Monday, May 13, 2013

In A Nutshell

I was going to write a series of lengthy essays, summing up my old arguments on a number of topics -- and I likely still will do so -- when it struck me that there is something even more fundamental missing from my blog, and something that could be of much more use, a list of those general errors in our thinking -- political, economic or otherwise  -- that I believe lie at the root of our problems. I suppose I could have created something similar in the course of writing those larger essays I suggested, perhaps a lengthy look at our philosophical and intellectual problems, but if that grew sufficiently lengthy, I doubt it would be read. And so, instead, it seems the easiest way to get my message to those who should see it is to simply provide a list with each item followed by a brief explanation.

Of course, in any such list, some will be more important than others, some will cause more harm, some will be more easily remedied and so on, but as these issues are rather complex, it would be difficult to then take such a list and somehow ranks them from most to least important, or most to least dangerous. And so, though I will try to keep together a few that seem related, there is no other order to the list -- other than the sequence in which they came to me -- so please do not ascribe any importance to the ordering.

Finally, though I did end up with 20 items, that is not the end of the list. I could likely have gone on at much greater length. In fact, I know I could, as some items presented here were originally conceived as two or three items. And, though I think I hit all the major points, I am certain in a day or two I will be adding a postscript or update containing a half dozen more. But if I waited for perfection, I would be waiting forever (as I shall mention in the list), so, without any more introduction, allow me to present my list of our major problems with how we conceive government, economy and society in general:

1. Ignoring Context - This sounds simple, but it is actually much more complex than most other topics on the list.  The problem is this, we often assume something -- eg increasing numbers of bankruptcies or falling home prices -- is always bad, without considering the causes, or the various contexts in which it can be viewed. Thus, we develop a very simplistic perspective on events, and adopt solutions which often do more harm than good, trying to resolve something that either is a problem only to some, while a benefit to others, or else may not be a problem at all.

2. Forgetting Federalism - I thought of this today while explaining to my son that states in the United States are actually independent nations, or at least should be. Yet, the more I explained, the more I realized that we adults often forget this as well, treating states as if they were provinces, counties, something other than independent nations. Even the states themselves often fail to behave as sovereign units. And thus, much of what was built into the Constitution as a safeguard is negated, as these protections rely upon states acting as, well, states.

3. Emphasizing Centralization - This relates to the previous point, and actually goes along with the first as well. In some contexts, centralization is beneficial, but in most it carries both costs and benefits, and in some, it is positively dangerous. And government is one of those contexts. One of the most basic arguments against any sort of "one world" government is, very simply, if the government becomes oppressive, or if you simply do not agree with it, where do you go? Similarly, with a nation as large as the US, if rules are established nationwide, and they prove harmful, or just disagreeable to a number of people, how do they save themselves? There is more, such as the fact that in a representative government, your influence, the power of your voice, diminishes the larger the number represented by a governing body, meaning centralized power is the least responsive power, but it would take far too long to discuss all of these in length. So, let us just say, a centralized state makes errors universal (and correct choices as well, but one serious error eliminates the benefit of many, many correct choices), while a number of decentralized units limit errors, while giving the smaller units the option of learning from one another. (There is a related problem when we look at questions such as universal health care, or nationalization of industries, but they are too complex to discuss in a list such as this.)

4.  The State as Swiss Army Knife - This actually covers a few related problems, so let us keep the descriptions brief. First, there is the problem stated in the title, the problem of seeing the state as a panacea, or a Swiss Army knife. The state is a tool for coordinated application of force to protect citizens against force, theft and fraud. Using it to solve every problem is as foolish as using a hammer for every home improvement task from putting up siding to plumbing, wiring and washing your windows. The state excels at some tasks and is a bad choice for others, yet we not only try to use it to solve all problems, we forget private solutions are available. And this applies to the right and left. Just suggest private control of all schools, of roads, or perhaps suggest prostitution and drugs are problems to solve privately, through persuasion and social pressures. We forget that there was collective action independent of government throughout history, that many problems we solve today were once solved privately (and a few we solve privately today were once thought only possible through the state too, to prove this error has been around a while).

5. That Was True Once, But No Longer - This relates to the problem mentioned before, as many times when I suggest, for example, private roads, managed by neighborhoods, community groups, private ownership and so on, I am told "it worked once, but it won't now." And the same is offered as an excuse for not trying private solutions for a host of problems, from eliminating private schools, to unregulated banks and the gold standard. The problem with this argument is, while some things change, the laws of economics do not. Nor does human behavior. And in most cases, if not all, what this argument means is not that something won't work, but that we have become so used to the state doing it, we can't figure out how it ever worked privately. It is rarely a reasoned statement of belief, but either a declaration of faith in an all powerful state, or a sign of someone unwilling to admit they can't figure out how it would work privately.

6. Distrust of Private Enterprise - Sadly, even on the right, before we hear an argument for deregulation, we often hear opening quotes such as "While we need some oversight of the stock market ..." For some reason, while the right argues that the free market works, they are unwilling to go all the way and allow for a real free market. Instead they want half-way measures, with some "common sense" regulation (which we shall discuss below), forgetting that allowing such exceptions essentially undercuts their argument (as we shall also discuss below), and opens the doors to complete government control of the market. What is truly depressing is that, in truth, there is no need for such intervention. The beauty of the free market is, so long as there is a forum for settling disputes, and laws to prevent outright theft and fraud, individuals can be given free reign and the market mechanisms themselves will channel the most selfish and greedy instincts into channels that best benefit the majority. In other words, any regulation actually makes things worse for everyone, not better. Yet the right, while paying lip service to such beliefs, often lack the courage of their convictions, and end up pushing a right-left hybrid of regulations and freedom, and thus give the left all the arguments they need to win.

7. Slippery Slopes - As I just mentioned, one of the worst things anyone can do is allow the basic premise of the opposing argument. If you say, for example, "I believe in the free market, but we need to control the price of food", you might as well just concede victory to those favoring total regulation. Once you admit some regulation is allowable, then it is just a matter of time before that premise is expanded to cover any and all possible regulations. Allowing some part of the opposing argument opens the door to the gradual expansion of that exception to encompass everything the other side wants. People continue to deny this. Social conservatives imagine they can regulate behavior "for our own good", yet somehow prevent the left from regulating business "for our own good", and they are hardly alone in such errors. All over the right, exceptions are allowed which basically invalidate the entire foundation of individual liberty. And yet we wonder time and again why we lose to the left. When we allow an exception, we essentially admit we lack faith in our basic premises. If we say "the private market tends to move us toward the optimal possible economy", but then insist on price caps on oil, we are effectively saying we do not believe in our own theories. Not only do exceptions allow others to move things in the direction they wish, they also undermine our own beliefs and leave us with no foundation upon which to base our arguments. In other words, not only is there a slippery slope, but there is also nothing left for us to use to climb back up that slope once we begin to slide.

8. A Government of Men, Not Laws - It may not seem it, but this relates to the last point as well. Time after time, I point out that, for example, banning drugs relies on the same logic as banning guns, or that the premise underlying laws against prostitution could be used to justify nearly any government actions one wanted, and receive the response that we must apply "common sense". Now, there are many issues with common sense, and other forms of pragmatism -- far too many to cover here -- but in this case there are two main points. First, when we rely upon people to put a check upon the law, either to refrain from exercising all the power granted, or to prevent a given concept from being taken to its logical conclusion, we will find that one day, the wrong people will hold that position of power, and what we feared will come to pass. It is inevitable. Second, when we rely upon individual judgment rather than explicit law to define what is and is not allowed, we also introduce a tremendous amount of uncertainty, we leave people unsure if they are within the law or not, and that has a tendency to discourage any individual initiative. (As I said a few times, the most benign tyrant with arbitrary power is more damaging than the most oppressive state run by consistent, rigid laws.)

9. A Necessary Evil - It is commonplace among conservatives and libertarians to call the state "a necessary evil", but I think that mindset is somewhat dangerous. The state, for all its shortcomings, is not an evil, but a tool. Yes, that tool has been abused and user improperly many times, but so were many medicines -- just read what was done with mercury or silver by medicine of the past -- but just as past abuse of medicines does make those medicines evil, the past and present mistaken applications of government does not make it evil. And I make this point because, sadly, many have taken this position -- the evil of government -- too much to heart, and ended up indulging in bizarre conspiracy theories, waxing poetic about neo-anarchist theories, or otherwise making bad decisions premised upon the belief that government is inherently evil.

10. Acceptable Deception - As a people, we have become too willing to accept lies. We almost universally assume, for example, that politicians will not truly say what they are thinking, that their speeches are "for consumption" and do not reflect their true beliefs. Similarly, we accept laws which we know are deceptive, such as laws written for one ostensible purpose, yet intended for another. And we accept more subtle deception as well, such as the fact that corporate taxes are universally understood to be paid, not by the corporations, but by customers, shareholders, insurance purchasers and others. This willingness to accept deception is often seen as a sign of maturity, but in truth it simply means we are willing to accept incomplete and misleading information, as well as deceptive actions by the state. Were we a little less proud of our supposed maturity and rather insisted upon total honesty both in statements and practice, there would be a significant difference in how the state would operate.

11. Improper Distinctions - Many laws rely upon making a distinctions, that is isolating one category of goods or people from another, and thus making them subject to unique laws. For example, were guns not treated as a special case, it would be hard to imagine applying all the gun control laws to all consumer goods. Similarly, the laws relating to land ownership treat land as something quite distinct from other sorts of personal property. However, before we allow such distinctions, we should ask whether such distinctions are relevant, and should not allow the state to carve out small domains to make easier the application of special restrictions. For example, because of the differences between land and other property, it does seem to make sense to allow for some distinctions in the law. On the other hand, guns are no different than many other items. Knives, clubs, gasoline, fertilizer, automobiles, strychnine and a host of other items are deadly, as we saw in Oklahoma City, guns are hardly even the most lethal. It is difficult to argue that something is so absolutely unique about guns they need to be distinguished from other goods. And had we stood by that distinction from the start, much of this gun control fiasco would have been avoided. (Sadly, even those who defend guns do the same thing. Memories of Cromwell era bans on weapons led to the Second Amendment, and many similar clauses in state constitutions, but in so doing, the defenders of weapons opened the door to distinguishing guns from other items. Which actually makes a good case for points #7, above.) Or, to offer up quickly one more example, one of the only reasons the campaign finance laws are workable is because we allowed the state to distinguish "news organizations" from common citizens. If we said "news organizations" were nothing different from other companies and organizations, then many of the most dangerous laws would no longer work.

12. Misplaced Bureaucracy - One of the problems facing us is the use of bureaucratic management in fields where it simply is inappropriate. In many ways, this relates to number 4, above, as bureaucratic management is unavoidable in government owned and run firms. (The rationale for this is too involved for this essay, but essentially, once something is owned by the government, it is impossible to exclude political considerations, and those considerations inevitably move one from a profit based management to a bureaucratic one.) However, there is an even broader scope here, as bureaucracy is not only present in government and government owned or run enterprises, there is also a tendency toward bureaucratic management  whenever an enterprise is too dependent upon the state, being it due to relying upon state funding, or in a firm which has the state as one of its most prominent customers. Thus, this is not only an issue of the explicit size of the state, or its involvement in direct control of businesses, it is also an issue of how pervasive the state is in the economy as a whole. The more the state involves itself in economic matters, even just as a customer, the more widespread bureaucracy will become, and the most common will become the associated ills.

13. If You're Not With Me... - With apologies to our last president, as I think his use was proper. However, all too often those of us who feel strongly about politics see the opposition as, well, the opposition. It started -- well in recent times -- with the "Angry Left", around 2000, when their ire over the Gore loss began pushing them to emulate the more radical liberals of the 1960's, and see all who did not share their views as, not wrong or misled, but as actual enemies, ascribing all their beliefs to some sort of malice. For a time, the right did not follow, but around 2004, and certainly by 2006, the right had developed its own, very vocal, "Angry Right", which shared the left's belief that the opposition was not just wrong, but morally flawed. This clearly was not always the case. Whether for show, or a true expression of his beliefs, one need only look at Reagan's chuckling dismissal of many arguments of the left to see, at least in the 1980's, many on the right were happy to see most on the left as misled. However, we now -- at least many of us -- choose to see political differences as signs of sinister intent. As a result, most of those on either end of the spectrum have lost most interest in persuasion. We rarely hear anyone trying to convince the other side of their errors. There is still some residual argument, old habits die hard. And many do still relish pointing out the risks of the opposition practices, even if just "preaching to the choir", but as time goes on, we have appeared to become less and less interested in winning over others to our cause. And, for the most part, this belief that our opponents are morally suspect is the reason why.

14. It Was the Best of Times... - It would take far too much time and space to discuss at length all the ills I blame upon what I see as the "neo-Romantic" philosophy which dominates our age. However, there are two consequences of that philosophy which I rank among the most damaging. One of those is our tendency to imagine that the times in which we live are somehow exceptional. We can hear it everyday, in the beliefs not just of the more extreme type -- such as the belief that global warming has chosen the present day to suddenly raise temperatures an extraordinary amount -- but even in the more mundane worries, such as the concern that the changes being made by any given politician are unprecedented risks, which will change things in such a way we will not be able to recover. Of course, this is not a unique belief, at least not unique to our age. Throughout history, there have been various groups which have chosen to imagine their age was in some way special, be it for good or ill. However, such beliefs, both historically and today, have some significant risks. Not only does the belief tend to inspire us to see things as both better and worse than they truly are, but it also tends to skew our evaluation of the costs and benefits of various long term actions, such as savings and investment, or any other long term undertaking, and can mislead us into either eschewing planning we should undertake, or else setting aside too much against potential disasters unlikely to occur. A full discussion would take far too much space, so let us just summarize the point for now. Our age is unique, but so it every other age. Whatever we do will change the future, but that has been true from the dawn of time. For the most part, the future will be much like the present, at least in broad outline, just as the present largely resembles the past. (Granted, the growth of industry and technology had allowed for a rapid pace of technological change, but for the most part, humanity itself is still very similar to what it has always been, and the changes driven by technology, because of the rapid pace of change, tend to be somewhat ephemeral, washed away in short order by another technological change. And thus, for better or worse, things tend to stay much the same, even as the incidental features of life undergo rapid alteration.)

15. Change at All Cost - Among all the errors discussed, this one is the most tricky, as it comes and goes over time, and the group guilty of this mistake in one issue often opposes the same mistake in another.  However, it is an error that seems, overall, to be quite common, and one of which most of us have been guilty at some time. That is the error of valuing change simply for the sake of change. The most clear example would be the campaigns of most presidential candidates running against the part in power. In almost every case, they have hoped to win over those unhappy with present circumstances by promising ill-defined change. While we presently think of the left as doing this, thanks to both Clinton and Obama explicitly promising "change", we are simply forgetting how much the second Bush relied upon unhappiness with the Clinton legacy, and even Reagan on dissatisfaction with Carter and the general political climate. However, it is not just politicians who make this error. For example, when arguing against the FairTax, I often heard the supposed rebuttal "so do you like the current system?" And that argument demonstrates the error quite well. The question is not whether the current system has problems. Even if it has problems, a change can still make things worse. Change, in itself, is no promise of improvement. We need to judge not just on whether we dislike the present situation, but on whether or not the proposed change will represent an improvement (as well as whether it will improve enough to justify the disruptions change always brings). And that is the problem with this all too common error. Change is not in itself good or bad, what matters is what a given change will bring. (In a way, I believe this is a manifestation of that Neo-Romanticism I mentioned. Those who follow that belief tend to see in novelty an innate good, and thus see change as inherently beneficial, thus reinforcing the common error that believes, in bad circumstances, any change is good.)

16. Equating Imperfection and Failure - A frequent part of the arguments against the free market consists of pointing out where the free market solution falls short of the ideal, and from this demonstration of imperfection, the assumption is normally made that the free market is a failure, and needs to be "fixed" or even replaced. However, the argument overlooks one simple counterargument, that each and every solution contains imperfections, and were we to wait for a perfect solution, we would be waiting forever. Of course, the arguments do their best to hide this fact, concentrating on aspects where the free market appears inferior to their chosen system, while ignoring the flaws in the system they favor. Still, weak as these arguments may be when viewed in their entirety, very often they are presented in such a way that they manage to deceive quite a few. And so, I would like to emphasize the simple point that failing to achieve perfection is not enough to condemn a system. Just as I argued in #15, above, change for its own sake is not enough, and failing to live up to some ideal is likewise not an argument for change, we need to see just how the current system compares to the proposed replacement, and not just where the replacement excels, but in all aspects. In the long run, if we keep asking such questions we just might realize, every system falls short of perfection, leaving us to ask which one comes closest, or, even better, which one simply gives us the greatest benefit for the cost.

17. Multiple Yardsticks - In many ways, this one ties into the last one, as many times the free market is criticized for failing to achieve perfection, while the interventionist solutions proposed are forgiven failures of equal or greater scope, most often by arguing that they simply weren't given enough authority, were not sufficiently funded, or that otherwise granting them even more authority would resolve any shortcomings. And this argument seems to occur more often than we think. For example, many condemn the free market by pointing out all the advantages the rich enjoy that the poor do not, but then completely ignore the many advantages granted to government officials and their favorites in interventionist systems, pretending that they have somehow achieved equality. Or, most notably, the free market was, and still is, condemned for the supposed "boom-bust" cycle under the free, gold backed banking system (whether that is a just charge is beside the point), yet these arguments manage to ignore the single largest and longest depression in our history which began just over a decade after managed currency was introduced, as well as the accelerating cycle of booms and busts we have experienced since the gold window closed in the early 1970's. Not that such arguments are limited to banking. Basically, most arguments seem to follow a simple pattern. Economic problems before large scale intervention were the result of the free market, while any failings after the introduction of intervention are blamed upon the remnants of the free market not yet subject to regulation. In short, whatever the situation, the free market is to blame. And, sadly, not only do many buy these arguments, but many have become academic orthodoxy as well, with generation after generation taught that such sophisms are the proper view of history. (I know I learned quite a few of them in my youth, and I am no longer young, so they are nothing new.)

18. Confusing Costs and Waste - Another argument often offered against the free market is a very old one, dating back at least to Marx, if not earlier. In this approach, every expense in the free market which is not directly related to production is termed "waste", and thus it is argued that some other system would produce more at less cost. Originally, the profits exacted by owners and investors were the popular target, and all manner of profit was seen as wasteful loss from the system. More recently, advertising is a more popular target. However, in both cases, what is overlooked is that such expenses are necessary costs of the free market. Profits are required to convince owners of funds to put them into ventures (as well as allowing us to distinguish viable from non-viable ventures), while advertising is an essential part of competition, without which the free market would fail to function. And that is the main problem. Yes, advertising and owner profits would not exist in command economy, but in losing those costs, we would also lose all the benefits of the free market, and in the end the savings would be far less than the losses. However, by ignoring that truth, and pretending these costs -- now dubbed "waste" -- could be excised from the system without changing anything else, many delusional promises can be made. (A similar argument has been offered regularly in favor of universal health care, denouncing the waste of insurers using different forms from one another, the overhead of multiple insurers and so on. Of course, this also overlooks how much of the insurance headache is actually caused by earlier government intervention, but even disregarding that element, it also forgets that once you begin to introduce authoritarian measures, leaving too much in the hands of the state, you also lose the many benefits that those costs bought us.)

19. Absolute Values - This topic has given me headaches in the past, as people misunderstand what I mean, or perhaps they just don't think things through. Even more likely, having spent long hours denouncing moral relativism, they have come to see "relative values" as something to always be denounced. However, in truth, values -- in the economic not moral sense -- are always subjective, and we need to point that out, as, ironically, arguing in favor of absolute (economic) values, tends to favor the authoritarian position most of those people detest. You see, authoritarian systems depend on three elements (as I have described in several essays). First, that there are absolute values, that is that there is an objective way to determine the importance of anything. Second, that the majority is not aware of these values (as we shall discuss next). Finally, that those in power, or seeking power, somehow DO know these values, and thus should be allowed to tell the rest of us what to do. To offer an example, let us say that you say book A is informative, while I hold it to be immoral. Subjective value would suggest you and I are both right. For you, it has more worth than it does for me. This is what makes economic exchange possible, and also makes "scientific management' of an economy impossible. There is no way to know the ever changing, individual subjective valuations of every good, service, life choice and everything else at a given moment, much less constantly, and thus efforts at "scientific management" will always end up worse than no management at all. However, if you propose absolute values, say that all "right thinking people" agree book A is immoral, you can stop producing it, even ban it, for our own good. And that is why absolute values are dangerous. (This does not in any way argue you cannot personally hold any given moral values, or believe they have universal validity, just that the worth any individual ascribes to something is wholly subjective. This is one of the points on which some Objectivist trip themselves up, by going over into absurd positivism and arguing all rational people ascribe the same values. In many ways, Rand set the stage for this with her theories of art, but I will leave my criticisms of Objectivism for an essay devoted to that.)

20. Those Other People - This is probably the most harmful mistaken belief, lying as it does at the heart of all manner of intervention, as the justification for almost every form of government control. This is the belief we mentioned in #19, above, that the majority of our fellow citizens are not pretty similar to ourselves, but are ignorant rubes who need to be told what to do for their own good. It is, sadly, a common viewpoint among many, as evidenced by the number who call others "sheep", who denounce the tastelessness of the average American and so on. And in so doing, unfortunately, far from showing their own intelligence, they demonstrate how easily they can be turned into the tools of tyranny, as the basis for almost every modern oppressor, at least in previously free nations, has based his appeal on the claim that the masses need enlightened leadership to steer them in the right direction. And many who denounce the "sheep" end up agreeing, failing to realize that their own beliefs and values, which they think "common sense" shared by all "intelligent people" are theirs alone, and the rules the future autocrat will impose may look nothing like those they would. It is why so many supporters of dictatorial movements end up disappointed, even jailed, after the leader comes to power. They imagined the vision behind the movement was their beliefs, only to find out they should have asked a few more questions. Not that it would help, every dictator, in the end, trusts no beliefs but his own. No, if you value your own values and beliefs, the only safety is in respecting those of others, and allowing them their choices as they allow you yours, anything else is far more likely to end up with someone else's values imposed on you than yours imposed on the nation or world.

As I said, I could probably go on, and a few of the closing points actually drifted far enough from the main topic they could have been split into two or more related subjects. But, it is almost time for work, so I think I shall wrap things up now. If I come up with any new points which I feel simply must be included, I will come back and add them to the end of this post. Otherwise, I will let this stand for now, as these twenty seem a pretty comprehensive list of our worst misunderstandings.


It is late, so I cannot do it right now, but in the near future I will come back and post links to the relevant articles I have written elaborating upon each point. With any luck, I should get to it tomorrow.


To clarify point #14, it is an inarguable fact that things do change, sometimes rapidly. I do not deny that. However, I think we have developed a tendency to think that every change we see is of greater speed and greater significance than it truly is. For the most part, the changes we see are part of longer, ongoing trends, and are not sudden breaks with the past. And that is what I am trying to say here. For the most part, things stay much the same, and when they do change, it is usually over a longer period than we imagine. There are the occasional sudden break with tradition, but that is much less common than most think. Perhaps it is hard to tell how rapid change is, watching it as it takes place, but I think most of the blame for our tendency to overestimate the significance of the change e see around us is not from any innate difficulty in assessing change, and instead comes from a tendency to exaggerate the importance of the present age, as I discussed above.

UPDATE (Later that same morning): I just realized I did manage to skip quite a few significant errors that I wish I had touched upon. For example, our willingness to embrace envy as a guide, or our distrust of the wealthy, our bizarre dislike of speculators (and failure to understand their function), the ease with which we accept government protests of selflessness, our focus on intent rather than outcomes, and so on. However, as I said in the post itself, including everything would make this run on for page after page. And so, rather than write a lengthy update (except of course the promised update including the relevant links to old articles), I will save up those missing topics and, when I have a sufficient number, I will put together a sequel to this list.

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