In a recent book, Peter Thiel noted that when he interviews people for a job, he likes to ask them: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”
I like this question; it can tell you a lot about how a person thinks, and where they're willing to argue with people. It also got me thinking about my own answers to such a thing (as a good question will always do), and while I could probably think of a few dozen answers, here's one that came to mind quickly.
I believe that people aren't actually stupid.
Let me give this some context: we tend to assume that people are stupid, or are doing things because they simply don't understand, in a shocking variety of contexts -- especially when they disagree with us about something. Sometimes it's associated with simple things: lottery tickets are a "tax on people who can't do math," people only use drugs if they're too dumb to understand the consequences.
Sometimes it's people's entire careers: just yesterday, I quoted James Heaney as describing government regulation as being run by "the best guesses of well-intentioned but dim-witted bureaucrats." And there's a neverending stream of media commentators who are completely stunned and confused by the fact that people become drug dealers or hang out on street corners rather than getting straight jobs.
Sometimes it's far more systematic: both the Left and the Right ultimately structure government programs on the theory that poor people can't understand things without the help of someone wiser than them. From the Left, this takes the form of complex systems designed to make sure people get only the "right" assistance, e.g. buying only the right foods. From the Right, it takes the form of making sure that these people aren't "cheating" and using their assistance for bad things. Both of these presuppose that the people in question couldn't decide on which things they actually need by themselves.
Sometimes it's overtly political, as when we wonder why people vote for politicians and parties who very obviously do not have their best interests at heart.
My unpopular idea is this: people tend to be specialist experts in the circumstances of their own lives. If someone is unemployed, a job is available, and they aren't taking it, I'm going to start from the assumption that yes, they are
aware that jobs pay money and they need money, and they probably know something I don't. (For example, that job would require that they stop providing child care to a relative's children, or the cost of getting to that job would eat up all the pay, or any number of other things) If someone is voting for a political candidate who seems directly inimical to their needs, then I'm going to assume that they have some other needs as well which this candidate does
serve, and that those are more important to them.
This applies to the powerful as well as to the powerless. For example, if politicians continue to push a legislative agenda which claims to achieve one thing but actually fails at it completely, but instead has a bunch of other consequences, and they continue to do so, then I am going to assume that they are not stupid: they are simply not stating their actual objectives. (And this might be because they feel a need to conceal those objectives, or it might be because they themselves don't consciously understand them!)
This latter consequence of my unpopular hypothesis can seem remarkably cynical at times. If you apply this to (say) the War on Drugs -- which has zero measurable effect on drugs, but which has profound effects on incarceration rates, on the political liberty of Certain Segments of the Population, on the economics of life of those same segments, and on the powers of the police -- then I am going to assume that the people who continue to advocate this are not, on the whole, idiots. Rather, these are
their objectives, and the War on Drugs is simply a rhetorical tool and a political structure into which those objectives can be fit.
In fact, our politics are filled with loudly touted movements and programs which seem to have no correlation with what they actually achieve. I'm going to avoid giving a lengthy list here, since I suspect you can come up with them on your own and I would just infuriate hordes of people by suggesting that their public statements are disingenuous, but I have found this to be a profoundly useful razor to apply to political statements, and the cynical-seeming outcomes it produces tend to be right more often than not.
In the thread below, +Christof Harper
summarizes this nicely: "Never attribute to stupidity actions you don't understand."
Oh, and lottery tickets? You're not buying a stake in the prize; that would be idiotic. In fact, anyone who was buying a lottery ticket seriously believing that they would win millions of dollars from doing so would be clearly disconnected from reality. Most people are paying for entertainment: a time period of getting to hope, fantasize, and laugh about the idea of "what if I won?" That is, they're paying for the things they actually
get from buying the lottery ticket, not the things which they almost certainly won't get.
So, let me pass the question on to you: what important truth do very few people agree with you
(Thanks to +Alex Scrivener
for pointing out this question to me. Photo by Lisa Brewster: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sophistechate/