The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Friedrich Hayek vs. Ace of Spades

Posted on | November 30, 2011 | 44 Comments

“Yeah, I know political journalists aren’t supposed to believe in ‘omens.’ Still, there’s something vaguely . . . hinky about the way Perry’s stealth campaign has been operating here in Iowa.
“Call me crazy. Attribute my forebodings of doom to irrational prejudice. Say what you will, and I don’t care, but I felt a need to put on the record my instinctive sense that there’s something fundamentally wrong about the Perry campaign. And if Jan. 20, 2013, brings the joyous inauguration of President Perry, then you can say my fears were mistaken. Yet I can’t shake my gut hunch that it won’t work out that way. Some kind of catastrophe will result, one way or another.”

Robert Stacy McCain, Aug. 9, 2011

OK, Smitty’s been doing the philosophical thing with his series about “Explaining Postmodernism,” while I’ve been trying to do news, news, news, and I’m in a mood to stretch my intellectual legs a few minutes.

Last night I nudged Ace a little bit, and today Jeff Goldstein gave Ace an intellectual body-check, and then today — riffing on a Dennis Miller rant — Ace came back with a long argument that included this:

[P]eople don’t get invested, as far as emotional and [egotistical] investment, in facts and data.
What they get emotionally and egotistically invested in is probabilities and guesses based upon underlying worldview.
It’s this — the gut, the “psychic vibe,” the horse-sense, the common-sense, the cunning, the read on people, the ability to predict the future based on incomplete information — that people really get personally invested in.
It really makes no sense. Everyone knows there is no such thing as psychic vibes, everyone knows the “gut” is a decent instinctual device but hardly something you’d want to start betting big money on, and everyone knows that predicting the future is a job for charlatans and fools, but when we start making predictions — “Sarah Palin can’t win!”; “No, Sarah Palin will dominate! — all of a sudden we start speaking with a level of assuredness and confidence and emotional investment that we are too smart to apply to virtually any other situation.
And this keeps happening. No matter what the topic, the less that is known about a situation, the less intellectually confident we can each be about our tentative conclusions, the more emotionally confident we will become.

Well, you can read the whole thing, but here’s my counterpoint: We know what we know and we reason outward on the basis of known facts — accumulated through education, observation and experience — to speculate on the probable nature of the unknown.

What Ace calls “gut” is therefore not always pure instinct or mere arrogant assertion of personal, subjective opinion.

There is such a thing as an informed guess. If someone is a professional pilot, and he sees a TV news report about an airline crash, what he guesses about the likely cause of the crash is not merely “gut.” Likewise, if a veteran police detective picks up a magazine and reads a story about an unsolved murder case, his suppositions about the crime are more than “gut.”

Few of us would argue physics with a physicist or dispute an obstetrician’s superior knowledge of pregnancy and childbirth, but we are less inclined to defer to the authority of expertise when it comes to a subject like politics.

Everybody thinks of Friedrich Hayek as an economist, but he was also a philosopher of sorts. The secret to understanding his theory of economics is what I have called “The Hayekian Insight,” which I would summarize thus:

Knowledge is diffused throughout society, each person being aware of facts relevant to his own circumstances, so that any attempt of “experts” to impose a one-size-fits-all plan on society will fail, because no group of experts can ever have enough knowledge to make decisions for everyone else.

Hayek’s insight about the nature of knowledge, and the necessary deficiency of “experts” and “planning,” was drawn from his study of economics. Prices are information, and the reason socialism (i.e., economic planning) fails is because the planners can never have enough knowledge of the factors that influence prices in a market economy. Socialism is an attempt to impose the will of the planners onto economic activity, to suppress the supply-demand information contained in prices, which distorts incentives and prevents the pricing mechanism from allocating resources on the basis of consumer choices.

This was why, in the 1980s, a pair of Levis that sold for $20 in the United States could be sold for more than $100 a pair in Moscow. This was why any American could walk into McDonald’s or Wendy’s and, for a sum equal to one hour’s labor at minimum wage, purchase a meal nutritiously superior to the entire daily food intake of the average Soviet citizen.

What Hayek understood about economics is an insight applicable to many other fields of endeavor, including journalism and politics.

When Professor Glenn Reynolds envisions the blogosphere as An Army of Davids, he is seeing how the expansion of the journalistic “means of production” challenges the ability of major media “gatekeepers” to control the news narrative. If anyone’s cell-phone video of an event can make it onto the nightly news — and we’ve actually seen this happen — then the “crowd-sourcing” of news production is possible. And if any story about an election campaign can be published on a blog, then promoted in a “viral” way until it becomes the top headline at the Drudge Report, this undermines the political influence of news media “gatekeepers.”

So far, so good. However, punditry is easier than reporting. Espousing a mere opinion as to the presidential prospects of a certain politician — Ace uses the example of Sarah Palin — is something anyone can do, without ever picking up the phone to call a source or leaving their home to cover a campaign event. And so it is that at times the blogosphere erupts in warfare between people asserting the superiority of their own opinions.

Go back to 2007, when Charles Johnson first accused Pamela Geller of associating with European neo-fascists. Geller had attended an international conference of “Counter-Jihad” activists in Brussels and therefore knew what had transpired at the event.

Geller had met these people and judged them to be respectable, responsible, law-abiding and patriotic. Johnson had not attended the conference and, based on what others had written about various persons and organizations involved in the Brussels event, decided that the whole affair was tainted by dangerous extremism. And when Geller refused to defer to Johnson’s judgment, Johnson attempted to banish her — and anyone who took Geller’s side of the argument — from the ranks of political respectability.

Johnson was attempting to judge the motives of people he’d never met on the basis of reports by sources whose credibility he was in no position to assess. (Some have said that the commenters at Little Green Footballs on whose authority Johnson relied were feeding him what was essentially propaganda from European leftist parties.) Geller’s defiant defense of her European associates was a challenge to Johnson’s self-assigned authority within the conservative blogosphere and . . . he went nuts.

It is hard for us to judge the value of a stranger’s opinion, when the stranger is presented to us without any biographical context that permits us to evaluate whether they have the education and experience that would, as the deconstructions might say, privilege their opinion.

The challenge is presented: “Who are you to tell me that you know better than I do who will win the Iowa caucuses?” And the hyper-democratic nature of the blogosphere — where every random son of a bitch with a laptop imagines himself as authoritative as Charles Krauthammer, Karl Rove and Michael Barone combined — renders it difficult for anyone to offer his credentials as proof of his superior judgment.

What happens, therefore, is that we flock to those who most persuasively argue opinions with which we agree. And in the context of a contested Republican presidential primary the blogosphere spontaneously segments itself into cliques and factions.

All of this — the entirety of the preceding argument — was a preamble to my own assertion of expertise. (You saw this coming, right?)

Look: I wasn’t born yesterday and I didn’t just hop off my sofa one day and start blogging for the pure hell of it. What were you doing in 1986? I was working as a staff writer for a tiny little Georgia newspaper, where among other things I covered politics at the city-hall/Labor Day “candidate forum” level. By the time I landed at the Washington Times in November 1997, I already had more than a decade of journalism under my belt. Two months after I got to D.C., the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke and the next 10 years turned into a high-speed blur of daily deadlines. So by the time I quit that job in January 2008, I kinda knew a thing or two about this politics racket, and excuse me for thinking that the value of such a career is too lightly dismissed by certain arrogant young people who have an unfortunate habit of excluding me from conference panels.

But I digress . . .

Knowledge and experience matter in terms informing one’s “gut” instinct, and the fact that someone may not be able (or willing) to explain every reason for their beliefs does not mean that those beliefs have no rational basis. Why did I have an uncanny hunch that the Rick Perry campaign would end in catastrophe? I’m still not sure I can explain it exactly. The high-handedness of the campaign — purposefully seeking to steal the thunder from the Ames Straw Poll — struck me as arrogant. And I had talked to a few people familiar with Perry who were less than enthusiastic in their appraisals of him. But there was something beyond that, namely the resemblance between the bandwagon arguments made in favor of Perry, the insistence on his inevitability as the man to beat, that reminded me of the hype that preceded the Ed Muskie debacle in 1972.

It was in a comment, replying to “Steve in TN,” that I wrote:

What I fear will happen is that Perry will spend several months sucking up media oxygen and burning through GOP donor cash, only to collapse early next year. This will have the effect of suffocating other conservative candidates, and thereby lead to … Romney 2012.

Perry collapsed a lot earlier than I’d expected, but his campaign sucked up more than $15 million in GOP donor cash, and I fear that the outcome will be exactly as I predicted back in August. And while I’m not really bothered if anyone thinks it was merely a “psychic vibe” that led me to make that prediction, I am very much bothered when people go out of their way to deprive me of credit for having been right.

Not Good Enough for BlogCon” — carve it on my tombstone.

We all have an “emotional investment” in the rightness of our own political opinions, but those of us who write about politics for a living have investments that involve more than mere emotion. While I seldom venture to predict the future, those occasions when I do so accurately ought to be worth something in the way of recognition as more than just another random son of a bitch with a laptop.

But why bother to complain now? I’ll have plenty of time to brood over this when I become U.S. Ambassador to Vanuatu.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    Terrific article.

    Exactly why I come to this site.  It has a nice balance between the high mindedness of PJ Media and the ADD impaired regurgitations of HotAir.

  • Joe

    You are a good egg McCain.  That is a hell of an article. 

  • Anonymous

    You and Ace both have good ideas about the projection of authority.  What’s missing is the source of pain some people experience when debating.

    I don’t have time to develop it here, but people have to learn to recognize the attachment they form to ideas.  The immature mind often confuses that attachment for the actual mind itself.  I.e., their core beliefs are “who they are.”

    This goes beyond mere “emotional investment,” and that’s why I’m writing this.

    When the ideas to which they have become attached are attacked–especially when successfully attacked–the immature mind recoils in horror at the loss or damage to the core beliefs. The impulse is to strike out at the people who attack those ideas, and, unfortunately, seek to stop them.  “Shouting someone down” is an expression of this behavior.

    It’s the fear that damage to a strongly held idea is equal to damage to their person.

    This ties in strongly with “projection of authority” (ie, those predictions you mention, which so many seem to make with such declarative fervor).  In tossing out those strongly-worded predictions, people try to insulate their percieved mental structure–the ideas to which they have become attached–from “harm.”  By sounding confident that their ideas have given them the secret to prediction, they hope to fend off ideas to the contrary.

    Of course, people with strong self-confidence are not deterred by this projection, and clashes often ensue.  Often with one or both parties to the clash coming away quite upset.

    Debate, like negotiation, is often far more successful when the parties involved maintain a sense of detachment.

    (That’s the extremely short version.  It’s part of a larger body of work I’ve done since reading Revel’s “The Flight From The Truth.”)

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know, Stacy. Besides predicting the rise of Cain, that Sarah wasn’t running, that Perry won’t work, and that Cain is probably too unorganized to keep it together, you haven’t really done much  this election so far.

    Now, Ace, I mean, he throws in the towel every over week and whines about how we stick to principles too much. THERE’S a pundit.

  • Anonymous

    And yes, Stacy, your predictions do come with more authority than most of ours.  That’s one reason we’re here, after all.

  • Anonymous

    You make good points, K-Bob. I’m not trying to tear down Ace, who has always been and still is one of my favorite bloggers. But it seemed to me (and to Jeff Goldstein) that Ace is trying to say that his own political preferences are entirely rational, while everyone who disagrees is a slobbering dolt motivated entirely by emotion.

    No — the fact that someone has a superior ability to articulate their arguments does not mean that their beliefs are more rational than the beliefs of those who are less articulate. This is something I have to keep in mind myself: Just because I can write purty doesn’t mean that whatever belief I’m writing on behalf of is superior to the beliefs of people who write less “purty” than I do.

  • Garym

    Dittos, what K_Bob said.

  • Pathfinder

    Good points, and a nice reminder to not become so dependent upon opinion makers in forming your own decisions.

    I’ll see whose on the primary ballot and vote my conscience (although I’m feeling increasingly pessimistic).

  • http://adriennescatholiccorner.blogspot.com/ Adrienne

    It is this kind of writing that led me into a discussion with Martin Gelin (Swedish journalist living in New York now, who interviewed me today) about you, your prowess as a journalist, and your formidable writing skills.  Smitty was also a part of the discussion and also got rave reviews from moi.

    Martin met you somewhere and remembered you as “the man who always wears the hat.” 

    He covered the entire Obama campaign and is now traveling the country interviewing conservatives and will be covering the Republican campaign next year.

  • http://www.conservativecommune.com/category/columns/smiling-behind-enemy-lines/ CCR

    Palin, Bachmann, Pam Geller.

    Is it just me, or does Ace have some real women problems?

    Seriously, Ace’s biggest problem is how remarkably thin-skinned he is, especially when any type of criticism comes from to him from another blogger. He made an utter fool of himself with all of his infantile rantings against Sarah Palin.

    Actually, I need to correct my earlier statement. Aces biggest problem isn’t his thin-skinned nature. It’s Ace himself.

  • Joe

    Well said, both Stacy and K-Bob.  Well said. 

  • Greg

    God how I loathe when supposed conservatives start playing the “you can’t be MEAN to the poor widdle lady” game.  Isn’t identity politics supposed to be the province of the left?

  • Anonymous

    Most human economic actions are subjective, it’s almost as if economics suffers from a lack of applied psychology. That’s the beauty of conservative economic thinking once the right to want what one wants is recognized why it’s wanted doesn’t matter.

  • Joe

    http://hotair.com/archives/2011/11/30/so-what-would-happen-if-obama-won/

    I agree with some of the points, but when dd Newt become the “tea party” choice?  WTF?

  • http://www.conservativecommune.com/category/columns/smiling-behind-enemy-lines/ CCR

    I loathe passive aggressive too, but I’m willing to let it go.

    Most of the time.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/EU5DQWQTTHTPO4A4ZYSL3AAV2U Adjoran

    Not sure I see where you even disagree with Ace here.  However informed a guess, it is always reliant upon “incomplete information,” isn’t it?  So where is the difference in what you and he are saying?

    Political prognostication has always followed one of two schools:  either the conventional wisdom is parroted, or a contrarian point is made.  Even a blind hog finds an acorn now and then, so the contrarians are more likely to make a name for themselves with their formulaic predictions which will seem awe-inspiring when they come true.  The public seldom realizes the high percentage of failed predictions of the contrarian when the rare long shot hits.

    The problem arises when one becomes invested in the prediction or preference to the extent it overrides all logic.  At that point it is time to line up for the Kool Aid, children. 

  • Joe

    While you did not predict the Cain meltdown (granted it is mostly from outside forces), my guess is if they were smart enough to take you on early in the campaign, a lot of this crap would have been mitigated.  Oh well, what could have been. 

  • Andi Sullivan, Wombologist

    “Few of us would argue physics with a physicist or dispute an
    obstetrician’s superior knowledge of pregnancy and childbirth, but we
    are less inclined to defer to the authority of expertise when it comes
    to a subject like politics.”

    Au contraire. I’m perfectly willing to argue with an obstetrician. They haven’t nearly the superior knowledge that I do about politics or pregnancy and childbirth.

  • Anonymous

    “…I kinda knew a thing or two about this politics racket, and excuse me
    for thinking that the value of such a career is too lightly dismissed by
    certain arrogant young people who have an unfortunate habit of excluding me from conference panels.”

    Third funniest thing I’ve read in a week, all of it here. You’re not only working in layers, now it’s going meta. Surely this will eventually turn into something along the lines of a “The guys get shirts!” narrative.

    I hope.

  • http://www.outsidethebeltway.com Dodd

    What you just described as the way “gut” instincts work comes out to be a pretty apt summary of Malcolm Gladwell’s thesis on pretty much that exact topic in “Blink”: We can’t always explain in words why we know something almost immediately, but it usually comes down to reams of experience informing us below the level of conscious thought.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, I get that about Ace. But young’uns are like that.

    And east-coast elites. (I’d love to see Peggy Noonan make it through any of the technical manuals a typical “information worker” has to read every time a new software product goes on the market.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jorge-Emilio-Emrys-Landivar/37403083 Jorge Emilio Emrys Landivar

    Now the question is… for Stacy (as he seems to be prescient here) will Newt have staying power and what will happen to Paul?

  • Anonymous

    That ties into a concept the late C.K. Prahalad used to try to get across to people trying to enter “foreign” markets.  He’d tell you that your device or widget, despite your best plans for it’s intended use, would enter a new market, and get employed in ways you never imagined.

    Then he would show a slide featuring a mo-ped, in India or somewhere like that, with an entire family riding it.
    Something like this, only with things they carried with them to market.

  • Guest

    Don’t forget, this is the same Ace who posted a hysterical screed in ’08 blaming Obama’s rise on Conservatives.

  • TR

    Ace does the Jon Stewart Leibowitz game.  It’s all just a funny joke until you criticize him, then it’s personal and watch out!  CCR has it right.  The same people that Ace himself has used to diagnose his “panic disorder” call it passive-aggressive behavior too.  Well no one is perfect right?

    As to RSM, the method you are seeking is called the SWAG method in engineeering school.  That would be a scientific wild-ass guess.

  • http://thecampofthesaints.org Bob Belvedere

    Consider the source of that statement.

    As for Jazz Shaw’s comments: he fails to understand that the rules that have governed politics have changed.  He reminds me of those colonists who didn’t understand what was happening in the 1760’s.

  • http://thecampofthesaints.org Bob Belvedere

    Well said.

    That ‘immature mind’ you speak of, I think, is so prevalent these days because of the triumph of the indoctrination of Leftist thinking in our schools [both public and private]. 

    Socialism is a simplistic philosophy developed, as Russell Kirk said, by coffee-house philosophers or, as I like to put it, in the sterile laboratories of the ideologues’s minds, where every loose end is tied, where every picture is rosy.

    For Socialism to gain wide acceptance, therefore, the hearts and minds that need to be won over must be child-like, for only naive people are ignorant enough to accept such simplistic thinking and see it as ‘making sense’.

  • http://thecampofthesaints.org Bob Belvedere

    We musicians certainly understand that songs we write will often mean things to people we never meant when we wrote them.

    Look at Born In The USA.  For many it’s a defiant, patriotic anthem.

  • http://thecampofthesaints.org Bob Belvedere

    Sister Noonan only understands the intricacies of the lava lamp.

  • http://thecampofthesaints.org Bob Belvedere

    But don’t forget Stacy predicted that Mr. Cain would be subjected to some pretty awful calumnies.

  • http://thecampofthesaints.org Bob Belvedere

    I would wager money on his answers to that before I would lay down any denarii on what Charles The Kraut Hammer, Karl The Architect Of Doom, or George Triumph Of The Ill-Will predicts.

  • http://thecampofthesaints.org Bob Belvedere

    I don’t know about you, but I’m here for the broads.

  • http://thecampofthesaints.org Bob Belvedere

    I always talk Stacy up to my Protologist.

  • http://thecampofthesaints.org Bob Belvedere

    And we know Stacy loves him some swag.

  • Anonymous

    renders it difficult impossible for anyone to offer his credentials as proof of his superior judgment.

    FTFY.

    The blunt truth is, on the internet, I don’t KNOW that the person who typed this post even lives in the same country as the entity “Robert Stacey McCain” who worked for the Times, married the lovely lady presented as his wife, etc. All those details make it less likely that someone else has bothered to assemble it just for funsies, but the number of crazies who might put something like that together isn’t a non-zero number. Even in my limited slice of world and career, there are enough people with my exact name that I catch their bills, e-mail, phone calls, etc. on a monthly basis. (The worst was when I lived in an apartment complex on the same street as a gentleman with my same first name, last name, and middle initial who was an independent insurance agent in an office on that street. For three years I simply unplugged the phone when there was bad weather in the area, because his customers would just pick up the phone and start dialing every similar entry in the phone book hoping they’d luck into his house.)

    Anyone who drops off a comment claiming to be this that or the other surrounded by absolute BS has pretty much zero chance I’ll do anything but mock them. I can’t wait until someone discovers they’ve been turned down for a job because of someone else’s Facebook page or blog comment and sues the living crap out of some company.

  • Tennwriter

    For me, I try to be honest, and I’m a bit of a prototypical conservative, and I  have my Conservatives Win theory…which is the sources of my assurance, but while I think this puts me up beyond most normal people when it comes to understanding politics, I’m aware I’m in the big leagues here, and RSM is on the first-string alterate status.

  • Paul Zummo

    Over the course of this election cycle I find myself agreeing with Ace above all other bloggers.  He’s one of the few guys who threads that needle between the purity uber alles wing of the party and the squishy RINO camp.  He also seems to be right on target with this post.  I don’t think he’s saying he’s right because he says he is, he’s just explaining the phenomenon of why people get so passionate about things that are basically unknown.

  • Anonymous

    But of course refusing to vote for RINO Romney is lining up for the Kool-Aid, especially with more evidence that electing RINOs gives cover to Copperheads.

  • http://edwardroyce.livejournal.com/ edward royce

    Yeah that’s pretty much Ace.  That’s the way he was in 2008 along with all of the AoS fanbois.

    Which is why I’m here and not there.

  • http://twitter.com/richard_mcenroe richard mcenroe

    How does that work?  if you’re discussing politics with your proctologist, either you have a double jointed neck or he has the final irrefutable argument at his fingertips, so to speak.

    Either way, you’d have to have a remarkable capacity to ignore distractions.

  • http://twitter.com/marriedrambler Andrew Patrick

    Why do I suddenly have the suspicion that the number of people still butt-hurt at Ace over the whole Christine O’Donnel episode has not diminished?

  • andycanuck

    Like all the commenters at Ace’s who still go ape-sh1t against COD to this day? 

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  • Anonymous

    One powerful thing about people who convert to a religion–or more relevant here in the West–become “saved” the first time after say, adolescence:

    When a person “gives their problems to God,” it’s essentially the same trick as finally recognizing that the ideas that make up the human experience are NOT who we are at all. That those ideas can take damage all day long (and even be destroyed by better ones), and it does no harm to the individual.

    It helps explain the incredible feeling people experience when they decide to submit to God. At that point, ideas become nothing more than instruments.

    It explains a lot of people’s desire to let “The Government” run everything, too. The problem being that The Government is not God, and does not love them at all.

    So the Soviets knew when they banished religious observance.