The case for mockery

Note: this is NOT an endorsement of mocking your political opponents. But Karl Smith has a post at Modeled Behavior from a few days back that I want to address. He writes:

Krugman mocks James Pethokoukis’s reply on business uncertainty and the recovery. I think that mocking is not the best strategy for getting people to give up even ridiculous positions. It raises the cost to them of admitting that they were wrong.

Its like your facing a wrath of zombie ideas and your solution is to tightenmonetary conversation policy. And, I should note that I believe Krugman is doing it for the same reason that people are pushing for tighter monetary policy – he is letting is moral sense get in the way of his practical sense.

People with bad ideas should be mocked. But, intellectual discourse is not a morality play. The goal is to increase understanding, whatever the source of misunderstanding is.

So, how should we be dealing with an idea like “Business uncertainty is the cause of the slow recovery?”

Well, we want to lower the cost to rejecting this idea and so we should divorce rejecting it from rejecting other ideas that people hold dear.

There’s good stuff in here, for sure. In particular, the last line really matters, perhaps in a way beyond Karl’s intention. Divorcing self-worth from the policy idea in question is a crucial part of changing anyone’s mind (as I mentioned in this Atlantic piece, and as Chris Mooney covers here.)

But to take a step back, I think Karl is missing the practical point of mockery. I think the point is not to change the mind of the opponent being mocked. The point is to discredit that person so that others – less stringent in their beliefs – feel pressure not to associate with them by sharing the belief.

Imagine you’re a business person generally open to the idea that regulatory uncertainty is holding back the recovery and you’re at a party where the subject is being discussed. You hold no strong view and so you didn’t start the conversation. But a Krugmanite, whom you know personally, is discussing the issue, taking one of the two potential tacts.

In the Karl Smith scenario, your Krugmanite acquaintance says something like “I’m not sure about this regulatory uncertainty thing. I just can’t see the case for it.”

In the Krugman scenario, the Krugmanite acquaintance says, “I just don’t believe the quacks on the right are still parroting that regulatory uncertainty argument. I mean, the economy is complicated, and heck if I know how to fix it, but these loons keep going back to that argument, despite zero evidence for it.”

It seems possible that in the first scenario, you the undecided business man remain somewhat sympathetic to the regulatory uncertainty argument. It was, after all, framed as being in the realm of debate at least. But in the latter scenario, presuming you have some measure of respect for – and desire to be liked by – your Krugmanite acquaintance, you feel compelled to dismiss it. You might disagree with that Krugmanite on many issues, but perhaps you accept his framing of the debate that the regulatory uncertainty argument is out of bounds.

I happen to think that Krugman, in his mockery, is thinking very practically. Maybe the model I’m describing in favor of mockery works and maybe it doesn’t. And, again, whether it’s justified is a separate question I won’t try to answer here. But I suspect this model is a better explanation for why Krugman and some others (Yglesias?) indulge in mockery of their opponents. The aim is to discredit a certain argument or group of arguers in order to more favorably frame the “legitimate” debate.

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