Land of the deluded?
The Economist has a depressing report on the US’s sky-high incarceration rate:Between 2.3m and 2.4m Americans are behind bars, roughly one in every 100 adults. If those on parole or probation are included, one adult in 31 is under “correctional” supervision…Many laws, especially federal ones, are so vaguely written that people cannot easily tell whether they have broken them… There are over 4,000 federal crimes, and many times that number of regulations that carry criminal penalties. When analysts at the Congressional Research Service tried to count the number of separate offences on the books, they were forced to give up, exhausted. Rules concerning corporate governance or the environment are often impossible to understand, yet breaking them can land you in prison.This raises a question: given this, why do so many Americans think they live in the land of the free?* Low taxes don’t get us far towards an explanation. The OECD recently estimated that the tax burden on the average American worker was higher than that in Switzerland, Australia, Japan and Korea and only slightly less than in Canada.Could it be that cognitive biases are to blame? I mean three things:1. Bayesian conservatism. For years, the US was a free country. As it became less so, people did not update their beliefs accordingly. Opinions can live on after the facts behind them have died.2. Social proof. As Solomon Asch demonstrated in the 1950s, many people believe what other people tell them rather than the evidence of their own eyes. If millions of people say that the US is a free country, others will fall into believing this; Timur Kuran has written on a similar theme.3. The optimism bias. Americans - or at least the white ones - are selected for their optimism; you don’t leave home and sail 3000 miles unless you tend to look on the bright side, and this optimism can be transmitted down the generations by nature or nurture. This bias leads people to underestimate their chances of falling foul of fickle laws, and overestimate their chances of living a free life.There’s a parallel here to a curious fact pointed out by Raghuram Rajan - that 71% of Americans think the poor have a good chance of escaping poverty, whilst only 40% of European do - despite the fact that social mobility is lower in the US than in much of Europe.I mention all this to raise a point which is often overlooked. Very often, cognitive biases are seen as mere levers with which to implement tricksy policies. However, such biases might play a larger role, as some guy pointed out in the 19th century. They can help to support and sustain entire social orders even if these leave a lot to be desired.* I'm assuming this is the case. Intuitively, I get the impression that Americans are much more likely to take pride in saying things like "this is a free country" than are, say, Australians, Brits or the Dutch.