“The spirit of liberty,” wrote Judge Learned Hand, “is the spirit that is not too sure it is right.” Authoritarianism starts with absolute certainty: Why tolerate any dissent when it is so clearly wrong? Why allow people their own choices if they choose incorrectly?
The antidote to absolute certainty is a spirit of inquiry—but that spirit runs up against various mental habits we’re all wired with, such as confirmation bias and the backfire effect: People confronted with information that contradicts their belief often end up digging in their mental heels.
In one experiment, conservatives were presented with Bush administration claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Some also were given information refuting those claims. Thirty-four percent of the first group accepted the administration’s claim. But 64 percent of those presented with the refutation accepted the administration’s claim. The contradictory evidence made them truculent.
This has serious consequences in more than one way. As Bloomberg columnist and George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen recently wrote, “a few years ago, when I read people I disagreed with, they swayed my opinion in their direction to some degree. These days, it’s more likely that I simply end up thinking less of them.” (His comment is reminiscent of Santayana’s remark about newspapers: “When I read them I form perhaps a new opinion of the newspaper, but seldom a new opinion on the subject discussed.”)
As an antidote to such cognitive biases, Cowen suggests not merely reading things you disagree with, but actually writing them—and, he further advises, “try to make them sound as persuasive as possible.” The exercise is similar to the invention of another GMU economist, Bryan Caplan, who came up with the Ideological Turing Test: Try to write an essay in the voice of an ideological opponent. If a neutral judge can’t tell the difference, then you pass.
These are excellent proposals that might help break the political logjam America seems to have gotten itself into. Instead of knocking down straw men and rebutting claims nobody actually believes, they make us take on the best arguments from the other side. If nothing else, this makes our own case stronger. If you don’t comprehend your opponent’s point, then you can’t counter it. And if you can’t counter it, then you can’t convince anybody who believes it.
More hopefully, arguing for the other side might inculcate a healthy sense of self-doubt.
To that end, then, here is one case that could be made for Donald Trump, from someone who has spilled a lot of ink making the opposite case.
Let’s begin with Trump’s most controversial act, his executive order on immigration and refugees. While it’s fair to quibble over his selection of countries or the legal technicalities of the measure, nobody should oppose its core assumptions—liberals least of all. In fact, Trump’s order epitomizes a concept that liberals gave birth to: the precautionary principle.
The precautionary principle says that if a particular policy carries a potential risk to the public, then it should be avoided until it can be proven safe. Put another way, the principle says we should take action to protect the public even when the science is not yet settled.
A classic example is the introduction of genetically modified foods. We don’t know that GM foods are dangerous (in fact, there is much evidence that they are not)—but we don’t know they are perfectly safe, either. So why take the unnecessary risk of permitting them?
The parallel to immigrants and refugees should be obvious.
Liberals have made a similar argument about nuclear power for years: Yes, it is a carbon-free source of energy that can help in the fight against global warming. But while the odds of a nuclear catastrophe are low, the consequences of such a catastrophe are horrific. Just look at Fukushima. Ergo, the potential for a calamity of historic proportions argues against permitting even a minuscule probability.
Trump is doing nothing but making this very same point about immigrants and refugees from select countries with known terrorist cadres. If he is wrong, the worst that can happen is that some foreigners are delayed in enjoying the privilege of entering the United States. But if he is right, then he has prevented another 9/11.
What else has Trump done right? Two words: Neil Gorsuch. Gorsuch is universally recognized as a brilliant jurist. He is Antonin Scalia without the straight-razor tongue. Progressives are telling one another scary stories about what they claim are Gorsuch’s views, but many Democrats attacking him now voted to confirm him to the appellate court (we’re looking at you, Chuck Schumer).
Replacing a conservative on the Supreme Court with another conservative leaves the balance unchanged. Gorsuch is exquisitely qualified, and there is no good reason to oppose his confirmation. (“Yeah, but when Obama nominated Garland …” does not count. “Paybacks are hell” is not a good argument.)
These two moves alone would be good enough. But Trump also has upset a calcified and sclerotic order that badly needed shaking up. As Jefferson wrote, “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.” By that yardstick Washington—a city of the political aristocracy, by the political aristocracy and for the political aristocracy—was about half a century overdue.
Liberals are complaining that Trump is flooding the zone with a flurry of action. “These are the things that happened in THE LAST 7 DAYS,” goes the breathless complaint.
Really? And to think that liberals used to complain about Washington gridlock. Well, that’s no longer a problem. Score another point for Trump.
Trump also has asked some big questions. Given NATO’s purpose when it was founded in 1949, does it really need to remain the same organization until the heat-death of the universe? Why, exactly? And why is asking the question treated like child molestation? Whatever happened to “question authority”?
We are all supposed to be horrified that Trump is installing Cabinet secretaries in the departments of Education and Labor and at the Environmental Protection Agency who take a different approach to the agencies’ historic missions. That’s a pretty rich complaint coming from people who scoff at ideas like “original intent” and fidelity to the Constitution. If you read that document, you won’t find anything in it—or in the Declaration of Independence, for that matter—authorizing such executive agencies in the first place.
The federal government today looks nothing like the federal government as conceived of by the nation’s founders. Instead of worrying about the historic mission of the EPA, perhaps we should worry about the historic mission of the United States of America. That’s where the real problem lies.
Well, that’s one argument for Trump, anyway. His supporters could make others—and no doubt could have made this one better. But it’s a useful exercise nonetheless.
Now: Can Trump supporters make a convincing case against him?
This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.