Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Enlightenment 2.0 with Joseph Heath

Joseph Heath was one of the first writers I happened to see at the Writers Festival, where five years ago he came to town to speak about his then newly released book Filthy Lucre, which is still one of the best popular (i.e., non-technical) economics text to have come out post-2008. Heath has the air of an introverted wonk, but it belies his irrepressible enthusiasm when he is talking about a subject that he clearly loves: why do people believe and act the way they do?


After giving us a précis of his work, Heath was interviewed by Andrew Potter – a frequent host, and writer on previous occasions – to whom Heath’s newest book, Enlightenment 2.0, was dedicated to. The main premise of the book can loosely be pinpointed as a sort of paean to rationalism, particularly in the arena of politics.


The Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear, the joint project in 2010 by Messrs. Stewart and Colbert were mentioned as starting points in his book. While it may now seem dated, this was an example of a time when over a quarter million people gathered on Capitol Hill for the sole purpose of extolling rationalism and calling for it be restored in public discourse. Perhaps the largest such gathering in the name of reason since the French Revolution.


To get to what reason is, Heath stated that it was important to have a sense of what it really means. Once defined, we’d need to then genuinely examine whether it is indeed the case that were are suffering from a deficit in politics and in the public square.


As Daniel Kahneman explained in his magisterial Thinking, Fast and Slow, our brains prefer shortcuts as a way of increasing efficiency, and this can often lead to many irrational behaviours. If we suspend physiological factors for a moment, we can clearly see the pattern of mental shortcuts in action when it comes to addiction, and much more nakedly with respect to procrastination. Often the advice is to “think/try harder!” But this approach is rarely effective simply because operating in a rational mode is too taxing to be sustained for more than relatively short periods.


This is where our brains could use external aids to help us self-regulate. Heath says that the simple process of “writing things down,” gave us a huge advantage in helping us to be more efficient. This simple idea of freeing up our working memory or RAM by capturing items in a secure and trustworthy storage device like a Moleskine or digital calendar, form the very foundation of the very successful time management program by business guru David Allen. Since we are heavily dependent on our environment, it would help if we could re-structure it to suit our long-term ends.


Community as environment was an interesting example. Many cultural and subcultural settings have often reinforced desirable behaviours and this is largely absent in an individualized setting where the self becomes the sole and final arbiter of the right course of action and behaviour. Heath gave the example of his own marriage as mutual form of regulation within a secure commitment, and mused that perhaps this was the reason that married couples are on average happier and more financially successful than those who are not. Taxes, in Heath’s view, to encourage desirable collective action whether in the positive sense through tax credits or in the negative sense such as the Bloombergian soda tax are seen important environmental regulators. Since much of what is “common sense” has now gained currency, this may mask the fact that what may offend us at the surface may actually be the better solution, and since it can be so counter-intuitive, we need closer and deeper examination of why this is so. Yet there were instances where Heath contradicted himself on this very point. Mandatory Minimums in criminal law override the discretion of the judge, but could it not in the same sense act as a helpful external regulator that helps the often irrational mind of the human judge – however experienced – to perhaps make deliver justice more consistently?


Conservatism originally, as exemplified by Burke and Hume, affirmed tradition against revolution or “progress” in the name of reason. Conservatism now, with a heavy dose of populism, is seen to be for “anything-but-reason” instead of tradition. This again is a false choice, that Heath didn’t explore, for it implies that there is nothing reasonable about “that’s the way it has always be done,” falling prey to the hubris of the “old fogeyism” that Heath himself cautions against.


While the degradation in the quality of discourse has recently been decried, Heath mentions that the 24/7 cycle and the ever constant presence of Twitter as sharing part of the blame. This is a rather simplistic approach, and both Potter and Heath agreed that there was no putting the toothpaste of the Internet back into the halcyon tube of the analogue age. The media are also seen to be complicit in certain issues as they form an interest group. This means that the merits (or drawbacks) of open access and transparency are never properly discussed. Heath mentions that many public servants simply say that “I’ve never talked on the phone so much in my life!” as a remedy to having all their e-mails be subject to public scrutiny.


Finally, I wish that Heath had had time to get into ethics since much of what is right may not necessarily be rational, or rational in a much more winding way that it takes a form of moral reasoning to arrive at how this is indeed the case. And to assume that rationality started with the Enlightenment is historically untrue. His strongest contribution may be in emphasizing the role of the external environment; having stable and strong institutions collectively and useful tools individually to help us make better choices.