Tyler Cowen ponders why people with influence tend towards conventional views, and he offers some reasonable suggestions to explain why this happens. I think there are may be a few other plausible explanations, and only one of them contradicts part of his list. First, I should say that the phenomenon of “selling out” is not really all that common. The accusation may get thrown around a good bit, but usually those in a position to “sell out” never bought in to ideas that were all that marginal or unconventional. Selling out implies that you have exchanged some deeply-held view or loyalty in exchange for personal advantage, but this rarely happens. More often, the people who gain influence never staked out particularly unconventional views early on. They were already temperamentally inclined to accept prevailing wisdom, and as they moved into different contexts they adapted to whatever the prevailing wisdom was as easily as they had earlier. For that matter, people who are uninterested in accommodating prevailing wisdom tend not to go into political or media careers where that habit of accommodation is very useful, partly because they find the importance of this habit in such careers to be a reason to do something else.

It is not as if there are many current defenders of prevailing wisdom who were once hard-core radicals opposed to fundamental assumptions that supported the status quo and then somehow accommodated themselves to the status quo. For the most part, major changes in a person’s political views probably tend towards radicalization, and not towards conventionality. I don’t think I am simply imposing my own experience as a general rule. If influential people continue to hold conventional views, this is because they were by and large brought up with these views and conditioned by their educational institutions to accept and articulate these views. My guess is that most holders of unconventional or marginal views tend to come to these views as they age, and through personal experience or study come to find the conventional views they received when they were younger to be false or flawed in some way.

Disillusionment with conventional views seems to me to be a more common experience than falling under the spell of conventional ideas. Part of this is a function of a basic characteristic of conventionl views: even if they are largely right, they are not terribly interesting or engaging, and with distressing regularity they are not even right. Once established, a conventional view either endures or it doesn’t, but it doesn’t tend to make additional converts after it has caught on. Reading The World Is Flat probably doesn’t change the way you look at the world; reading Fooled By Randomness or Pessimism might.

The other two major factors are limited time and limited information. Most people, including most influential people, are not going to pay close attention to a wide range of subjects because they do not have the time to do so, so they will tend to rely on others. This puts them, like most of the rest of us, at the mercy of expert or insider consensus or some other form of groupthink that forms in reaction to the consensus. Most will not have the time to investigate a subject thoroughly enough to determine whether this consensus is correct or not, but will retreat to appeals to the authority of the experts or will settle for the prevailing wisdom that exists on their “side” of a given debate. Relying on expert consensus or some other form of groupthink for information on many issues, most people are going to accept the conclusions they receive. Even when the consensus is staggeringly wrong, or groupthink has led numerous influential people astray, the very fact of the consensus will be cited in their defense, as if to say, “You can’t expect me to have thought independently about this question–that’s someone else’s job!” There are other social pressures and incentives at work, no doubt, but I think a crucial part is that accepting conventional views is simply far more convenient and involves less work.

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