Do Political Labels Make You Stupid?

Andrew Sullivan —  Apr 9 2012 @ 3:25pm

by Zack Beauchamp

Will Wilkinson, following Tyler Cowen, nods:

Politics makes us stupid. This is one of my recurring themes. This is the principal reason I refuse to be a partisan or ideological team player. People call me libertarian but I don't in part because I'm not one, but mostly because I suspect that accepting any such label dings my IQ about 15 points. 

Bryan Caplan counters:

Will and Tyler might protest that the average effect of labels and good-versus-evil stories is to reduce effective IQ.  But they'd be wrong to do so.  Agnostic, neutral thinkers have little to say and less to teach.  Yes, it's better to suspend judgment rather than embrace error.  But intellectual progress only occurs after someone discovers and publicizes good reasons to adopt an ism.

Aren't there intellectual risks of accepting labels and good-versus-evil stories?  Sure.  Labels can blind us to counter-evidence.  Good-versus-evil stories give us an excuse to damn the messenger instead of considering his message.  But the wise response is to strive to compensate for these specific risks – not to salute the intellectual equivalent of the Swiss flag.

I'd go even further. Cowen's blanket dismissal of "good versus evil" – which, as Caplan notes, is itself a variant of the morality tale it attempts to dispatch – can serve to blind us to conflicts when there really is a morally right side and a morally wrong side. In a sense, moral thinking itself depends on leaving open the possibility that one party in a conflict is, on balance, more in the right than its antagonist. While this isn't the sort of Tolkienian perfect binary that Cowen is targeting, it's easy to see how rules as categorical as Cowen's "good versus evil lowers your IQ" can bleed into a rubbishing of moral thinking altogether. Better, as Caplan suggests, to take any individual dispute on its own terms rather than constructing any sort of system about how to think about labels.