The comfort of a worldview

This is the 18th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

The other day I was at a party with some highly intelligent people with strong views on the world. We talked about politics, economics, movies, and, as you’d expect from Indian men, cricket. Among the subjects that stirred up heated arguments were global warming, farmer suicides and the existence of God.

You might think that of all these worthy subjects, debating the existence of God is pointless. It is a matter of faith, and lies beyond reason. I agree. But I’d point out that for all practical purposes, the other subjects we argued about aren’t too different.

Everyone present there had strong views on global warming, but none of them completely understood the science behind it, or could explain the difference between a climate model and a ramp model. All of them vociferously offered conflicting solutions for our agricultural crisis, but their belief was rooted in intentions, without a historical perspective of what had actually gone wrong, and how markets and prices work. As the hours slipped by and the pegs piled up, we conducted opinionated drawing-room discussions on complex subjects whose intricacies none of us had mastered.

Now, this is not a condemnation. The world is terribly complicated, and it isn’t rational for each of us to try and master every subject around us. If that was a prerequisite to having opinions, we wouldn’t have any, and would wander around baffled by everything. It is natural and sensible for us to seek cognitive shortcuts to understanding the world. Such shortcuts often result in neat little packages known as worldviews.

Worldviews make us feel that we have it all figured out, with little room for doubt. A worldview could be a religion—the devout often find an answer to everything in God. Or it could be an ideology that claims to have answers to all the ills that plague our world. Worldviews are deliciously comforting—in his book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan nails it by referring to them as “a mental security blanket.”

While worldviews bring comfort, they also lead to intellectual laziness. Lured by the certitudes of received wisdom, we often stop examining difficult questions, satisfied that we know it all. This can be dangerous if our worldview is fundamentally flawed, especially if it is widely shared, and can actually impact the lives of millions of people.

Take socialism. It is dreadfully beguiling, and I must confess that when I was in college many eons ago, I thought Karl was a cooler Marx than Groucho. Firstly, socialism makes you feel good about yourself, for the compassion that fills your heart. Secondly, it has—and therefore you have—an answer for everything—usually government intervention. Thirdly, since your coolest peers—and the hottest girls on campus—are likely to be Leftist, it helps you fit in, and gives you a sense of purpose. It is an enduring fashion.

Now, socialism—which I use here as a shorthand for Leftist thinking—runs counter to one of the basic truths of economics, one that is dreadfully unituitive: that central planning cannot distribute resources and build prosperity remotely as well as spontaneous order can.

The invisible hand of markets working together to satisfy people’s needs is hard to visualise, and easy to distrust. It is easier, as we so often do in India, to invoke the power of government much as devout people take the name of God. To every problem, we cite government as a solution, even though government intervention and regulation, when they subvert free markets, are usually the problem to begin with.

There is historical evidence of this: the degree of development in a country, and the efficacy with which it eliminates poverty, is almost directly proportional to the extent of economic freedom it has allowed its people. A look at the two Germanys before the Berlin Wall was broken or the two Koreas should illustrate this. Hell, India should illustrate this, hobbled for decades by policies with wonderful intent and disastrous outcomes.

It isn’t just the socialist Left that has a dangerous worldview: the beliefs of the religious Right are quite as pernicious. It views everything through the prism of identity, and boasts of an intolerance at odds with the cultural traditions of the religion it claims to represent. It is an anachronism in a modern India, and a threat to our diversity and progress.

I am not saying that worldviews are a bad thing—as regular readers of this column would have noticed, I have one as well. Socialists and Hindutva boys would no doubt find my belief in individual freedom to be quite as dangerous as anything they get up to. But being aware of these trends in our thinking can help us be more open to new ideas, and to examining our holy cows. It is always better to pause for thought than to stop thinking. No?

An earlier piece on a similar theme: “Reason vs Rationalisation.”