Tuesday, September 20, 2005


Economist and generally interesting person Robin Hanson has a short piece up on the paradoxes of cynicism (and idealism), and their expression. Like a lot of work where economics-style thinking is extended well past where it really applies, it can be fascinating but also infuriating.

Cynical beliefs are either that people have relatively "low" motives, or that people are hypocritical about their motives. (Even when "high" motives dominate conscious thoughts, the cynic can claim that low motives better explain overall behavior patterns.) Similarly a cynical belief about a social institution is that while it may claim to serve high functions, it actually serves low functions.

A cynical mood is rude, unhappy, and complaining, presumably about low motives and functions. Cynicism is contrasted with idealism, a good-natured emphasis on sincere high motives and functions.

There is a lot packed into this very short piece, and a lot of comments come to mind. Here are two:

First, isn't the usual word for those who believe that people act from "low" or self-interested motives economist?

Second, I suspect Robin Hanson may have missed the sixties.

Let us first notice some patterns about cynical moods. The young tend to be more idealistic, while the old are more cynical.

A defect of this analysis (which I suppose can be excused in something that's a page-and-half long) is that it presupposes that people are uniformly cynical or idealistic. In my experience, forged in the crucible of my youth (in the seventies, but close enough) is that young people back then were extremely cynical about their elders in power, but extremely idealistic in their goals and about themselves.

From what I can tell, successive generations have retained the cynical part of this and jettisoned the idealistic part.

People can remain idealistic their entire lives about social institutions that they know little about, but those who know an institution well tend to be more cynical. Leaders and the successful in an area tend to be less cynical than underlings and failures in that area.

Wait, does this mean that leaders and the successful know their institutions less well than the underlings and failures? I mean, maybe, but it's not exactly intuitive.

Well, since I have a cynical mood but an idealistic explanation for it, I'd better shut up, as the article advises me to (last paragraph).

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