Quick Note on Attention Blindness and ‘Just So Smart’

by Reihan Salam

Keith Hennessey has an excellent post on “you didn’t build that,” a remark that has sparked a fascinating conversation.

I’ve encountered a number of left-of-center writers and thinkers who’ve essentially said that conservatives are deliberately misrepresenting the president’s essential point, which is that “we’re all in this together,” that public infrastructure is important, etc. In my view, this reflects “attention blindness,” i.e., scarce cognitive resources mean that we all focus on some aspects of larger, more complex problems to the exclusion of others. Think of this as the equivalent of peripheral vision: from your vantage point, some things are crystal-clear while others are obscure. But of course someone standing several feet away may well see things differently. Many of our interlocutors on the left think that it is simply crazy to, for example, focus on waste and inefficiency in the public sector when they are focused on extreme deprivation. And people on the right are more attuned to the dangers of policies that create perverse incentives, etc. 

In President Obama’s Roanoke remarks, some of us, including Keith Hennessey, paid attention to the following paragraph:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. (Applause.)

To me, this implies a fairly strong form of luck egalitarianism. And Hennessey draws out some of the larger implications in his post, e.g., if success is primarily a matter of luck, incentives matter less than is commonly understood. Part of what is happening here, I suspect, is that the president is projecting his experience as a product of the meritocracy — the various mentors who identified Barack Obama as a promising young man and thus facilitated his academic and political rise — onto successful Americans more broadly, despite the fact that the characteristic experience of many who achieved entrepreneurial success is somewhat different. That is, many did have mentors and allies, yet the path to success didn’t involve persuading gatekeepers (securing fundraisers, persuading a law school professor to write a recommendation, etc.), but rather by taking a chance on a risky venture or working to dislodge an incumbent or by firing people to keep a business afloat, among other things.  

I tend to place greater weight on other factors, e.g., varying preferences for pecuniary vs. nonpecuniary goods, broader cultural norms that encourage people to seek prestige in some ways and not others, etc. The cultural revolution in American business that Virginia Postrel often references strikes me as a salutary development. Yet I also think that it is important that we preserve some measure of pluralism, i.e., there should be more than one path to recognition. Some on the egalitarian left seem to fair that as our society has grown more unequal, it has grown more homogeneous in that wealth-seeking behavior, including rent-seeking behavior, increasingly trumps other strategies for achieving recognition. There is definitely something to this analysis. But this could be considered a subset of the larger problem of family disruption and the fraying of extended kin-based social networks, which have traditionally offered alternative sources of meaning. 

On a related note, the president’s normative framing may owe something to the popular linguist George Lakoff. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.