What makes someone a conspiracy theorist?

One thing that many people have noted about Donald Trump is that he seems particularly vulnerable to conspiracy theories. It is seldom made clear in these discussions, however, exactly what a “conspiracy theory” is, or what particular mental habits make people vulnerable to them. I thought, therefore, that it might be an opportune time to republish a small excerpt from my Enlightenment 2.0 that attempts to explain this. Basically, a conspiracy theorist is someone who falls victim to confirmation bias. He or she sees a pattern in the world, develops an account of the pattern, but then fails systematically to consider, much less investigate, any evidence that would contradict this account. Instead, he or she simply observes more and more instances of the pattern, treating each one (fallaciously) as more “evidence” of the account.

Conspiracy theorists serve as an excellent example of the phenomenon that Keith Stanovich refers to as dysrationalia.… Continue reading

Tory does the right thing

Finally, a centre-right we can believe in! A right-wing politician who, instead of just pretending that various collective action problems do not exist, instead acknowledges them and proposes market-based solutions… I’m not always a huge fan of market based solutions to collective action problems, but if I have to choose between a market-based solution and no solution, I’ll take the market-based one.

What am I talking about? Toronto Mayor John Tory proposes road pricing for the DVP and Gardiner Expressway. This is a drum that I (and many others) have been beating for a long time. Here’s a piece I wrote for Policy Options a long time ago (link). This remains my favorite line:

Roads are congested because they are free. If we gave away cheese for free, too many people would eat too much cheese. Similarly, when we give away use of roads, we get too many people driving too much of the time.

Continue reading

Kellie Leitch on Anti-Canadian Values

It has been interesting to observe the reaction to my local MP and Conservative Party leadership contender Kellie Lietch’s proposal to screen prospective immigrants to Canada for “anti-Canadian values.” Many people have expressed outrage at this proposal, although most are at pains to say exactly what is wrong with it.

There is, of course, a totally pragmatic objection, which is that in practice it is impossible to tell what people’s values are, and so the only way to implement such a program would be by discriminating against certain groups, or people from certain countries suspected of harboring anti-Canadian values (such as women who wear niqabs, etc.) After all, immigrants talk to one another, and so if there were to be a quiz administered, with questions such as “do you believe that men and women should be equal?” word would quickly get out about what the correct answer is. So really the only way to implement it would be by barring individuals suspected of harboring anti-Canadian values based on observable characteristics.… Continue reading

Thoughts on President Trump

A great deal has been said already on this topic, but let me point out a few things that have not received much attention.

First off, allow me to admit that I was completely surprised by the result. Congratulations to Andrew Potter for having called it correctly a couple weeks ago, but until last night I thought he was wrong. Mainly that’s because I believed all the stuff about the importance of the “ground game” in turning out the vote. I thought Trump’s inability to put together a coherent campaign organization was going to hurt him more than it did.

Also, I should note that this outcome is a huge victory for political science over punditry. Political science tells us that things like debate performances and “gaffes” don’t matter very much, but that electoral outcomes are driven by a very small number of “macro” factors – foremost amongst them is a desire for alternation of the parties in power.… Continue reading

Why are carbon taxes so low?

The recent announcement by Canada’s Minister of the Environment, Catherine McKenna, that there will be a national carbon price by the end of the year, is extremely welcome news. As someone who has spent a great deal of time trying to articulate to the public the basic rationale for carbon pricing (here, here, here and here), this is about as close to a “win” as anyone could reasonably expect. Let’s hope it happens.

Most of the time that I spent writing about it, I was trying to explain very basic features of the policy (what a collective action problem is, how the price system works, why it’s not a “tax on everything,” etc.) This was aimed primarily at a right-wing audience, of people who were inclined to do nothing about climate change. I have spent comparatively less time addressing a left-wing, or environmentalist audience, explaining why pricing is an appropriate policy measure in this case (although there was this and this).… Continue reading

Misunderstanding public pensions, vol. 2

Andrew Coyne’s column in the National Post today is an unusually clear example of a mistake that people on the right always make when talking about public pensions. The headline in fact says it all: Turning the CPP into 18 million RRSPs. Here’s the basic problem with Coyne’s analysis. A public pension, like CPP, is providing an insurance product to Canadian citizens, in the same way that the health care system provides an insurance product to Canadians. Having insurance is not equivalent to having a pile of money in a savings account. And yet people on the right – merely because they don’t like government – are constantly suggesting that we abolish these insurance schemes, and replace them with individual savings – effectively forcing individuals to self-insure. So people like David Gratzer want to get rid of public health insurance, and replace it with individual savings accounts. And now Coyne wants to phase out public retirement insurance and replace it with individual savings accounts.… Continue reading

Intergenerational dimension of Brexit

One of the most striking features of yesterday’s referendum in the UK to leave the European Union is the significant generational split, with young people strongly favouring remaining. (This chart seems to be poll-based, but suggests that the only voters over the age of 55 favored leaving. Other polls suggest as much as 75% of 18-24 year olds wanted to remain.) This is a case where people at different ages clearly are in different interest positions. The quid pro quo on accepting EU immigrants to the UK is that UK citizens, in turn, have the right to live and work in other EU countries. This is a benefit that young people are much more likely to take advantage of than old people. (In fact, old people drawing pensions can continue to live pretty much wherever they like in Europe, the way Canadians live in Florida. It is young people who will feel the mobility restriction, because they will be unable to work.)

One might think that this raises a significant issue of fairness.… Continue reading

Trump and electoral reform: connecting the dots

I did two media pieces this week, the first an article opposing electoral reform for Policy Options, the second a panel discussion on Donald Trump on TVO’s The Agenda. There is actually a connection between the two, but I didn’t have enough time on the TV show to explain it. And so let me do so here.

First, electoral reform. The point I’m always trying to make in this debate, which is very difficult to get across without being misinterpreted, is that there is a family of recognizably “democratic” voting systems, all of which have advantages and disadvantages, but none of which is more inherently democratic, or fair, than the others. This is why most academic experts, when they debate the merits of the various systems, tend to talk about extremely pragmatic and consequential considerations, not fundamental democratic principles. In other words, the type of discourse engaged in by Fairvote Canada is, in my view, rank demagoguery.… Continue reading

“Foreseeable Natural Death” in Bill C-14: An Unclear and Undue Restriction?

Guest post by Michael Nafi, Department of Humanities, Philosophy and Religion, John Abbott College 

Bill C-14 on Medical Assistance in Dying has given rise to much debate in the Canadian House of Commons, in the mainstream media and various blogs, with both consensus and dissension stretching across the French/English language divide. The tide is unlikely to subside as the Bill moves to the Senate. Furthermore, as the parliamentary session nears its end, speculations abound on the fate of the Bill after the Liberal majority government today missed the June 6th deadline for its required legislative response to the Supreme Court (SCC) ruling in Carter v. Canada.

Critics have pointed out a number of shortcomings of the Bill and called for a number of amendments. However, regardless of the final form the law might take, there can be little doubt that the issue of medical assistance in dying will be revisited in the future on at least two fronts: i) the exclusion of persons under the age of 18 from such medical assistance and ii) the rejection of the possibility for persons who anticipate a deterioration of their health to provide advance directives to end their life in the future.… Continue reading