Popular and Wrong
Consider a world where 80% of people are Conformists, 10% of people are Righteous, and 10% are Reprobates. The Conformists are epistemically and morally neutral, so they believe and support whatever is popular. The Righteous are epistemically and morally virtuous, so they believe and support whatever is true and right. The Reprobates are epistemically and morally vicious, so they believe and support the opposite of what the Righteous believe and support….
There are clearly two equilibria: one good, one bad. If the true&right is popular, then the Conformists and the Righteous have 90% of the vote, so the true&right prevails. If the true&right is unpopular, then the Conformists and Reprobates have 90% of the vote, so the false&wicked prevails.
Now suppose that in this world, you are trying to assess an individual’s virtue. In the good equilibrium, identifying the virtuous is hard. Only 1 out of 9 supporters of the status quo is genuinely virtuous. The vast majority support the true&right out of sheer convenience…
The mirror image holds in the bad equilibrium. Identifying the virtuous is easy: Everyone who supports the true&right despite their unpopularity is virtuous. Identifying the vicious, in contrast, becomes hard. Only 1 out of 9 supporters of the status quo truly qualifies. The vast majority of supporters of the false&wicked don’t support it out of conviction. They support the false&wicked to fit in.
The “world” here need not be the literal world, either — it may be a sufficiently cabined ideological position.
Or a particular nation. By serendipity, I ran across this story from The Atlantic on Chinese Internet censorship:
“535” refers to May 35th which, put another way, is June 4th — the date of 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre. The term exists because media discussion of the event in China is prohibited; in 2007, three newspaper editors even lost their jobs when they failed to censor a one-line ad praising the mothers of the victims. Internet users initially referred to the event by its un-hyphenated date, “64”, but once government censors caught up to them they needed to conceal it even further — hence the invention of “535”. This sort of clever wordplay is seen all across the Chinese internet, where the list of “sensitive” subjects is long.
Alas, it appears that China’s ingenious netizens will have to go back to the drawing board; according to Shanghaiist, censors have caught on to “535” and have even begun deleting the roman numeral rendering of the Tiananmen date. On the Chinese internet, no clever ruse lasts forever.
But in any event, it’s remarkable to think that despite an education system that makes no mention of the controversy surrounding the massacre, a media which ignores it, and a significant chunk of the population too young to remember it, a national conversation surrounding events like the Tiananmen Square massacre continues to persist on the Internet. And little by little, the outside world has begun to take notice.
Given the fact that censorship is not extraordinarily unpopular in China, but rather is generally tolerated, Caplan might say that
(1) This is not at all surprising; most people are conformists.
(2) Only a few Reprobates are instigators of this regime.
(3) If censorship ever somehow happened in the United States, people here would likely support it out of a similar conformist impulse.
It’s not impossible, after all, to make censorship sound rather nice:
According to President Hu (2005:3), a harmonious society is a society that is “democratic and ruled by law, fair and just, trustworthy and fraternal, full of vitality, stable and orderly, and maintains harmony between man and nature.” These social values cover not only political and economic institutions but also cultural and environmental dimensions, which is demonstrated by the exhaustive list of suggestions made in the resolution of the Central Committee of the CCP in 2005 concerning the building of a harmonious socialist society. The suggestions cover a broad range of topics, including policy orientation regarding rural development, regional development, employment, education, medicine, and public health, environmental protection, the legal system, taxation, and fiscal policies, the social security system, community management, party leadership, and cultural enterprises (Chinese Communist Party, 2006).
We know there’s bad stuff, okay? You don’t need to remind us. We’re the Party. We’re on it. Complaints aren’t going to help. They’re just going to stir up resentment. Whose side are you on, anyway? Harmony or chaos?
Now consider that it can happen here, and it probably already is happening here in one form or another, and you are probably just going along with it. (And so, inescapably, am I.)
Ask yourself: What currently happening thing within the United States does “it” refer to?
Recall that by the terms of the question, you’re not allowed to condemn something that’s already widely condemned, like income inequality, or the drug laws, or illegal immigration. Those may be wrong, but they are all disliked enough that you gain no points here from piling on. You have to condemn something that’s clearly, undeniably popular.
I am a meat-eater, and yet I am struck by how well meat-eating fits the model. What others can you name?