"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, April 8, 2016

Consistency Of Thought, Word, And Deed–A Vanity If There Ever Was One

Scholars continue to debate the nature of economic choice.  Classical economists believe that consumers will always act in their own self-interest and according to this criterion always make rational, logical decisions.  Behavioral economists beg to differ.  Consumers are anything but logical for each individual’s actions are determined by genes, upbringing, and environmental factors.  A man  may think he is buying according to his objective assessment of cost, benefit, and need; but in reality his choice has been predetermined for decades.

                       Adam Smith www.thetimes.co.uk

The equations are complicated by persuasive advertising, peer pressure, community standards and norms, and a hundred other factors that make consumer choice more unpredictable than in an earlier era of limited choice and limited income.

Those objectivist economists who simply observe consumer behavior, discern trends and make conclusions based on billions of terabytes of information are perhaps on the right track. Why theorize about human nature – or the lack thereof – as Marx did when developing his ideas about the individual, society, and the state, when unimaginable amounts of data can be conclusive?


At a recent MIT conference on Artificial Intelligence, Noam Chomsky and the head of Google Research were pitted against each other on how to develop intelligent language programs.  One must understand the architecture and workings of the mind, said Chomsky, in order to replicate intelligent language.  Nonsense, said the Google chief.  Just record all spoken languages, analyze them for grammar, syntax, and use of vocabulary, and see what is in common.  That is, what is the nature of spoken language. 

If the Google approach were applied to consumer purchases, economists would no longer have to theorize.  The data would point the way to their Holy Grail – a unified theory of economic behavior.

A data-based approach accounts for both predictable and unpredictable behavior, regularities, and surprises.  It assumes that most people are routine when shopping supermarket aisles – always the same brand of peas, pasta, or tomato paste – but even if they impulse-buy, their choices are predictable.

One of the biggest challenges for social scientists and economists has been solving the riddle of inconsistency.  Why would an ordinarily regular, routine, and conservative consumer suddenly buy a Jaguar?  What makes a lifelong liberal suddenly start supporting (purchasing) conservative causes? Objectivists are unconcerned with causes, only observable behavior.  Here, they say, are the socio-economic and cultural characteristics of men who uncharacteristically buy Jaguars.  Period.

Inconsistency is at the heart of human behavior; and while objectivist economists may well develop data-based models to both describe and predict even the most unpredictable behavior, psychologists, sociologists, and political scientists are still unable to understand it.

Few pundits predicted the wave of Democratic defections to Ronald Reagan in 1980, and even fewer anticipated the remarkable conservative support for Donald Trump.  Reagan, they said, promised to dismantle most of the government programs that were intended to help workers; and any rational working class voter would opt for his opponent.  What they missed was the depth of Reagan’s appeal to patriotism, valor, and core American values.  They didn’t see that workers in Gary or Detroit could put aside their familiar allegiances to labor, Democrats, and liberal causes; and vote for something ‘higher’.  Voters might have been inconsistent in the context of the previous thirty years, but they were perfectly rational.


Most passionate Trump supporters who in the past have hewed to the Republican line of low taxes, small government, a strong military, and a commitment to religious and family values are willing to throw that conservative logic to the winds; and take chance with the radical and potentially disastrous Trump.  What happened? How did such political intemperance arise? How could no one have seen the growing resentment and hostility of voters which would alter their formerly predictable voting patterns?

Romance novels, tabloids, and celebrity magazines are all filled with stories of irrational behavior in love.   Responsible men fall for young bimbos and intelligent women find bad boys irresistible.  While objectivists observing all women and all men are not surprised at these phenomenon, the individuals themselves are surprised and the compulsion of their desires and are often embarrassed and chagrined by them.

 Daphne Du Maurier  www.literaryladiesguide.com

The most fascinating expression of inconsistent behavior is the facile ways in which people put aside their principles.  Although they may believe that such behavior is only temporary and justified by a particularly compelling need, it is nothing less than a betrayal of purpose.   Committed free-market conservatives balk at those commercial developments which impinge on their neighborhoods.  Passionate environmentalists do not give up their cars, air conditioning, or appliances.  They rationalize their comfort- and convenience-driven behavior by touting their contributions to worthy causes.

The same environmentalists who believe in the essential worth of nature and the preservation of the planet, scoff at Pope Francis when he suggests that abortion – an expediency driven by practical, secular, and venal interests – compromises not only the sanctity of human life but of all life.  The Pope is consistent.  His progressive detractors are not.


Those who believe in free speech but act to cloture all discussion and debate which is contrary to their principles are inconsistent, and justify their actions as unfortunate within the context of America’s foundational principles, but necessary given the enormity of the grievance.
Those who insistently call for a revision of history, a disgraceful exit from history for all those guilty of racism, sexism, and homophobia regardless of their other achievements, stop short in their demands.  Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were slaveholders, but there are few calls for renaming schools, roads, and public buildings named in their honor.  By all rights Washington, DC should be renamed if one were consistent.  

Those liberal Mississippians who loudly decry racism and who wish to expunge all traces of the Confederate past and promote each and every black cause, do not march and picket in front of antebellum homes, or disrupt the Pilgrimage celebrations of the antebellum South.  Black politicians who govern these old Southern cities are happy to have the tourism revenues from these events.


The inconsistencies give lie to the movement.  By demurring when it comes to renaming the George Washington Bridge, progressives admit that there is something else of importance in his legacy and that expunging him altogether from history would be wrong.    LBJ, JFK, and MLK were womanizers, sexual cheats, and liars of the first sort; yet feminist moralists and civil rights advocates conveniently prefer to ignore their dereliction
Does any of this matter? Is consistency all that important an issue since it is so common and a feature of human expression?  Yes, indeed.  Consistency in moral judgment, ethical principles, and religious values displays honesty and integrity. Who can trust an academic to be objective and disinterested when he is so intolerant of differing points of view.  Aren’t academics supposed to be the most on-the-one-hand-on-the-other rationalists in society, given to careful analysis and averse to subjective opinions?

Is a neighbor who loudly displays his conservative credentials believable when he votes to block a private enterprise which seeks to develop land in his residential preserve?
We are used to duplicity and self-serving inconsistency in politics; but isn’t Bernie Sanders, a man of proven integrity and lifelong adherence to the same principles he espoused as a young man worth serious consideration on that point alone?

Winston Churchill is revered because his unequivocal stance on Empire, the civilizing mission of Great Britain, and his heroic stand against the Nazis because of it.  Churchill was no common politician, blowing with the wind, accommodating and complaisant.  He was a statesman, orator, author, and historian; and all were consistent in their expression of his core beliefs.


There is of course a scale of integrity.  Isabella, one of the main characters in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is on the far right of the spectrum.  She is so uncompromising in the valuation of her own virginity that she refuses to have sex with Angelo to save the life of her brother.  She is consistent to a fault, and feels that once one has made a moral and religious commitment, nothing can or should change it.    Politicians who lie, cheat, and steal; and then ask for forgiveness before returning to their lives of deception are at the other end. 

Most of us are in the middle somewhere, caught at times in ethical dilemmas which force us to reconsider our beliefs, but in the main are self-serving and venal at heart.

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