It may not seem that important to most who dabble in liberal theory, but incompetence is central to the liberal world view. Though it is but one of the three elements I list as the foundations of that world view, in a way it is the most crucial, as the other two rely upon it for their own significance. Without the assumption of the incompetence of the common man the other elements simply fall apart. If man is competent, then it does not matter if there is a single right answer or several, in either case he will be capable of finding it. Similarly, if man is competent, then it matters little if there is an enlightened elite, he will still be able to muddle through without them, maybe even do just as well. Even the lesser rule, the inability to learn, rests on incompetence, as a competent man can survive learning problems much better than one who starts with a deficit. (Then again, it is hard to define someone as "competent" who is incapable of learning from experience, so perhaps competence is simply incompatible with an inability to learn by definition.)
As incompetence is so central to the liberal theories, it makes sense that much thought has been directed toward the question. Though liberal thinkers, for all their love of long winded theorizing, rarely state their assumptions explicitly (for fear of offending the ignorant masses they hope to lead), one can see quite a bit of their thought process by reading between the lines. Through considering what they choose to target in their legislation, what they deem important in their political philosophy, and what they use to justify their various positions, it is possible to see much more about their thought processes than they think. And thus it is possible to discover the ways in which liberal philosophy explains the incompetence of humankind, and, more importantly, how the various explanations change the resulting philosophy.
I have mentioned before that there are two ways one can approach the question of incompetence. There is, of course, the most obvious approach, simply asserting that the individual is, in general, unable to manage his own affairs properly. There are various gradations of this approach, ranging from some sort of limited incompetence to complete incapacity. The incompetence can also be blamed on any number of factors, from intellectual inability to insufficient information to chaotic conditions which do not allow understanding. In practice, of course, very few use any single approach, choosing instead to combine several. One policy will be justified by insufficient information, another by lack of information, and another by a combination of the two. It does not matter how little the arguments agree, or even if they manage to contradict one another. As most such arguments are offered in isolation, so long as each discrete argument is internally consistent, and agrees with the overall assumption of incompetence, that is usually sufficient*.
However, not all rely on the obvious approach, or do not rely on it alone. Instead of asserting the incompetence of individuals, some theories instead propose that individuals would be capable of running their own affairs but for the intervention of external forces. These external forces, either through explicit malice, or because their greed causes them to ignore the needs of others, manipulate the public into taking actions which are against their interests. They can do this explicitly, through intentional deception, or incidentally, through shaping the markets in such a way that the public simply are prevented from making the choices they should. In any case, the public's inability to choose the correct path is, in this case, not the result of their own failings, but of the malice or negligence of others.
In some ways the two approaches can be difficult to distinguish. For example, if a pharmaceutical company is alleged to sell defective products, is that a symptom of malice or negligence on the part of the pharmaceutical company? Or is it a sign of incompetence, in that the pharmaceutical company is unable to make the proper choices? In this specific case, as the anti-business bias of much liberal thought would tend to find fault with the company, it is most likely it would be presented as a case of malice or negligence. But you can still see the problem, and, in other circumstances, it can produce situations which are even less clear.
Then again, despite such confusion, it is quite possible to categorize most theories, or at least specific aspects of each theory**, into those based on malicious action and those based on ignorance. For example, most workplace safety laws, minimum wage statutes and insider trading laws are based upon the assumption of malice, while job training programs, teen pregnancy prevention and public schooling is based on the assumption of ignorance and incompetence. Of course, again, there is some overlap, as minimum wage laws implicitly assume that the employee is also too ignorant to know his own worth**, but overall the emphasis is on the malice of the employer, not the ignorance of the employee.
So, if we can divide these approaches into these two loosely defined camps, and can, in some cases, even divide the theories into such categories (eg. Marxist theory is largely based on assumed malice of the employers), how does that change the outcomes of such theories? What is the difference in the remedy adopted when one assumes he is protecting the public from a malicious employer as opposed to when he is trying to save the public from its own ignorance?
It would be tempting to cast the discussion in broad terms, to say that the incompetence approach tends toward guidance, bribery and prohibitions intended to safeguard, while the view focusing on agents would tend toward punitive actions, but that does not seem to be the case in the real world. For instance, the war on drugs, while a blend of malevolent agency and personal incompetence, tends to focus much more on the personal incompetence level, as the legal effort tends to hit users and small scale dealers much more than those higher up, and, as a result, the laws tend to focus on the individuals who "act against their own good." And, to some degree this does follow the pattern one would expect, with offers of therapy, rehabilitation and so on. On the other hand, the system also, despite dealing with supposedly incompetent individuals, does not hesitate to punish as well, especially in the case of those who deny a need for treatment***.
And that is part of the problem, both approaches tend to produce similar results, though sometimes in slightly different order. For example, it is quite common for those who attempt to correct what they see as a misguided behavior to first try "education", then some form of incentive, following that with some sort of legal prohibition, including some sort of either mild punishment or mechanism to coerce violators into forced "treatment". However, at some point, those who are trying to correct the behavior will become frustrated. They will claim that they are acting sensibly and with compassion, as their punishment is less harmful than the damage "they do to themselves", but looking at the laws from the outside it is hard to see it as anything but frustration with the failure of the earlier efforts.
Laws aimed at supposedly threatening entities tend to run in reverse. Or almost reverse. The first step is usually a set of mild prohibitions, sometimes coupled with "education" for the parties involved on the other side of the equation. For example, they might ban certain types of advertising as "misleading" at the same time as launching a public service announcement on the topic. However, as that fails to produce the desired results, two things occur. First, the punishments get more severe, and the scope of the prohibitions more broad, and, at the same time, regulatory bodies begin to form around the offending entity, usually with broad powers and vague guidelines concerning their exercise. But that is when things tend to reverse. After enough opprobrium has been heaped on an industry, eventually there is a backlash, or else the economic harm becomes too great, and so the focus shifts from the supposed malefactor to altering the behavior of the customers. We begin to see education, public information programs, and legal restrictions on the actions of purchasers.
In the end, given enough time, both positions end up with the same result. As every effort to change behavior fails to produce the desired results, or else produces side effects which are equally undesirable, the scope of the laws, and the power given to regulatory bodies, will grow ever greater, and yet success will still fail to appear. As a result, in one way or another, the state will end up taking complete control. It may do it explicitly, by nationalizing the industry, it may do it a little less explicitly by forming all powerful regulatory bodies which effectively run the industry, or it may do it piece by piece through regulations and funding, but one way or another the end point of all these approaches is the total control of the industry in question, and, eventually, total control of all activity of any kind.
S, in the long run, the two approaches really make little difference. Whether we see man as incompetent, or the plaything of sinister forces, the end result is the same, the total loss of liberty. The only real differences are the precise route we take to get there, and even in that regard the differences are small, and vanish pretty rapidly. Not to mention that in practice many laws tend to incorporate both perspectives. For example, banking laws are predicated upon both easily panicked depositors, who might be tempted to chase after absurdly high interest, and greedy bankers unconcerned with the stability of their banks or the safety of the deposits. Or, to use the example I did above, the war on drugs is predicated upon incompetent users, small time dealers who flip between villain and victim, and the "kingpins" who fulfill the villain role perfectly.
Probably the only real difference is in the ability to sell the argument, and the rhetoric one must use. The story of honest men manipulated by villains is a much easier sale. Incompetence, when it is admitted openly, must be sold with the "other people" argument, the statement that the listeners are quite competent beings, who can be trusted with all their affairs, but that there is a great mass of those "other people" who need help, and for their sake "we" must sacrifice a little freedom. It is a harder sell, but, recently, has been the more popular for some topics.It is always easy to sell the story of a villain and his sinister plot, but that story can easily be co-opted by another, and, when staging what amounts to a pogrom, the more radical position wins. Since many liberals shy away from openly embracing the most radical of positions, they seem to find the villain argument a bit uncomfortable. Oh, they will do some rabble rousing, and besmirch business in general, but they tend to use it only when they must, and instead prefer the avuncular, protective role.
Continue to "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Chapter 7 - More Equal Than Others".
Return to "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Preface".
* To be fair, there are more consistent theorists out there than the ones I describe. Orthodox Marxists, for example, have a philosophy which, while unsupported by evidence or experience, is internally consistent. And there are many others who have equally consistent approaches. (Eg. Some environmental theorists, as well as various schools of academic economists, though the Keynesians and neo-Keynesians are remarkably inconsistent for academic thinkers.) However, the rank and file, the political exponents of the ideas, and even some of the intellectuals do espouse contradictory views of what explains the incompetence of the general public. Not that such inconsistency is limited to the left.
** This is not always true of all minimum wage laws. Some assume employer collusion would prevent any better wages from being offered. Others assume chronic unemployment would drive workers to accept any offer. So only in some cases does this apply. But, in those cases, it does show how the two can, to a degree, co-exist in the same theory.
*** This has an interesting historical parallel. During many of the Roman persecutions of Christians, magistrates would go to great lengths, at least in cases involving citizens, to allow them to avoid punishment. They would be encouraged to sacrifice some small amount of incense to the g-ds, denounce Christianity, or otherwise make a token gesture of obedience and avoid punishment, in the same way drug users who enter the "treatment track" avoid criminal charges. On the other hand, just as with drug users who refuse to admit fault, the Christians who refused to make such a gesture were often treated quite harshly. (Though often with the hope of convincing them to give in a repent.)
As I used the war on drugs as an example, I should probably provide some of my thoughts on the topic. My earlier writing can be found in "Drug Legalization", "Unintended Consequences II", "For Your Own Good" and "Standing By My Principles". I also spent some time in the past writing about the use of villains in politics, and those posts can be found at "The Nature of Evil", "Life Without Villains", "Enemies Into Villains" and "Rethinking My Earlier Position". My writing on "those other people" can be found at "Those Other People", "Our View of Our Fellow Citizens", "Seeing People As Stupid", "Appealing to Arrogance", "The Citizen Dichotomy", "In A Nutshell", "Cognitive Dissonance Part 2", "Bad Economics Part 9", "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "Deadly Cynicism", "Contradictory World Views" and "Trusting Mankind". (My two recent posts "Individual and Aggregate" and "Worker Safety" are also on point to some degree.) As many theories predicated on the actions of supposed villains tend to degenerate into conspiracy theories, my writing on conspiracy theories can be found by reading "Can Hawaiians Travel Overseas?", "False Flag Theories and 9/11", "Maybe Obama Was Born in Gulf Breeze, Florida", "Mumia, the DaVinci Code, Full Body Scans, and Loose Change - How Conspiracy Theories Arise" and following the links. Finally, as many liberal arguments rest upon the existence of even a few malefactors, arguing that it shows the entire system has failed, it may be beneficial to read "The Threat of Perfection" and "Utopianism and Disaster", though we will deal with that in detail in a later chapter of this work.
I just realized that the last two chapters were both given titles which are also titles of Pink Floyd songs. In the case of chapter five it was intentional. In the case of this chapter it was accidental, simple chance that Pink Floyd user a very common phrase as the title of a song. Not that I have any objection to using song titles to name posts, after all I did write "Ch-Ch-Changes". But in this case it was accidental.
Originally Published in Random Notes on 2010/07/01.