How could you be so stupid?

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How could you be so stupid?

Paul Brasington 2023
Published by Paul Brasington in Good thinking · Monday 14 Nov 2022
Tags: PoliticsConservatismIntelligence
Kwasi Kwarteng’s catastrophic mini-budget has raised many questions, but the one that intrigues me most is the claim that he’s a highly intelligent man.

I appreciate that he came through his (privileged) education with some success, and has a PhD in economic history. He has the bits of paper to declare that he’s intelligent (so do I).
But if he really was so smart, how could he do something that anybody with half a brain could have told him was utterly stupid?

Part of the answer might be that he’s also arrogant, and thinks that those who disagree with him really do have only half a brain, so can be ignored. This seems to be a common impression made on those around him.

But his actions raise a more interesting question about the nature of intelligence.

More than knowledge
It’s long been said (usually in a patronising or defensive way) that academic people lack “common sense”. That’s not particularly my experience, but it reflects a useful insight that intelligence is not necessarily synonymous with adequacy.

It may just be that we’re too quick to label certain types of mental capacity as intelligence, and we need a little more discrimination.

It’s not enough to be able to absorb information quickly and retain it, though that ability is sometimes mistaken for a sign of intelligence. It’s a sign of cognitive capability, but that’s a different, insufficient thing. When we speak of intelligence, or at least useful intelligence, we mean a power of understanding, a gift of insight.

Such intelligence also requires imagination. It demands the ability to think around what’s in your head, to weigh contrary arguments. It requires rigorous and constant self-questioning, including the iterative scrutiny of your own assumptions. This capacity is sometimes called critical thinking, and is a fundamental component of useful intelligence.
If you want your ideas to be persuasive (and why wouldn’t you?) you’re also going to need the ability to imagine how other people are feeling, and why they might be feeling it. You need a high degree of empathy with others.

Intelligence should also facilitate insight, and insight depends substantially on the ability to make connections between things that need to be connected, and sometimes with unsuspected things that can be usefully connected to create fresh ideas. It’s more work for the imagination.

Finding only what we’re looking for
Arrogance is a failure of critical thinking, a failure of self-questioning. It’s an open door for cognitive bias, and the latter negates understanding. We’re all prone to it, prone to look for validation of what we want to believe. There’s no simple way of avoiding this. All we can do is maintain a constant questioning of our own assumptions.

Ideology is a close friend of cognitive bias. There’s nothing wrong with having a vision, a strong idea of how your world might be a better place, but if you’re serious about bringing that vision to life you need to develop a clear sense of how it might be done, what needs to change and how you might bring that change about. Critically you need to be able to see the ways in which your idea might not work, and be ready to modify or abandon your vision accordingly. Ideologues struggle to do this.

Conservatism used to pride itself on being an anti-ideological pragmatic political philosophy. It had an agenda for sure, which to varying degrees entailed the maintenance of privilege (it would have argued for the value of the privilege, while it would fall to the Left to show that such privilege was counter-productive, or even immoral). But it was essentially pragmatic too: I think it was Disraeli who said (please correct me if I’m wrong) that Conservatism was about the “judicious reform of proven abuses”, and by these means through the nineteenth century and beyond the British ruling classes avoided the revolutionary upheavals that ripped across much of the rest of Europe.

We can speculate about the effects of the forces for change after the second world war, (there’s not room here), but one distinct effect was the end of Tory pragmatism. Margaret Thatcher was an ideologue. I don’t believe she really knew what she was doing (you only have to look at her shifts around membership of the EEC/EU to see this), but she moved the Tory party firmly to the right, and with Ronald Reagan unleashed the reactionary force of neoliberalism, which has dominated Western political thinking ever since.
The crisis of 2008 should have been the end of it. Instead the fallout put the Tories back in office, clinging to their neoliberal theology and successfully, untruthfully blaming Labour for the crisis, setting the tone for everything that’s followed, including Brexit and all the problems that’s brought.

Intelligence chained
Kwarteng and Truss have been apparently blinded by the ideology they poured into their poisonous tract, Britannia Unchained. By an unforeseen malfunction of the British parliamentary system they’ve been put in a position of power and are busy trying to enact those beliefs, regardless of the truth they run counter to the manifesto on which their party successfully fought the 2019 election. There’s much to complain about in all this, but the curious question remains: since their first move in that direction was so catastrophic how could they be so stupid? (I don’t doubt they are sincere).

It’s hard psychologically to let go of something around which you’ve built your world view, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Kwarteng hasn’t been able to do it. It’s psychologically predictable that someone in that position when challenged by reality might double down on the belief that sustains his self-respect, and accuse everyone else of failing to understand.

In his failure, there is a failure of critical thinking, a cognitive blindness to uncomfortable truths, or a failure to think widely enough. It’s a common element in right wing ideology.

The attention deficit
Kwarteng’s catastrophic mini-budget was the spawn of ideas and projections from a handful of dubious thinktanks, including something called Europe Economics. Sky News asked its executive director Andrew Lilco to respond to the criticism that the budget would benefit the rich more than the poor. Lilco said

“I have no interest in equality. I think it’s an incorrect policy objective. I don’t think it’s morally or economically sound as a policy objective.”

Two things need to be pointed out here. The first is that Lilco wasn’t asked about equality. He was asked about what is at the very least a dubious distribution of possible economic benefits. If he had attended more rigorously to that question he might have tried to make the case for giving more money to the already-rich on the grounds that this would lift the overall performance of the economy and so benefit everyone, otherwise known as trickle down economics. The trouble is that all the evidence from the last forty years suggests that this really doesn’t work.

Which brings us to the second point. Other research, including work done by the IMF (not renowned for its Marxist leanings) has shown that countries with wide (and in the case of the UK and the USA, widening) gaps between the rich and the poor turn in a worse overall economic performance than more egalitarian societies. It’s not difficult to think of reasons why (not least, better distributed spending power tends to support more productive economic behaviours).

The goal to reduce economic inequality in society seems evidently rational, regardless of any moral considerations. Note that the issue here is a reduction in inequality which is not the same at all as having equality as a policy goal. Lilco makes life easier for his dogma by failing to imagine what he’s up against, and in doing so fails to see the reality that contradicts his ideology.

It’s a position that seems to be shared by Kwarteng, and Truss. The position is the result of a failure in critical thinking, and it’s hard to see such a belief as compatible with intelligence.

Without due humility
One conclusion might be that these people are not as intelligent as they think they are, or others have said they are.

I suspect a better conclusion is that an intelligent view of intelligence demands more caution about how we value it, or what we value in it. We casually admire intelligence as if it was like being able to play a musical instrument, or swim well. But at that level we’re actually talking about cognitive capability, and unlike swimming cognitive capability has to interact fundamentally with other aspects of anyone’s personality. This cognitive capability can support (and sometimes inhibit) the development of traits that may well be admirable, but let’s keep our admiration for those traits: in itself cognitive capability is no more significant than something like height.

When we speak of an admirable intelligence we’re really admiring the quality of its outputs, its insights or judgements, which I’ve argued depend on other capabilities like imagination, creativity, empathy, and the capacity for self-criticism.

Above all I suspect that the need for humility is a primary insight of a properly functioning intelligence. Those who lack it have misunderstood their place in the world (even after the near-universally adverse reaction to his budget there’s little sign of humility in Kwarteng and his colleagues), and that’s about as dumb as you can be.

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