman's case, once he had said he was associated with the Goldwater campaign the intellectuals were justified in walking away from him - it was the optimal use of their time.

    If you summarily filter out the whack jobs, that will leave you more time to engage with those who actually have something interesting to say.


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