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Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Sat, 8 May 2021, 1:46 PM

 

The need for institutional brains

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"The trouble with you, son" said Bill Shankly to a young player "is that your brains are all in your head." I was reminded of this line from the great man by reading Ian Leslie's Conflicted, on how to have more productive arguments.

His advice is good: define exactly what the disagreement is about; make your interlocutor feel good and secure; acknowledge your own uncertainties; be less tribal; and so on.

In the heat of argument and when the teacups are flying, however, it is easy to forget these principles. We then have what the ancient Greeks called the problem of akrasia, of lack of self-control. Just because we know the right thing to do does not ensure that we'll actually do it; even self-confessed "moderates" are apt to forget their own advice on how to argue well. Shankly

This is what Shankly was getting at. He wanted players who were so well-drilled and who had such muscle memory that they did the right things in the heat of battle instinctively, without thinking. Ditto musicians, who must know a piece so well that they can perform it without conscious deliberation.

In such cases, we need our brains not in our heads but in our feet or fingers.

But brains need not and should not be confined to our bodies. They can, and should, and sometimes do, reside elsewhere.

One place is in our habits. I invest into tracker funds by direct debit each month. Most of my investment is done without thinking.

Strictly speaking, this isn't optimal: stock markets aren't fully efficient and tracker funds can be beaten by momentum and defensive stocks (pdf) (but, I suspect, not by any other strategy). Implementing such strategies, however, would require me to think. And if I did that I'd fall prey to the gazillion cognitive biases that I warn IC readers against.

My habit, therefore, saves me from error in the same way that Ulysses tied himself to the mast of his ship to save himself from steering it onto the rocks. Government who have made their central banks operationally independent have done a similar thing: in renouncing control of interest rates they have given up the temptation to change them for political rather than economic reasons.

In ways such as these, we protect ourselves from akrasia by taking our brains out of our head and placing them into habits or institutions.

These aren't the only examples of intelligence being embedded in institutions. No single individual knows how to build a jet plane. But Boeing does. Good companies have brains that no individual has. This is organizational capital. If there is a justification for the high valuations on big tech companies, it lies in this capital. I'd suggest that the Tory party is an example of this. Each individual in the party is cognitively limited. But the party as an organization has a fearsome ability to reinvent itself and win elections.

Companies aren't the only institutions in which intelligence can exist. Take this observation from P.J. O'Rourke in 1998:

Why do some places prosper and thrive while others just suck? It's not a matter of brains. No part of the earth (with the possible exception of Brentwood) is dumber than Beverly Hills, and the residents are wading in gravy. In Russia, meanwhile, where chess is a spectator sport, they're boiling stones for soup.

The difference, of course, lies in institutions. The people of Beverly Hills have for decades had institutions which make best use of their limited brain-power, not least of these being moderately well-functioning markets. Russians, however, have not enjoyed these. Their tragedy has been (and still is) that their brains were all in their head.

This is why I can't work up any enthusiasm for the idea that genetic editing could increase our intelligence. What we need is not more brains in our head, but in our institutions - ways of making better use of what intellect we have. Without such institutions, high IQ people merely become efficient rent-gatherers, to the detriment of society.

Which brings me back to Leslie. The question is: do we have the institutions which embed the principles he advocates?

I suspect not.

Yes, any well-run company should organize its meetings in a way to embed his ideas - and if they are not doing so already they should.

In public discourse, however, such institutions are absent. Any guest on one of the BBC's many moron-yak shows who followed Leslie's advice to show humility, introduce novelty or make their interlocutor feel good would probably not be invited back. Unproductive slanging matches are "good" TV and radio.

The point generalizes. Our "marketplace in ideas" is obviously broken. Not only does it not exclude bad arguments, or ones in bad faith, but it actually favours bare-faced lies and (to paraphrase Burke) the noise of half a dozen grasshoppers over the silence of thousands of great cattle,

What we have in public discourse is not the institutionalized intelligence that has made Beverly Hills or Boeing prosper, but institutionalized stupidity.

It need not be so. We could have institutions (pdf) of deliberative democracy such as citizens' assemblies and rules about admissible evidence which would embed some of Leslie's suggestions: "a set of agreed norms and boundaries that support self-expression"; not trying to control one's interlocutor; establishing trust; valuing challenges to the consensus; ensuring that you understand your interlocutor; and so on.

But of course, a big reason why we don't have such institutions is that our current media-political system suits those in power just fine.

And herein lies a problem. What does it mean to have a productive argument? It could be a way of reaching the truth. Or it could be a way of clearing the air so that colleagues and partners can get along better. Leslie's book is aimed more at the latter: its subtitle is "Why arguments are tearing us apart and how they can bring us together."

But there can be a trade-off here. The truth could be that your partner is a lazy lying cheat and you could do better for yourself. Sometimes, we're better off not being brought together but rather ending toxic relationships - yes, cancelling people. I doubt that Leslie wants to have productive arguments with, say, anti-semites or fanatical Islamists.

Which leads me to a cynical thought. In a world of huge inequality of power in which we lack institutions which embed good rules of argument, there's a danger that Leslie's call for us to be reasonable merely means us accepting injustice, inefficiency and dishonesty.

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