The Market For Lemons, The Market For Bullshit, And The Great Cascading Credence Crash Of 2016
Submitted by Daniel Cloud
The Market for Lemons, the Market for Bullshit, and the Great Cascading Credence Crash of 2016
“The cost of dishonesty, therefore, is not only the amount by which the purchaser is cheated; the cost must also include the loss incurred from driving legitimate business out of existence.”
George Akerlof, The Market for Lemons
People have begun to worry that we’re experiencing a crisis of confidence in our traditionally most prestigious institutions - in our political parties, and central banks, and great newspapers, and universities, and even in accredited experts.
Views that would have been regarded as extreme in the past also seem much more common now. The entire political spectrum, all around the world, seems to be in the middle of collapsing into a collection of smaller, more radical groups. Some of them advocate violence.
The problem doesn’t seem to be unique to this particular historical moment. There are other times in recent history – the 1930’s, perhaps, or the 1960’s – when the public seemed equally unhappy with existing institutional points of view. Like the present, they were periods of relatively rapid change in organizational and communications technology.
The underlying problem is, I think, a very strange one. But it’s a risk faced by any society that both undergoes rapid technological change, and contains organized interest groups. (Formal or informal.)Something really bad is happening to all our bullshit. In fact, I’ve begun to worry that there’s actually a sort of crash or cascading failure going on in the bullshit market. If there is, I think it’s driven, as previous bullshit crashes were, by changing technology.
This may seem like an odd thing to worry about. But it’s actually a very natural worry, if you have any interest at all in recent American philosophy and/or the economics of informational externalities.
Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit i has, for a long time, been the single best-selling title in Princeton University’s Press’s philosophy list. The book sells well partly because people think the title is somehow cute, or funny, but Frankfurt himself doesn’t really seem to think that bullshit is a laughing matter at all. (Take a look at his 2007 YouTube video2, if you want to see if he’s serious about the subject.)
He argues that lying and bullshit are distinct forms of dishonesty. The liar is trying to present something false as true. But the bullshitter doesn’t actually care whether what he’s saying is true or false, relevant or irrelevant. He represents himself as concerned with the truth, but in fact his only concern is presenting a certain appearance or creating some particular impression in his audience. Frankfurt thinks that this is a much more subtle and powerful strategy, and therefore a much more dangerous one.
The bullshitter is competing with those around him to seem a certain way, or he’s competing with them to avoid seeming a certain way. Or perhaps he wants to make someone else seem some way, or make some proposal seem some way, seem noble or contemptible, dangerous or safe. Or he wants to fit in, or stand out, or be admired, or pitied, or feared, or promoted. The truths he speaks in the course of his effort to achieve these things may be completely irrelevant to the point he’s supposedly trying to make. But unlike the liar, the bullshit artist doesn’t actually have to say anything false to mislead. He might, but he also might not, he might just talk about a lot of irrelevant true stuff. (Machiavelli tells us that a Prince should almost never lie…)
This is a way of deceiving that’s much safer for the deceiver than outright lying. A lie can be destroyed by a single incongruous truth. It’s much harder for a single fact to pierce the veil of bullshit, because it’s more difficult for a single fact to dispositively establish that some set of considerations is irrelevant, or that their importance is being exaggerated. Humans are instinctively angry at the liar, but the bullshit artist slides right past our evolved defenses. Frankfurt thinks this is a much more powerful and subtle strategy than lying, and therefore a more dangerous one.
In fact, it seems to me that one of the ways we can tell that someone is basically a bullshit artist is that it never really happens to the person that they argued for something, and then, to their surprise and dismay, found out that they were wrong about the facts and had to permanently change their views. That just isn’t a thing, in their world. The bullshitter’s very rare and grudging public mea culpa is always only tactical. When your argument isn’t actually based on the trueness of certain facts in the first place, no pattern of facts can possibly dislodge you from it in any lasting way. As Frankfurt says, the bullshit artist has a kind of freedom and a kind of safety that the liar can only dream of.
Is Bullshit Necessary, or Inevitable?
Presumably the idea of a crash in the bullshit market wouldn’t actually worry Frankfurt himself very much. In his most recent statements on the topic (in his recent Vimeo video iii) he seems convinced that bullshit is unnecessary, that a world without bullshit would be a better one. But he hasn’t always seemed so sure; in the earlier YouTube video, he was still wondering whether bullshit might perhaps be of some use to society.
(The contrast between the two videos I’ve mentioned is interesting, in itself, as a sign of where we’re all headed, of how things are developing at the moment. The 2007 YouTube video has clunky production values and a crystal-clear message. But the much more recent one on Vimeo… Well, let’s just say that the producers seem to have been worried that in 2016, a man sitting in a chair telling the truth simply isn’t enough.)
Is bullshit, defined as Frankfurt’s defined it, something that we can ever really expect to be completely free of? Personally I doubt it. For one thing, some of it strikes me as genuinely useful. The policeman directing traffic in his spiffy uniform is doing his very best to present a somewhat false appearance of gleaming perfection, because a ragged naked man presenting the same truths about where it would be convenient for cars to go would be ignored. He may even wear a hat designed to make him look taller and more imposing than he actually is. He isn’t trying to look tall because he’s vain. Yes, the whole thing is an act, but in this case it’s a necessary act. Because of the nature of the social role that’s been delegated to him, because we all want him to send a certain clear, authoritative and unambiguous signal iv, we excuse and approve of these conventional, socially necessary, legitimate forms of bullshit.
No doubt the line between these things and the more egregious or harmful forms of bullshit is a very complex and deceptive one, with one form often disguised as the other. (Perhaps this particularpoliceman actually is a little vain. Maybe his hat is custom-made, and is a little taller than a regular policeman’s hat. Or maybe he takes bribes to let some cars through the intersection more quickly.)
Anyway, empirically, there don’t seem to be any large complex human societies without any bullshit. To completely get rid of it, you’d have to read everyone’s mind at all times, which seems undesirable. So I can’t quite agree with Frankfurt’s more recent opinion that we’d all be better off without any bullshit at all. It seems to me that human society would collapse into a collection of small warring tribes. (Just as traffic at the intersection might grind to a halt without the spiffy policeman.) As far as I can tell, that’s how we lived before we invented bullshit. No chimpanzee is a bullshit artist – or any other kind of artist.
Like it or not, we have it now, and I find it impossible to imagine a practical plan for completely eliminating it. If we really can’t get rid of it, then I can’t agree that the relevant question is what life would be like without it. That seems utopian. Bullshit exists; it’s doing something in our society. It has effects on us. The real question, I think, is whether there can be better or worse effects. Is some bullshit more damaging than the rest? Are fairly standard forms of timeworn bullshit perhaps a bit like the suite of benign microbes that live in our guts? Is existing, harmless bullshit protecting us from novel, possibly dangerous bullshit? (As the analogies of the 1930’s and the Reformation might suggest…) Can anything really go wrong with the market for bullshit? Are there any public dangers associated with this large-scale, apparently rather consequential social phenomenon, do we need to manage it somehow?