Carelessness and Inattention

— Derbyshire has a great encapsulation of the psycho-epistemology of conservatism. Derbyshire likes reason well enough, but wants to put it in its place. If we attempt to reason everything through to its logical end, we will, like Hume, find we can be sure of nothing. In practical affairs, we might find ourselves paralyzed if we attempt to justify each of our norms by means of reduction and analysis. Thus, as Hume says, “carelessness and inattention alone can afford us any remedy.”
Derb's problem is that when we think too hard about the institution of marriage, it's just plain hard to explain exactly why same sex couples shouldn't be allowed to marry. So the solution is to STOP THINKING and just carry on. He hopes that all our yammering on about our fundamental social institutions is like foundational questions of math. We don't know how to solve them, but it doesn't make that much difference to the math.
Now, it's not like there's nothing to this, despite the fact that Hume ran into his problem because of his bad epistemological assumption, not because reason is just like that. But we do rely on habituation, tacit knowledge, the internalization of norms, and so forth. And it is impossible to act well (if it is possible to act at all) if one attempts to justify all motivating reasons in advance of action.
But from time to time it's necessary to re-evaluate the norms we have endorsed and internalized. Why? Because the world changes. And our social practices, if they are worth having, are adapted to present circumstances. In general, we don't need to know what those circumstances are, or how our norms are fitting. We can just do our thing. But if it keeps coming up–if acting on a principle or according to a certain practice keeps causing problems for a good number of us–then we'll have to consider whether we want to just keep doing it this way.
If we decide that gays should be able to marry (and, yes, they should), then we can stop thinking about it again, and just go on living normal lives of carelessness and inattention. Granted, it is very uncomfortable to live through a period of revaluation. It throws things into doubt, and whatever we're doubting, it might be central to the way you conceive of your life, so you feel a bit shaken. And you don't know how to think about it, and you don't want to think about it. You just want to yell, “Stop! This is just how it is.” And that's fine, that's a natural reaction. But the issue keeps coming up for a reason. The reason is that “how it is” is flatly unacceptable to many members of society. And all they want is to change how it is FOR THEM, not so much for you. But during the revaluation, you're forced to suffer through the process of thinking too much, and because thinking is hard, the best you can do is justify the practice in the terms that are most familiar to you. And so you end up begging the question, because you assume that if its not exactly how it is, then it will be something fundamentally different, and everything will change.
But it won't. Everything won't change. Some things will change. And it will take some getting used to. Once you get used to it, though, you can just go forward, like number theorists who have only a passing recognition that the foundations had once been called into question.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

18 thoughts

  1. Seriously, Will, WTF? How long have you really been puzzled by the widespread libertarian preference for state-subsidized roads plus building regulations oriented around cars? May I introduce you to Will Wilkinson circa November 10, 2008? This Bizarro Will Wilkinson expressed his guilty love of Wal-Mart – contra Roderick Long and Kevin Carson – despite Wal-Mart’s comparatively advantageous business model resting entirely upon its supply-chain management, which in turn depends entirely upon… state-subsidized roads.
    Yes, as you pointed out then, roads are “tax-funded infrastructure everyone uses”, but Wal-Mart uses them better than everyone else; the secret to Wal-Mart lies in its “warehouses on wheels” distribution model. I don’t fault Wal-Mart for taking advantage of the infrastructure already in place to create an ingenious distribution system, but it is highly unlikely this distribution model would be cost-effective were it not for state-subsidized roads.
    And I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that Bob Poole and other Reason Foundation types have been arguing for congestion and toll based pricing models since before I was born, nor that Cato looks favorably upon gas taxes as an alternative to CAFE standards.
    So why in the world would you grant Yglesias’ point instead of correcting him on this? When libertarians call for privatizing the roads, we are labeled a bunch of anarchist loons (a label many of us wear proudly!); when we don’t constantly harp on the roads issue, we are accused of being corporatist hacks. Damned if ya do…
    Incidentally, the summer I worked in D.C., I chose to drive my car to work each day instead of taking the Metro. I parked illegally most days in metered spots without putting coins in the meter (inspired by Gary Becker), amassed a slew of parking tickets (though the total penalty was still less than if I had paid in full each day or used the pay parking lot a few blocks away), received a ticket for driving on the highway during morning rush-hour without a passenger, endured D.C. morning rush-hour, and curtailed my alcohol consumption after work – all to avoid the cattle-car that is public transportation, not to mention the multi-block hike from the Metro station to work while wearing a suit and tie.
    Cigarettes : Man’s mastery over fire :: Cars : Braveheart-ian FREEDOM!

    1. Good Lord, a multi-block hike? How do the the mere mortals who obey laws cope with such hardship?
      An economist would say that you are a free rider: creating laws mandating that one pays for parking is meant to make it easier to find a place to park in exchange for money, and HOV lanes are made to reduce commute times in exchange for reducing the number of cars on the road. You didn’t give up the bad thing to get the good thing by taking advantage of lax enforcement.
      Of course, a normal person would call you a selfish dickhead who hates to be around poor people. These people would be off the mark, because they can’t understand the exquisite calculus going into your commute.

      1. I don’t remember how many blocks it was; I think it was something like a 15 minute walk, but I could be horribly off. This was a few years ago and I’m not used to measuring distances in blocks since I don’t normally spend much time in cities, apart from that one summer. I do remember trying the Metro+hike thing for the first week, and quickly learned that arriving at work each summer morning in a suit and tie and dress shoes, drenched in sweat, was not pleasant.
        I might have felt guilty violating the parking meter laws had the spaces ever been even close to fully occupied, but they never were. I think the most I ever saw was one other car parked on the same block, with 3-4 other spaces remaining empty. An economist would probably say the spots were over-priced since the market never cleared.
        Strangely, I would feel extremely guilty parking in a handicapped space even if I believed with a high degree of certainty that it wouldn’t be used otherwise. And I consider it extremely rude when I see others doing it. For some reason that social norm sticks for me in a way that regular metered parking doesn’t. It may have something to do with the fact that I’ve spent the majority of my life in Atlanta, where parking is ubiquitous and rarely if ever rationed by price. It’s rare to ever have to even parallel park, and a lot of people I know forgot how to do it after they passed their drivers’ exam.
        You have a better argument with the HOV lanes, although I didn’t even realize there was a law until I got ticketed the first time. Admittedly, after receiving the ticket I continued to break the law, knowingly. Meh, no feelings of guilt. Again, as a counter-example, I do feel guilty driving in a normally marked HOV lane on the left side of the highway as a single passenger, just not when the entire highway turns into an HOV during rush-hour. Maybe if I lived in D.C. for longer the social norm would begin to develop for me?
        I don’t feel guilty free riding unless I’m actively depriving someone of something they would have gotten otherwise. For example, I use Wikipedia all the time but have never contributed. (I suppose I’m using up some bandwidth.) And I illegally pirate music and movies that I wasn’t planning on buying anyway. I still pay to go see movies in the theater on occasion, and purchase the rare concert ticket or album if I appreciate the band.
        I can understand the selfish dickhead part, I suppose, but not so much the “hates to be around poor people part.” Of all the people entering D.C. each morning on either the Metro or the highway, I suspect that summer interns are in the lowest income brackets as individuals, and my family was in a lower income bracket than most of the other interns I met. I don’t recall seeing very many poor people on the Metro in the morning; most were dressed in suits, carrying iPods, and looking all policy wonkish.
        Despite your snark, you did make me realize how much the laws and social norms differ from state to state, so thanks for that. And I suppose urban density and city vs. suburb living has a lot to with the establishment of different social norms as well. For example, I remember noticing that in D.C., pedestrians are much more likely to observe the crosswalk signals even when no cars are coming, whereas in Atlanta, pedestrians pretty much ignore the signals at their convenience and jaywalk wherever they please.

      2. As for the crosswalks, that’s probably because of diplomats who can run over people with impunity. You have to watch out for those stupid foreigners even when you are in the right.

  2. Sometimes fellow libertarians get their best possible plans, against their better judgment. Until peoples’ utopian vision of universal private roads is realized, having people pay for the roads they use, via gas taxes and tolls is more fair than using another revenue source. Here in California, we have very high gas taxes, so we get something approaching a “pay for use” policy, a libertarian sensibility dressed up in liberal costume.

  3. I agree that zoning has probably led to sub-optimal land use in the suburbs, but it is hard to believe eliminating zoning would eliminate sprawl, see, e.g. Houston where there are private alternatives to zoning.
    The subsidies to cars are greatly exagerated and are far lower than any other form of transportation, see, e.g. Randal O’Toole’s work on this subject at

  4. This whole discussion seems flawed to me because it neglects to consider that zoning regulations are not imposed by bureaucrats of either the crazed left-wing or the corrupt right-wing variety, but are, for the most part, written by rational profit-maximizing entities, to wit, the multiple municipalities of America. These entities seek to maximize net tax revenue, i.e., the excess of additional property tax revenue attributable to new development less the cost of services required by such new development.
    In general, it isn’t clear to me that life would bee very different in a libertarian paradise. As I understand, libertarians don’t object to covenants running with the land, including covenants that establish homeowners’ associations (or merchants’ associations) with power to establish binding rules for properties subject to the covenant regime. If the whole country were blanketed by such associations, the land use rules in effect would be enforced by private civil actions rather than governmental actions, but the actual rules would be about the same as they are now.

  5. Will’s argument is just silly. If people tend to prefer the land use and transportation patterns they’ve already got, how did cars and sprawl become the dominant form of transportation and development in the first place? Why aren’t most of us still living in dense urban communities and getting around by public transportation? If laws and government policies relating to transportation and land use are strongly at odds with how most people want to live and get around, how have those laws and policies managed to persist for so long, and in so many places? Sprawl is not an American phenomenon. It’s a global phenomenon. It seems to be the more-or-less inevitable outcome when a democracy becomes wealthy enough for mass ownership of private automobiles (and it is not precluded by geography, as in countries like Japan and Singapore).

  6. Two obvious and related hypothesis about the “libertarian preference” question.
    First, and more meaningfully, cars provide much more individual liberty than trains and busses. You can take a car anywhere you want, whenever you want (or close enough as makes no difference).
    With a bus or train, especially state-run ones, you go where the State wants to let you go, when it wants to let you go there.
    The libertarian appeal of the former is obvious, no?
    Secondly, I think it’s more that given that we already have both subsidized roads and subsidized mass transit, most people focus on the “greater evil” both in terms of state control and in terms of expense (after all, if it was free and nobody was being oppressed by taxation to promote it, it would be far less of a libertarian evil!).
    That and arguing for road privatization is a lot harder to manage – too many people reflexively assume it’s just impossible to have private roads of any amount and quality; the rewards to arguing against them are lower per amount of effort than arguing against subsidized rail boondoggles, where the costs and failings are more obvious.
    I’ve certainly seen academic libertarian arguments against road subsidies as well as rail and bus subsidies.

    1. “With a bus or train, especially state-run ones, you go where the State wants to let you go, when it wants to let you go there.”
      That was well put.

  7. Where is this libertarian consensus that state-subsidized roads and suburban zoning is a good? I am not familiar with Caplan’s thoughts on this, but my subjective experience is that a libertarian who feels this way is in the minority in his camp.
    Given the false choice between state roads and state rail, I can see why a pragmatic libertarian would choose the more governmentally decentralized option of roads and zoning. That, at least, provides for a lower cost “right of exit” to which Kling was referring.

  8. Quite a few people do travel between Dallas and Houston, and not necessarily to travel elsewhere.
    If that were the case, Southwest would have never taken off.

    1. Southwest’s business is built on cheap multi-hop flights. Probably 50% of Southwest passengers arriving at DAL or HOU are through-passengers headed somewhere else. Probably 90% of the remainder needs a car upon arrival to get to their (non-downtown) destination. That leaves about 5% of the original set of passengers who might benefit from downtown-to-downtown rail service.

  9. Who said it?
    ‘We need only turn to the problems which arise in connection with land, particularly with regard to urban land in modern large towns, in order to realize that a conception of property which is based on the assumption that the use of a particular item of property affects only the interests of its owner breaks down. There can be no doubt that a good many, at least, of the problems with which the modern town planner is concerned are genuine problems with which governments or local authorities are bound to concern themselves. Unless we can provide some guidance in fields like this about what are legitimate or necessary government activities and what are its limits, we must not complain if our views are not taken seriously when we oppose other kinds of less justified “planning.”‘

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