Molly: [Tyrone’s] the happiest he’s ever been in his life.
Pam: Only because he doesn’t know just how unhappy he should be.
This conflict between subjective well-being versus truth or rationality seems especially acute in modern politics right now. On the one hand, great weight is given to people’s expressed preferences: look at all those “speak your branes“ platforms and opinion polls. And yet on the other hand, cognitive biases research and the “Nudge“ agenda says that preferences can be systematically mistaken.
We can all think of ways in which the typical voter might be like Tyrone - happy only because he doesn’t know the truth (which is that the son he thinks is his own could in fact be Rosie‘s brother). I’d suggest:
- immigration. Voters are happy with immigration controls. But would they be if they knew the truth - that these tend to impoverish many native workers?
- inequality. Voters are happy with this in part because the just world illusion leads them to over-estimate the extent of social mobility and the extent to which success is down to hard work rather than luck.
- restrictions on markets in drugs, prostitution, GM foods and body organs please voters. But it’s possible that they would not, if voters knew the truth about the damage these do.
Now, you might quibble with these examples, but I suspect you can think of others. The fundamental point is that the Dobbs’ paradox might be a widespread one. One of its effects is to give us a conflict between two conceptions of democracy. The notion of democracy as preference aggregation can conflict with the notion of democracy as an idealized rational discourse.
This conflict, I suspect, arises from a tension within the nature of rationality itself. Rationality in the sense of discovering the “truth” about one’s world can conflict with rationality in the sense of choosing the course of action which makes one happy.
In this sense, Tyrone’s tragedy is a symptom of a wider political tragedy.
* Another issue raised last night is the desireability or not of a market in children. I might return to this.