Some people have wondered: in all those retrospectives on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, why were there so few people who actually opposed the war from the outset? Megan McArdle thinks that that's "seriously misguided":
"We learn by gambling on what we think the best answer is, and seeing how it turns out. Most of us know that we have learned more about the world, and ourselves, from failing than from success. Success can be accidental; failure is definite. Failure tells us exactly what doesn't work.
Failure tells us more than success because success is usually a matter of a whole system. And as development economists have proven over and over and over again, those complex webs of interactions are impossible to tease apart into one or two concrete actions. Things can fail, on the other hand, at a single point. And even when they fail in multiple ways, those ways are usually more obvious than the emergent interactions that produced a success. (...)
The people who were right can (and will) rewrite their memories of what they believed to show themselves in the most attractive light; they will come to honestly believe that they were more prescient than they were. (...) The people who failed will also do this. But unlike the people who were right, there is a central fact stopping them from flattering themselves too much: things are blowing up in Iraq and people are dying. Thus they will have to look for some coherent explanation."
There's something right about what McArdle says, and something wrong. To start with the first: most of us sometimes get things right, and sometimes get things wrong. Suppose God grants you the chance to question someone about an important decision, and gives you the choice: would you rather question that person after she has screwed up, or after she has gotten something right? Other things being equal, I think I'd rather question the person after she screws up, for more or less the reasons McArdle suggests. Notice, though, that in this case, we have to choose whether or not to question one and the same person after a success or a failure. The identity of that person, and with it, her good or bad judgment, her wisdom or naivete, and so forth, is held constant; and this is essential to the example.
The question McArdle claims to be asking is a different one: given a particular decision, would you rather question the people who got it right or those who got it wrong? Here what we hold constant is not the people we question, but the decision itself. And that makes all the difference in the world.
Different people have different track records. On foreign policy, George Kennan had a very good track record: he got a lot of things right, including some very difficult ones. That is in large part due to the fact that he knew a lot and had exceptionally good judgment. Jonah Goldberg, by contrast, has a terrible track record: he gets things wrong all the time, and when he gets them right, it seems to be more or less by coincidence. That is because he knows almost nothing and has terrible judgment. Their respective track records mean that on any given decision, people with good judgment, like George Kennan, are much more likely to have gotten it right than to have gotten it wrong, while the opposite is true of people with bad judgment, like Jonah Goldberg.*
If I ask myself whether I would rather hear from the people who got a given question right or wrong, I can assume that the people with good judgment on questions of that type will be overrepresented among those who got it right, and underrepresented among those who got it wrong; and that the opposite will hold true of the people with bad judgment. So one way to think about the question: who would I rather hear from? is that it is a question about whether I would rather hear from people likely to have good judgment, like George Kennan, or people who are likely to have bad judgment, like Jonah Goldberg. This is, frankly, not a hard call to make at all.
However, as McArdle notes, a given person who has just gotten something very wrong is more likely to have something interesting to say about it than she would be had she just gotten it right. If the differences between people with good judgment and people with bad judgment were very small, or the additional insight conferred by confronting one's own errors were very large, then the effects of having just made a mistake might be big enough to swamp the effect of having good judgment overall. In that case, even though the people who got something wrong would be likely to have had worse judgment initially than the people who got it right, the fact that they had just gotten something wrong might make them suddenly become more interesting and better to talk to, on the whole, than the group who got things right.
Obviously, though, this isn't the way it works. First, the difference between George Kennan and Jonah Goldberg is very, very large. Second, the fact that Jonah Goldberg has terrible judgment doesn't just lead him to screw up foreign policy; it also makes him far less likely to learn from his mistakes than George Kennan would. Someone who is thoughtful, perceptive, and insightful, and who had gotten the Iraq war wrong, might find his or her judgment changed forever, in very interesting ways. (Then again, George Kennan would be almost as likely to learn something really interesting from observing other people's errors. He would be interesting to talk to either way.) Jonah Goldberg, by contrast, seems to have learned nothing whatsoever from his mistakes. And this doesn't seem to be entirely unrelated to the defects that made him get Iraq wrong at the outset. He was a shallow, thoughtless idiot then, and he is a shallow, thoughtless idiot now.
And this is what's so wrong about what Megan McArdle says. She is making an argument whose natural application is to the question: given one person, would you be likely to learn more from her after she had gotten something right or after she had gotten something wrong? And she is extrapolating it to the quite different question: would you rather talk to the people who got a given decision right or wrong? It would be fine to extrapolate in this way if the fact that someone got that question right or wrong showed nothing whatsoever about their wisdom or judgment; if the George Kennans and Jonah Goldbergs of this world were tossed at random into either category.
But that's not the way things work. Decisions reveal things about those who make them. People who get them right are, on average, more likely to have wisdom and judgment and insight than those who get them wrong. This means that they are both more likely to be worth talking to in general, and more likely to profit from any mistakes they make, than people who get them wrong.
This is what McArdle missed. It's an interesting omission for someone who, by her own account, got Iraq wrong.
In her post, McArdle suggests that people who get a decision right are likely to revise their memories "to show themselves in the most attractive light", and that this kind of self-deception is more difficult for those who got it wrong. Her own post, with its implicit assumption that major errors do not reflect anything about the judgment of those who make them, suggests that people who get things wrong are just as prone to self-deception as the rest of us.
(See also: Richard "we were right to be wrong" Cohen.)
* Footnote: what I say here is much more true of people whose job it was to get questions like Iraq right than it is of other people. If you are a stockbroker or an auto mechanic, and you thought about Iraq only occasionally, in those odd moments between doing your job, playing with your kids, and so on, then whether or not you got it right might not reflect much more than whether you chose the right people to trust. But then, you would also be unlikely to be chosen by the New York Times or Slate to write about your views on Iraq in their retrospectives.
If you are working in the administration in some foreign policy or defense-related position, or a scholar in a relevant field at Brookings or AEI, or a columnist or blogger who takes it upon yourself to have and publish an opinion on Iraq, then it's your job to make these calls correctly, and you either have or ought to have the knowledge you need to do so. For that reason, your position reflects much more about your judgment and wisdom than it would if you were the aforementioned stockbroker or auto mechanic.