John Locke was wrong. You might be surprised to see the chairman of the John Locke Foundation make that admission, but venerating a historical figure and applying his ideas to modern problems requires neither perfection in that human being (which is impossible) nor slavish devotion to his every utterance (which is foolish).
Locke’s ideas about politics, liberty, economics, and education remain highly influential — and deservedly so. America’s Declaration of Independence is, in part, an adaptation of John Locke’s theories about natural rights and the legitimacy of government. His advocacy of religious toleration was a critical moment in the movement toward freedom of conscience.
But when it comes to how human beings learn, Locke’s idea that we are “blank slates,” fully open to be written on by experience, has proven to be erroneous, at least in the form he stated it. We now know that human nature is real — the product of either divine providence or evolutionary adaptation, take your pick.
Part of our human nature is that we are born with a mental architecture. We are “pre-wired” to interpret the evidence of our senses in certain ways. While this wiring proved critical to our survival before the advent of civilization, it sometimes trips us up as we navigate our modern world.
For example, we are strongly oriented to detecting and analyzing patterns. That’s great. It’s the key to humanity’s success and makes both art and science possible. But often, our pattern-recognition system leads us away from evidence that contradicts what we already believe. We either don’t take notice of contrary evidence (selection bias) or we place a greater but unwarranted value on evidence that supports our preexisting belief (confirmation bias).
Want an example? You need look no further than recent political debates about North Carolina’s economy.
From 2013 to 2016, we had a Republican-dominated state government and a Democratic president. Every time an agency released new economic data, Republicans would find reasons to argue that any good national news must be fraudulent or exaggerated while at the same time arguing that any good news about North Carolina’s economy was true or even understated.
North Carolina Democrats did the reverse. During most of this period, North Carolina’s economy outperformed the national average on most growth measures. Democrats somehow managed to convince themselves either that this meant North Carolina was merely benefitting from President Obama’s wise policies (which was an illogical interpretation of the evidence) or that North Carolina was underperforming the national average (which was contrary to most evidence).
A few days ago, the Census Bureau released 2016 data on median household income. In past years, North Carolina’s performance on this measure was unimpressive — and Democratic politicians and progressive commentators made sure North Carolinians heard incessantly about that.
The 2016 trend, however, was quite different. North Carolina’s median household income was $50,584, up 4.5 percent from last year after adjusting for inflation. That was the 4th-highest growth rate in the country, and far above the 2.4 percent national average. Have you seen headlines or heard news broadcasts about this? Why do you think that is?
A large one-year gain will never be the full story, of course. From 2013 to 2016, North Carolina’s median household income rose about 7 percent by my count. That’s a better growth rate than that of most states in the Southeast, and of the nation. But it’s not in the top 10.
How do other growth measures look over the same period? In per-capita income, a somewhat-different measure, North Carolina ranked 12th in the nation. In gross domestic product, North Carolina’s growth rate also ranked 12th, but drops a bit to 16th if you use a measure that adjusts for price differences, including what our exports sell for overseas. On the labor market, North Carolina’s decline in unemployment and underemployment was 5.3 percentage points — a tie for the 5th-largest improvement.
We can and should lean against our mental biases. If he’d known about modern brain science, John Locke would have strongly approved.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.