Intellectual Integrity

Paul Krugman got it right.

In a recent New York Times opinion column, the well-regarded economist put his finger on a problem that has gnawed on me for a long time. It is this: Why can’t we allow the people whom we choose to govern us to change their minds when experience demands it?

The classic definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, with the expectation of a different result. this is no more true than in politics, yet “gotcha journalism” (don’t get me started) and a twisted perception among the electorate that mind-changing and intellectual weakness are somehow equivalent drive politicians to do just that—maintain a fixed position in the face of contrary facts.

And so they do, at great cost to our collective ability to solve large problems in a manner that provides the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people. The ability of our government at every level to solve narrow problems to the benefit of political cronies, large campaign contributors, and short-term poll results continues with impressive efficiency, and you can be sure that in these less-visible areas of government function mind-changing goes on all the time.

Because it’s a prime suspect in this case, let me get started on gotcha journalism anyway. This is at the core of news organizations’ dumbing down of journalism, to compete for your attention with fictional dramas that have easy-to-discern heroes, bad guys, and plots with tidy endings.

Behind the dumbing-down lurks journalist careerism. Among such such towering egos competing for national recognition—and especially for the anchor-chair brass ring—it could hardly be otherwise. Certainly, the companies employing them have apparently decreed that in the service of ratings and profits no trick is too cheap. And all of these tricks are performed at the expense of thoughtful analysis and in-depth reporting of information that is important to know but harder to uncover than, say, personal peccadilloes. They’re also performed, especially at the local level, by “journalists” who lack only big red noses and floppy shoes to be actual clowns.

Economics—Krugman’s line of work—is especially ill-suited to dogma. As Franklin Roosevelt once said, “The country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

But, as Krugman said, “What we see instead in many public figures is, however, the behavior George Orwell described in one of his essays: ‘Believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that were right.”

There will never be an end to ideology in politics. What we should seek, as Krugman put it, is not an absence of ideology, but an open mind, willing to consider that parts of the ideology may be wrong.

In short, we should seek intellectual integrity in the character of the person we wish to represent us.