On Being a Little Englander

I think this is relatively intelligent way of viewing international conflicts when ignorant of on-the-ground facts. Taking this position at the very least means moving away from the simplistic good-bad dichotomies that both naive pacificts and stupid neoconservatives hold.

by Chris Dillow


Nick Cohen says the far left is gripped by anti-western illiberalism and the Home Affairs select committee accuses it of anti-Semitism. Do these accusations apply to me? I don’t think so – but not for reasons that reflect any credit on me.

I have never expressed support for Putin or Hezbollah for the simple reason that I take minimal interest in foreign affairs.

This is because I just don’t have the cognitive bandwidth. In complex societies ground truth matters. And it would take vast amounts of time for me to get even the weakest grasp of this – a knowledge of Arabic being a minimal requirement. I know from economics that media reports are often inadequate and biased: why should I believe things are much different in foreign affairs? And accounts from partisans are equally (more so?) unreliable: whenever I have the misfortune to accidentally hear from someone in the Israeli-Palestine conflict they often strike me as raving lunatics – more so than those who disagree with me on most domestic issues.

You might object here that there are some issues that are clear-cut, such the massacre of civilians in Aleppo or Putin’s repression of free speech. True. But there’s a massive gulf between an obvious problem and the solution. The world isn’t divided neatly between goodies and baddies, and interventions can make things worse.

It seems to me personally, therefore, that in the face of complexity and the high costs of acquiring reliable information, there’s something to be said for rational ignorance. The cost of moving even from being uninformed to badly informed is high.

I suppose I could speak out against obvious human rights abuses, but this would be mere virtue signalling. I’d rather spend my limited time and mental faculties on other matters. And I suspect it’s better for everyone if I do: the world is more fully stocked with self-righteous blowhards than it is with people who have half a clue about some economics. Insofar as I can make a difference – which I doubt – it is by developing my faculties as the latter.

Now, at this stage you’ll have two objections.

One is that I’m a hypocrite. I did support anti-apartheid causes in the 80s, so why should I now claim ignorance of overseas affairs?

I’d contend that that was an exception. Apartheid was such a great evil that it seemed that pretty much anything was superior to it. Subsequent events support this: although South Africa suffers corruption, crime and high unemployment, pretty much nobody would prefer apartheid.

There’s another objection. You might claim that the view I’m expressing is smug, insular and self-satisfied Little Englanderism.

And you’d be right.

However, the only way I could avoid both this objection and Nick’s would be by becoming a liberal polymath. But even if I had the intellectual faculties and inclination to do so, I’d lack the time: I have to earn a living. As Adam Smith said, the division of labour makes a man “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”

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