Liberty Matters

The Changing Costs of Defending One’s Core Beliefs

These thoughts are in response to some of the interesting things George Smith, Jason Kuznicki, and Peter Mentzel have said concerning why people change their ideas and how. I would like to introduce a distinction between the "core beliefs" and "noncore beliefs" which make up a person's or a society's belief structure, as well as discuss the changing relative costs of getting people to think differently, and the role that systemic crises might play in this process.
By "core belief" (or, as George Smith points out, what J.M. Robertson called "major beliefs"), I mean any idea which is fundamental to a person's or a society's Weltanschauung, or overall system of belief. For a traditional Catholic or a fundamentalist Protestant a core belief is the idea that marriage must be between a man and women. For a Keynesian it is the idea that "aggregate demand" exists and that when it falls below a certain level it is the right and duty of the government or central bank to manipulate the interest rate and the supply of money to "stimulate" it back up to an acceptable level. To give up this belief would mean giving up their entire worldview, and this they will not do easily. In fact, they would spend considerable resources defending this view and opposing any challenge to it.
By "noncore beliefs" (or what Robertson called "minor beliefs"), I mean beliefs which do not define a person or a society. As such, they are less important to you and you might be interested in discussing them with others, listening to challenges to their truth or efficacy, and even giving up belief in them if your preferences were to change or if you could be bought off in reaching a compromise. An example of this is the recent growing acceptance of same-sex marriage. For an increasing number of younger people the idea of marriage as only between a man and a women is noncore, rather than a core, belief. Thus they are willing to entertain the idea that laws should be changed to allow state recognition of same-sex marriages. What seemed impossible 50 years ago (because the vast majority of Americans regarded “traditional” marriage as a core Christian belief) is now, through a process of generational and demographic change, becoming a reality.
Some historical examples of core beliefs which have changed over time relate to slavery, the divine right of kings, and sound money (among Germans).
First, under the influence of the Enlightenment, many Europeans in the late-18th and early-19th centuries gave up their traditional ideas that slavery was both just and necessary for inferior races. In a relatively short time (historically speaking) this core belief evaporated; the cost of changing people's minds over the issue declined; and the slave trade, then slavery itself. was abolished in many places (with the exception of America).
Second, in John Locke's time the belief in the divine right of kings was a core belief for most Europeans. See, for example, Locke's debate with Filmer in the Two Treatises of Government (1688).[105] Again, as a result of the Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions, this core belief was shattered and was replaced by a new core belief in the legitimacy of democratic government.
Third, as a result of the hyperinflation of 1922 and the defeats of 1918 and 1945, the German people today have a hostility to loose-money policies and war which is not shared to the same degree in other developed countries. Their core beliefs in the right of central banks to manipulate the money supply and the right of the government to engage in frequent wars (or engage in "liberal interventionism") have largely evaporated and have been replaced by beliefs in sound money and minding one's own business in foreign affairs.
The implications of seeing ideas and belief structures in this light are the following:
  1. It is costly to change people's core beliefs because they are essential to those peoples' sense of who they are.
  2. It is less costly to change people's noncore beliefs or at least to persuade them to compromise or modify them somewhat in the face of growing opposition.
  3. Core beliefs do change but only slowly and at high cost. It might be a demographic matter, as younger people with different core beliefs begin to outnumber the older generation with a different set of core beliefs; or it might be the result of crises such as hyperinflation, defeat in war, or even revolution. The possibility of any intellectual movement, whether Marxist or classical liberal, being able to achieve change though the "mass conversion" of people from one set of core beliefs to another set is extremely unlikely.
  4. It is less costly to work at gradually changing people's noncore beliefs, in other words, fighting the intellectual battles on the margin.
  5. Any intellectual movement still needs a growing number of people who share its core beliefs if it is to grow and prosper.
[105.] See the debate about the Divine Right of Kings between Sir Robert Filmer, Algernon Sidney, John Locke, and James Tyrrell </collections/80> and the commentary and analysis by Eric Mack, "James Tyrrell on Authority and Liberty" </pages/james-tyrrell-on-authority-and-liberty>; Eric Mack, "Eric Mack, An Introduction to the Political Thought of John Locke" </pages/eric-mack-an-introduction-to-the-political-thought-of-john-locke>; and Thomas G. West, "Sidney, Filmer & Locke on Monarchical Power " </pages/sidney-filmer-locke-on-monarchical-power>.