The Pervasive Role of Priors: Part One

Thanks to Larry for inviting me to guest-blog. It’s every academic’s dream, I think, to have a built-in audience for her thoughts. And given the caliber of this blog and the readership it attracts, I could scarcely have a better one.

One subject I’ll be blogging on is my general view that people’s prior beliefs and other aspects of how they view and take in the world explain a huge amount, much more than is usually acknowledged. They (people’s priors) help explain why there are so many debates that never get anywhere.  Both sides might have terrific arguments, yet nobody is persuaded.

And people keep on making the same sorts of arguments, even knowing this. Sometimes they wonder why more people aren’t persuaded. It’s a bit like the old joke about the person who goes to a foreign country and doesn’t know the language, so he tries to communicate in his own language and, when he’s not understood, he just tries again, repeating what he said . . . but louder.

I recently went to a very interesting colloquium co-sponsored by the Federalist Society and the Liberty Fund on Behavioral Law and Economics.  One big issue discussed was the relationship between behavioral law and economics and law, including most importantly paternalistic justifications for law that behavioral l & e might provide.  Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to ban sales of large sizes of soda was much on people’s minds.

One thing I very much wanted to get out of the discussion was an understanding of the other participants’ priors as well as my own. Here are some initial thoughts.

First, people differ enormously as to how much they mind being told what to do. For instance, some people dream of being their own bosses, whereas others (me and my family) would consider being our own bosses a nightmare. Some people are particularly bothered by government telling them what to do; some people don’t think government telling them what to do is so bad. Of course it matters enormously what they are being told to do, although not in a simple linear way.

We can consider two different types of reasons. One is that the thing you’re being asked to do is onerous- you think you’d experience doing it as a lot of trouble, or it’s something you really don’t want to do. That one might be somewhat linear—the more trouble you have to take, the more you mind. But often, one bristles based on what one would articulate as ‘principle’ – who is the government to tell me I have to get my cat a rabies shot when she’s never going outside?

Who is the government to make it harder for me to get the gun that I want to have to feel my family is safe, and with which I might save their lives? Who is the government to tell me and my neighbors in a building that has “historical” designation that we can only make changes the government approves?

And one might be influenced by one’s underlying views and values about how well-intentioned government is generally, and how important not being told what to do is.  And of course government’s stated rationale- is it supposedly just for my own good, or for society’s, or for some subset of society’s….?

People at the colloquium disagreed as to whether government thinks paternalistic rationales are more palatable than ones based on externalities.  I will have more to say on this—I will be continuing this thread in later posts.

You may also like...

5 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    Isn’t there another prior lurking under what you call “principle,” namely that the burden of proof is on the government to justify asking you to do anything? That isn’t an assumption shared in all cultures, polities or political philosophies, and ought to be articulated.

  2. Claire Hill says:

    Yes, absolutely! I don’t mean to suggest that the priors I mention are the only ones.

  3. Brett Bellmore says:

    Some of the other “priors” would be,

    How do civil liberties get treated?

    What makes something a civil liberty?

    What is the rule of law, and how important is it?

    I’ve found these seriously involved in, for instance, the gun control debate.

  4. Terri E. says:

    this reminds me of what we are discussing in class this week on Ethnocentrism and disembodiement. The united States is made up of several different cultures, in which we all share different values, religions and beliefs. All citizens try to are ethnocentrism, in which we judge other culture beliefs and values based off our own culture beliefs. In other words when it comes to the government and it policies, some citizens are okay with the government telling them whatto do and how to live because it is apart of their culture. For instance lets take the prophet Muhammad cartoon ( chapter 4 page 105 of Digital Media Ethics textbook) which sparked an crisis when the author spoke out about freedom of speech and democracy directed towards Islam and muslims, of how Muhammad ran the lives of these people and they had to obey. while on the other hand here in America we make our own choices and have our own voices, we choose how we live. Basically in this situation far a the government being able to persude citizens to do or think a certain way, it depends soley on that individual, their beliefs and culture values.

  5. anon says:

    In an ideal world each country would be founded on some well-defined set of basic values upon which all the citizens of the country agree. Then all the laws would be derived from those values as logical consequences of them. The difference between different countries would be which set of basic values they use as a foundation. The world would be partitioned to countries so that every person who disagrees with the values of his/her country could move to another country with a set of foundational values he/she agrees with.

    In the real world, people with completely incompatible set basic values squabble over how the country should be run. The public discussion in politics is often on the level of what should be done instead of what we want to achieve in the end. The best solution to whatever political problem the country is facing of course depends on what we want to achieve which in turn depends on the basic values of people. The public discussion about policy should always start from the philosophical level: what is the basic moral principle we use as a foundation when solving this problem?

    Of course an agreement in a debate can not be reached if the axioms on which each of the debaters base their rationale are completely different. It is like a lion and a zebra debating on whether they should grow meat or vegetables without ever actually explicitly revealing that one of them is a herbivore and the other is a carnivore.