wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Thomas Sowell

Knowledge and Decisions

If rationalism had remained within the bounds of philosophy, where it originated, it might be merely an intellectual curiosity. It is, however, a powerful component in contemporary attitudes, and affects—or even determines—much political and social policy. At its most extreme, it exalts the most trivial or tendentious 'study' by 'experts' into policy, forcibly overriding the preferences and convictions of millions of people. While rationalism at the individual level is a plea for more personal autonomy from cultural norms, at the social level it is often a claim—or arrogation—of power to stifle the autonomy of others, on the basis of superior virtuosity with words.

Rationalism is at one end of a spectrum with evolutionism at the other. The evolutionary process sees the determining rationality in a process—unarticulated in whole (animals) or in part (humans)—not in the individuals involved in the process, From this viewpoint, the evolutionary process is no less powerful in its effects tor being undiscovered or unplanned. This applies not only to biological evolution but to social processes as well. People have articulated intentions, but history is not a record of those intentions being realized so much as it is a record of entirely different things happening as a net result of innumerable strivings toward mutually incompatible goals. Hegel and Marx called this 'the irony of history' and Adam Smith called it 'an invisible hand' determining the social result of an individual's action—'a result which was no part of his intention.' Darwin's biological generalization of the same principle made the point even more vivid, since his evolutionary theory applied to animals whose intentions (or 'instincts') hardly included the evolution of their species, and even to inanimate life such as trees and grasses with no apparent intentions at all, but which develop elaborate ecological patterns nevertheless. In short, intentions must, at the very least, compete with powerful nonintentional forces.

When culture is conceived of as an evolutionary product—an ecology of human relations—it is by no means clear that any and all well-articulated reasons for changing particular parts of this social ecology must be valid. Even if plausible in the specific case, a policy's unintended consequences throughout a complex system is a weighty consideration. Articulated rationality can seldom predict very far or very specifically, and much depends on the speed and accuracy of social feedback mechanisms—and on whether the feedback includes incentives to adjust or abandon counterproductive policies.

Given the virtually limitless complexity of evolutionary or ecological processes—whether social or biological—and the limited scope of even the most rational and well-informed mind, it is by no means inevitable that the wisest, hardest working, or otherwise 'best' individuals will be the most rewarded at any given point in time. Evolutionary processes may select the best results without selecting the most meritorious individuals. Even in nature, the 'best' fish (by whatever standard) will die in a lake that dries up in a drought, while weaker, less intelligent, poorer swimming fish will thrive in a body of water with abundant nutrients and few dangers. In a price coordinated economy, those individuals who happen to be holding resources which suddenly acquire great value to others (oil lands when uses were discovered for petroleum) grow rich in spite of themselves. The relevant question is not whether the 'best' individuals are selected in this kind of process, but whether the best social result is obtained by such processes for moving resources, or whether alternative schemes would get what is wanted where it is wanted faster or better in some other sense- The shortages, waiting lines, and production bottlenecks which accompany more apparently 'rational' methods of allocating resources suggest that knowledge costs are a handicap that is more readily overcome when each holder of a valuable resource has an incentive to spread knowledge of its availability as quickly and widely as possible in order to get the maximum rewards, however individually undeserved. A similar principle is involved when an informer receives a reward for revealing the location of a wanted criminal. The question is not so much whether the person deserves the reward as whether it is worth it to the rest of the people to have the criminal out of circulation. In short, the Darwinian 'natural selection' principle may mean a natural selection of the 'fittest' situation or process, not necessarily individuals. The degree of rationality in the process is by no means limited to the degree of rationality of the individuals, as is often erroneously claimed. Rather, 'mankind has achieved things which have not been designed or understood by any individual,' though their value has been retrospectively authenticated by millions who could judge the results without being able to judge—much less design—the process.

Cultures reward with honor as well as with money. Often honors impute morality and/or wisdom to the recipient, but honorific titles and forms of address may be awarded immediately upon taking certain offices (judge, legislator, etc.)—that is, before any such qualities could manifest themselves in the incumbent. But this is consistent with the general social use of rewards as prospective incentives for desired conduct, whether or not they are in keeping with retrospective justice.

Cultures give patterns to human behavior not only by the options they offer of predigested inputs into the decision-making process, and of rewards for socially desired behavior, but also by their penalties for behavior that is not desired. Although less quantifiable than either economic or legal penalties, social penalties are not necessarily less severe or less effective. One of their greatest advantages over formal penalties is the extent to which they economize on the need for knowledge. In extreme cases, no matter how well concealed the transgression, the transgressor himself knows and inflicts punishments of conscience on himself, reflecting the cultural values planted in him. Such self-inflicted punishments have even led to suicide—a death penalty chosen as preferable to continuing to suffer the internal punishments for crimes successfully concealed from everyone else. For the law, by contrast, a crime must not only be discovered but also proven 'beyond a reasonable doubt' under stringent legal technicalities; the costs of effective knowledge (sufficient for legal penalties) are far higher than with informal social penalties. Moreover, informal controls can impose prior restraints which the criminal law cannot. Many students of crime and punishment regard the formal, legal penalties as only occasional backup to the informal controls that suffice for keeping most people law abiding.

One measure of purely social or moral sanctions is that they have effects even in circumstances where there is no formal power at all. Among slaves, for example, the mores of the group affected individual behavior. In the antebellum South, when a male and female slave were caught out in violation of curfew, the mores of the slave community called for him to volunteer to take her lashes in addition to his own. More generally, there was group solidarity which forbade betrayal to slave owners, and encouraged actions to aid and shield one another, and kept alive family ties, despite a total absence of legal sanctions for the slave families and in the face of hostility toward slave family ties by the white community.

Purely social controls are effective only to the extent that personal emotional ties give value to the goodwill of others and credence to their norms. If social possibilities, like economic possibilites, are inherently constrained, then the question is only which particular institutional mechanisms or processes best convey these constraints to individuals. Even it the prospect of total individual freedom under anarchy were institutionally permitted, it could not be substantively realized, since the tree acts of one would constrain the free acts of another, leading to (ess freedom in general—in the same way that an uncontrolled crowd pushing toward a fire exit has less chance of achieving its goal than it they were evacuated in some orderly manner.