Must-Read: Henry Farrell: A Brief Theory of Very Serious People

Must-Read: Henry Farrell: A Brief Theory of Very Serious People: “Tyler Cowen argues that the concept of ‘Very Serious People’ refers to people who…

…realize that common sense morality must, to a considerable extent, rule politics….

I think that’s wrong…. Unless my memory is badly mistaken (it might be), Duncan Black arrived at the concept… during the intra-US Iraq War debates… [being] very, very unhappy with how debate on the Iraq War was conducted. Those who advocated the pro-invasion case were treated as serious thinkers, of enormous gravitas, who were taking the tough decisions necessary to protect America’s national security. Those who disagreed were treated as flakes, fifth columnists, Commies and sneaking regarders. As we know, despite the agreement of the Very Serious People that the Iraq war was a grave and urgent necessity, it turned out to be a colossal clusterfuck. As we also know, many of the People who were Very Serious about Iraq still continue to be Very Serious about a multitude of other topics on our television screens and in our op-ed pages.

Being a Very Serious Person is about occupying a structural position that tends to reinforce, rather than counter, one’s innate biases and prejudices…. We all err…. VSPs face less incentive either to second guess their errors as they are making them, or to think through their errors after they have made them, because collective structures reinforce their tendency to think that they are right in the first instance, and their tendency to think that they ought to have been right (if it weren’t for those inconvenient facts/specific and contingent circumstances that meant that things didn’t go quite as predicted just this once) in the second…. When certain people’s perspectives are privileged, the value of democracy is weakened…. Centrist opinionators… whose opinions are… most likely to be reinforced… are especially likely to be prone to VSP syndrome…. The problem… [is] vicious feedback loops of self-satisfied yet consequential ignorance (as in the Iraq war).

July 25, 2015

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