You should assume you're wrong sometimes

A thought experiment, an assortment of links, and a rambling defense of incrementalism

Imagine you are a monarch

Congratulations, you rule a kingdom!

You have total power and control, with no way to challenge you. Any policy you decide to implement automatically becomes the law of the land. I know you have the best intentions and desire the best outcomes for your citizenry. There’s just one caveat:

Your opinion is wrong half the time.

Consider for a second how that might change how you go about leading your kingdom.

How would you change the way your government functions? Would it alter the types of people you surround yourself with? Your willingness to listen to others’ opinions? What would you do to make sure that you do the most good to your people and avoid leading them into disaster?

We’re way too confident in our opinions

We live in a world with a lot of clashing opinions. The rise of social media and the loss of the “third place” in our communal lives have made us more isolated than ever. And with that isolation has come an increase in our willingness to see each other as the sum of their labels, and a decrease in interpersonal trust.

The product of these trends is that we trust others’ opinions far less and instead lean increasingly on our own subjective understanding of the world.

In short, we’re more confident in our opinions than ever.

But this is not a good trend.

We like to think that we form our opinions based on the evidence and the data, but that really couldn’t be further from the truth. Research suggests that opinions are not solely based on scientific facts, but are often based on external influences and emotional responses.

What’s worse is that the more emotion-based an opinion or attitude is, the harder it is to change. In some cases, attempts to change these opinions even galvanize us, making us believe our incorrect views even more devoutly.

You and I want the best for the world, right? We can agree on that much. But what do we do when we disagree, and hashing our differences out with data & evidence doesn’t move the needle one way or the other?

The boring answer

We need incrementalism. It’s really that simple.

We’re flying blind in this world of ours. And all of the clashing opinions, the discordant takes, it’s all just noise. We are fundamentally unable to navigate ourselves forward by sight or sound.

Do blind people navigate on foot by choosing a direction that sounds safe, throwing up a prayer, and sprinting headfirst toward the noise?

Absolutely not. So why should we?

In the 1932 Supreme Court Case New State Ice Co. vs Liebman, Justice Louis Brandeis wrote that “a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

It seems that this principle is out of fashion these days, and we need to revive it.

When some scream for us to impose certain massive taxes, to rapidly defund certain institutions, to fund police/the military/Ukraine/Israel drastically more or less than current levels, or to make any other massive changes to public policy, we need to exercise patience.

Any of these opinions may be the strategic and/or moral right move. But any of these opinions may be disastrously incorrect.

Rather than demand rapid institutional change, we need to pursue and appreciate the small wins. This is the lost art of politics that has (in combination with our founding documents and quite a bit of luck) made America the superpower it is today.

This is the mentality that allowed our founders to compromise and agree on a Constitution in the first place; that over the course of a century saw us eventually free Black Americans from the bonds of slavery and finally give them the same legal rights as white Americans. This is the same mentality that eventually gave women the right to vote, that decriminalized loving people of the same sex, and that will continue to set the stage for future gains in liberty and prosperity for all of us.

With each step forward, we are given an opportunity to wait, to observe the change, and to bring more people on board. We can then reorient ourselves, make small but significant changes, and then take the next step.

We may not change he world overnight, in the event we’re wrong, maybe that’s a good thing.

Some other resources:

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