We can’t engineer our way out of this

Folks on the left have been getting more interested in science lately (though history tells us that might be something to worry about). They’re right to celebrate the incredible results of scientific progress–but scientific victory isn’t uniform across disciplines.

In some areas (including just about all areas on the cutting edge), scientists disagree with one another.It’s a big, complex world we live in, and we don’t understand it fully. That disagreement doesn’t mean we should discount science entirely, but it does mean we should be careful with it.

Imagine a world where engineers disagreed about the capabilities of their techniques and the strength of the materials they use. Some might be beholden to special interests (which gives me an idea for a public choice version of the Three Little Pigs), others might be dogmatic/superstitious. But even without concerns of systemic issues, we should be hesitant to try to get to the moon. That disagreement should tell us that we aren’t certain enough in our knowledge to make anyone but volunteers put their lives in the hands of those engineers.

Social scientist in particular frequently disagree with each other. Most are trying earnestly to apply the scientific way of thinking to understanding the social world, and it’s worth considering their view points. But applying that knowledge should only be done in a decentralized way. Applying the incredible insights of behavioral economics from the top down is appealing, but it’s probably best to do it piecemeal.

Social engineering and social science are harder than physical engineering and the physical sciences. Part of the problem Western governments face is that they’re trying to engage in social engineering. And politicians are promising them greater degrees of social engineering to improve the well-being of their constituents.

The trouble is two-fold: 1) those social engineering techniques aren’t good enough, even if they’re sometimes appealing. 2) The cost to decision makers of buying snake oil is too low in voting booths.

To my friends who are looking to the government to make things better: whether your hope is for government to help people be better versions of themselves, or to stop bad guys, we should push as much of that policy to the local level as possible. It might be nice if the whole country were more like Berkeley or Salt Lake City, but trying to make it happen at the national level is a recipe for conflict, disorder, and doing more harm than good. Keep policy local.

Summing up: the year of irrationality

Brandon says I’ve got one last chance to write his favorite post of the year. But it’s the end of a long semester and I’m brain dead, so I’m just going to free ride on his idea: a year end review. If I were to sum up the theme of this year in a word, that word would be irrational.

After 21 months of god awful presidential campaigning, we were finally left with a classic Kodos vs Kang election. The Democrats were certain that they could put forward any turd sandwich and beat Trump, but they ultimately lost out to populist outrage. Similar themes played out with Brexit, but I don’t know enough to comment.

Irrationality explains the Democrats, the Republicans, and the country as a whole. The world is complex, but big decisions have been made by simple people.

We aren’t equipped to manage the world’s complexity.

We aren’t made to have direct access to The Truth; we’re built to survive, so we get a filtered version of the truth that has tended to keep our ancestors out of trouble long enough to get laid. In other words, what seems sensible to each of us, may or may not be the truth. What we see with our own eyes may not be worth believing. We need more than simple observation to actually ferret out The Truth.

Our imperfect perceptions build on imperfect reasoning faculties to make imperfect folk economics. But what sounds sensible often overlooks important moving parts.

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

Only a small minority of the population will ever have a strong grasp on any particularly complex thing. As surely as my mechanic will never become an expert in economics, I will never be able to do any real work on my car. The trouble arises when we expect me or my mechanic to try to run the country. The same logic applies to politicians, whose job (contrary to what your civics teacher thinks) is to get re-elected, not to be a master applied social scientist. (And as awful as democracy is, the alternative is just some other form of political competition… there is no philosopher king.)

But, of course, our imperfect perception and reasoning have gotten us this far. They’ve pulled us out of caves and onto the 100th floor of a skyscraper*. Because in many cases we get good enough feedback to learn a lot about how to accomplish things in our mysterious universe.

We’re limited in what we can do, but sometimes it’s worth trying something. The trouble is, I can do things that benefit me at your expense. And this is especially true in politics (also pollution–what they have in common is hot air!). But it’s not just the politicians who create externalities, it’s the electorate. The costs of my voting to outlaw gravity (the simplest way for me to lose a few pounds) are nil. But when too many of us share the same hare-brained idea, we can do some real harm. And many people share bad ideas that have real consequences.

Voting isn’t the only way to be politically engaged, and we face a similar problem in political discourse in general. A lot of Democrats are being sore losers about this election rather than learning and adapting. Trump promised he would have done the same had he lost. We’re basically doomed to have low-quality political discourse. It’s easy and feels (relatively) good to bemoan that the whole world is going to hell.

We’re facing rational irrationality. Everyone is simply counting on someone else to get their shit together, because each of us individually is more comfortable with our heads firmly up our asses.

It’s a classic tragedy of the commons and it should prompt us to find some way to minimize the harm of our lousy politics. We’ve been getting better at this over the centuries. Democracy means the levers of power can change hands peacefully. Liberalization has entailed extending civil and economic rights to a wider range of people. We need to continue in this vein. More freedom has allowed more peace and prosperity.

 

So what do we do? I’d argue that we should focus on general rules rather than trying to have flawed voters pick flawed politicians and hope for the best. I don’t mean “make all X following specifications a, b, and c.” I mean, if you’re mad, try and sue someone. We don’t need dense and exploitable regulations. We don’t need new commissions. We just need a way for people to deal with problems as they arise. Mind you, our court system (like the rest of our government) isn’t quite ready for a more sensible world. But we can’t be afraid to be a little Utopian when we’re planning for the long run. But let’s get back to my main point…

We live in an irrational world. And it makes sense that it’s that way; rationality is hard. We can see irrationality all around us, but we see it most where it’s cheapest: politics and Facebook. The trouble is, sometimes little harmless irrational acts add up to cause real harm. Let’s admit we’ve got a problem with irrationality in politics so we can get better.


*Although that’s only literally true in 17 cases.

A “don’t rock the boat” theory of political change

You’d think that as long as we’ve known Trump and Clinton it would be more obvious which is better (okay, least bad). But here we are. That said, I largely agree with Brandon’s thoughts: Hilary is the better of the two. If we’re thinking about the trajectory of freedom in this country, it’s like we had been climbing an upward path till 9/11 gave military-industrial complex a new project. Clinton is offering to keep leading us down a gentle incline and Trump is saying “let’s go through that thicket of poison oak!”

I stand by my old advice that a vote for the big two parties is a wasted vote.  People will argue that in swing states it might be close and you might regret your vote. Those people are really arguing that you might regret the vote of hundreds-thousands of strangers. Your vote still is not decisive. Even if you convince a thousand strangers in a swing state to vote your way, you’re still highly unlikely to affect the outcome.

I think, in terms of voting, you do much more good by sending a Johnson signal than you do by slightly increasing the margin by which Clinton wins (or slightly decreasing the margin by which she loses depending on your state).

But my advice is given in the context of a world where Johnson is expected to get 6% of the vote. That affects my cost-benefit calculus. What would it mean for the long-run success of liberty if Johnson were to actually win?

To build on Brandon’s third point (“Clinton is a lawyer and she knows how our government is supposed to work”), this isn’t just a competition to get into the white house. It’s a sales pitch that requires buy in from the electorate. If Johnson won the election, he’d be in the position of some newfangled gadget America bought on a whim. He could catch on, like the microwave, or sink like the Segway.

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Onward, to freedom!

Truthfully, I’m not sure that scenario would be that good for freedom–I think Johnson is a pretty good voice for liberty, and a great third party candidate. But if he actually won, I think he might be too different from the environment he’d have to operate in. It could turn people off of libertarianism for another generation.

But then, the point of your vote isn’t to pick the winner, it’s to express your political beliefs. You’ll do a much better job of voting by voting your conscience than by trying to vote strategically. So vote for Johnson, but root for Hillary… this time.

Voting For Potty-Mouth Trump

I think Donald Trump has the attention span of a two year-old and the potty mouth of a six year-old reared by an indulgent grandmother who is also hard of hearing. I also think he is deeply ignorant on a very important issue (international trade) and I disagree forcefully with him on another (illegal immigration from the south). Finally, I believe there is little chance that a President Trump’s foreign policy would reverse the Obama precipitous decline of the US on the world stage, which I think is dangerous for Americans.

Not a pretty picture overall. So, it takes serious concerns for a dedicated, generally well-informed rationalist like me to vote for him. Here are the reasons why I will.

First, Trump has already told us whom he would appoint for the Supreme Court which sets the life conditions of American society for a generation or more. All his potential appointees are fine by me. It’s not difficult to guess that no Clinton appointee would be acceptable, not one, zero. Any of them would facilitate the creeping abrogation of the US Constitution we witnessed under Obama.

Second, I am certain – because it’s difficult to imagine otherwise – that a President Trump would try to stop and reverse most the climate change cult nonsense and relegate it to the level of a private religion where it belongs. His administration would allow an energy revolution sufficient in itself to rekindle economic growth. I see no prospect of normal economic growth under a Hillary Clinton presidency. (I mean 3% per year and over.) She has said herself that she would continue Pres. Obama’s paralytic policies.

Third, through the example of his sheer verbal brutality, Trump would lift some the yoke of political correctness. This is not a superficial or a light reform. I believe that political correctness actually paralyzes Americans’ criticality on nearly all issues. (Examples on request.)

My last reason is Democratic candidate Clinton of course, even if I leave aside every single one of the leftist policies she is likely to try to implement. Mrs Bill Clinton is still bought and paid for. The fact that I don’t know exactly by whom or by what only makes it worse. (Someone who would not braggingly share her $250,000 a shot speeches with the public is unthinkable to me.) On that account alone, if I had to choose between H. Clinton and Al Capone for president, it would be a toss-up. We know what interests Al was serving, after all.

There is worse: Her lies about her lies, her lies that have zero chance of being believed have become a proof that she is delusional, at least part of the time. By contrast, Trump ‘s untruths are like those of a little boy who can’t help himself from opening his mouth before he talks.

Presidential elections are not only about the presidency, of course. They give the winner’s party a confirmation of the validity of the principles it proclaims and of the policies it embodies. This is obviously true for well defined policies such as Obamacare. It’s true, more subtly, about cultural policies both explicit and implicit. Seven and half years of Obama administration have established firmly – with Big Media complicity – the language of envy and the spirit of beggardliness in American political discourse. Public speech is now built around platitudes, clichés, half-truths, and big lies repeated so frequently that they have become truth, Goebbels-style. The new liberal language is disgusting but completely predictable and thus boring. It’s also a form of child abuse. (Individuals who were 10 during Pres. Obama’s first campaign are now 19. They have never known public sanity.) As for Demo principles, there aren’t any. I count my blessings!

Donald Trump on his part, is his own buffoon. He is only an epiphenomenon. His objectionable traits are not part of a cultural movement. He is not contagious. There is zero chance the Republican Party, or the conservative movement are going to adopt his crudeness. Neither could if they tried.

I am angry about this cultural deterioration because I believe that in the long run what people do, what they accomplish collectively, is strongly constrained by culture. The contemporary American left-liberal culture shackles the imagination, and by doing so destroys many possible futures. Again, the Obama/Clinton conceptual swamp is vastly more of a lasting threat to America than the childish vulgarity and the ignorance Trump displays so frequently.

Being on the side of Trump often puts me in embarrassing company, I admit. But being on Clinton’s side would place me knowingly in vicious company. It would also range me squarely on the side of an intellectual class that has spent decades consolidating its collective blindness and its collective deafness about the reality of the world. It’s a class I know well because much of it lives in universities. There is no doubt that Trump as president is a big gamble. But Clinton is no gamble at all; her evilness is predictable.

Sometimes, to be a man of conscience, you have to gamble. That’s what I plan to do, on my behalf and on your behalf.*

* Public persons often contribute unwittingly to me finding my bearings: If Harry Reid, the corrupt real estate and proud deliberate liar loudly condemns Trump, there has to be something right about supporting Trump.

Voter Participation: Something Has to Be Done

In California, 70% of eligible voters are registered, and 47% of those turned out in a recent election. Thus about a third of those who could vote do so. These are dismaying numbers.

Dismaying because they are too high.

Why? First, some more dismaying numbers:

When Newsweek recently [2011] asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take America’s official citizenship test, 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president. Seventy-three percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar.

Too many ignorant fools are casting votes. People who believe that minimum wage laws create wealth, free trade destroys wealth, or clergymen should be forced to marry gay couples, to pick just a few examples. We need to bar these ignoramuses from the voting booth.

How? For starters, ditch the 26th amendment to the Constitution and the raise the voting age to at least 30. Get the 20-somethings out of the way; too many still believe in free lunches.

Second, change the 24th amendment to require poll taxes rather than forbid them. There is no justice in forcing non-voters to pay election costs.

Third, institute stiff qualification exams. Voters need know the vice president’s name, understand the Cold War, identify July 4 as Independence Day, and a whole lot more. Informed voters would be mostly immune from pandering demagoguery.

Disenfranchisement will lead to alienation and rebellion, some will say. Perhaps, and this could be alleviated by a phase-in of the changes. But then voting will become a privilege that young people can aspire to, as they might aspire to a corporate management position.

Another objection: my proposal is elitist. Of course it is! If there’s one thing we desperately need in this country, it’s a reversal of the egalitarian sentiments that have poisoned so much public discourse. We need to encourage and acknowledge the best and the brightest. Ignorant fools should not be allowed to operate dangerous machinery or pull levers in voting booths.

I wish I could just list every idea I’ve encountered then never cite anything…

Steve Horwitz has a great piece in the Freeman that I wish I’d written. The tl;dr: Voting isn’t all there is to political participation. This is an idea that’s been bouncing around in my head as I’m constantly remound that I’m now an American citizen (sorry everyone else in the world…) and that this November I’ll be eligible to vote for who I think should foster anti-American sentiments internationally (Republicans) or  domestically (Democrats).

The other day I said I’d consider voting but I couldn’t recall whose name I’d write in (turns out it’s Willie Nelson*). But my usual response to any question about whether I’ll vote is “No, it just encourages the bastards.” When that’s countered with “blah blah blah civic engagement blah blah” I retort with,essentially, Horwitz’s point: My vote is not going to change the outcome**, but I can contribute value by trying to convince my students that economics matters and that a vote for third party candidate (even a Green Party vote) does more good than a vote for the big two.

I don’t know where I picked up that idea, but if I’d remembered, I would have posted his piece here before he did. Even better would be if I could just list a repository of everything I’ve ever read (or heard) in some public place and just write and write without worrying about citing anything.

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Fifty Years of Voting

I cast my first vote in 1964, shortly after turning 21, the legal voting age in those days. I voted for Barry Goldwater who, although he described himself as a conservative, didn’t fit that category by today’s standards. He was for free markets but he was not particularly religious and he held a laissez-faire attitude toward alternate lifestyles. He was, unfortunately, a war hawk, so he wouldn’t fit very well into today’s libertarian category, either.

Four years later I voted for Richard Nixon, sad to say. I somehow thought he was for free markets, being a Republican. I was cured of that delusion by a wakeup call at 8:15 AM on Monday, August 16, 1971. That was the moment I saw the headline in the L.A. Times announcing Nixon’s dastardly Sunday evening perfidy: price controls, closing the gold window, and an import tariff surcharge. All of these statist actions very quickly played out disastrously. Their personal import was to cure me of any notion that Republicans were necessarily friends of liberty. I became a libertarian that Monday morning and never looked back.

Of course that decision meant never again voting for a winner.  I voted for John Hospers in 1972, and he actually got one electoral vote from a renegade Republican elector, Roger MacBride, who was the LP candidate in 1976. Ed Clark’s 1980 campaign on the Libertarian ticket, generously funded by the Koch brothers, gave me brief hope for the new party, which we all know has come to naught. I’ve “wasted” my vote on Libertarian candidates ever since. Thanks to Proposition 14 in California, I can only vote for Libertarians in the primary elections; minor parties are shut out of the general election. In many races the general election is a contest between two Democrats. I resist any urge to vote for the lesser evil of the two so now I just leave most of my ballot blank and vote against all tax measures.

If we must have voting, I offer a couple of common-sense reforms:

  • Raise the voting age to 30. People under that age are clueless.
  • Require voters to pass a stiff qualification exam, something far more rigorous than the simple literacy tests of yore.
  • Institute a stiff poll tax, at least enough to cover election costs. Why force non-voters to pay?

I’m tempted to throw in land ownership as another criterion, but the foregoing should suffice. Of course this reform would leave many people feeling disenfranchised, but so what? Most people are far too ignorant to judge issues and candidates rationally and should be kept away from voting booths at all costs. Anyway, the system would leave a path open for people to earn enfranchisement by working hard to satisfy the above criteria.

Would I apply for enfranchisement under my proposed system?  No way; I have better things to do.  Will I vote this year?  I suppose so. I have no idea what will be on the ballot, but there will doubtless be some lame-brain propositions to vote against.