Well Mark

Today we are bombarded with a plethora of wisdom about how to eat and shop. We are told we should eat seasonally, shop locally, buy organically, eat sustainably, minimise food miles, avoid air-freighted produce, and support communities in the developing world.

The problem is that only that last recommendation is in fact wisdom. The others are silly, the very opposite of wisdom.

9 comments on “Well Mark

  1. “We are told..”

    No, it’s “we are hectored..”

    Talking of hectoring, Darling will not be drinking whisky in the budget, but water. Let us hope that’s tap water, not bottled..

  2. Er … I can see that the virtues of the ‘others’ are exaggerated (sometimes it seems to the extent of being granted the status of religious precepts) but why call them ‘silly’? I like to do all of those things, to a greater or lesser extent – and under a more generous interpretation of those words than you are probably granting them, I think there is some wisdom in each of them.

  3. Luis:

    All of them (not excluding the last) are imprecations intended to get folks to do other than their usual considerations would advise.

    The ordinarily-followed market program which everyone knows without even thinking about it one way or another is: “get what you most prefer while spending the least.”

    That’s still best–and the others are just snares.

  4. “I think there is some wisdom in each of them.”

    I think it’s the “some” that’s open to debate. The food miles thing is often utter rubbish that makes things worse. For example, New Zealand lamb has a pretty low carbon footprint (lots of open grassland, an almost 100% renewable electricity supply, very low costs of shipment – by sea – to the UK), lower than the footprint of UK-sourced lamb.

    Gene’s point is the right one: we should do what we’re trained to do. We’ve lifelong training in buying stuff we prefer while spending the least. If you want to make sure the CO2 costs are included then we should, well, include the costs (trading permits, carbon tax, whatever). Then we can all carry on doing what we’ve been trained to do and the system will come right. Of course, this approach doesn’t suit the neocommunists in the pseudo-green movement because it doesn’t give them licence to hector us all.

  5. If we were living in a world where perfectly informed agents maximize rational preferences, you may have a stronger point – otherwise there is certainly a role for ‘hectoring’ – either to impart information or to persuade people to act on it.

    There are, I think, sensible arguments to be made in favour or organic food, seasonal food, locally produced food etc. – arguments that are conditional on various factors, based on cost/benefit and so forth – so to just call these ideas ‘silly’ is … silly.

    Of course these deviations from rationality etc. do not amount to saying that we ought all defer to the wisdom of Guardian writers (God forbid) or to a naive ‘things can’t be left to the market’ argument, or anything like that – that would be stupid. But you can go too far in the laissez-faire direction too.

    also … the “food miles” thing is “often” utter rubbish, or you have read one (questionable*) study of one particular product, and are extrapolating because it fits with your inclinations?

    * estimates of shipping carbon emissions have been revised upwards recently, I thought.

  6. Luis:

    People always act rationally, whether you or I like or agree with the content of their reasons.
    (We leave aside here reflexes and automatisms.)

    Furthermore, they always act on ALL the information they’ve got simply because it’s impossible to act on information you’ve not got.

    What you mean is that, in acting, they’ve overlooked or underrated information that you (or others) might assess differently and which would have led to better-informed decision-making. Such are not “deviations from rationality”; at most, they may be “mistakes”–but then, none of us can ever be free of making mistakes, no matter how much information we’ve got nor how “rational” (in your usage).

    I’d agree with your assessment of hectoring insofar as it’s merely a dissemination of information. But it’s more usually quite a bit more, particularly in agitating for passage of new laws and regulations designed to restrict the sphere of peoples’ actions in ways entirely inconsistent with human personal and economic

  7. Gene

    I think that the only way for the statement “People always act rationally” to be true, is to define “rationally” in such a way as to rob it of any meaningful content – any ability to distinguish between rational and irrational actions. There are more meaningful definitions of rational – “preference consistence” is one. Demonstrably, people’s actions are not always preference consistent. To be honest, I’m not sure where you’re coming from – ought I point you towards the literature on behavioural economics, bounded rationality etc? I don’t think so, you sound like you are going to be familiar with all that.

    The fact that people cannot act on information that they do not possess does not mean that people do always act on all the information that they do possess. It is possible, for example, to ignore or suppress information that one finds unpleasant.

    I’m not sure which laws you are talking about – of course laws restrict freedoms … but there may be a very sound “human personal and economic” basis for laws and regulations.

  8. Luis:

    In common usage, you may be quite correct. But that is, essentially, beside the point. The root of “rational” is reason, which is also the sine que non of action (with the exceptions previously noted). In that vein, I completely eschew the word “irrational” to describe any action whatever, even of a person who might be characterized as insane. Using the word “irrational” conveys no enlightenment whatever as to the action or even the motivation of the actor except to characterize it as one with which the utterer disagrees or finds contemptuous. Beyond this, the word serves no purpose whatever. We can certainly think of an action as ill-considered, impulsive, poorly executed, lacking important information, etc. But (and it should be borne in mind) that each of these, even while conveying more precise information about what the utterer finds unsatisfactory or disagreeable, is yet no more than opinion concerning a disagreement between the utterer and the actor over the latter’s action. But it is a characteristic of people that they may disagree about many things and even the same person may refrain from a certain action at one time in which he would engage at another. What have any of these matters to do with rationality? It is not I that “rob it of any meaningful content”–it is that I object to its use to mean anything which one doesn’t like and pretend that its use cloaks the utterer’s opinion in sagacity or consigns some action, willy-nilly, to some automated ridicule.

    I will admit to not knowing what “preference consistence” or “bounded rationality” happen to be, though i’ve seen the latter term used (and experienced no overwhelming desire to know more of what it signified).

    I never said that people act on all the information that they possess and admit my positing the reverse (about what they don’t know) was slightly (and intentionally) facetious. But, if in possession of information, action can simply be viewed as subsuming, to the extent relative, all such information, even when ignored, discounted, rejected, or forgotten. Again, the general description, “error,” to which all are prone, is sufficiently explanatory except for specialists (and many of those would be hard-put to do better). Literally everything men do in which they differ significantly from lower animals is rational; indeed, Man has been called “the rational animal.”

    We have words–“hysterical,” “angry,” “grief-sticken,” “confused,” delerious,” “hate-filled,” etc., all intended to convey states of mind in which reason is more liable to err and even, sometimes, exculpate, at least partially, actions carried out in such states.

    I have been long. But the matter is far too important not to try to straighten. It is a characteristic rhetorical trick to characterize others as “irrational” when one is unprepared either to make a rational case against the disapproved actions or when one is engaged against political opponents. In common discourse, “rational” is used to refer to those opponents with whom some sort of substantive discussion–maybe even compromise of interests–may be pursued. Thus, “irrational” is not only pejorative but frequently a prelude to violence; it’s easier to get agreement to exert violence against those whose irrationality renders them immune to reason than against those with whom we merely disagree.

  9. Gene,

    I agree that people often wrongly accuse others of irrationality. It’s not very easy to pin down what rationality means, which complicates matters. Preference consistency is a very minimal definition – it merely says that if A is preferred to B, and B to C than it is rational to prefer A to C, irrational to prefer C to A.

    When I wrote that you rob the word rationality of meaning, I mean that if all actions are rational, there is no point in using the word to describe actions; it’s a bit like saying those fruity bananas – no need.

    So, why not adjust your definition of the word rational so that it becomes capable of distinguishing between types of action? I agree with you that this is an important topic that needs straightening out, but I think your objections to the common usage of the word rational has caused you to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you do want to straighten this topic out, then I think you ought to overcome your lack of interest in the idea of ‘bounded rationality’.

Leave a Reply

Name and email are required. Your email address will not be published.