On Bertie Russell and Johnny Keynes, and the Two Meta Models of Politics

People can differ a lot on their politics. Some people want free markets, others want government intervention; some want free healthcare for all, others want to pay for it (? :P); some people want drone strikes in Pakistan to stop, others want them to continue (? :(), etc, etc.

Surely, the differences arise due to the different ways in which people model the world and the conflicting assumptions they build into their models. For example, someone who wants drone strikes in Pakistan to continue ostensibly assumes that the drone strikes are somehow only, or mostly, killing the militants/terrorists, and that the loss of civilian lives is probably worth it in the long term. Furthermore, their model also assumes (perhaps unbeknownst to them) that there is no harm in killing the targets like this because they do not deserve the same “courtesy” (being brought to courts etc) normally given to other human beings.

Those who are against drone strikes probably factor in other details such as that the strikes are fuelling even more terrorism, and that killing one’s designated enemies is tantamount to a war crime, and so on.

I can think of two meta-models of the various ways in which people model political situations and issues. These are inspired by a single quote that the preeminent economist of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes, made about his friend, the preeminent philosopher of the 20th century, Bertrand Russell. This is what Johnny said of Bertie: “Bertie held two ludicrously incompatible beliefs: on the one hand he believed that all the problems of the world stemmed from conducting human affairs in a most irrational way; on the other hand that the solution was simple, since all we had to do was to behave rationally.”

In modeling terms, it could be argued that Keynes means something like the following: Bertie suggests that people irrationally build all sorts of irrational assumptions into their models; and all we need for a rational world is for people to be rational and incorporate rational assumptions in their models. If that’s not a contradiction in terms, I don’t know what is. People are the way they are. We have to accept that and deal with things accordingly, my dear Bertie.

This is the first meta-model of politics, as espoused by Keynes. This model, perhaps the dominant meta-model of politics, often manifests itself in its crudest form when people say: “O but that’s human nature. That’s how human beings are, and that’s how things shall always be!” It would appear that using his famed “cleverness” Keynes has vanquished his friend.

Not so fast Johnny boy :-). There is another meta-model of politics, the one that is espoused by Russell, in the same Keynes quote.

What Bertie’s meta-model assumes is this: It is true that people could be declared to be irrational because of the various irrational assumptions they put into their models. However, this apparent irrationality could be due to a host of reasons. It could be due to a lack of time and energy; not possessing the right tools (such as relevant facts) for informing one’s models. Also, it could be because people are often unaware of their assumptions, and would change their models in light of new evidence. 

It is undeniable that people would always differ from each other on some things. The beauty of life lies in disagreement and dissent. However, it would appear that on many things people agree or would agree if only they were properly informed. For example, in the US, many people are against a welfare state. But observe that at various points in time, around one fifth of the US population erroneously believed that the largest federal expense was on welfare!! Perhaps, their views would change if they came to know the facts. They might not, but correct information would help. So for example, during the 2004 elections, a majority of the Bush supporters were in favor of the Kyoto protocol (climate change convention) and erroneously thought that he was also in favor! (The US ended up rejecting the treaty). In 2008, the majority (if not all) of Obama supporters believed that he was being funded by small funders. In fact, he was heavily financed by major corporations, with top honors going to Goldman Sachs! A similar state of affairs is true for the Israel Palestine conflict. For example, after Camp David 2000, it was heavily reported that Arafat walked away from the generous offer. Not in a single instance in the mainstream media were the all-important maps shown, so that the public could see for themselves what the so-called generous offer entailed (division of the west bank into separate cantons).

Given such lack of relevant information, surely something that any scientist necessarily uses to inform her models, can people be blamed for often making irrational assumptions and models??

Thus, in view of the above, and also assuming that given a conducive environment, people’s modeling skills could improve (like any artist polishes her craft), I would like to think that it is Bertie’s meta-model that captures a greater chunk of reality than Johnny’s!

(Endnote: Why relevant information has such a hard time surfacing would be a topic for another post, one that could explore hidden, unarticulated views such as: “Might is right (so stop moaning)” and other such venerable assumptions in the realm of political modeling. In the meantime, happy political modeling; and as in all modeling endeavors,  there are no guarantees: we try our best and hope for the same.)

5 responses to “On Bertie Russell and Johnny Keynes, and the Two Meta Models of Politics”

  1. Well written. people would agree more if the noise and confusion could be eliminated. a lot of deceit and lies go into ensuring that they remain divided.

  2. I’m with Johnny; you give people two competing alternatives and they don’t choose the right one but the good one.

    1. Well, it depends on what you mean by good and right. i am guessing (since you have not explained) by “right” you mean the correct thing to do (morally, ethically, rationally, etc) and by “good” you mean the thing that maximizes some utility or is beneficial in some practical terms, etc. If that’s what you mean, then you definitely agree with Johnny 🙂 But I guess Bertie won’t deny that. I guess he will say what I tried to say (albeit very poorly) on his behalf above 🙂

      1. Of course one interpretation of Keynes argument could be that he thinks given two alternatives, one good and one right, people would reject both, and somehow invent a third one that is neither!! 🙂

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