On Naivety


The opening lines of the U2 song ‘Peace on Earth’ :

Heaven on earth / We need it now / I’m sick of all this / Hanging around


There’s a debate that isn’t quite raging. If you google Bono + naivety, you get a lot of people criticising the U2 vocalist’s involvement in international aid. They say things like:


“…pompous bastard…” “Egomaniac.” and “Make Bono History”


And they generally have some rude things to say about his apricot-tinted sunglasses too.


But, scrolling down, you also get a few quotes from Bono on the power of naivety – he argues that ‘worldliness’ overcomes the clarity of naivety. Now he is mainly talking about naivety in music-making and artistic vision, and I would be overselling it to say that these threads are generating heat in the blogosphere. Until now.


I reckon it’s not insulting Bono to say that naivety is the power that helps him make change in foreign affairs too. His ‘naivety’ assumes change can be made. What is the opposite of naivety – blindly accepting the constraints around the status quo?


I’m trained as an economist, and I’ve put a bit of time into contemplating how the assumptions of a model affect its outcome. If you have assumptions that reflect all the constraints that people are under, your model will predict the results that you see in real life. That’s great if your model is trying to describe. But if you are trying to prescribe change, you have to assume a ripple effect.  I can’t assume a constant price of apples if I am trying to change the price of pears…


If worldliness is a set of assumptions that accurately reflect the situation as it is, then naivety is the absence of those assumptions. It asks, why not change the price of pears? Why not give more aid? Why not let Africans sell vegetables to Europe?


Naivety is nice. It sends a message that anyone can get involved. That you don’t have to be a Sachs, a Collier or an Easterly or to have a relevant view on foreign aid. It opens the doors of an important debate to a whole lot of people whose opinions matter.


If only the best-informed were let in on debates about policy, debating would be a dreary, technical and lonely act. Their knowledge may be scant, their understanding of the whys might be ill-founded, but the feelings of the naive about the solution are relevant.  

I’m not going to suggest naivety is a panacea. A naïve engineer is not going to build you a Golden Gate bridge. A naïve software designer is not going to write you a Wolfram Alpha, let alone a google. Just like Bono can’t design an effective program to mitigate corruption in Ghana’s police force.  

The naive have a role.  They ask why not? If the answer is ‘we’ve never done it like that’, or because this or that powerful person says no – then the naïve have power.  

It’s the soft objections naivety can smother. The man made ones.  The ones that assume people can’t change. Maybe the opposite of naivety isn’t worldliness but defeatism.  

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

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