Saturday, February 14, 2009

Libertarian confesses

BK Drinkwater: Political Stop Signs:
"I went through a phase where if, say, education or healthcare policy came up in conversation, I’d say “Markets! Markets markets markets! MARKETS!” I found these conversations astonishingly unproductive, but I didn’t think to blame myself.

Truth is, I didn’t know much about education or healthcare policy. The semantic stop sign—“Markets!”—shut down my own investigations into these matters. I was frustrated that I couldn’t convince conservatives, social democrats, and socialists to come round to my view. To myself, I blamed their intransigence."

Human intelligence places a very high value on compression. Compress a lot of thinking into a formula or a phrase, and then, maybe, create rules for unpacking that formula or phrase into a more elaborate structure of reason and interpreted fact. e=mc2, "survival of the fittest", the golden rule, "never get into a land war in Asia", "for every action, there is a equal and opposite reaction", etc.

We like to learn and know stuff, but, paradoxically, perhaps, we, humans, also dearly love to avoid getting bogged down in the detail. We love insight; reams of computer output, not so much.

A while back I saw Tyler Cowen, a well-known libertarian economist, remark off-handedly that he thought the sheer volume of the Federal Register, where Federal regulations are published, indicated that the Federal government did too much, engaged in too much, detailed regulation. And, I asked myself, as Tyler probably did not ask himself, how does he know? He was commenting, having read a particular regulation; he was commenting, merely, on the volume, the number of pages. Not what any individual page said. Tyler was generalizing, without actually knowing anything, and, in a way, invoking his authority as an economics professor. It struck me as a very curious thought process.

But, I think I understand it better, for having read Drinkwater's confession.

We're all specialists. But, we want to feel that we have general knowledge, general understanding of the world around us. But, how do we handle the details? How do we know that we know enough? As specialists, do we delegate? Do we defer to specialized experts?

There's a deep political problem lurking here.

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