Gullibility and the economy of fools

Jeremy Bentham is an almost forgotten philosopher today, yet of all the 19th century philosophers he was the most fascinating. He has an extremely logical turn of thought and it caused him to undertake actions that most would find peculiar.  One such action was his insistence on eating his meals back to front, he always had the desert or sweet dish first to be followed by the savoury dish. He argued that it was as logical to have the sweet first, as having it as the second dish, he could see no rational reason for always having the savoury dish first. Economists were influenced by his thinking and they adopted his ideas in their theories of market behaviour. Jeremy Bentham argued that good actions were those that gave the greatest pleasure to the greatest number. Similarly the free market gave the greatest satisfaction to the people as it was in the free market that people could satisfy their wants by determining what was made and sold. However there is one flaw at the heart of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism and free market economics, both assume that the individual is capable of making a rational decision about being what is in their best interests. Our knowledge of human behaviour teaches us that in fact people often make important decisions for the most stupid of reasons. Economists and Jeremy Bentham cannot account for human gullibility and stupidity which undermines the whole accepted free market arguments. 


taken from aspirant

What fascinated me was the medieval obsession with collecting Christian relics. The relics would be held in veneration and became the site of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage was a very profitable business for churches and monasteries, where the relics were displayed, as pilgrims made large donations to these churches and monasteries. The more holy the relic, the more profitable a site of pilgrimage it became. In the spirit of money making pirates employed by the city of Calvi in Italy stole the bones of St. Nicholas from the Turkish town of Myrna, to display in the church in Calvi. This was such a profitable business that monks became involved in forgery to create more and more spectacular relics. One such relic was the Veil of St. Veronica. St. Veronica is supposed to have wiped the face of Christ clear of blood and perspiration on his way to crucifixion at Golgotha. The veil then bore the miraculous imprint of Christ’s face.  This obvious forgery was on display in Rome for hundreds of years. Even today the medieval forgery that is the Turin Shroud is still on display and venerated by pilgrims. This very profitable medieval industry founded largely on fraud and human gullibility stands in contrast to the so called rational consumer of economic theory.

Today human gullibility is the foundation for another large and profitable industry, the trade in the relics and artefacts of celebrity. These items are valued for their proximity to the person of the celebrity, much as were the relics of the medieval saints. Recently a wooden spoon signed by John  Lennon and Yoko Ono was sold for between £600 and £800 at auction. Graceland the last home of Elvis Presley is the object of pilgrimage. Visitors often leave speaking in awe of having experienced something of Elvis Presley’s life, an awestruck experience that would have been similar to that of the medieval pilgrims. 


A letter from John Lennon to Phil Spector blaming The Who drummer Keith Moon and singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson for urinating on a console at an LA recording studio is up for auction, with an estimated value of £6,000.
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If so many of our acts are a consequence of gullibility or stupidity, the arguments for the primacy of the free market are undermined. If people are capable of spending large sums of money illogically there needs to be a corrective to the free market. Rather than the wisdom of the crowd, it is better to speak of their ‘unwisdom’. Once  their existed that corrective, the government, it was thought that this body had the overview and long term wisdom to make certain decisions better than the individual. Now that belief has disappeared and wherever possible government services are put out to tender in the free market. There is no leading politician that believes that energy supply because of its importance is best supplied by the government. One consequence is that while the former nationalised energy industry was one of the leaders in nuclear energy engineering, the now privatised industry has lost that expertise. The new nuclear power stations will be built by a combination of expertise from French and Chinese engineering firms.

Perhaps it is in public health that the consequences of human gullibility are the most obvious.  The smoking of tobacco was popular when I was a teenager was seen as cool, as exemplified by the advertising phrase the ‘cool taste of menthol tipped cigarettes’.There was complete ignorance of the health risk of smoking, it was only after many years of government action to inform people of the dangers of smoking, that that cigarette consumption dropped. The reverse has happened with alcohol consumption, a market in which all restrictions on its sale and consumption have been dropped. Consumption as a consequence has risen, along with the incidence of cirrhosis of the liver and throat cancers. What is perhaps most distressing is the fact that gullibility has prevented what would have been the elimination of that disease of childhood measles. Many such as myself thought measles as being a minor rate of passage of childhood, not realising that this was an illness that could cause blindness, brain damage and disability. One maverick researcher claimed that he had evidence that the vaccine that prevented measles could  cause autism in children. This research having been published in ‘The Lancet’ caused a moral panic, chiefly through the writings of journalists in nationally read newspapers. Inevitably vaccination rates dropped and measles became yet again a scourge of childhood. Fortunately this panic is largely restricted to the Anglo Saxon world. There have been outbreaks of measles in several British cities bringing disability to an unfortunate minority of children. The same has happened in California, where measles is a threat to the children of the best educated classes, proving gullibility is not the prerogative  of the poor and ill informed. Despite the original research being discredited, the fear of the MMR vaccine remains and children are again threatened by this dangerous illness.

Nietzsche would have enjoyed exposing the naivety of economists and politicians who trust the wisdom of markets. Neither understand the nature of humanity and why their policies for the economy and society are flawed. While this essay may appear misanthropic, that’s not really my aim. What I want is a return to the old belief that there is such a thing as human wisdom and that it should be a guide to public policy making. Instead we have a democracy of fools, one in which only those policies that can be understood by the simplest and most unreasoning of men are adopted. 

Possibly it’s unfair to suggest our politicians are gullible fools, it’s more correct to say that they act as if they are such. The popular press provides an example of this, if you read a tabloid newspaper the impression it gives is that it’s been written by people who left school at the earliest opportunity and with a minimal education. In fact the vast majority of journalists writing in such papers are graduates, often from the elite universities it just that they write as if they were uneducated, as they believe what their readers want are simple uniformed opinions. A training at a tabloid newspaper is highly valued as trainee journalists believe that it teaches them the skills needed to be a good journalist. What is teaches them is how to write a column that appears to have been written by an uneducated person, as that type of column is believed to appeal to the widest readership. Similarly our politics is peopled by graduates from the elite universities who believe that the same patronising approach is required in politics. As one famous film making said money is never lost through underestimating the public taste.



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