Jan 28, 2010

It's not what you know, it's what you know you don't know

Part of what conservatism has meant, as a political idea, is a circumspect attitude towards knowledge. It is this position of doubt, a claim about the limits of our ability to know, a claim of "unintended consequences."

I'm very sympathetic to this idea, but not persuaded. I find it fails, first, to translate into any coherent political plan or program (how are the unintended consequence of cutting taxes substantively different from those of raising them?). This is especially the case since conservatism and this idea of human limitation has not been parlayed into efforts at preserving a status quo, but has been focused on reversing policies, abolishing or neutering institutions, and radically remaking society in the form of an imagined past. This is surely as ambitious and as unmarked by doubt as any New Deal or Great Society plan. Second, unintended consequences ought to be as pernicious in private action as in public programs, and this seems to be ignored by those who would privatize everything (consider the unintended consequences of Blackwater). Third, I don't see why the unintended consequences should necessarily be negative. That's a move that doesn't seem to have any logical support. Fourth, and finally, the negative unintended consequences of progressive programs, historically, seem to be piddly, when compared to the real, positive effects. Social security saved lives, outlawing child labor saved lives, WIC saved lives, and yes of course there were unintended consequences to these programs, but it's preposterous to say their net effects have been negative.

Maybe more critically, though, it is profoundly odd that a political philosophy that takes doubt and systemic uncertainty as central has consistently found philosophical moorings (or at least common cause) with foundationalist theories. Why, if we believe human knowledge is dramatically limited, would we rally to support natural law, with its claims that right society and correct living are not only completely knowable in all important ways, but also immediately knowable. Why wouldn't we go from "unintended consequences" to postmodernism, where doubt and uncertainty and the limits of knowability are central? Why not something like a "hermeneutics of suspicion"? It doesn't make sense. Philosophically, conservatives have said anything short of absolute certainty is tantamount to and is nihilism, while, politically, conservatives have hoisted up this idea of doubt.

Or, perhaps, it was just the canard of a new know-nothingism, but I find it hard to take talk of unintended consequences seriously.

4 comments:

  1. I think what you're seeing here is the tensions in specifically the Anglo-American right. This goes back to Burke who is the source of Anglo-American Conservatism as distinct from Toryism (Which had always been Royalist). Burke was after all a Whig, a liberal. But he made common cause with continental conservatives over the French Revolution.

    The French revolution changed all that much like I think the Russian Revolution changed progressivism.

    The logic of unintended consequences in the American right is a liberal argument. It's Scottish enlightenment (Smith & Locke) channeled through spontaneous order folks (Mises & Hayek). None of them are foundationalists. All of their religious views would make large portions of the American Right cringe.

    There's a similar conflict in the American Left I think between socialism and liberalism.

    I think that there is a giant conspiracy to stop making sense.

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  2. "I find it fails, first, to translate into any coherent political plan or program (how are the unintended consequence of cutting taxes substantively different from those of raising them?)."

    My first response was meant to half answer this. That the political program of the American Right has very little to do with this idea of unintended consequences. It's a rhetorical move drawn from one tradition on the American Right that conflicts with other traditions within the American Right.

    But as to the example the difference between cutting taxes and raising them has to do with systems theory. Raising taxes involves a relatively simple system (i.e. the government) regulating a complex system (i.e. the economy). The problem with this is that the simple system operates from limited information, limited time horizons, limited feedback, etc. while a complex system is always evolving (Think language). Information asymmetries and misaligned and conflicting incentives emerge to create unintended consequences.

    Reducing taxes reduces regulation and the problems that result in simple systems regulating complex systems. Unless of course one is operating on deficits (As we are) in which case increased regulation of simple systems over complex systems in merely deferred and magnified.

    "Second, unintended consequences ought to be as pernicious in private action as in public programs, and this seems to be ignored by those who would privatize everything (consider the unintended consequences of Blackwater)."

    They are. A simple system (Such as a board of directors)faces the same problems interacting with a complex system (Such as consumers). The difference is these actors are much smaller and have far fewer powers limiting the magnitude of the unintended consequences. Blackwater is an interesting example as I'm not certain that Blackwater behaves substantially differently from a state military. In fact the Iraqi government was able to revoke Blackwater's license to operate in Iraq and the U.S. Congress has made it possable to try them in civilian courts. These two things would never be allowed for the U.S. Army.

    "Third, I don't see why the unintended consequences should necessarily be negative. That's a move that doesn't seem to have any logical support."

    They aren't necessarily but as a product of information asymmetry they more often are.

    "Fourth, and finally, the negative unintended consequences of progressive programs, historically, seem to be piddly, when compared to the real, positive effects."

    This is really hard to verify empirically (Either way). We see what the social programs accomplish and we cannot see what the funds allocated to them would have gone to had they been used somewhere else. Also we cannot see what decisions were made as a result of the taxes or deficits levied to fund them. We cannot confirm or deny that this is or is not the best possible of all worlds.

    This is even harder to verify in terms of economic regulations like child labor laws, minimum wages, etc. Here we simply have no idea what is given up in exchange for them. Who wasn't hired, what factory wasn't built etc.

    This is why I actually support social programs more than regulation. We can say feed a hungry man at a soup kitchen for $1.37 and fund that by adding a $1.37 tax for every million gallons of diet soda. I know that I'm trading a meal for the needy for more expensive diet soda. How much more expensive and how that effects everything else is harder to quantify but at least there is a start.

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  3. A minor point of quibble, Daniel, with the idea that "reducing taxes reduces regulation" of a complex system by a simple system. This makes the very false assumption that there is some sort of "natural state" of economics prior to politics. There is no unregulated economy, neither logically, nor historically.

    Otherwise economists would have to just describe what exists, like sociologists or historians, instead of offering plans, proposals and predictions.

    In fact, reducing taxes is another type of regulation, a type of market manipulation. Sometimes we talk like moving a line on a graph in one direction is horrible, appalling manipulation, while moving it the other way is somehow happy and free.

    If the breaks on a car are a simple system controlling a more complex one, then the gas petal is too.

    Most of the rest of this I completely agree with.

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  4. Daniel,

    We've talked about this before and I agree with you that this is the most problematic point of the whole thesis but I've started thinking about this in a slightly different way.

    The idea of a "natural state" prior to politics is dubious for all the reasons that you cited and in the main I agree. The problem comes is that economics (production, distribution, exchange, etc.) occurs not necessarily outside as you correctly point out but along side and contrary to established political orders all the time (Witness what are affectionately known as 'street drugs').

    Which, of course, brings us to pirates (!). And all this has gotten me thinking that perhaps regulation is really the wrong word. It's not value-neutral enough and does imply a "natural state" when what we're really talking about is costs. A tax is fundamentally not any different than any other cost associated with production, distribution etc.

    What we're talking about is reducing costs. Costs like lets say, aluminum, are the products of complex economic systems. So is labor. All of those things are constantly evolving and changing reacting to their own costs changing in real time. The problem with taxes is not that they are a cost but that they are more arbitrarily imposed (Simple system over complex system again). That, and they are more easily cheated (Either criminally or through the purchase of influence).

    As an actual matter of political practice however, I think you are absolutely right. Tax cuts always function (in the realm of political debate) as things that designed to be given to "the middle class" or "working families". They subsidize home ownership (and indirectly penalize renting). They are given to companies who will provide the "jobs of the future" indirectly penalizing companies who have provided the "jobs of the past" (Incidentally why would the companies providing the "jobs of the future" need additional help?) In short they are given to fund the things we like, families that make between $50,000 and $250,000 a year, companies with great ad campaigns, home ownership, etc. They are designed to maintain the status and privilege of people who bother to vote.

    I've been thinking more and more about this lately in the quest for a workable political framework and your post engages the issues really nicely.

    Hope all is well.

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