The United Mistakes of America
Kathryn Schulz, the author of Being Wrong, has been guest-blogging for us about being wrong – and admitting our mistakes. Her latest post examines the historical culture of error in the United States.
The United Mistakes of America
By Kathryn Schulz
A radical proposition: the United States is the natural homeland of the gravely mistaken.
I don’t mean this as a criticism, and still less as jingoism.? Nor do I mean that Americans are more wrong than anyone else (doubtful) or more right, either (ditto).? I mean that respect for error was a driving force in the founding of our nation. We are a young country built on a mature idea: that all of us must be at liberty to make mistakes. We are free to say things our fellow citizens think are untrue, worship gods our neighbors regard as idols, hold fast to convictions that contradict those of our leaders.
We think of these liberties as embodying the American tolerance for dissent.? But our nation’s founders were not simply some kind of 18th century ACLU, fighting to protect everyone’s right to express even the fringiest beliefs.? Instead, they protected minority opinions for a pragmatic reason: they recognized that, over time, the fringe rather than the mainstream might prove right. What they inscribed in the Constitution was an awareness of the perpetual possibility that we are mistaken.
This foundational relationship to error is distinctly at odds with the one most of us experience in our daily lives.? As I’ve written in previous Freakonomics posts, we generally despise and deny our own mistakes and disparage those of others.? This attitude toward error acts as a kind of omnipurpose coagulant – hardening heart and mind, chilling our relationships with other people, and cooling our curiosity about the world.? As individuals and as a culture, then, we would do well to look to the radically different attitude toward error that is our birthright.
The great American license to err was, when it emerged, virtually unique in history, and a long time in the making.? It was born out of (at least) three major developments.? The first was the demise of the Divine Right of Kings, the medieval doctrine holding that political leaders were God’s elect, and therefore infallible.
The second was the dramatic confrontation with error that began in Europe during the Renaissance.? In just a few hundred years, fourteen centuries of received wisdom collapsed, and new information (about astronomy, biology, geology, you name it) rushed into the vacuum.? Citizens of that era must have experienced changes in their cosmology at virtually the same dizzying rate that we experience changes in our technology.? For their leading thinkers, the resulting combination of drastic error and thrilling possibility-akin to what we might feel if, say, a UFO landed in Pittsburgh tomorrow-created an enduring respect for both the likelihood and the merits of being wrong.
The third, related development was the spread of both the mood and the method of the Scientific Revolution.? The mood was one of broad curiosity and deep skepticism. The method is known today to every high school kid in the country: using experiments to test hypotheses and reach provisional but empirically supported conclusions. Both within and beyond the natural sciences, this method provided a model for trying to get something right, while recognizing the ever-present possibility of getting it wrong.? (It’s no accident that the United States is often referred to as an “experiment.”)
Transpose these developments to the political sphere, and you arrive at the idea of democracy.? America’s founders understood that all of us, including our leaders, are fallible; that errors are inevitable; and that mistakes can’t always be recognized as such in the moment.? As a result, they realized, a stable nation must not seek to eliminate mistakes but strive to tolerate them.? Almost all the founding principles of democracy – freedom of religion, freedom of speech, direct elections, political parties – reflect this commitment.
Take freedom of speech. Governments that refuse to acknowledge their fallibility don’t need (and in fact must destroy) dissent.? But those that recognize their fallibility and hope to correct their mistakes must permit open expression – even if whatever is expressed seems odious, unpatriotic, or simply untrue.? As Thomas Jefferson put it, truth “is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate.”
Or take political parties.? Before the emergence of democracy, political opposition was normally regarded as, in the words of the historian Richard Hofstadter, “intrinsically subversive and illegitimate.” This remains true in totalitarian regimes, which brand dissident opinions as dangerously wrong – and therefore legitimate targets of suppression.? By contrast, multi-party systems are fundamentally error-tolerant.? They don’t merely permit but actually require competing points of view.? The often frustrating but ultimately saving American political innovation is this: we are forced to govern in collaboration with people whose beliefs we regard as wrong.
This innovation was hard won.? Another strain in our nation’s history, after all, saw the U.S. as a nascent utopia – a country that would be made great by unanimity and perfection.? Considering how many utopias turn out to be either fascist or a flash in the pan, we are lucky that strain lost out.? We became, instead, a country made great by disagreement and error.
This, then, is our national heritage.? The United States was founded on a then-radical and still radically insightful acceptance of error, and we would do well to embrace those roots.? Consider the words spoken by Benjamin Franklin just before he appended his name to the most famous piece of parchment in American history. “I confess there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve,” Franklin said, “but I am not sure that I shall never approve them.? For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.”
No words could have been more appropriate for the founding of our nation.? And no attitude toward error, I contend, could be more truly patriotic.