Enlightenment 2.0 – Joseph Heath

This book should be required reading for anyone interested in understanding the root causes of our current political divide and what we can do about it. It is also an ideal book for those who want to understand the human cognitive biases that underlie so much of our poor decisions that have consequences both at an individual level and politically. In another very accessible book, Heath once again displays his superb writing ability, excellent analysis, and his mastery of a variety of subjects from human psychology, economics to public policy. In other words, he is a very well-read academic. I have read Heath’s previous book “Filthy Lucre” and was very impressed by his strong grasp of economic concepts, insightful analysis and not to mention his lively writing style that connects well with the general audience, not just those in specific academic disciplines. I was expecting no less when I picked up this book.

Like in “Filthy Lucre”, the author tries to strike a good political balance. Although his two consecutive books have political elements to them, the author remains as a neutral observer. In “Enlightenment 2.0”, the author attributes our tendency to think irrationally to the various human cognitive biases – the mental shortcuts we take to avoid thinking through difficult issues whether in politics or in our everyday life. Wherever you stand politically, the point is that both progressives and conservatives have benefited tremendously from our human tendency to exercise the intuitive side of our thought processes. What we all have in common is that desire to sell our products or political slogans by appealing to that ancient side of the human brain. There are certain parts of the books that may be debatable. The most controversial part of this book is when he blames common-sense conservatism, at least in its form in Canada, for ignoring statistics and facts and elevating one type or morality over another. Here is where I believe many will quibble with the author’s argument. He picks out a few examples in Canadian history to support his thesis. This may be the more vulnerable part of the book. While the progressives like to see themselves as the beacon of rationality, the author also credits traditional conservatives for upholding mechanisms of self-control through tough criminal laws and traditional marriage. But he does not let the progressives off the hook easily because it is only under the liberals with their relaxed standards that our traditional forms of self-control have broken down. Self-control is an important step towards rationality. In this regard, we are not any more rational under the liberals than we are under the conservatives.

Regardless, the last part of the book, possibly the most important, is his solution to a world filled with cognitive biases exacerbated by 24-hour news cycles and partisan commentators. Contrary to the thinking of libertarians and conservatives, paternalistic legislation may not be a bad idea if the objective is to structure an environment where we can be nudged away from cognitive biases. Because we cannot rid ourselves of these biases because it takes twice as long for our brains to think more rationally, perhaps we can manipulate the environment in such a way as to make it conducive to sound decision-making, and we can accomplish this without even trying to think hard. Here is the most brilliant part of the book. Strip away our political biases (the thought of a big nanny state is horrifying to libertarians), we will actually see the rationality behind Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on large sugary drinks. Of course, there are many overreaching, nonsensical laws and in this case, libertarians are absolutely right to stand up for their individual rights. The world need not be painted in black and white as the political pundits would have you believe. We just need to work together to create a hospitable environment where reason has a chance of survival.

The book reminds me of a combination of Jon Haidt (The Righteous Mind), Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) and Cass Sunstein (Nudge: Improving Decision about Health, Wealth and Happiness). Heath does an excellent job of integrating the ideas of these scholars into an intellectually accessible book for all readers. The book excerpts in the National Post first caught my attention and eventually, I bought the book because I know I will really enjoy keeping it on my bookshelf. This book should be a best seller. It is going right up there next to Daniel Kahneman in my library. I have thoroughly enjoyed both Filthy Lucre and Enlightenment 2.0 and certainly hope to hear more from this author in the near future.

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