Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The siren’s song

is impossible to resist; seamen who hear it would clamber overboard and drown trying reach the sirens. Odysseus desperately wanted to hear the song but understood the dangers so he ordered his men to tie him to the mast of the ship and that they not untie him not matter how much he demanded or threatened.

I kinda view desire for government involvement like this. We see some problem and are irresistibly drawn to a solution (which often requires government enforcement). But the world is a complicated, imperfect place; there are indefinitely many problems which all have many possible solutions.

I've been writing a lot recently about how to go about forming opinions. And while there are better and worse ways to do this, the central lesson (I think) is humility and skepticism about our own views. Even peer reviewed papers on relatively simple and well posed scientific questions are not very likely to be true. The implications of a particular government policy are often impossible to know and the fact that people sitting around at a pub all agree that policy A is a good idea doesn't mean they it'll work like they hope, or any better than a different group of people sitting in a different pub nodding along with proposed policy B.

This skepticism means that even if we can all agree that something is a problem we should be very wary of proposing solutions. An example is forced removals to clear the way for a dam. Trevor doesn't mind so much if the benefits outweigh the costs, but how can the costs (or the benefits for that matter) possibly be quantified?

Some problems don't have solutions, some might have solutions that we'll never find and other problems may have solutions that we can't even imagine but would emerge from the market. I have very little idea how education would look in 50 years if it were left to the market, probably not much like the current system and maybe it'd be worse. I'd guess there'd be many pathetic, failed educational experiments, but that education would be much better overall.

I suggested that cultural norms have evolved to help deal with our ignorance of the consequences of our actions. Moral norms about stealing, lying, promise keeping exist because we can't calculate the optimal action each time. They're rules of thumb that tend to work out well on average. The norms underpinning market capitalism and science are pretty recent and very successful additions to older norms.

The point of all this that it's not just lunatic libertarians who need some kind of rule for simply dismissing a whole bunch of stuff without thinking about it much else our heads will explode. I'll suggest one that also has the advantage of having been around for a long time.

the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.

1 comment:

Trevor Black said...

I agree with most of what you are saying. But not doing anything is also doing something.

So if Pub Policy A is not followed and Pub Policy B is not followed, Policy C of nothing is still a policy.

I find Capitalism fascinating. A lot of `gut instincts' I have had over the years have fallen away for me over the years as my understanding of how money works has improved. I had a gut feeling that everything has an intrinsic price, and it was `not fair' to charge more. I now believe that supply and demand do in fact lead to the `fairest price'.

The gut feelings I now have, that may well be proved wrong, that are causing most of our discussion are

1) The Right to private property in perpetuity.

2) What limits should be placed on Free Choice.

You are right, some problems don't have obvious solutions or necessarily an solutions at all.

Another thing I find fascinating about Capatilism is its encouragement of failure and how essential this is in progress. Take Venture Capital for example... most business ideas fail, but people keep on trying and if they make a success out of 3/10 ideas, they have done remarkably well.

Imagine if Rodger quit because he lost the Australian Open, or if Tiger quit because of losing for the first time in 8 tournaments.

Government Control prevents failure... but in so doing prevents progress, which is not good.

I find the idea of no government education very interesting.

The three challenges that I would like to think how to overcome are the ones we have mentioned before...

Randomness in

1) Country of Birth
2) Family of Birth
3) Natural Talents

I would accept your statement...

"the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant."

If I felt that person had had every opportunity to make a rational well informed decision.

But not everyone can...

and that is a problem.