I hate to repeat myself, but it snowed on St Patrick's Day, and it is snowing today -- not just snowing, but sticking to the ground -- and yet, if we have a single summer day above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, we will hear how it is a sign of global warming. Why is it that late snows, cold winters, mild summers and years free of strong storms are never seen as evidence against global warming, yet the popular press treats any prodigious heat or storm as a sure sign of impending doom? Worse still, some even argue cold winters and late snows are actually signs that the theory of global warming is right? Must be nice, having a theory where absolutely everything is a sign you are right. Reminds me of atheists who argue no one can prove God exists, mostly because they treat any eye witness evidence of any miracle as a delusion, making it impossible to present any evidence to the contrary. Yet global warming is even worse. At least the would-be-rationalist atheists tell us what eivdence they want, they just refuse to recognize it. Global warming advocates have such a multitude of models that it seems every eventuality fits one of them. Warming at night, warming during the day, warmer in high latitudes, cooler in high latitudes, cold winters, warm winters, more storms, fewer storms, every one of them fits some model, and so, in the end, there is not a single event which someone will not claim as proof of global warming.
The one thing I want to point out about this is that, once you reach a point where every event can be seen as proof, you are no longer in the realm of science. You're not even in the realm of religion. You have entered the world of cults, where nothing can exist that might shake your faith.
Sadly, it seems a cult has infiltrated our schools, our universities, much of our scientific establishment and our government.
Thursday, March 27, 2014
"The basic mystery about ant colonies is that there is no management."
-Deborah Gordon Ants at Work
I suppose it is not all that shocking to find someone who is fascinated with ants, at least not today. Given how much they have been used by those trying to model artificial intelligence, or create models for nanotechnology, they seem to be one of the most popular insects imaginable in modern times, especially among the tech savvy. However, some of us were ant fanciers long before they entered into the tech explosion, back when the public impression was more about geeky children with ant farms. Not that I ever actually had an ant farm, I always thought they looked much too confining for such a large thing as a real ant colony, so I kept my observations limited to actual colonies out in the wild, but in most other ways, I probably fit that stereotype of a geeky child of the 1970's, fascinated by watching ants go about their complex series of tasks.
I mention this because ants actually provide an interesting model for other issues, far outside of the realm of minute machinery or artificial intelligence. In some ways, they provide insight into the much more complex interactions of human beings, or, at the very least, the way in which unrelated, uncoordinated actions can come together to produce seemingly purposeful behavior from a larger group.
Ants are, if nothing else, pretty simple. They have very simple minds, which, if they can count at all, can't count very high, and certainly can't retain large quantities of data for prolonged periods. Their means of communication are rather simple, limited to some relatively simple transfer of information by physical contact, supplemented by a small number of chemical markers. And yet, with these limited resources, and without a hint of a central coordinator, ants manage to make large, complex colonies work, to shift from one foraging ground to another, reassign workers as the nest needs repair or hostile creatures appear, and otherwise respond in a way which seems much more orderly than their total lack of management would suggest.
Which brings me to humans. Now, many have read the well known "I, Pencil", which points out quite clearly how many entirely unconnected actions go into the production of a simple pencil, all without central organization, and a few have read my similar musings on Christmas season at Wal-Mart("An Analogy"), but somehow it seems we rarely learn all the lessons these sort of essays have to teach. We still see "imperfections" in the free market and are lured into trying to "fix" them, imposing controls which not only usually fail to solve the problem, but manage to break the delicate device which is the free market at the same time. ("The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "Perfectionism and Authoritarianism", "Government Quackery", "Third Best Economy", "Competition", "The Basics", "Planning for Imperfection", "Greed Versus Evil", "In Praise of Contracts")
Perhaps it would be easiest to see how badly attempts to improve the free market damage it ("Perverting Self Interest", "The Threat of Perfection", "Utopianism and Disaster", "Life Is Not Fair - And Trying To Make It So Makes Things Worse"), if we understood how the free market works, without central authority or ruler, without coordination, without any planning done at a level beyond small (or sometimes larger) groups voluntarily formed for specific purposes. How the market, often driven by our most base desires, still produces a system which rewards those who best aid their fellows, and ensures that wealth is continually shifted to those who best anticipate the needs and desires of others.
The free market, like the ant colony, works simply, by individual decisions, made in isolation, with reference only to the individual actor and his desires, and without anything approaching a central plan. Of course, we are still not certain precisely how ant colonies work, but tests have shown that the ability of most ants to retain information is relatively low, and that they cannot make very complex distinctions, so the assumption, based on the evidence available, is the entire complex behavior of a colony is based on a series of relatively simple decisions made based mostly on immediate input, or perhaps a somewhat indistinct impression of the immediate past.
Concerning human decision making, the process is much better understood, though even there, we often make quite mistaken assumptions, assuming necessary preconditions such as perfect information, fair competition, and the like, when in truth, even less than ideal circumstances regularly produce near optimal results, and all without any knowing intervention, simply by the efforts of individuals to achieve the best possible outcome -- from their perspective -- given current conditions. But, I am getting far ahead of myself, let us look at the most basic mechanism, individual decisions, and how they interact to produce, if not an optimal outcome, then an outcome which continually moves toward the optimal condition, even as desires constantly shift and change.
The lowest level of the free market, of all economics which have not yet fallen into total authoritarianism (and even there individuals still act in a manner analogous to the free market1), rests upon very simple individual decisions, and those decisions are mad quite simply. All individuals have various desires, and those desires exist in a hierarchical structure. It is not a cardinal system, with a firm numeric value associated with each desire, rather it is a simple ordinal listing, with each desire being felt more or less then another.
From this simple internal list of priorities all of our complex economy, in fact all of our human actions of any kind, are derived. Of course, it is not a simple process, or rather, let us say, it is a simple process, but one involving so many individuals that it seems inordinately complex.
To illustrate, let us look at something that seems contrary to my original premise, the price system. After all, the price system is a cardinal system, assigning strict numeric values of definite ratios as the value of each and every object, service, laborer and all the rest. Yet, it arises from a system devoid of any such cardinal values. How can that be possible?
The answer is surprisingly simple2. I prefer one item to another, I prefer present possession to future, I prefer leisure to labor, all of which color my behavior. And thus, when time comes to make a purchase, I judge whether the money requested would be better spent on other items, or perhaps even hoarded to free me from future labor. In short, I judge whether or not to purchase at given prices based on ordinal values, not a definite cardinal value.
On the side of the seller, the process is similar. We speak of supply and demand curves preventing market clearing most often in terms of government intervention, but the same applies to sellers. The seller selects a price, based on his estimation of the most likely price to clear his inventory, perhaps colored by prices then prevalent in the market. Should he misjudge, he will see his stock cleared with buyers still willing to buy, or else his stock will sit unsold. Based on such signs, he adjusts his prices, and consumers adjust their purchases. And in the interaction of these two imprecise processes, very precise prices are set.
Of course, prices are not static, there is not a "ideal price" which will be such for more than a brief instant. Every second the interests of consumers, the costs of suppliers, the desires of laborers and the like shift, and thus the prices shift as well, continually moving toward the present ideal, but never reaching it -- except by pure chance -- as the moment we adjust to chase the present ideal, it has changed and we are chasing the prior optimal value. Our knowledge is always slightly out of date, our goals always slightly old, and thus the market values are in constant flux.
However, that is not relevant for our present discussion. What does matter is that consumers and sellers manage to set prices without any collaboration other than the exchanges required to conduct exchanges of goods. Likewise, acting through the seller, the consumers tell manufactures, providers of raw materials, even laborers, where they should assign their efforts, all without even a hint of direct communication. By buying a given good, consumers provide the seller with slightly more purchasing power, which he passes along to manufacturers who gain more purchasing power, allowing them to direct slightly more labor, slightly more of certain raw materials, to the production of that good, adjusting the market -- with some small lag -- to the desires of a given consumer.
Of course, an individual consumer has little influence over very large markets and massive enterprises, but he does have some, and his influence increases to the degree he is willing to commit his resources. If he so desires something that he will increase his labors, sell off possessions, go without other items, then he will have more money to assign and the market will be redirected in direct proportion to the strength of his desires. Or, rather, not just the strength of his desires, but the strength of those desires coupled with a willingness to act upon them, despite any discomforts.
In such a way, the individuals who purchase on the market force resources, including labor, to adjust to those channels which bring them the most satisfying results. However, there is another side to this. Those who would impose their will on the market as a consumer, who would make the market produce what they want, and then enjoy the fruits of that influence, must themselves have monetary resources to make their will felt, and in order to do so, they must be successful in their own enterprises. And to be successful, one must be better than others at pleasing the consumers. In short, the market forces those who pursue their own selfish desires to achieve them by best satisfying the desires of others3.
None of this is new. I have said it all before many times. But in the past I had not emphasized one aspect of it that strikes me now as particularly interesting, he entire mechanism works because of individuals simply chasing their own desires. It is not necessarily "selfish" in the sense of lacking concern for others. An individual's desires could be anything, from drowning in drink to carousing with women to providing for his family to helping others out of poverty. The system says nothing about the content of the desires, only that, by pursuing his desires, in a free economy, and individual will inevitably be forced to satisfy the desires of others, as no other means exists to gain the economic resources he needs to satisfy his own. In short, as with the ants, the simple interaction of individuals pursuing their own wants creates a system seemingly quite complex and efficient, and yet lacking all central planning and management.
And this is also why government intervention is such a bad idea. No matter what shortcoming it proposes to solve, and the free market is not perfect, simply better than the alternatives, it will inevitably require one or more individuals to act in a way contrary to their own interests, that is, to sacrifice something they want more for something they want less. It forces them to reduce their own total satisfaction, and thus the net satisfaction of the entire system. Worse still, by making them less satisfied with the overall outcome, by reducing the total joy they gain from the system, it also discourages them from working quite as hard as before, dissuades them from applying their full efforts to increasing the satisfaction of others. With their choices limited and the joy provided smaller, they will work less hard for fewer hours, or will put less effort into their commercial ventures, perhaps not even start certain ventures.
All of which will farther reduce the total efficiency of the system, reducing the enjoyment of others, and creating a general depression of the system resulting in weaker efforts on the part of most participants in the economy. We have seen this in the "brain drain" in various regulated industries in country after country (especially in medicine and science), and seen it writ large in the economy of the former Soviet Union, as well as the need for the German government of the Nazi era to employ slave labor while importing disassembled factories from captured lands. ("An End to War")
Of course, within any economy, at least one in which individuals are still free to make any choices at all, they will still try to produce the optimal results within the given context. The reduction in effort produced by regulation is not a contradiction of this rule. You see, by imposing regulation -- assuming it changes behaviors in any way4 -- the government prevents some individuals from pursuing a goal they otherwise would. As a result, the possible benefits of labor or commerce are reduced, making it reasonable to put in less effort. And thus, though they are still trying to produce the best results possible, because the best is a lower bar than before, they need put in less effort to reach it.
Perhaps a simple example would help. Let us suppose you have a child who is wild for a given video game. He knows it is coming out in six weeks, so he asks for chores, collects cans, and does whatever else he can to get money to buy it when it comes out. Now, suppose you punish him for some infraction three weeks later, and as a punishment prohibit him from playing video games for several months. Do you think he would continue working as hard during the three weeks remaining until the game comes out? Or would he return to a much more sedentary lifestyle, as the spending alternatives left to him do not require such a Herculean effort? It may be a bit simplistic, but it is no different than the incentives which inspired so many in the USSR to put in the most token effort at their jobs5.
What makes this interesting is how the two alternatives compare. The free market, because all of its participants have influence over the behaviors of the other members, results in an economy which reflects the wants of the whole economy, producing results that come close to the maximum possible satisfaction. Of course, there are failings, at times the market performs better or worse, information spreads more or less rapidly, and the distance by which the reality falls short of the optimum can grow and shrink. But, the free market is the sole system which assigns potentially equal recognition to every participant, limited only by the degree to which he can control market resources, by pleasing others or gaining the resources of those who did so6.
On the other hand, regulation tends to reduce the influence of the who body of individual consumers, and gives undue influence to a few privileged souls. It also tends to flatten out the alternatives, making for more "one size fits all" solutions, which are inherently less satisfying than having more options. ("An On Demand World") Nor is that the only problem. It also makes errors7 both more widespread in effect, and more persistent. ("Inflexibility and Bureaucracy", "Adaptability and Government", "The Importance of Error", "Redundancy as a Protective Measure") When an individual makes an error in judging what will please himself, he alone suffers -- well, for a very short time, too many resources are also assigned to that good, but if he never buys it again, then it is a very small misallocation --and likewise, if he judges poorly what will please others, he loses market resources, can buy less for himself, and loses control over some part of the productive resources until he can do better. In a regulated economy, errors by regulators effect many, maybe all, members of the economy, and, instead of depriving an individual of his control of the market, regularly have no effect on the regulator, and thus can persist for a long time, despite displeasing much of the market.
Which brings me back to my original topic, the wonder I feel at how well a completely unregulated, unmanaged system can function. Of course, once we begin to think about why such a system works, how it reflects the desires of the participants, how it rewards satisfying the wants of others and so on, it is less astonishing. However, in the end, it does make quite clear one other thing, how complicated such a system is, and how arrogant one must be to think he can improve upon it by imposing his own will. Of course, those who think they can do so often live to see the results of their folly. Sadly, that rarely dissuades them from pressing on with their regulations.
1. The basic behavior of individuals in the free market is actually nothing but the basic truth of human decision making. Even in the least free nations, people strive to improve their lot, given the constraints imposed by the system. Thus, at the most simple level, everyone behaves as do individuals in a free market. The difference is that in less free economies, incentives are altered, alternatives denied, and thus the individual has fewer choices and prioritizes them differently, resulting in worse outcomes. (As we shall see later in the essay.)
2. When money was firmly grounded in a commodity, the explanation was even more simple, as we could simply say that the preference for the commodity used was involved in the calculation of relative worth. Even without commodity currency, we can still say that the desire to hold currency, as a hedge against misfortune or for future unexpected purchases, for whatever reason, is itself a desire, and ranked among the others. But I will not go into that discussion in this essay, though it is another perfectly valid way to look at prices.
3. This is an important point, as often conservatives mistakenly accept regulation on the basis that the free market will fail if participants are not ethical or morally elevated in some way. In truth, the market works best when driven by selfish impulses, as it channels them into essentially altruistic channels, the more selfish the more altruistic one must be. (Of course, there are other aspects of morality, but the minimal state, by punishing force, theft and fraud, as well as enforcing contracts, satisfies the requirements of other moral questions. Beyond that, the market does not require any additional moral quality -- See "In Loco Parentis", "Harming Society", "Hard Cases Make Bad Law", "New England Versus Virginia (And Venice, And England, And Rome...)", "Guilt and Doubt" and "Ordered Liberty and Our Modern Mindset".)
4. Theoretically, a regulation could exist which would essentially prohibit people from doing something they would not do anyway. Such a law would have no effect, being the same as if no law were passed. Of course, that is theory. In reality, it is likely eventually someone would desire to violate the law, and it would begin to have an effect. (In truth, there is little chance of many laws being passed which prohibit something no one would do. Since laws generally arise due to public outcry against a perceived problem, or because a politician seeks to stop something he sees as an ill or an impediment to some other goal, laws almost always target some action which is presently taking place, or seems likely to those requesting the law.)
5. Obviously, there were other factors. The lack of reward for added effort, the stifling effect of bureaucratic management ("Bureaucratic Management and Self-Policing", "The Inevitability of Bureaucratic Management in Government Enterprises", "Bureaucracy and Arbitrary Power", "Fear Driven Enterprises", "Killing the Railroads", "Bureaucratic Management", "The Bureaucratic Mind", "Bureaucracy Revisited", "The Wrong Solution to Bureaucracy", "Best Practices and Resistance to Change, Bureaucracy and the Free Market", "How the Government Corrupts Relationships", "In The Most Favorable Light", "With Good Intentions", "Grow or Die, The Inevitable Expansion of Everything", "The Right People, The Wrong People and "Just Plain Folks"", "Stupid Quote of the Day (January 3, 2012)"), the assignment of individuals to jobs they may not have enjoyed or for which they had no aptitude and so on.
6. I mention this because those who obtain wealth through satisfying the wants of others can assign their wealth to friends, family, heirs and so on. However, in so doing they lessen their own influence on the market, unless the assignee is equally adept. And thus, though heirs and heiresses can spend out of proportion to their own success at pleasing others, they can do so only for a short time unless they succeed in pleasing others, either through their own efforts in business, or by investing wisely and giving money to those who can do so. ("A Great Quote", "The Benefits of Inequalities of Wealth", "Envy Kills II", "The "Lucky" Rich", "The Irrationality of Government Redistribution", "Perverting Self Interest", "What Is Fair? or, How Game Theory Leads Us Astray")
7. Lest someone think this mention of "error" means that I embrace the view that there is single "right" answer in economic issues, allow me to explain that by "error" I mean as solution which, evaluated by its own measures of success and failures, does not succeed. Thus, whether I agree with gun control or not, if gun control advocates propose a measure intended to curb violence and violence rises, then it is a failure by their own lights, and thus an "error". ("The Right Way")
NOTE: These fourteen essays are being reproduced here as they cited in my new essay "Of Ants and Men", and, while once published in my, now defunct, blog "Random Notes", they cannot currently be found on line. Thus I am reprinting them here to allow readers to see the essays to which I refer.
I was watching reruns of "House" this afternoon when I realized that there were absolutely no normal people in the entire cast. Every single character has some manner of disorder, character flaw or other quirk. Even the supposedly staid and boring Dr. Wilson evolved very quickly into a mass of quirks and foibles. (Not to mention that from the start he was abnormally tolerant of House's own quirks and abuse.) I wondered for a moment whether it was unique to this show, but I quickly realized that most modern shows, and even shows going back quite a while, are filled with abnormal individuals.
At first this inspired me to write a short post, focusing on this observation. I was thinking it would be a rather amusing observation to point out that television and movies are such poor reflections of ordinary life, and are filled with so many extremely abnormal people, because we have to rely upon writers, and writers are, as a group, quite abnormal people. (Before any aspiring writers get up in arms, I am an aspiring writer myself, so just as I can criticize lawyers as a law school drop out, I feel perfectly fine calling writers out for their quirks.)
However, a little thought told me that it probably was not really the fault of the writers. After all, there are plenty of mercenary writers out there who would be happy to write normal if there was money in it. And in the past there had been plenty of television featuring relatively normal individuals and families, written by writers just as abnormal as they are today. No, the reason for today's excess of quirkiness is quite simple, our modern culture finds nothing of interest in normality, we think only extremes, quirkiness, evil, depravity, and other excesses will reveal any true "insight" into life. We are fascinated only by the most excessive behaviors, we revel in serial killers, are fascinated with the insane, and are intrigued by the unusual and bizarre. So it is not really the fault of the writers, but of the viewers. In fact, it is a good parallel to my post on politics, "Don't Blame the Politicians", as voters are to blame for politicians' actions, viewers are to blame for writers'. But that is not my topic today. It is interesting, but something else struck me as more interesting.
Writers might be appealing to viewers by adding countless quirks to their characters, by making each more bizarre than the last, but there is also a trap hidden in that pandering, giving too many nods to abnormality always, given enough time, results in a show going under, and, while every show eventually outstays its welcome (unless stopped early by choice or chance*), shows which focus on quirky characters in almost every case**, end much more quickly than others.
The reason for that tendency to self destruct is the focus of my post, that is the way that quirky characters impose a need to continually "top" themselves, forcing a continual escalation of oddity, until viewers tire of the peculiar antics. If this sounds familiar to my regular readers, it should, the process is, in many ways, similar to others I have discussed in earlier posts. But we will get to that in a moment. First, let us look at the problem of using too many quirky characters.
The basic principle is pretty simple to understand. Writers imagine viewers are bored by simple stories about ordinary individuals. They believe that to retain audience interest they must include characters who have quirks, flaws or other aberrations, making them ostensibly amusing or fascinating. However, there is a problem. After living with a given quirk for a time, it ceases to be interesting, becomes familiar, even ordinary, in a way, and no longer attracts interest. As a result, the writers of these series must find ways to add new quirks to the characters, to maintain interest by piling one deviant behavior on the other. In addition, as the interactions of the characters require complications, to add some sort of movement to the plot, the writers have to add traits which will cause turmoil. Since they are already dealing with aberrant individuals, the sources of strife tend to be more aberrations. And so, over time, the characters become more and more abnormal. And, eventually, become so abnormal they are no longer sympathetic, or even intelligible, to the target audience, resulting in the show's rapid demise.
Beyond that obvious problem, there is another issue. Many times, a single character, sometimes the main protagonist, but often a a secondary character, or a character originally conceived as secondary, will attract considerable public attention. Once that happens,t he writers tend to focus more and more attention on this character, exaggerating those traits which made him or her interesting. And so, over time, what started as a minor, somewhat peculiar supporting character turns into a mass of quirks. I think the best examples may be found in the two shows I mentioned in the footnotes, "The Simpsons" and "Seinfeld". In both, secondary characters (Homer and Kramer), developed into major audience draws, and so, over time, their personality traits, mostly peculiar to say the least, were exaggerated until the characters became almost parodies of their original personalities***.
As I said, this may be interesting, but it is not, in itself, important enough to support a post. However, it is an interesting parallel to something I observed before. In "The Fascination with Change", "Pushing the Envelope" and others, I discussed the way our changing values led to the elimination of old limits on behavior and resulted in an ever escalating set of behaviors. This is quite similar. Generally, characters in fictions are intended either to portray a real personality type, or to illustrate an ideal (either positive or negative). In a few cases, comedic characters are intended to display absurd traits, but even then the absurdity is usually just an exaggeration of a human trait, and is constrained by the need for a character to be believable. However, once we dismiss those ideas, and instead focus only on "stimulating" the audience, that is putting something before them which is novel or unusual enough to shock or startle them, we have no standards. And worse, because novelty can only exist for so long with the same material, there is a constant need for innovation, resulting, as I said above, in the ever more peculiar behaviors of those characters.
Yet even that is simply a repetition of what I wrote before.What truly makes this fascinating is to apply the same logic to another area and see what happens. For example, government.
Government, in my conception, exists entirely to protect man's rights, to defend him against force, theft and fraud, as well as to provide binding fora to settle disputes that arise honestly between men. It is easy to measure whether the government is meeting those goals, and to say whether or not a given function falls within that scope.
Once we drift away from governmental minimalism, into the modern theories of government, the interventionist models which try to "fix" other problems, we have a situation similar to the lack of a moral constant in modern culture, or the lack of constraints on entertainment. We know government is supposed to "make things better", but there are many problems with that standard. First, and most significant, what is "better"? There is no fixed "better" with which everyone agrees ("Absolute Values", "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "In The Most Favorable Light"), so how do we know if government is reaching that goal? And, even if we can find a goal most people accept, we have other problems. Is the government reaching the goal in the most efficient way? Without profit and loss, government is inherently impossible to evaluate ("Bureaucratic Management and Self-Policing"), and even if it were, the hidden costs would make any perception of success or failure suspect. ("Adaptability and Government", "Inflexibility and Bureaucracy") All of which means that, once again, we have a system with no way to determine success, with nothing to rein it in, and, as expected, we also see the consequences of such a condition, mostly out of control growth.
Let us take a simple example, say the department of social services, my former employer. How can we tell if it is doing its job? They give out money to people who need it, distribute food stamps, and provide medical assistance, child care vouchers and other aid. But are they doing it efficiently? And, if they are, is the solution itself too much, too little, or just enough? The answer is, we can't know. Any answer would be based upon the values of one individual, and would only apply to him. For everyone else, with different values, the answer would be different, and so there is simply no way to tell if a solution is good or bad, right or wrong.
And so many government offices try to substitute volume and activity for proof. They try to touch as many aspects of the economy as possible, do as much as they can, and be seen as much as possible to seem that they are doing their job. Let's face it, an office which does little, which sits by and does the same thing over and over seems dull and unimportant, and is likely to be the first to go when cuts come. So many government departments, lacking a measure of success or failure, try to be seen as dynamic, try to increase their scope, and bloat their staff so they seem to be significant. They hope the size and energy of their staff will make them seem relevant.
Not that all of the motives are so ignoble. As I wrote elsewhere ("Why We Need Adults", "All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events", "Some Thoughts on the Media", "Liberalism, "Idealists" and Internal Contradictions", "In The Most Favorable Light"), many think they are doing the right thing, that their department is important and their actions essential, and so they seek more power to do good. Not all efforts to expand government power are mercenary, true believers can do the same.
And there are other motives, that fall somewhere between. For example, offices which are not growing offer few opportunities for promotion, or scope for learning new skills. And so many encourage the expansion of their department so that they, and others, will have professional opportunities as well. In some ways this is mercenary, but in others it could be seen as altruistic, or, at worst, pragmatic.
But, the motives are, in themselves, irrelevant. What is most interesting is the way that a lack of goals allows, even demands, continual growth of government power. Without a way to determine success or failure, without a way to tell if we have met our goals, if we have enough government, the government will continue to expand. Growth is unavoidable in such circumstances. And so even the most modest government interventions, if allowed to continue, will eventually lead to a government reaching into every aspect of our lives.
* The BBC is well know for the former, ending series while still popular. Though in some cases they face criticism for ending things TOO soon. The latter is best illustrated by the death of Phil Hartman, after which "Newsradio" simply fell apart. Or the similar sudden end of "Chico and the Man" when Freddie Prinz Sr. died. There are clearly other reasons for unexpected ends, the folding of a network or studio, a sudden change in public taste resulting in cancellation, or the habit of some networks (notably Fox) of canceling series without any clear reason, even when ratings are fairly strong.
** The two exceptions that come to mind are "The Simpsons" and "Seinfeld", though both began to receive much more criticism after a few seasons of almost uniform praise. And, in the case of "The Simpsons" I think the success is more the result of a continual influx of new young viewers who replace the old fans who tire of the show, creating a unique situation, which is not comparable to any other show.
*** Unfortunately, the old "Jump the Shark" site was bought by TV Guide and no longer has the original content visible, or else I would direct readers to comments by myself and others there. Many of us complained about these shows, as well as others, which had exaggerated secondary characters' personalities so much that they grew simply absurd. (Some other examples would be Jack and Karen from "Will and Grace", Al from "Married with Children" and Lowell from "Wings", though in the last case he left before it went as far as the others.)
My conclusion is similar to those I reached in "Inescapable Logic", "Recipe For Disaster", "The Endless Cycle of Intervention" , "The Cycle of Compassion", "Slippery Slopes", "The Inevitability of Bureaucratic Management in Government Enterprises" and "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences".
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2010/12/11.
NOTE: These fourteen essays are being reproduced here as they cited in my new essay "Of Ants and Men", and, while once published in my, now defunct, blog "Random Notes", they cannot currently be found on line. Thus I am reprinting them here to allow readers to see the essays to which I refer.
I wrote before about the excuse often offered for the failures of communism, as well as it atrocities, that the system itself is not to blame, the problem is simply that power was entrusted to the wrong people. (Cf. "The Wrong People") It is often accepted, even by those not well disposed toward communism, as it is an easy excuse to accept. Who could deny that Pol Pot, Stalin or Mao had problems of their own, independent of the communist system? On the other hand, the same logic could be used to argue that the Nazi system was a good idea, it was just Hitler that made it bad, and I doubt anyone is going to go in that direction.
But I am not going to enter that debate in this essay. I have made pretty clear ( "The Threat of Perfection ", "Utopianism and Disaster", "Greed Versus Evil", "In Praise of Contracts", "Recipe For Disaster", "The Endless Cycle of Intervention", "The Cycle of Compassion", "The Inevitable Corruption of Protectionism ", "An End to War") that I think all forms of government intervention into private decisions, economic or otherwise, is doomed to eventual failure, making any farther explanation redundant. However, that is not relevant for the argument I am about to make. For the sake of this argument, I will allow that perhaps communism did fail due to the bad leaders with which most communist states have been saddled1, that with the right leaders perhaps communism could function much better than has been experienced before now2. My argument today is that those statements are themselves embodiments of the problem with communism, and other interventionist theories. Just like monarchy, oligarchy, aristocratic systems, or any other hereditary principle3, if communism relies on having the right people in office, then it is almost inevitable that it will have problems. In fact, as I shall argue, it is foolish to rely upon any system dependent on having the "right people", as it is certain, at some point, the system will break down, and the worst possible outcomes will become the most likely outcomes as well.
To begin let us define our terms, and state our assumptions. And first among those, let me make clear that I do not believe that communism, socialism, or even moderate interventionism, such as liberalism, can truly produce the results claimed. I do not think even the best people on earth are capable of making a government controlled economy4 function. It is only for the purpose of this argument that I concede the argument that intervention has so far failed only because of the bad choices made in selecting administrators. I will admit that the system will function better the more competent the administrators, and that honest and altruistic leaders tend to produce better outcomes than less worthy leaders, but that is not the same as saying such leaders could make the system work, just that the failure will be less dramatic. Still, for the purpose of our argument I am going to pretend interventionism has more potential than I really believe, and concede that competent leadership could make it work as advertised.
The next part is difficult, as we lack any sort of consensus, but let us try to come up with a definition of "success", in terms of an economy, or a government. In general, I think my definition from "In The Most Favorable Light" would be accepted by most ordinary people, an economy is successful to the degree it satisfies the wants of its members, the more people that experience greater satisfaction, the more successful the system. Similarly, most would find a government successful which fulfills certain expectations, such as protecting citizens from crime and war, settling disputes and so on. After that there is some parting of the ways, as those of us believing in absolutely minimal government would say that is all government must do, while others would ask it to build roads, provide fire services, and, in the case of those more favorable toward intervention, manages the economy, ensure fairness, and all the rest. However, I think I have a formulation which may work. Those of us who are minimalists believe the state can best help the economy by getting out of the way, while others believe in a more active roles for the state. To cover both, let us say a government is successful while provides protections for its citizens and creates an environment which fosters a robust economy, while providing all other services proper for government to provide.
Unfortunately, though that formulation covers well a wide range of opinions, there is a second stumbling block. Many, as I wrote in "The Right Way", "The Most Misleading Word", "Luxury and Necessity", ""It's Our Top Priority!"", "Absolute Values", "Consequences", "Cost-Benefit Analysis and Environmentalism", "How the Government Corrupts Relationships" and elsewhere, believe that there are values which are good in an absolute sense, and those which are absolutely bad. In other words, many refuse to accept that we should judge success based on individual, subjective valuation, but upon some external, fixed hierarchy of values. For these people, the state does not exist to satisfy the wants of individuals, but to make sure the citizens pursue the "correct" values. Which, clearly, is incompatible with the definitions we provided above.
Actually, it is incompatible with only one of the two definitions. The definition of government, as stated earlier, may work for such a perspective. After all, we said only that it must provide a robust economy, if we properly define "robust" we may be able to embrace even this definition of success. The only problem then is how to define success5,6.
As such questions are likely to end up either bogging us down in ever more convoluted descriptions, full of qualifiers and conditionals, or else create a set of mutually contradictory definitions, one for each system of beliefs, I suppose the easiest way to satisfy this is to have recourse to vague words, whose meaning can shift with the beliefs of the listeners7. And the best vague words are the ones I wrote about being the most dangerous8, "want" and "need". So, let us say that a government is successful to the degree it satisfies the wants and needs of its citizens, within the limits of the proper role of government. Depending on how we read it, that could cover anything from my minimalist beliefs to the most ardent communist to even those who believe the state should be almost an asylum, forcing incompetent citizens to make the "right" choice. So, meaningless as it is, it at least gives us a framework within which we can work.
And now that we have a definition of success, let us look at why an interventionist system, regardless of degree of intervention, when it depends upon "the right people" (and all such systems do), will of necessity fail at some point to meet our definition of success.
We must first look at the mechanisms for selection in such systems, and there are many, and usually multiple systems within the same government, as the more powerful a government becomes, the larger the bureaucracy becomes, and the more unelected individuals share in the ability to make executive decisions9. The upper levels of government may be installed through the nominal selection process, be it direct election, parliamentary systems, appointment for life, military coup, or anything else. But below them there will inevitably grow a host of bureaucratic offices, which have an ever increasing influence over policy decisions, and where promotion is based almost entirely on the principles of bureaucracy10. As a result, a lot of the government's power will be controlled by those whose primary qualification is an ability to keep their heads down while serving time.
This may actually be one of the reasons that coups throughout history have usually been followed by a period of rejuvenation, even when the new ruler was less than inspiring. When the state is overthrown, the bureaucracy tends to be shaken up as well. Many in the lower echelons may remain, but the upper levels tend to be doled out as rewards to followers. As a result, people take charge who come to the task with fresh perspectives, and, more importantly, who have not been dealing with bureaucrats for their entire careers. As a result, the bureaucratic mindset plays less of a role for a period of time. And that likely helps to improve the functioning of the state for a time after a revolution.
But, whether or not bureaucracy serves as a major influence on governmental failure is not the main question here.Yes, increasing bureaucratization will inevitably cause the stagnation of the state, and it does show how even the "right people" will have trouble ruling an interventionist state effectively, But my main point here is how the rule by individual personality will inevitably fail, not how all interventionist systems are doomed.
There are three reasons why a government of "men not laws" will fail, which we will now discuss in order. First, there is the scope of their authority. Second, there is the simply overwhelming breadth of their responsibilities. And finally, the monolithic and final nature of decisions. And with a discussion of that final issue, I think we will be able to make one final case against all intervention and bring our discussion to an end.
The scope of decisions is a problem because the more areas in which government is involved, the more people who will feel the effects of any decision, and the more powerful the government, the most strongly they will feel those decisions. Let us take one example. If there is a state whose sole power over international trade is the ability to impose a uniform tariff between 0% and 5% on all goods, it can effect the lives of many people with that tariff, but only to a small degree, and, more importantly, with a uniform tariff, will effect everyone identically. And, since it is a small tariff, it will likely be felt little if at all.
Now let us imagine that state has the power to impose quotas on individual products, as well as impose tariffs from 0% to 10,000% on individual goods. Now that state can make thousands, millions of decisions. It can have a huge effect on different groups, and each will feel the decision in different ways. It is a system which would be impossible for any one individual to handle properly, the chance for making a decision with unforeseen negative consequences is very high. And even if such an error is not made, the chance of being seen by one group or another as hostile is high as well. And, though we did not discuss it in our definition, it seems that popular resentment toward the government is not compatible with the idea of "success".
The second topic is related to the first, in fact was mentioned in the paragraph above, and that is the scope of what is regulated being too much for nay individual. In fact, too much for even a group of individuals. Even if we allow that somehow humans could rationally control the economy11, the fact remains that no one person could. And so we instead have individual groups examining smaller segments of the economy and submitting their summaries to a central authority for final decisions. But there are two problems there. First, the central authority cannot review each segment in the detail the expert group did, as we said no single individual can control everything, and so he must rely on the summary, and thus he must count on all his advisors being good people as well. Which means we have gone from needing one good person to needing hundreds. And even one error could have some pretty dire consequences.
The second, and bigger problem, is, by splitting the economy into lots of little compartments, we have cut off our view of repercussions across those boundaries12. Even if we assume experts are perfect and can anticipate everything within their field, there is still the problem that they are woefully underinformed about other areas, and likely will never anticipate consequences their decisions have elsewhere. And so, though we may have decisions which look terrific, odds are very good there will be problems no one anticipated.
The final problem is one I discussed in many essays on interventionism and centralization. By being able to apply only a single decision, or single rule, no matter how many conditional clauses it may contain, the central government will never be as flexible as individual decisions and will always be less satisfying that individual choice. However, there is another problem. If we allow individual decision, odds are very good not every individual will make an error and do something damaging to himself. On the other hand, it is very likely among all those decisions the state makes that it will make a damaging decision at least once. As a consequence, that decision will be forced onto everyone. There is simply no way to avoid the fact that at some point the state will make everyone do the wrong thing, to one degree or another13.
And that is truly one of the better arguments against all intervention. (Cf "Greed Versus Evil", "Planning For Imperfection", "With Good Intentions", "An End to War", "Why Freedom Is Essential", "In Praise of Contracts", "History Repeats Itself (And We Learn Nothing From It)", "Inflexibility and Bureaucracy", "A New Look At Intervention", "Julius Caesar, Elliot Spitzer and Andrew Jackson") If we force a single decision on everyone, it will either be the same as they would make, and thus useless, or worse, and thus harmful. At least if they were not in error. If they were in error, then in a few cases, the state might save them a mistake. On the other hand, by forcing the same decisions on everyone, in many, many more cases it will leave people a little, and sometimes a lot, less happy than they would have been. On the whole, it will be more costly than beneficial.
Not only is it costly, but it also will prevent any number of improvements. Even if each state ruler is a genius, who finds hundreds of great ways to do things, I doubt he could come up with as many solutions as the entire populace. Edison might have been a prolific inventor, but he did not apply for even 1% of the patents granted in his working lifetime. And that is the the problem with intervention. By imposing one state solution on all, it keeps us from making a host of mistakes, but also prevents a host of superior solutions as well, solutions which at least would be more pleasing to those making them, and may even have been adopted by others. We will never know, as the one size fits all state solution keeps them from ever being made. It is this unseen cost which may be greatest of all.
And that is the answer to this whole problem. When making a choice about who will decide, who will provide all the answers, we have to ask, is it really a choice between being ruled by the "right people" or the "wrong people"? Is there not also the option of each of us ruling ourselves? A few are probably wrong, a few right, but most fall in the middle. What reason is there to make them less happy in the hopes that the ruler we put over them might do better than they would? If they want advice, they can seek it. But if they want to decide for themselves, why must we prevent it out of an ostensible fear they might fail? After all, if they are willing to risk failure in order to make their own choice, why should we stop them14?
1. I argued in "An Interesting Thought", "An Old Idea I am Taking More Seriously" and "What Makes Politicians So Special?" that elected office tends to attract glad handing opportunists, too enamored of exercising power and prone to assuming government is the solution to all problems. And, the more power the government has at its disposal, the more ardently will such people fight for it, making it likely such systems will be ruled by the most ruthless, opportunist, amoral types (or perhaps the most fanatical, as sometimes devotion can beat out lack of morals). Though I won't go into it in this essay, it seems this is another good argument against such states, the tendency to attract to government service the very "wrong people" they claim ruin the system.
2. I still contend the inability to gauge true demand and establish anything approximating a price mechanism (see "The Illogic of Sex Offender Registries and Preventive Detention Continues, With a Technocrat Twist", "In The Most Favorable Light", "The Limits of "Scientific" Management", "The Limits of Econometrics", "The Limits of Technocracy", "Some Additional Thoughts on Technocrats", "A Thought on Technology and Technocrats", "The Nonsensical Nature of Some Statistical Analysis") means communism cannot work in the long run, but I do not want to argue that here. Instead let us just say with the right people it would be much more efficient than it has been in our experience and leave it at that. Whether it would be sufficiently efficient to surpass a free market system, or even simply to avoid collapse, is an argument for another day.
3. I have discussed this in passing in a few essays, for example "Misunderstanding Democracy" and "Power and Disorder". The problems with hereditary monarchy are many. First, and most problematic, those unhappy with the state have no recourse other than violent overthrow, as there is no mechanism for peace change of government. However, another serious problem is that monarchies tend to degenerate over time. A strong leader becomes monarch. His successor, often trained by him personally before attaining power, may be another good leader, but usually by the third generation, the energy has been sapped and the feeling of entitlement tends to produce arrogant, ineffective leaders. A quick look at the many dynasties that ruled Rome will show how often this pattern was followed: Julius Caesar, Augustus then Tiberius and Caligula. Antoninus Pius, the Marcus Aurelius, followed by Commodus. Vespasian followed by Titus, then his brother Domitian. That last does not truly follow the pattern, as Domitian was born and reared out of power, and was troubled long before his father took the reins of the state. Still, it does show how quickly a strong monarchy can degenerate into tyranny.
4. Though I am using the term "economy", I have in mind all forms of government control, as it is simply impossible to separate economic from "non-economic", as everything is effectively economic. In my thoughts, when I say "economic", I am considering all matters in which humans make decisions based on their subjective valuations. As should be obvious, this includes almost every action it is possible to regulate, and so, though I use the term "economy", I really mean any and all government intervention. (See also "Bad Economics Part 16".)
5. Looked at consistently, there are a number of problems with any rigidly defined hierarchy imposed upon everyone, but since I want to argue that intervention fails even when granting all of the interventionists' assumptions, I am going to accept their somewhat hazy logic on this point and pretend there is a rationale for the imposition of "higher" values, ignoring the logical inconsistencies and failings.
6. Sadly, the idea that there are values which everyone should embrace, that there are actions or goods which are absolutely good or bad, and the rest of these assumptions are not limited to the political left. Many on the right are just as prone to such foolishness. Just recall how many times you have heard those on the right say "we are borrowing too much", "we don't save enough", "we need more investment", "health should be pursued at all costs" or something similar. The right, unfortunately, is as prone to imposing their own prejudices on others as the left, even among those who claim to favor small government. ("Debt", "Living Beyond Their Means", "To Correct Debra Saunders", "How the Government Corrupts Relationships", "More Thoughts on the FairTax", "Single Point of Failure and the FairTax", "The State and Morality", "A Bit More Explanation", "Misplaced Blame and A Power Play", "Remember I Predicted It", "Protectionism", "Fear of Trade", "Free Trade, Employment, Outsourcing, and Protectionism", "Cheap Lighters, Overseas Dumping and Monopolies", "Jobs, Jobs, Jobs, and More Jobs", "Protectionism Right and Left", "Bad Economics Part 6", "Pro Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc", "The Sky's Not Falling Part 2")
7. Sort of the way politicians use weasel words that mean different things to different audiences so they won't get tied down to anything specific. See "The Candidate as Inkblot".
8. See "The Most Misleading Word" and "Luxury and Necessity".
9. This was mentioned in passing in "Bureaucracy and Arbitrary Power".
10. I discussed bureaucracy in great detail in my posts "Bureaucratic Management and Self-Policing", "The Inevitability of Bureaucratic Management in Government Enterprises", "Bureaucracy and Arbitrary Power", "Fear Driven Enterprises", "Killing the Railroads", "Adaptability and Government", "Inflexibility and Bureaucracy", "In Praise of Contracts", "Bureaucratic Management", "The Bureaucratic Mind" and "Bureaucracy Revisited".
11. Obviously I do not concede this point. See "A Thought on Technology and Technocrats ", "Some Additional Thoughts on Technocrats " and especially "The Limits of "Scientific" Management".
12. This is akin to what I discussed in "The Problem of the Small Picture" and "Keyhole Thinking".
13. As I do not believe decisions can be objectively right or wrong, what I mean here is that the state will make a decisions such that the decision, or its consequences, will both result in outcomes contrary t the desires of the state, and which all or almost all citizens feel are against their own interests, or, at the very least, are much worse in their outcomes than the decision they would have made had they been allowed to do so.
14.Sadly, as I discuss in "How Conservatives Defeat Themselves", "Defending Freedom?", "Why We Lose", "Giving Away the Game", "The Single Greatest Weakness", "What We Deserve", "What is Wrong with Us", "Pyrrhic Victories", "Who Is To Blame?", "Don't Blame the Politicians", "The Difficulty of Principle", "Damn the Torpedoes!" and "You Lose When You Think You Win", many seem to have decided to surrender their autonomy to the state. I would like to think this is only because they have been raised knowing no better, and perhaps it is. But if people have really decided that it is better to let others decide lest they (or those hypothetical "other people") make a mistake, then we are in truly sorry shape.
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2011/03/04.