Matt Yglesias, we get the news that some Republicans are trying a new argument in the "negotiations" over the debt ceiling and funding of the government. Some now argue that breaching debt ceiling is not really that big a deal at all. I'm no expert on these matters, but I'm convinced by the confluence of expert opinion on the matter that this likely is a very big deal. But even if we disregard that, the Republican position on this front is nonsensical. If it weren't a big deal to breach the debt ceiling, then it wouldn't make sense that they are demanding so much in order to avoid a breach.
So why say such things? Well, for sure, one can never discount cynical political posturing. And in fact, as a negotiating tactic, it can be wise to appear as though one is irrational and willing to do the unthinkable in order to extract concessions. One doesn't negotiate with an irrational force, after all. You don't hold your ground with a mudslide and hope for public opinion to swing your way. The only option is to mitigate as much damage as possible.
But I think there's likely something else going on. I think many of the people saying these things may actually believe it. It's a classic resolution to the well-known problem of cognitive dissonance. The thought process might go as follows: "I'm negotiating over the debt ceiling. This implies that I must be willing to breach the debt ceiling. If I'm willing to do it, it can't be that bad."
We think this way all the time. I've come to think this is where a large part of the motivation for warfare comes from. We think (something like) that we wouldn't have an army unless military force were often necessary, and we do have a military, so military force must often be necessary.
These thought processes follow valid arguments, but the premises are not always true. We might have an army because we are excessively fearful, not because we truly need one. We might have negotiated over the debt ceiling because we wrongly believed the president would easily cave, rather than because we were actually willing to breach the debt ceiling.
We all know this. We are not perfect reasoners, and our past actions are often flawed. But when we deliberate, for a variety of reasons we are predisposed to thinking that we have always been behaving rationally. It's incumbent upon us to remember that we are not always rational, and that we cannot assume we haven't already made mistakes.
What this means is that to be a rational agent, we have have to recognize that we are consistently not, in fact, fully rational agents. This is where the ideal and the real must meet. We must always be striving towards being as rational as possible, but acknowledge that part of being rational is realizing that it is not possible (or even likely) for us always to be so.
Image Credit: Eli Christman