Wishes vs. facts

Wanting to tweet a link on a positive theme, I looked for a speech which Davy Crockett had supposedly made to Congress about the importance of staying within Constitutional limits regardless of how sympathetic you might feel to the beneficiary. It’s easy enough to find citations, such as this one from the Foundation for Economic Education. I noticed, though, that none of the pages I found gave a date for the speech. The FEE article just says he gave it “one day”; some pages mention secondary sources, but I couldn’t find any earlier than the second half of the 19th century. (Crockett died in 1836 at the Alamo.)

Chasing down various links, I eventually found this page, which looks like a plausible summary. In Crockett’s time, speeches in Congress weren’t meticulously transcribed, so we can’t get a definitive answer by checking Congressional Record. However, the inconsistencies in the account, the lack of a date, and the lack of contemporary citations all cast strong doubt on the story.

Libertarians would like the story to be true. It’s nice to have a famous historical figure to quote in support of your views, and that makes some people abandon normal caution. The supposed speech is quoted in full on the Cato and Lew Rockwell sites, among others. Maybe the people who posted it would have been more skeptical if they had been less eager to have it be real. When you close your eyes to questions, though, there’s a serious cost. The more obvious cost is to your credibility; if you’re caught in a falsehood, even an inadvertent one, you won’t be trusted as much next time. The more important cost is internal; if you skimp on judgment when you want something to be true, you undermine your own ability to think and trust yourself.

Whenever you see opinions on a question of fact divided along political lines, it’s certain that people on at least one side (not all of them, but enough to skew the numbers) are going by wishes rather than evidence. It’s very often both, since people will respond in kind to what they think the other side is doing.

Avoiding wishful thinking and sticking to verified facts can be hard work and sometimes make you unpopular, but it’s better than blindly following the crowd.

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