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.


Myles

Could you put this article in the water, like fluoride? It describes something that seems missing from almost all discourse I hear...

tdanza

Couldn't agree more. terrific and speaks to an ability to be progressive and still treasure tradition.

Joe in Jersey

Outstanding article. 100 years from now, people will be laughing at some of the geniuses of our times.

Lowell Thompson

Kathryn,

This is very good. even though it doesn't say a mumblin' word about our "ingenious" Founding Fathers biggest mistake - slavery.

But it seems that many, if not most, Americans still don't buy the idea that the haloed (I made it up) Founders were fallible. In fact, the whole Conservative, Regressive, Republican party (and our leading Supreme Court Justice) is based on the idea they were perfect. And that everything they did and said was as if it came directly from God..

Progressives, on the other hand, believe that no matter how great they were, they were humans...and it's our job as citizens to try as much as possible to correct their mistakes. The only question is now, and forever, will we before their experiment fails.?

http://buythecover.com

political scientist

Ms. Schulz, this essay is a gem. One thing not mentioned is that although our political founders understood fallibility very well, they had no means to extend the doctrine to the non-governmental realms. As a nation, we have always been awash in strongly held ideologies, religions, and dogmas, not to mention the even greater vigor of raw self-interests and cultural assumptions. If only more people could see that our governmental system provides a good example, not a bad one, for other areas of our lives.

MjB

To the contrary Lowell, the conservative ideology that the Republicans represent upholds the ideals of this article - that leaders are fallible and that they should not be allowed to impose their beliefs on others because they may very well be wrong. Obama and other modern Democrats are always pushing technocratic solutions, based on their understanding of the facts, to improve society. A more humble (an American, according to this article) perspective is to allow people to act in their own interest and not impose "good ideas" on them.

Sidenote - this is totally David Brooks' whole MO, he deserves a shoutout

Tumbolian

This reminds be of the Ashleigh Brilliant quote: 'My opinions may have changed, but not the fact that I am right.'

Ian Kemmish

Acknowledging that chopping off your king's head was a mistake and didn't really improve things also seems like a pretty wholehearted embrace of the concept of both error and overcompensation, a whole century before the US decided to try again.....

Peter

MjB, I'm not sure the Republican ideology upholds the ideals of the essay any more or less than does progressivism. Republicans might distrust the government because leaders are fallible, but then they turn around and vest their trust in the free market (or, in some quarters, the Church), which they figure to be, in the long run, infallible. So the choice is really more along the lines of: do you want to trust a democratically elected technocratic elite, or a market-tested technocratic elite? Private industry has at least as much interest in imposing "good ideas" on your private life as the government does (as, obviously, do religious organizations).

But I do agree with you on the David Brooks shoutout.

Sam

Great essay.

But if you don't mean this as criticism, how can you mean it less as jingoism?

PaulD

"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."

This wonderful American trait is a direct result of the Reformation and its emphasis on the sanctity of personal conscience. Because of this mindset Jews and Christians have (for the most part) peacefully coexisted in this country despite our outrageously different views on who Jesus Christ was (and is).

MjB

@ Peter

While I certainly agree with your point about Republicans and religion, your opinion on the markets is one I often encounter among liberal friends and that I think is a mental disconnect. The market, in pure theory at least, doesn't care what you think or what you do - instead everyone is free to choose and act as they wish. You can charge what you want, make what you want, buy or don't buy according to your own individual desires. On average (and over the long-term) people copy or mimic better ideas and decisions and a rough consensus tends to emerge, validating or invalidating some ideas. However, despite this process you can always choose to ignore the consensus and choose as you see fit. (Some people buy and sell edible underwear, for one example of going against the grain). In the case of government mandated solutions, personal choice (whether stupid or not) is necessarly restricted. Both philosophically and practically, a government solution is effectively the government telling people that they are not intelligent enough, not informed enough or otherwise impotent to make their own decision (the "right" decision) in a given sphere.

Obviously government regulation and control has a place where people would be otherwise unable have a menu of choices (such naturally monopolistic industries, defense of contigous territory, or negative externalities), but in general I see little reason to think that a government expert (no matter how reasonable or educated) would make a better decision than a communal average essentially voting with their own money. More importantly, even if the technocract IS smarter and more capable, I don't see why I should be bound by his decisions if there is any area at all of doubt. If I harm myself through error it is my own business and risk to take, but if someone else harms me through their error I hold them morally accountable.

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Scuba

Love it. A+

David

Great essay, but quibbles about the history, especially this: "...the Divine Right of Kings, the medieval doctrine holding that political leaders were God's elect, and therefore infallible." The Divine Right of Kings was not a medieval doctrine but an early modern one which post-dated the radical changes in cosmology mentioned, and it did not hold that kings were infallible, merely that the source of their temporal authority was divine.

Kathryn

David, you're right about the timing of the Divine Right of Kings; I wrote imprecisely. As I understand it, the doctrine was an early modern codification of the medieval idea that earthly monarchs derived their authority from God -- the codification being necessary precisely because of the political chaos all those radical changes in cosmology occasioned. (The larger point holds, however; in the end, the doctrine couldn't withstand the forces that eventually forged the idea of democracy.)

I'll stand by my second claim, though. Explicit in the Divine Right of Kings was the belief that political leaders weren't subject to any earthly authority; implicit in it was the idea that, as God's elect and therefore earthly messengers for heaven's (inerrant) word, they were infallible. Moreover, in a sense, the implicit and explicit positions are the same: as the French philosopher Joseph-Marie Maistre once pointed out, there is no practical difference between a leader who cannot err and a leader who cannot be accused of erring.

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Mark

Inspiring.

Lowell Thompson

MjB wrote:

"Sidenote - this is totally David Brooks' whole MO, he deserves a shoutout"

Please, Please, Please...don't get me started on David Brooks. He's just Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck in a sheep suit.

Speaking of sheep, the idea that the people should be free to govern themselves as individuals is not democracy or a democractic republic.

It is anarchy and chaos.

It's what the sly wolf tells gullible silly sheep. Don't organize for your collective good. Just let everybody go for themselves. And I'll eat you each as individuals. It's what strong corporate chieftains tell us while they organize into ever larger and stronger companies, associations, cartels, etc..

If you want to live in that type of society, maybe you should start your own. Or just move to the jungle.

Right?

http://buythecover.com

wesley.tate

@MjB -
What a nice explanation of the differences between voluntary human interaction and the aggressive monopoly of force. Thank you.

Perhaps it is not so "obvious" how this respectful philosophy may not be applied to the "special" cases?

MjB

@ Wesley - I'm not sure what you mean exactly by special cases. I would argue that a central decision (either wrong or right) through government intervention is appropriate in "special" cases where naturally it is not feasible to have multiple choices. An example would be natural monopolies such as transportation networks (because it is not feasible or useful to have more than one road system, power line grid, sewage system, etc). In that case I would argue that any decisions are better than no decisions.
Likewise for common goods and resources that cannot be partitioned, such as air and water quality, water rights from commonly owned river, etc require a common central management to be sustainable and to avoid the tragedy of the commons. However, when individual decision making is possible I would argue that it is the best method because, even if the wrong decisions are being made, the consequences are suffered by those who made the decisions, not people who never had a chance to make their own decision. A logically extreme case would be that if I designed a car navigation system that accidentally drove people off the Brooklyn Bridge every February 29th I would justifiably be held liable for their deaths. I might be a pre-iminant navigator and expert computer engineer, but if I were you I'd prefer to drive myself, despite your relative lack of expertise in the subject. Likewise, if I turn my atlas upside down and end up driving off the bridge it's no skin off your nose, and other people who here the story are likely to turn theirs right-side-up.

@ Lowell - Regarding Brooks: I didn't necessarily mean to endorse him, I just wanted to point out that the general tone and idea of this article is the exact basic observation that he drones about endlessly (just as bad as Friedman is with China, Energy and Climate but slightly less obvious.

Regarding your comment about wolves and sheep; you are correct that democracy and economic freedom are very different things (at one point in history they went well together, but not necessarily so for all time). I would only point out that, while you would prefer that we collectivize and centrally fight wolves together, I personally prefer to fight them on my own for two reasons: First, I don't worry whether the person organizing the resistance may not be making all the right calls in wolf defense. Second, I eliminate the risk that the person organizing the resistance is a wolf himself. I beware any union or cartel of any kind, because there is always an incentive to cheat - likely something we all learned back in our jungle days.

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John Roberts

@MjB: Yes. As a paid-up citizen member of the market I have the right to be misinformed and swindled by those whose practices control the marketplace and its information.