Peer Pressure

PEER PRESSURE….This isn’t a response to my post earlier this morning (it was written before mine), but Matt Yglesias takes a crack today at defining who belongs to the Very Serious People foreign policy club (and thus should be mocked and blackballed from future conversation) and who doesn’t. He thinks the key issue is whether someone is gunning for a government job or not:

You find a much higher level of candor and intellectual honest when you look for experts who aren’t life-long job seekers. Guys like Rand Beers and Richard Clarke and Flynt Leverett who were all professionals who had jobs until they quit them because the Bush administration was determined to steer the ship of state into the rocks. People from the academic world like Robert Pape who, unlike think tankers, really are free to publish their research even if it goes against political fashion or powerful interests also have a lot of value to add.

In the spirit of conversation, let me say that I’m skeptical of this. I suppose it’s true that people who are hoping for State Department jobs in 2009 are likely to keep political considerations in mind when they speak, but I’m not sure that’s really the primary dynamic here. Rather, I think it’s the same dynamic that you get in any organized community: the fear of being ridiculed by other members of the community. And this fear really has nothing to do with whether you’re pining away for an office in Foggy Bottom. It’s just a fundamental part of being human.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t really provide an algorithm for figuring who’s more likely to be trustworthy and who isn’t. After all, how do you figure out which people are slaves to peer pressure and which ones aren’t? Beats me.

I don’t really have anywhere special to go with this, since, given the current state of the art in human nature, there’s no way we’re going to do away with the baleful effects of peer pressure in the foreign policy community — or any other community — anytime soon. Like anyone else, I feel it myself anytime I write a post that I know my commenters and fellow bloggers are going to jump on. Still, there might be ways to ameliorate the effects of peer pressure and groupthink, or at least to cut through them a bit. It’s a bit different than trying to ameliorate the effects of raw careerism, and might be worth some thinking about.

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