Showing posts with label Rationality of voters. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rationality of voters. Show all posts

Monday, November 20, 2023

Do clinical delusions have anything in common with a mythology mindset?

 


In my discussion of Steven Pinker’s book, Rationality, I referred to his observation that people tend to have a reality mindset in the world of immediate experience and a mythology mindset when discussing issues in the public sphere. Although that is an accurate observation about a general tendency, delusions are also fairly common in the world of immediate experience.

The delusions that most of us experience are fairly harmless. For example, it may not do you much harm to believe that you are happier than average, even if you aren’t. That common delusion may help to explain why so many people walk around with smiles on their faces.

For some unfortunate people, however, the world of immediate experience includes delusional beliefs that are symptomatic of mental ill-health. These are referred to as clinical delusions.


The question I ask above has been prompted by my reading of Lisa Bortolotti’s recent book, Why Delusions Matter. Lisa Bortolotti is a philosopher who specializes in the philosophy of the cognitive sciences, including issues relating to mental illness. She observes that there is a strong overlap between clinical and non-clinical delusional beliefs. The non-clinical delusional beliefs that she discusses include beliefs that Pinker would associate with a mythology mindset.

A conversation context

Bortolotti notes that in any discussion between two people, you have a speaker and an interpreter swapping roles as the conversation proceeds. The speaker says something and the interpreter listens, making inferences about the speaker’s beliefs, desires, feelings, hopes and intentions on the basis of the speaker’s words, facial expression, tone of voice, previous behaviour and so on.

Interpretation becomes challenging when the interpreter suspects that the speaker may be delusional. The interpreter rarely has the information needed to assess that the speaker’s beliefs are false, so falsity cannot be a necessary condition for attribution of delusionality.

Three elements are often involved when the interpreter judges the speaker to be delusional:

  • Implausibility: The interpreter finds the speaker’s beliefs to be implausible.
  • Unshakeability: Speakers do not give up their beliefs in the face of counterarguments and counterevidence.
  • Identity: The beliefs seem important to the image that speakers have of themselves.

Clinical delusions

Bortolotti offers what she describes as an “agency-in-context” model to explain clinical delusions. She explains:

“The adoption and maintenance of delusional beliefs are due to many factors combining aspects of who you are and what your story is (your genes, reasoning biases, personality, lack of scientific literacy, etc.) and aspects of how epistemic practices operate in the society where you live.”

The epistemic practices she refers to include what we learn at school about knowledge acquisition, and the stigma that makes it difficult for people with delusional beliefs to participate fully in public life.

There is no doubt that persecutory delusions are harmful to the speaker and others. They undermine the ability of speakers to respond appropriately to events, and often erode their relationships with others.

However, Lisa Bortolotti suggests that it is important for interpreters to understand that most delusions offer some benefits for speakers. Delusions “let speakers see the world as they want the world to be; make speakers feel important and interesting; or give meaning to speakers’ lives, configuring exciting missions for them to accomplish”.

Interpreters also need to understand that the underlying problems of speakers don’t disappear when they obtain insight about their delusions. They may become depressed when they approach reality without the filter of their delusional beliefs.

There is not much to be gained by attempting to reason with people whose beliefs are unshakeable. Bortolotti suggests that it is probably more productive for the interpreter and speaker to share stories rather than exchanging reasons for beliefs. Exchanging stories can show how delusional beliefs emerged as reactions to situations that were difficult to manage. While sharing stories, interpreters have opportunities “to practice curiosity and empathy in finding out more” about underlying problems.

Conspiracy delusions

From an interpreter’s viewpoint, a speaker’s beliefs about the existence of conspiracies often have similar characteristics to clinical delusions. They are implausible, unshakeable, and closely tied to the speaker’s self-image.

Bortolotti emphasizes that those who hold conspiracy delusions often claim to have special knowledge of events – they claim to be experts, or to know who the real experts are. Identifying as a member of a group is often also important. Non-members often refer to members of such groups in a derogatory way e.g. QAnon supporters and anti-vaxxers. However, people are often attracted to conspiracy delusions promoted by like-minded people whom they trust. The act of sharing a delusional story can be a signal of commitment to a particular group.

Comments

Lisa Bortolotti’s book has improved my understanding of delusions in a couple of different ways. First, it has given me a better appreciation that delusions offer some benefits to the people who hold them, and those benefits help to explain the unshakeability of delusional beliefs.

Second, viewing delusions within the context of a conversation between a speaker and an interpreter is helpful in drawing attention to the value judgements involved in assessing whether the speaker’s beliefs are delusional.

My main criticism of the book is that the author seems to me to be biased in favour of “the official version” of events, even though she acknowledges that contrary beliefs are sometimes vindicated. The most obvious example bias is her apparent reluctance to give credence to the possibility that Covid19 may have originated in a lab in Wuhan.

I am pleased that my reading of the book did not leave me with the impression that the author believes that it is delusional to have an unshakeable belief in the importance of the search for truth. In emphasizing that value judgements are involved in assessing whether beliefs are delusional, Lisa Bortolotti seems to me to be providing readers with a better understanding of the meaning attached to the concept of delusion in clinical and non-clinical settings, rather than casting doubt on the existence of reality.


Saturday, September 30, 2023

What's wrong with people?

 


This question is posed in the title of Chapter 10 of Steven Pinker’s book, Rationality: What it is, Why it Seems Scarce, Why it Matters.


I enjoyed reading the previous 9 chapters but didn’t learn much from them. Those chapters were a painless way to refresh my memory about definitions of rationality, rules of logic, probability, Bayesian reasoning, rational choice, statistical decision theory, game theory, correlation, and regression analysis.

I particularly liked the approach Pinker took in discussing the research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky which documents many ways in which people are prone to fall short of normative benchmarks of rationality. Pinker makes the point:

When people’s judgments deviate from a normative model, as they so often do, we have a puzzle to solve. Sometimes the disparity reveals a genuine irrationality: the human brain cannot cope with the complexity of a problem, or it is saddled with a bug that cussedly drives it to the wrong answer time and again.

But in many cases there is a method to people’s madness.”

A prime example is loss aversion: “Our existence depends on a precarious bubble of improbabilities with pain and death just a misstep away”. In Freedom Progress and Human Flourishing, I argued similarly that loss aversion helped our ancestors to survive.

Pinker doesn’t seek to blame the propensity of humans to make logical and statistical fallacies for the prevalence of irrationality in the public sphere. He is not inclined to blame social media either, although he recognises its potential to accelerate the spread of florid fantasies.

The mythology mindset

Pinker argues that reasoning is largely tailored to winning arguments. People don’t like getting on to a train of reasoning if they don’t like where it takes them. That is less of a problem for small groups of people (families, research teams, businesses) who have a common interest in finding the truth than it is in the public sphere.

People tend to have a reality mindset when they are dealing with issues that affect their well-being directly – the world of their immediate experience – but are more inclined to adopt a mythology mindset when they are dealing with issues in the public sphere.

When economists discuss such matters, they may refer to the observation of Joseph Schumpeter that the typical citizen drops to a lower level of mental performance when discussion turns to politics. They reference the concept of rational ignorance attributed to Anthony Downs and Gordon Tulloch. They may also refer to Brian Caplan’s concept of rational irrationality. (For example, see Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, pp 114-115).

Pinker doesn’t refer to those economists’ perspectives but offers interesting insights about factors that might lead people to adopt mythology mindsets. In summary, as a consequence of myside bias, attitudes to the findings of scientific studies often have less to do with scientific literacy than with political affiliation. The opposing “sides” are sometimes akin to “religious sects, which are held together by faith in their moral superiority and contempt for opposing sects”. Within those sects the function of beliefs is to bind the group together and give it moral purpose.

What can we do?

Pinker’s suggestions for combatting irrationality in the public sphere are summed up by his subheading “Re-affirming Rationality”. He advocates openness to evidence, noting the findings of a survey suggesting that most internet users claim to be open to evidence. He suggests that we valorize the norm of rationality by “smiling or frowning on rational and irrational habits”.

Pinker identifies institutions that specialize in creating and sharing knowledge as playing a major role in influencing the beliefs that people hold. Since “no-one can know everything”, we all rely on academia, public and private research units, and the news media for a great deal of the knowledge which forms the basis of our beliefs. Unfortunately, these institutions are often not trustworthy.

In the case of the universities, Pinker suggests that the problem stems from “a suffocating left-wing monoculture, with its punishment of students and professors who question dogmas on gender, race, culture, genetics, colonialism, and sexual identity and orientation”. News and opinion sites have been “played by disingenuous politicians and contribute to post-truth miasmas”.

It is easy to agree with Pinker that it would be wonderful if universities and the news media could become paragons of viewpoint diversity and critical thinking. However, movement toward that goal will require large numbers of individuals to enlist for a ‘long march’ to re-establish norms of rationality in institutions that specialize in creating and sharing knowledge.                                                                    


Sunday, January 8, 2023

Does the "Politics of Being" support progress?

 


“Politics of Being” is title of a recently published book by Thomas Legrand. The subtitle is “Wisdom and science for a new development paradigm”. The question I ask myself is whether Legrand’s views support progress as I defined the concept in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing. Would widespread adoption of Legrand’s views enhance the growth of opportunities for individuals to obtain the basic goods of flourishing humans?

Before I purchased the book, I was aware that the author had shown wisdom by including this quote from Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Lecture:

“A core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.”

That passage is actually quoted several times in the book and is sometimes accompanied by the preceding sentence in which Ostrom distances her approach from that of policy analysts who design institutions “to force (or nudge) entirely self-interested individuals to achieve better outcomes”. The passage I have quoted at the top of this article illustrates Ostrom’s optimistic view of the capacity of individuals to work together to devise solutions to collective action problems without help from governments.

The essence of Legrand’s line of argument is that the world is stuck in an obsolete development path and is in need of a new “wisdom-based approach to politics”.  I will discuss briefly what he perceives to be wrong with the current development path, before discussing some elements of the alternative path he advocates.

Perception of the problem

Legrand believes that the current development path is causing many problems. The world is on track for a climate change catastrophe. Economic development and increased life expectancy are not making people much happier in high-income countries. Many countries seem to be facing mental health crises. There has been a decline in interpersonal trust in many countries. Our current model of development is rooted in a set of values that are causing a civilization crisis. He writes:

“Our economic system not only destroys social ties and the environment but feeds on these destructions that create new market opportunities. It seeks to adapt humans to its own requirements rather than adapting itself to human needs. Based on fundamental misconceptions, this system can only perpetuate itself through ever more propaganda that feeds our disconnection from ourselves, our true needs, and ultimately, our apathy.”

I agree that all is not well with the world and share some of Legrand’s concerns. However, I am more optimistic than he is about climate change, and strongly disagree with his views on economics. Readers who are interested in my views should read Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

Being and Interbeing

Legrand argues that the new development model required is essentially spiritual. He views spiritual development as:

“the process by which we come closer to our true nature. From that connection, we naturally tend to manifest the highest qualities: wisdom, love, joy, peace etc., or simply the best or most authentic version of ourselves currently available!”

Legrand’s discussion of spiritual values includes chapters on life, happiness, love, peace, mindfulness, and light.

According to Legrand the new paradigm involves a transition from “having to being, which many believe means interbeing”. So, what is interbeing?

 “Interbeing is a term coined by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, which goes beyond interconnectedness to touch on the very nature of our being. It expresses the nature of reality based on the Buddhist teachings of interdependent co-arising (“that is because this is”), non-self, and impermanence”.

I see no problem accepting that everything is interdependent. Impermanence does seem pervasive (except in respect of fundamental values, virtues, and the highest qualities). But “non-self” poses problems. As I see it, self-awareness is a fundamental characteristic of the kind of thing (entity or system) that an individual human is.  Self-respect arises from self-awareness, and motivates respect for other people, and other living things. Respect is the foundation which makes love possible. By the way, do you know who it was who said “one should not hurt others if one loves oneself”? The answer is here.

At various points in the book Legrand recognizes that people have “higher selves” and “true selves”, so he seems to acknowledge that we should aim to purify our egos – to remove the biases, distortions, and attachments that tarnish our perceptions of our individual selves - rather than eliminate self-awareness. He provides a good summary of his view of “being” and of personal development in this passage:

“As a person, there is little chance that I get closer to my authentic being by defining a vision of who I am and trying to actualize it. On the contrary, I can discover who I am by freeing myself from predefined and limiting identities, purifying my intentions, character, and behaviors, and expressing the deepest yearning of my soul. This is a conscious, evolutionary process of emergence, informed but not bounded by the understanding I have of my essence, which is necessarily limited. The same is true for nations.”

The world would be a better place if more people adopted that as their personal development model. However, I was tempted to leave off the last sentence of the quoted passage. The idea that nations have “souls” seems to me to be collectivist nonsense.

Governance

The part of the book providing an agenda for action envisages a larger role for government than I had anticipated. For example, Legrand suggests that government efforts to promote early childhood education should start during pregnancy. He also suggests that governments should actively promote a healthy diet. Even followers of Elinor Ostrom can sometimes find it difficult to remember to avoid adopting an overly pessimistic view of what people can achieve without government guidance.

I agree with Legrand that it is na├»ve for people to believe that “all it takes to improve our societies is to secure a majority of voters for their ideas, especially when they engender polarization”. Political leaders have no hope of implementing lasting reforms unless they can foster broad community support for them. That usually means avoiding politicization of the issues. (As an aside, one of the inconvenient truths about politics is that Al Gore’s involvement in support of U.S. action to mitigate climate change provided a focus for Republican opposition to such policies.)

The book contains interesting proposals to enact the “politics of being” in political institutions. Legrand suggests that each nation should establish a “wisdom council” to preside over discussions about the nation’s evolution with the government and parliament. The councils would consist of equal representations of four groups: randomly selected citizens, representatives of the “outer” economic, social, and environmental life of the nation, representatives of the “inner” spiritual, cultural, and psychological life of the nation, and “representatives of non-human members of the earth community”.

Legrand also suggests that the Baha’i model of governance should be adopted for lower houses of parliament. In brief, adult community members elect representatives at the local level and are urged not to discuss with others who to vote for. The local representative vote for regional representatives, who in turn vote for national representatives.

It is difficult to envisage circumstances in which politicians would enact such radical changes to existing systems of representative government. However, if the outcomes of the existing systems become increasingly unpalatable, radical alternatives will no doubt be contemplated by an increasing number of citizens. In that context, Legrand’s proposals will have stiff competition from other proposals, including the decentralist approach discussed previously on this blog.

The main problem I see with Legrand’s governance proposals is their potential to infringe individual liberty. Most of the members of the proposed governing council would be likely to advance the interests that they represent by advocating further restriction of individual liberty. The Baha’i model is presumably more responsive to community members than religious and political governance systems in which the hierarchy is self-perpetuating, but people who are indirectly elected to peak positions still have less incentive to have regard for the wishes of members at the grassroots level than if they were directly elected, or selected randomly.

Facilitating progress?

Legrand describes his book as “a drop in the ocean”. I think it may have potential to be more than that. The part of the book dealing with spiritual development has potential to be influential if it finds its way into the hands of sufficient numbers of people who are currently rudderless and yearning for inspiration.

I think contemplation of Legrand’s views on spiritual development has potential to enhance progress, viewed as the growth of opportunities for individuals to obtain the basic goods of flourishing humans. After reading the book, some people might be more inclined to wise and well-informed self-direction, healthy living, improved inter-personal relations, living in harmony with nature, and adoption of behaviors that enhance psychological well-being.

However, Legrand’s attack on “the current development path” invites further restrictions on economic freedom which would impact negatively on growth of productivity and hence on growth of opportunities for human flourishing. As outlined in the following paragraph in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I see declining rates of productivity growth as a major threat to growth of opportunities for human flourishing:

“This chapter has focused on the threats posed by climate change, declining productivity growth, and problems with democracy. I do not dismiss the longer-term threat posed by climate change, but in my view, there are stronger reasons for concern about the more immediate threat posed by declining productivity growth. Individuals, firms, and governments are taking action to mitigate climate change, and their efforts seems likely to accelerate before adaptation becomes excessively costly. There are fewer grounds for optimism that governments will deal with emerging economic problems (of their own making) in time to avert the widespread misery that is likely to follow from looming economic crises.”

As explained in my book, my optimism about action to mitigate climate change rests on signs that the polycentric approach, proposed by Elinor Ostrom in 2009, is now being adopted successfully.

I am not greatly troubled by the thought that some readers of Thomas Legrand’s book may be persuaded to adopt economic and political views that are inimical to productivity growth. There is an ocean full of views on public policy that are similar to those which he advocates, so I don’t think his additional drop will have a significant direct impact on policies adopted. Hopefully, his book’s endorsement of Elinor Ostrom’s approach will encourage some readers to explore her views in greater detail.

My bottom line: The net impact of “The Politics of Being” will be to support the growth of opportunities for human flourishing.


Monday, November 21, 2022

Does voting just encourage them?

 

A couple of weeks ago the thought struck me that it was about time I wrote something about the personal ethics of voting. That turned out to be more difficult than I had anticipated.

At first, I thought that I should argue that it is unethical to vote because politics is a dirty business. As a person who often espouses principles of libertarianism and decentralism (see the preceding post on this blog) I see voting as akin to online shopping with known fraudsters – you know that the package of goods they deliver will never be the same as the one you thought you were buying. You should avoid shopping with known fraudsters, and you should avoid voting because whoever you vote for a politician will be elected.

Then I thought of some problems with that analogy. What happens if you really need the goods that the politicians are advertising? Who will mend the potholes in your road if you don’t vote for a politician who promises to get it done? Perhaps you might tell me that you and your neighbours could organise a working bee and do it yourself. Good idea!

However, if you don’t vote, who will restrain government spending? I expect that the more cynical among you will respond that no-one will restrain government spending, irrespective of whether you vote, or who you vote for.


When my reasoning took me to that point, I couldn’t immediately think of an appropriate response. That was when I decided that to bring clarity to my mind I should read again the book, “Don’t Vote – It just encourages the bastards, by the late, great P J O’Rourke.  My discussion of the book provides only a small sample of the humor and wisdom in it. Despite having been written over 12 years ago, the book contains insightful comments about people who are still on the political stage in America, including Donald Trump. However, that is somewhat tangential to the focus of this article.

You might think that this book would make a strong case against voting, but the old saying about not judging a book by its cover does seems to apply in this instance. O’Rourke suggests that voting does have a purpose: “We vote to throw the bastards out”.  The problem, as I see it, is that when enough voters manage to persuade each other to vote to throw politicians out of office, that doesn’t establish a regime of peaceful human flourishing without any interfering politicians. Voters throw out one lot of politicians by voting another lot into office.

One of the funniest parts of the book is a listing of the personality characteristics of people who are drawn to politics. The first item on the list is “A pervasive pattern of grandiosity”. After listing 9 other characteristics, O’Rourke acknowledges that he has just quoted from the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder.

Nevertheless, O’Rourke acknowledges that “individual politicians are, after all, individuals like the rest of us and should be judged individually”:

“It would be wrong—very tempting, but wrong—to think of them all as simply bastards”.

He elaborates:

“I’ve spent some time with politicians. I like politicians. I’m friends with politicians from both sides of the aisle. Politicians are fine until they stick their noses into things they don’t understand, such as most things. Then politicians turn into rachet-jawed purveyors of monkey doodle and baked wind.”

Unfortunately, I must agree. The politicians I have met personally have all been likeable. When you meet them, they seem to be pleasant people (perhaps in the same way that the scammers who seek my friendship on Facebook often seem pleasant). A few politicians I have met even had their hearts and heads in the right places. The one who comes to mind most readily is Bert Kelly, an Australian politician whom I have written about previously.

Sometimes when I see a politician performing on TV, I wonder how a nice person like her, or him, ended up like that – I mean, like a bad actor saying things they don't believe. The fact that their future political careers are at stake is no consolation.

Is there something inherently evil about politics? O’Rourke writes:

“Maybe politics is inherently evil. Maybe politics is so evil that anything we do for it, even attempting to supply it with morality, just feeds the beast. I trust this isn’t true but I can’t say the thought doesn’t trouble me.”

That thought troubles me, too.

In his discussion of morality in politics, O’Rourke introduces (on page 88) the Venn diagram, reproduced at the top of this article. He drew the two circles to intersect, implying that there can be such a thing as moral political behavior.

It seems to me to be appropriate to maintain some optimism about democratic political processes. They don’t do much to protect our liberty and pursuit of happiness, but not many of us would freely choose to live under any of the available alternative forms of government. Many people claimed that democracy could not exist as a permanent form of government because it would not take long for citizens to learn that they could vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury. Indeed, that is largely what democratic politics has been about for as long as it has existed. Yet democracy survives! Perhaps democracy’s secret of success has been the existence of sufficient voters and politicians who have been willing to stop playing politics when crises have become imminent.

I often wish that I could be apolitical, but O’Rourke has persuaded me that is not practicable:

“The democratic political process is like the process of our children going through adolescence. There’s not much we can do to improve it and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We cannot, however, just declare ourselves to be apolitical any more than we can declare ourselves to be “aparental.” Here are the car keys, son. Dad’s stash is in the nightstand drawer. Why don’t you take my ATM card while you’re at it? See you when you’re thirty.”

It certainly appears that there is not much that we, as individuals, can do to change the outcomes of the political process. The chance that your vote will be decisive is miniscule. But people do talk about politics and influence one another about how they will cast their votes. Paradoxically, even those of us who would like to be apolitical can make a difference if we decide that we don’t like the direction that politics is taking and choose to vote.

Before concluding, I should offer a personal explanation about the relevance of the personal ethics of voting to me, as a person who lives in a country where voting is compulsory. It is possible to choose not to vote in Australia without displaying a great deal of courage. It is possible to attend a polling place, chat with your neighbours, eat a “democracy sausage”, exchange greetings with people offering “how to vote” literature, have your name ticked off on the voting roll, be handed voting papers, and still not cast a valid vote. In a secret ballot, no-one knows what you write on the voting papers before you put them into the ballot boxes.

Conclusion

When I began writing this article, I was not sure whether I would end up persuading myself to vote, or to have nothing to do with the political process. P J O’Rourke helped me to persuade myself that there is such a thing as moral political behavior.

Democratic politics is certainly a dirty business. It doesn’t do much to protect liberty or the pursuit of happiness, but most of us would choose to put up with democratic immorality rather than to live under any of the currently available alternative forms of governance. Paradoxically, the survival of democracies may be attributable to the willingness of sufficient numbers of voters and politicians to refrain from playing politics – to stop raiding the public treasury - when crises become imminent.

Although the chances of an individual vote being decisive are miniscule, individuals do influence one another in how they cast their votes. Individuals who don’t like the way politics is heading are more likely to improve outcomes if they choose to vote and encourage other like-minded people to do likewise, rather than choosing to refrain from having anything to do with the political process.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Is "scout mindset" a worthy objective of personal development?

 


If someone had mentioned “scout mindset” to me a week ago, I would probably have thought they were referring to mottos of the scouting movement such as “Be prepared!” and “Do a good turn every day!”. Since then, I have had the opportunity to read Julia Galef’s book, Scout Mindset, Why some people see things clearly and others don’t, which was published last year.


I think this is a remarkably good book - even though it has left me feeling somewhat more modest about the accuracy of some of my perceptions.

Scout mindset versus soldier mindset

Julia Galef defines scout mindset as ‘wanting your “map” – your perception of yourself and the world – to be as accurate as possible’. The scout aims to form a map of the strategic landscape. The scout mindset is characterized by accuracy motivated reasoning and guided by the question: Is it true?

By contrast, “soldier mindset” is aimed at fighting off threatening evidence. It is directionally motivated reasoning, evaluating ideas through the lenses of “Can I believe it?” and “Must I believe it?”

Galef suggests that soldier mindset is our default setting, and argues that in many, if not all situations we would be better off abandoning it and learning to adopt a scout mindset instead.

I am inclined to the view that intuitive thinking is our default setting, and that there are often good reasons to be reluctant to abandon intuitions and expectations that are based on patterns that have we have observed in the past. Nevertheless, it is probably fair to argue that most of us have a tendency to keep fighting conflicting evidence long after it should have persuaded us to change our minds. That is the soldier mindset. When we adopt a scout mindset, we begin to assimilate the evidence and re-assess our views sooner – perhaps by engaging in reasoning akin to Bayesian updating of probabilities.

Galef explains that there are several reasons why people tend to adopt a soldier mindset. It enables them to avoid unpleasant emotions by denial or by offering comforting narratives. It helps them to feel good about themselves by maintaining illusions. It helps them to motivate themselves by exaggerating their chances of success. It helps them to convince themselves so they can be more successful in convincing others. It enables them to choose beliefs that make them look good. It also helps them to belong to social groups of like-minded people.

The author suggests that scout mindset is more useful to us than for our ancestors. I have some reservations about that claim. Scout mindset would have been a useful attribute for our hunter and gatherer ancestors when they were searching for food. Nevertheless, she is persuasive in arguing that, by comparison with your ancestors, “your happiness isn’t nearly as dependent on your ability to accommodate yourself to whatever life, skills, and social groups you happened to be born into”.

In subsequent chapters, Galef proceeds to discuss how to develop self-awareness, thrive without illusions, change your mind, and develop a scout identity. In what follows, my focus is selective. Readers seeking a more comprehensive review should also read Jon Hersey’s article in Quillette, which persuaded me to read the book.

It seems to me that the strongest objection that people raise to having accurate perceptions of themselves is that self-delusion serves them well. The strongest objection to seeking accurate perceptions relating issues of public policy is that it is not worth attempting because the individual voter’s influence on policy outcomes is insignificant. I will look at those objections before discussing scout identity as an objective of personal development.

Does self-delusion serve us well?

A substantial amount of psychological research purports to show that people who deceive themselves are happier than realists. Galef points out that these research findings are based on measures of self-deception that lack any objective standards of reality as a basis for comparison. They use measures of self-deception that conflate positive beliefs with illusions. For example, the measurement methodology assumes that people who claim that they never get angry are deceiving themselves. Similarly, people who claim that they always know why they like things are assumed to be deceiving themselves.

It is not necessary for us to deceive ourselves about the probability of success before embarking on new ventures. Galef refers to Elon Musk as an example of an investor who has proceeded with ventures even though he has a clear-eyed view that they have a low probability of success. When asked why he has said:

“If something is important enough you should try. Even if the probable outcome is failure”.

A gamble can worth taking if the expected payoff (value of each outcome x probability of occurrence) is positive.

There can also be an issue of perspective involved in assessing probability of success. I find it helpful to think in terms of adopting a player mindset rather than a spectator mindset. On the basis of past performance, spectators might be justified in assessing that the player has low probability of success in a particular event. However, a coach who knows a great deal about the player’s capability might have good reasons to suggest to her that the spectators are under-rating her chances. Encouraging the player to adopt a mindset that makes use of her inside knowledge might induce her to take a more positive attitude toward training etc. My point is that adopting a player mindset is an exercise in realistic self-appraisal, rather than self-deception.

Julia Galef is not alone in being critical of empirical research which purports to show that holding positive illusions about oneself tends to promote happiness. As previously noted on this blog Neera Badhwar has also taken that position, and has argued strongly that realistic optimism about oneself and one’s future beats unrealistic optimism. Badhwar also notes that Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, leaders of the human potential movement, viewed realism as central to mental health and well-being. She notes that in Rogers' view the fully functioning individual is open to experience, distorting neither his perceptions of the world to fit his conception of himself, nor his conception of himself to fit his perceptions of the world. I find this particularly interesting in the light of Rogers’ use of Alfred Korzybski’s notion that “the map is not the territory”. Carl Rogers recognized that our maps do not serve us well if they are not realistic.

Why seek accurate maps of public policy issues?

Readers who are familiar with Chapter 6 of Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing will be aware of my concern that individual voters lack incentive to become well-informed about policy issues. Most voters are either apathetic about politics, or view it in the same way as they view sporting contests. They cheer for their team and jeer at their opponents.

Galef discusses Bryan Caplan’s concept of rational irrationality. In explaining what he means by rational irrationality Caplan suggests:

“In real world political settings, the price of ideological loyalty is close to zero. So we should expect people to ‘satiate’ their demand for political delusion, to believe whatever makes them feel best” (The Myth of the Rational Voter, p 18).

Galef rejects the view that voters are rationally irrational on the grounds that it implies that they are “already striking an optimal balance between scout and soldier”. She seems concerned that if she were to accept that rational irrationality is widespread, she would have to appeal to the desire of the readers of her book to be good citizens, and/ or to love truth, in urging them to adopt a scout mindset.

However, it seems to me that readers of this book who have any interest in politics are more likely to be Vulcans than Hooligans – to use the terminology of Jason Brennan (in Against Democracy, 2016). Vulcans try to avoid bias, while the Hooligans are the rabid sports fans of politics. The Hooligans are so wedded to soldier mentality that their beliefs are determined by the social groups that they identify with. The only hope of persuading these soldiers to modify political beliefs that are at variance with reality rests with the ability of scouts to persuade the generals (opinion leaders they respect) to modify their views.

Galef has little respect for those Vulcans whose reasoning resembles that of Spock in Star Trek, but has plenty of advice for people who really want to avoid bias in beliefs relating to policy issues. For example, she discusses the research of Phil Tetlock, which suggests that people who are willing to make subtle revisions of forecasts of global events in response to new information tend to make more accurate forecasts than academic experts.  

The author also has some interesting advice for people who want to reduce bias in their beliefs by exposing themselves to views outside of their echo chambers. Exposing partisans to the views of their political opponents tends to reinforce their existing views. She suggests:

“To give yourself the best chance of learning from disagreement, you should be listening to people who make it easier to be open to their arguments, not harder. People you like or respect, even if you don’t agree with them.”

Scout identity

Galef notes that identifying with a belief can wreck your ability to think clearly because you feel that you have to defend it, which motivates you to feel that you have to collect evidence in its favour. She suggests that activists are likely to be most successful if they hold their identity lightly enough to be capable of engaging with the views of opponents and making clear-eyed assessments of the best ways to achieve goals.

The author presents several arguments for seeking to adopt scout identity, but suggests that the most inspiring one is “the idea of being intellectually honorable: wanting the truth to win out, and putting that principle above your own ego”.

In reading The Scout Mindset, I was struck by parallels between the argument presented for adoption of scout mindset and the views of Robert Kegan on stages of mental development from a socialized mind, which enables people to be faithful followers and team players, to a self-authoring mind and self-transforming mind. Readers wishing to investigate further might find it helpful to read Immunity to Change, by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. (I discuss the book here.) 

Conclusions

In my view Julia Galef makes a strong case for people to seek to have realistic maps - perceptions of themselves and the world that are as accurate as possible.

The author successfully challenges research findings claiming that self-deception contributes to happiness of individuals, and she provides useful advice to those seeking to make their maps more accurate.

Galef offers particularly useful advice for people seeking better mapping of public policy issues. If you want to become less biased, listen carefully to the views of opponents you respect rather than seeking exposure to opponents you do not respect.

I agree with the author that the most important reason to seek to have realistic maps is because that is intellectually honorable. Scout mindset is a worthy objective of personal development.


Sunday, August 29, 2021

Do people have a right to choose where they will live?

 

                                        Vietnamese boat people arriving in Australia in 1976


In the Western liberal democracies there are few people who claim that individuals do not have the right to choose where they live. However, many people set limits on the extent to which they recognize that right. They only recognize that foreigners have the right to live in their neighborhood if they meet stringent immigration requirements.

Is that a reasonable view? If people readily accept that individuals should be free to choose where they will live within national borders, why are they reluctant to accept that individuals have a right to choose which country to live in?

If you view national borders as arbitrary lines on maps, it will seem absurd to you that immigration requirements should make it more difficult to re-locate across national borders than within a nation. International migration could normally be expected to be as beneficial as migration within national borders. For example, the potential benefits to both the employees and employers concerned when workers relocate to take up employment opportunities are not necessarily reduced when national borders are crossed. Similarly, the potential benefits to both the grandparents and grandchildren of living in the same locality are not necessarily reduced when national borders are crossed to enable that to happen.


I have been pondering such questions while reading Ilya Somin’s recent book, Free to Move: Foot voting, migration, and political freedom. Somin presents a powerful argument in favour of foot voting – choosing to move to a different country, city, condo etc. because you prefer its rules to the ones you currently live under. Foot voting enables individuals to make a choice that actually matters to them, whereas voting in an election offers individuals only a miniscule chance of affecting the outcome.

I didn’t need to read Somin’s book to be persuaded of the potential value of foot voting. It would be difficult for an economist engaged in public policy not to be aware of those benefits. I also had the benefit of considering the issues involved many years ago when I read Robert Nozick’s famous book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

However, it is one thing to accept the potential benefits of foot voting as an ideal, and quite another to advocate removal of current obstacles to foot voting posed by migration regulations.

Somin suggest that the sovereignty argument – the view that the right to bar migrants is intrinsic to the existence of an independent nation state – has little support among political theorists, although it often arises in public discourse. Somin mentions Donald Trump and his southern border wall proposal in this context, but John Howard, a former Australian prime minister, advanced the argument just as strongly in 2001:

 “National Security … is also about having an uncompromising view about the fundamental right of this country to protect its borders. It's about this nation saying to the world we are a generous open-hearted people, taking more refugees on a per capita basis than any nation except Canada, we have a proud record of welcoming people from 140 different nations. But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.

While national governments continue to exist, it would not be realistic to expect them to refrain from accepting responsibility for migration policy. However, that does not mean that it is beyond the realms of possibility for governments to adopt something more closely approaching an open borders policy. As Somin points out, sovereign nations existed for centuries without exercising a general power to bar peaceful migrants. Most governments made significant efforts to restrict entry only in the late 19th century.

The reason why the sovereignty argument seems persuasive to many people must be related to their perception that illegal or unauthorized migration has adverse consequences. They want immigration regulation enforced because they believe it serves a useful purpose.

Somin discusses in some detail various reasons that have been advanced for immigration restrictions. These include fear of terrorism and crime, possible reduction of wage levels, burdening of the welfare state, destruction of the environment, and the spread of harmful cultural values. He recognizes the validity of some objections to freedom of international migration, but suggests that “keyhole solutions” are available to meet negative side-effects of expanded migration. These keyhole solutions aim to target real problems, minimizing risks of adverse outcomes without imposing unnecessary restrictions on foot voting.

As in many other policy areas, carefully targeted regulation which minimizes adverse side-effects is clearly preferable to blanket bans and restrictions that are directed toward meeting political demands of anti-migrant nationalist groups. Somin recognizes that such groups are the main obstacle to international foot voting.

This brings me back to the sovereignty argument. It seems to me that anti-migrant nationalist groups had greater sway in Australian politics 20 years ago when significant numbers of people seeking refugee status were arriving by boat without prior approval. Under those circumstances it was relatively easy for the opponents of immigration to claim that “people smuggling” and “queue jumping” by refugees was likely to lead to huge social problems.

The government’s action to enforce regulation and discourage unauthorized arrivals seems to have enabled the public debate about immigration levels in Australia to become somewhat more civilized in recent years. It may also have reduced public disquiet about the relatively high migrant intake in recent years (prior to the Covid 19 pandemic).

The sovereignty argument is clearly opposed to recognition that people have a right to choose which country they will live in. Nevertheless, Australians seem generally to have become more relaxed in their attitudes toward high levels of immigration since the government stridently asserted sovereignty by taking effective action to discourage unauthorized arrivals.

Postscript

The last couple of paragraphs have attracted some comment in response to a Facebook post by Boris Karpa: https://www.facebook.com/548209107/posts/10159829476419108/

The issue is whether there is any evidence to back up my assertion that Australians seem generally to have become more relaxed in their attitudes toward high levels of immigration since more effective action was taken to discourage unauthorized arrivals.

Survey evidence certainly suggests that immigration has gone off the radar as a major political issue in Australia over the last decade (Scanlan Foundation, Mapping Social Cohesion, 2020, p24). 

The total number of migrants has increased, but there has been substantial opposition associated with the "somewhat more civilized debate" that I referred to. It now seems possible for people to argue for a lower migrant intake on grounds of pressure on infrastructure, impacts on unskilled wage, and house prices etc. without being accused of racism, or lack of sympathy for refugees.

The refugee intake has not risen much over the last decade. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be survey data on perceptions of whether the current refugee intake is too high or too low for long enough to assess whether attitudes have changed over the last decade. The Scanlan Foundation's report for 2019 suggests that in recent years opinion has been evenly balanced between those who say the intake is too small and those who say it is too large.

I think the Australian public would now be receptive to a larger refugee intake, provided people don’t arrive uninvited. However, that is just my personal view. I guess we will see whether or not I am right over the next year or so. 

Further comments are welcome.

 

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Do political partisans make credible assessments of the views of their opponents?

 


The charts shown above suggest that some of the assessments that political partisans make of the views of their opponents are wildly inaccurate. The probability that a Democrat will consider that men should be protected from false accusations of sexual assault is higher than Republicans believe it to be, and the probability of a Republican accepting that racism still exists is higher that Democrats believe it to be. The organization which published the data makes the point that Americans have much more similar views on many controversial issues than is commonly thought, especially among the most politically active. My focus here is on why partisans make such large errors in assessing the views of their opponents.

Probability assessment is not always easy.

Steven Pinker included “a sense of probability” in his list of 10 cognitive faculties and intuitions that have evolved to enable humans to keep in touch with aspects of reality (Blank Slate, 220). Individuals obtain obvious benefits from an ability to keep track of the relative frequency of events affecting their lives. A capacity to reason about the likelihood of different events helps them to advantage of favorable circumstances and to avoid harm.

Pinker points out that our perceptions of probability are prone to error, but Daniel Kahneman has a much more comprehensive discussion of this in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman points out that even people who have studied probability can be fooled into making errors in assessing probability when they are led to focus unduly on information that appears particularly pertinent and to ignore other relevant information. He gives the example of a cab involved in a hit and run accident in the city in which 85% of cabs are Green and 15% are blue. A witness identifies the cab responsible as Blue, and the court establishes that he would be able to identify colors correctly 80% of the time under circumstances that existed on the night of the accident. What is the probability that the cab is Blue? Most people say 80%, but the correct answer, provided by Bayes’ rule, is about half that (Loc 3005-3020). People tend to make a large error because they overlook the fact that a high proportion of Green cabs means that there is a good chance that the witness has mistakenly identified a Green cab to be Blue, even though his observations are accurate 80% of the time.

Kahneman notes that people are more likely to make errors in assessing probability when they “think fast” rather than analytically. However, it is not necessary to understand and apply Bayes’ rule to solve problems such as the one presented above. A simple arithmetic example can suffice. If there were 1,000 cabs in the city, there would be 850 Green cabs and 150 Blue cabs. If we had no more information, the probability of a Blue cab being responsible for the accident would be 15%. We are told the witness saw a Blue cab and would correctly identify 80% of the 150 Blue cabs as Blue (i.e. 120 cabs) and would mistakenly identify 20% of the 850 Green cabs as Blue (i.e. 170 cabs). The total number of cabs that he would identify as Blue is 290 (120+170). The probability that the witness has correctly identified a Blue cab is 0.414 (120/290) or 41.4%.

Kahneman also makes a point about causal stereotypes. He does this by altering the example to substitute information that Green cabs are responsible for 85% of the accidents, for the information that 85% of the cabs are Green. Other information is unchanged. The two versions of the problem are mathematically indistinguishable. If the only information we had was that Green cabs are responsible for 85% of accidents, we would assess the probability of a Blue cab being responsible at 15%. As before, if we evaluate the witness information correctly, it raises the probability of a Blue cab being responsible to 41.4%.

However, when people are presented with the second version, the answers they give tend to be much closer to the correct one. They apparently interpret the information that the Green drivers are responsible for 85% of the accidents to mean that the Green drivers are reckless. That causal stereotype is less readily disregarded in the face of witness evidence, so the two pieces of evidence pull in opposite directions.

Political partisans don’t have much incentive to make accurate assessments of the views of their opponents.

The potential for errors in fast thinking and the impact of cultural stereotypes may account for much of the error of partisans in assessing the views of their opponents, as shown in the above charts. People do not have a strong personal incentive to ensure that they accurately assess the views of their political opponents. Potential errors do not affect their income and lifestyle to the same extent as, say, errors in the probability assessments they make relating to personal occupational and investment choices.

In addition, political partisans may not even see any particular reason to be concerned that they may be misrepresenting the views of their opponents.

Reasoning along those lines seems to me to provide a straightforward explanation for the prevalence of partisan conspiracy theories. Research by Steven Smallpage et al (in an article entitled ‘The partisan contours of conspiracy theory beliefs’) suggests that partisans know which conspiracy theory is owned by which party, and that belief in partisan conspiracy theories is highly correlated to partisanship. The authors conclude:

“Many conspiracy theories function more like associative partisan attitudes than markers of an alienated psychology”.

Extreme partisans tend to promote theories that discredit their opponents. Perhaps that is the way we should expect partisans to play politics in a society where many people think it is ok to “bear false witness” because they believe everyone has “their own truths” and objective reality does not exist.

We do not have to speculate that partisans are deluded or crazy when they hold firmly to improbable theories about their opponents in the face of contrary evidence. They are more likely to be ignoring the evidence to demonstrate loyalty to their party and its leaders.  

However, that doesn’t offer us much solace. Some of the conspiracy theories currently circulating seem similar to the false rumors that governments circulate about their enemies during wartime. Extremists among political partisans may be circulating those rumors with the intention of promoting greater political polarization and a breakdown of the values that have hitherto made it possible for people with divergent views to coexist peacefully.

Is increasing polarization inevitable?

Much depends on the attitudes of the majority of people who currently disinclined to spread rumors that they believe to be false and likely to promote social conflict. If people with moderate views make known that they expect political leaders to disavow false rumors about their opponents, they can encourage that to happen. Leaders of the major parties have an incentive to try to attract voters with moderate views away from opposing parties. If leaders disavow false rumors, partisans will tend to echo their views.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Is Trumpism coming to Australia?

 


Over the last few decades, Australian politics seems to have become more like that of the United States. Politics in this country was once several degrees to the left of America, with the Labor party advocating socialism – and proposing extensive government ownership of business enterprises. However, in both countries the progressive side of politics is now focused on an environmental and affirmative action agenda, while the conservative side seeks to moderate those tendencies. Both sides seek to appeal, in different ways, to aspirations of people for higher material standards of living.

That was how it was before Trumpism came to America. Viewed from this side of the Pacific, American politics seems to have taken a bizarre twist. Given that Australians tend to follow social and political trends in America, does that mean we are also destined to experience Trumpism?

Before attempting to answer that question, it seems important to clarify the nature of Trumpism.

Trumpism

Salvatore Babones, an American sociologist now living in Australia, published a book a couple of years ago which sheds light on the nature of Trumpism. In his book, The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of ExpertsSalvatore argues that Trump is a populist rather than an authoritarian leader and that Americans have more to fear from the tyranny of experts. He suggests that twenty-first-century democracy is endangered by the tendency of the expert class to dismiss the moral right of less-educated people to have opinions that conflict with their own.

Salvatore makes the point that populism and authoritarianism are polar opposite strategies for political legitimation:

“Populists appeal to the innate common sense of ordinary people, while authoritarians appeal to tradition and the prestige of established institutions”.

Salvatore is not particularly flattering to former President Trump. He refers to Trump as a narcissist, in making the point that “you can’t be an authoritarian when the only authority you recognize is yourself”. He also refers to Trump as “a paranoid populist with a persecution complex”.

Salvatore claimed, “Trump will never be a hero to anyone but himself”. That assessment now seems to have been wide of the mark in the light of the extent of ongoing support for Trump, despite his unwillingness to accept the result of the 2020 presidential election. Trump now commands a sizeable support base of people who love him, view him as a source of truth and wisdom, and seek to please him. Trumpism seems to have developed into a personality cult, in some respects like Peronism.

It is important to remember that, like members of other cults, Trumpists are guided by moral impulses. They may be misguided, but most of them are good people.

The development of the Trump cult seems to be partly attributable to echo chambers in the social media (discussed here) but I think it is more strongly attributable to demonization of Trump within mainstream media. Trump attracted populist support by attacking the consensus wisdom of the expert class and disparaging anyone who disagreed with him. His opponents responded in kind by suggesting he is as an ignorant buffoon, bully, and admirer of tyrants. Trump’s strongest supporters have come to love him because they think he is unfairly maligned for expressing views they endorse.

The strength of the Trump cult is evident in its impact on the behavior of many conservative politicians. Until recently, American conservatives have had a well-deserved reputation of being principled supporters of the U.S. Constitution and the federal system of government. Nevertheless, many leading conservatives, who have hitherto been opponents of judicial activism, supported the unsuccessful efforts of Texas to have the Supreme Court overturn the presidential election results of Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin, on the grounds of procedural irregularities.

If those efforts had succeeded, the implications would have been far-reaching. John Yoo, an American legal scholar, has noted that “under Texas’s theory, any state could have sued any other in any presidential or federal midterm election over irregular procedures”. If the Supreme Court justices had been inclined to put political loyalties above legal principle, they would have undermined the federalism that is integral to the process of electing American presidents.

The strength of the Trump cult is also evident in the efforts of some conservative politicians in challenging the Electoral College votes when they were formally opened before a joint session of both housed of Congress on January 6. Those antics had no chance of succeeding. They only make sense in terms of pandering to Trump and his support base.

It is evident that Trump’s bizarre behavior following the election has opened up a deep rift within the Republican party between those who have regard to the Constitution and the conventions associated with orderly transfer of power following elections, and those who set no limit to the lengths they would go in pandering to the Trump cult. At the forefront of the first category is Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who supported Trump’s efforts to challenge the election results, but recognized Joe Biden as President-elect after the Electoral College confirmed that he had won the election. The latter category includes Senator Ted Cruz, who apparently still has presidential aspirations.

Looking ahead, an association with Trump and his support base is likely to be an ongoing electoral liability for the Republican party. Trump’s ability to get his supporters to cast a vote is more than offset by his apparent inability to avoid provoking other people to vote against him. Conservative politicians who oppose Trump will continue to be punished by the Trump cult.

The electoral future for the Republicans seems no more promising even if Trump leaves to form his own Patriots party. His electoral support is likely to be great enough to enable him to split the conservative vote and enable Democrats to win more contests.

Could a conservative populist wreak havoc in Australian politics?

I don’t think it would make sense to argue that Australians differ from Americans in fundamental ways that would make it impossible for something like Trumpism to happen here. I don’t have data on this, but it would not surprise me if the proportion of the population who think expert policy advisors ad career politicians have too much influence on government is as high in Australia as it is in America.

Over the years, a substantial number of Australian politicians have advanced their careers by thumbing their noses at the “ruling class” of politicians and expert policy advisors. It would not be beyond the realm of possibility for a person with such views to become prime minister of Australia. As I noted several years ago, former prime minister, John Howard was viewed as an outsider by the ruling class of policy advisors in Canberra. However, Howard was a career politician and could not be described as a populist.

The important point to note is that if a Trump-like populist was elected prime minister of Australia, she or he would not last more than a few months with popularity ratings as low as those of Donald Trump throughout most of his presidency. Australian prime ministers are elected by parliamentarians, and do not last long if they appear incapable of winning the next election. It is a desirable attribute of the conservative side of Australian politics that parliamentarians are able to change their leader as frequently as they wish, until they find one that voters think might be worthy of the role of prime minister for more than a few months.

Bottom line

Australia is fairly safe from Trumpism unless it becomes a republic, with an elected presidency like that in the United States. Recent events in the United States have convinced me that Australians would be wise to vote against any proposal to become a republic with an elected head of state.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Have we got the balance right between freedom and protecting the vulnerable?

 


It is appropriate to be thinking seriously about the question posed above during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The extent to which it is appropriate for personal freedom to be sacrificed to protect the vulnerable depends on context. The consequences of viewing either freedom or protecting the vulnerable to have priority depend on the prevalence of the virus in different communities and on the means available to protect vulnerable people who are unable to self-isolate. Personal values are also involved; the responses suggested by public health officials are not always in harmony with the values of ordinary people.

Some people see no trade-off between freedom and protecting the vulnerable. At one end of the spectrum, one group in that category considers that personal freedom always trumps all other considerations, irrespective of context. At the other end of the spectrum, a different group argues that eliminating the virus trumps all other considerations – they suggest that we cannot protect the vulnerable or enjoy much freedom unless we eliminate the virus.

My response to those who argue that personal freedom always trumps all other considerations is that they should consider Friedrich Hayek’s observation that the norms of just conduct that evolved to protect the private domains of individuals (life, liberty and property) tend to change somewhat depending on context. There may be good reasons for the private domains of individuals to be defined differently during the extraordinary circumstances of a war or famine. Similarly, behaviour that is appropriately held to be wholly in the private domain of individuals can become problematic during a pandemic. For example, it is appropriate for norms regarding physical distancing to have changed to reduce infection risks for vulnerable people.

My response to those who claim that elimination of the virus should trump all other considerations is to point to the futility of attempting to achieve that objective. Outbreaks have continued to occur even in isolated communities where there have been no known active cases for months (e.g. New Zealand). It is unlikely that the virus will ever be eliminated, even if an effective vaccine becomes widely available. An ongoing suppression strategy inevitably requires ongoing restrictions on personal freedom, so trade-offs are inevitable.

Different strategies for protecting the vulnerable have different implications for personal freedom, and hence different consequences for psychological health and livelihoods. The broad choice is between focused measures aimed at protecting members of vulnerable groups (e.g. people in nursing homes) and general measures aimed at reducing community transmission. Focused measures involve some restrictions on freedom (e.g. restricted conditions for visiting family members in nursing homes) but attempting to achieve similar protection via general measures to reduce community transmission involves much greater restrictions of freedom.

There seems to have been a general tendency to use a combination of focused and general measures in most parts of the world. That may make sense in communities where the number of active cases of infection is rising rapidly, but involves excessive restriction of freedom where the number of cases in low and relatively stable.

Back in March, I argued that a period of lock-down was warranted in Australia to buy time to help cope with an expected influx of hospital patients, and to put testing arrangements in place to enable infectious people to be quarantined. That was a common view at the time, and similar reasoning was used by federal and state governments to justify lock-downs. The lock-downs were introduced following large scale voluntary self-isolation and shut-downs of businesses whose customers were staying home.

However, the strategy had unintended consequences. The combination of self-isolation, shut-downs and lock-downs worked so well to suppress virus transmission that some state governments shifted the goal posts. They closed state borders in an apparent attempt to eliminate the virus within their states.

Subsequently, the government of Victoria responded to a second-wave virus outbreak by adopting an obsessive suppression strategy to reduce transmission rates. A severe lock-down was introduced, placing the residents of Melbourne in virtual home detention for several months.

There is little doubt that the Victorian lock-down reduced transmission rates to a greater extent than would otherwise have occurred, but the burden imposed on Victorians seems to have been excessive. A more focused approach could have protected the vulnerable with less loss of freedom to the rest of the Melbourne community.

Perhaps the severe approach adopted will enable Victorians to travel interstate sooner than would otherwise be possible. However, like people in New South Wales, they still have little chance of visiting Western Australia over the next few months, and would be wise to exercise extreme care in making plans to travel to Queensland.

The federal government’s provision of additional assistance to unemployed people and businesses reduced the human misery that would otherwise have accompanied the restrictions on personal freedom imposed by state governments. As noted earlier, those restrictions include closure of state borders, which has been detrimental to tourism. It seems unlikely that such stringent measures would have been introduced if the state governments had to fund associated additional welfare payments from their own coffers.

The objective of governments in Australia – federal and state - now seems to be to get to “COVID-Normal”. That involves ongoing restrictions on large gatherings, distancing rules, sign-in rules for pubs and restaurants, and constant hectoring by politicians and public health officials about the need for vigilance. There are plans to reduce some restrictions on interstate travel, and there is talk of allowing international travel to and from a few countries with similarly low infection rates. However, a return to normal international travel to and from Australia looks to be a long way away. 

Getting to COVID-Normal, means that Australians will be continuing to live in La La Land. For the next few months, we will congratulate ourselves about the amount of personal freedom that we enjoy relative to people in the United States and Europe, where infection rates are much higher. However, I doubt that there will be as much self-congratulation in 12 month time.

At some stage Australians will need to think seriously about how we can make the transition from COVID-Normal to living in the real world. What could be done to enable that to happen within the next 12 months?

There are grounds to hope that an effective vaccine will begin to become available within a few months, but under current government policies that seems unlikely to enable life to return to normal within a reasonable time frame. An effective vaccine could enable those most vulnerable to the virus to be protected early next year, and hence may offer potential for life to get back to normal without much delay. However, effective protection of the most vulnerable seems unlikely to be sufficient to persuade state government health departments to let go of their single-minded suppression strategies. Given the climate of fear state health officials have helped to generate, consideration of personal career interests (ass protection) will continue to make them more concerned about potential COVID-19 outbreaks than about other factors affecting the health and wellbeing of citizens. For similar reasons, State premiers can be expected to continue to hide behind the advice of public health officials, rather than to make balanced decisions to protect livelihoods as well as lives.

It seems to me that Australians should be giving serious consideration to the approach advocated in the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) of a group of infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists. The GBD advocates focused protection of those most vulnerable, whilst allowing the rest of the community to live their lives normally and to build up immunity through natural infection.

The GBD approach offers the best hope we have of life returning to normal in a reasonable time frame. If we do not get an effective vaccine or treatment, natural immunity offers the only hope that life can ever return to normal. If an effective vaccine or treatment becomes available over the next few months, that will remove most of the risks associated with the GBD approach. As I see it, there is no good reason why life in Australia should not return to normal very soon after vulnerable people have been offered the protection of a vaccine.