The Incentives of Power

I just stayed with cousins on the East Coast for the weekend. (I was in town for my graduation ceremony, an amusing bit of theater with no intrinsic significance… but fun anyway.) The husband is a white-collar employee of New York's MTA; being of a conservative bent, he will readily tell of the many ways in which the whole system is dysfunctional.

One anecdote I found particularly striking. In 1981, my cousin was heading in to work with an acquaintance of his, a man who had direct oversight of several welfare programs (five, I think). This man had just been directed by President Reagan to cut one of the programs, as part of the general push to trim back government.

Now, the man said to my cousin, which program should he choose to cut? Should he choose the most bloated, inefficient program that is doing relatively little to help his constituents? One would imagine yes; but in fact, the man decided to cut the leanest, most effective program that was helping the most people!

Why? Well, if the man had ended the least effective program, then it would be gone forever and the small-government types would be proved right. That would translate into a loss of power for the man in question; instead of overseeing five programs, he would now only have four. But if he ended the most effective program, then his constituents would scream bloody murder, the government would be forced to restore funding, and his power would remain secure.

This is in fact what happened. And it happens constantly, on every level of government. Everyone is familiar with the dire predictions that such-and-such a cost-cutting measure will victimize "children and the elderly." Do fiscal hawks have a pathological hatred for children and the elderly? Of course not. But those with direct control of the programs in question have a vested interest in making any cutbacks as painful as possible, to ensure the survival of their fiefdoms. In government, prestige is measured by the sheer number of resources one has control over, not on whether those resources are being used effectively.

What this means is that would-be reformers cannot leave too much discretion to the mandarins when they mandate cuts; if they want cuts to be at all effective, they must micromanage them as much as possible to stymie any attempts at sabotage by the mandarin class. More than that, reformers must constantly push government agencies to measure their effectiveness, and then make those numbers public. Only if officials are punished for doing poor jobs, even if only by public ridicule, will we see improvement.


Thoughts on Arnold

I have finally started reading the work of the Nineteenth-century British literary critic Matthew Arnold, on the recommendation of my old Humanities teacher. So far I have got through Democracy and The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, which are quite interesting when set alongside each other. In the latter essay, Arnold defines criticism (being primarily interested in literary criticism) as "a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world." He strenuously argues that the best criticism must be divorced from any direct involvement in immediate "practical" affairs. When a critic is personally involved in political or social projects, and attempts to advance a given outcome with his work, his efforts will necessarily distort his thinking and result in criticism that does not honestly respond to the material at hand:
Criticism must maintain its independence of the practical spirit and its aims. Even with well-meant efforts of the practical spirit it must express dissatisfaction, if in the sphere of the ideal they seem impoverishing and limiting. It must not hurry on to the goal because of its practical importance. It must be patient, and know how to wait; and flexible, and know how to attach itself to things and how to withdraw from them. It must be apt to study and praise elements that for the fulness [sic] of spiritual perfection are wanted, even though they belong in the practical sphere to a power that is maleficent. It must be apt to discern the spiritual shortcomings or illusions of powers that in the practical sphere may be beneficient. And this without any notion of favoring or injuring, in the practical sphere, one power against the other.
Which is not to say that criticism should have no impact on the world; much the contrary. By identifying and clarifying the best ideas — or what are perceived to be the best ideas — the critic helps ensure that these ideas will inevitably enter the practical realm, but only once they have been suitably refined by the critic.

The sentiment here is valuable — to a point. Certainly one wishes to retain enough disinterestess in his perception of the world so that it does not become clouded by prejudgements. It is well-established that most people will accept or discard hard pieces of data based on whether they conform to existing mental models; more insidiously, two people will take the same dataset and interpret it in wildly different ways based on what each of them brings to the exercise. So a conscious attempt at disinterestedness in thought is to be commended (even while true disinterestedness is impossible — and therefore should not be pretended to, especially not in one's own mind).

The difficulty arises if one becomes so detached from the "practical" world, and so enamored of theory and austere logic, that one forgets how messy human nature can be. Such critics and thinkers often propose new social or political orders that seem splendid on paper, but when translated into the real world become disastrous. Which brings us to the first essay noted above, Democracy.

Arnold, ruminating on the debasing cultural tendency of democracy and noting democracy's inevitable rise in Britain, wishes to find a replacement for the declining aristocracy as an ennobling influence on the polity. Fearing that Britain will become "Americanized," i.e. will see its appreciation for high culture swept away in a tide of boorish populism, Arnold advocates for the State to assume greater power over society, and to use that power to improve the lot of the lower and middle classes. In particular he speaks of a system of public education that would instill love for high culture into the masses.

Concerning the traditional English suspicion of powerful governments, Arnold replies thusly:
In other countries the habits and dispositions of the people may be such that the State, if once it acts, may be easily suffered to usurp exorbitantly; here they certainly are not. Here the people will always sufficiently keep in mind that any public authority is a trust delegated by themselves…. Here there can be no question of a paternal government, of an irresponsible executive power, professing to act for the people's good, but without the people's consent, and, if necessary, against the people's wishes; here no one dreams of removing a single constitutional control, of abolishing a single safeguard for securing a correspondence between the acts of government and the will of the nation.
This will come as a surprise to modern Britons, who must pay a television tax even if they do not own a television, who are largely forbidden to own weapons of any kind and are absolutely forbidden to defend themselves against attackers, who can be imprisoned for "hate speech" even as burglars are let go with verbal warnings as a matter of policy, who are now under the juristiction of a genuine secret police.

Arnold seems to have forgotten that people can get used to anything, and easily become used to encroaching government power. Moreover, governments are genetically predisposed to seek greater power; it is their natural function. As President Reagan warned, "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction."

Arnold's specific recommendation, that of a public school system, is particularly apropos. Arnold desires for such a system to be a means for instilling culture; in practice, we find that government-run schooling is usually a means for indoctrination. Truly good culture is typically suppressed, as free-thinkers are not what governments want for citizens. Even when governments are not being malicious, culture and the arts are usually the first subjects to get the ax when budgets are tight. Far more important that good public citizens know how to work their calculators right. (This is aside from the indisputable truth that public schools, taken as a class, do a poor job of teaching their students anything, never mind high culture.)

Arnold was certainly correct to worry about the decline of the national culture. He was also correct that government power, when used judiciously, can serve to preserve and nurture culture. But he profoundly underestimated the degree to which, as his contemporary Lord Acton noted, "Power tends to corrupt." Were he indeed concerned with preserving liberty, Arnold may well have been more hesitant to recommend goverment expansion if he had more exposure to the "practical" realm.

Human nature cannot be boiled down to nice abstractions. People are messy. Theoreticians forget this at society's peril.

Quote of the Day

Democracy is a force in which the concert of a great number of men makes up for the weakness of each man taken by himself; democracy accepts a certain relative rise in their condition, obtainable by the concert for a great number, as something desirable in itself, because though this is undoubtedly far below granduer, it is yet a good deal above insignificance. A very strong, self-reliant people neither easily learns to act in concert, nor easily brings itself to regard any middling good, any good short of the best, as an object ardently to be coveted and striven for. It keeps its eye on the grand prizes, and they are to be won only by distancing competitors, by getting before one's comrades, by succeeding all by one's self; and so long as a people works thus individually, it does not work democratically.
— Matthew Arnold, Democracy (1861)


Quick Hits

My apologies for not posting recently. The last few weeks have been rather depressing, between Iran's continued provocations and the immigration clash. But things seem a bit better now, so I'll try to round up.

First, Wretchard over at Belmont Club writes a fascinating post on the sense of unease that has been percolating through the blogosphere, and the obscure knowledge of our deeper brains that sometimes comes bubbling to the surface. Don't miss the comments, either. That's usually where the good discussions are.

Via Ace of Spades comes this piece by Allah on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's letters to President Bush, and now, the Pope. Read it carefully; far from an overture for diplomacy, these letters are meant as an ultimatum. Ahmadinejad called on the two most powerful figures of the non-Muslim world to embrace Islam, or suffer the consequenses. It's feeling a lot like 1938 right now.

Surprisingly, the immigration issue may turn out all right. The initial proposal, which seemed to be conceding an awful lot for not much in return, has been beefed up with some sensible provisions such as keeping out criminals; I think the final product will end up to be the best of a bad set of options, which is all we can hope for. I'm unsympathetic to arguments against the sheer number of immigrants who would come in under the proposed law; what is more important is whether those immigrants learn American principles of society and government (whatever those are…). An article in the LA Times today or yesterday (on the subject of highly-educated immigrants who can't find commensurate work) quoted someone as saying that we as a society are more concerned with immigration than we are with integration, and it's a problem.

In Gaza, the civil war between Fatah and Hamas has begun. May each destroy the other, and rid the Palestinians of their poison.

And finally, huge congratulations to Mark Harris, the 21-year-old graduating senior from George Washington University who defeated a 15-year incumbent to become the Republican candidate for state representative in Pennsylvania's 42nd district. I worked in the same office as Mark last summer during my internship; he's an outstanding guy who's passionately committed to limited government. I just donated to his campaign, the first time I have ever made a political donation. Much luck in the general election!


Permissive Government, Not Permissive Morality

A key tenet of modern Libertarianism is the Nonaggression Principle, abbreviated as the NAP. In the words of Walter Block:
[NAP] states, simply, that it shall be legal for anyone to do anything he wants, provided only that he not initiate (or threaten) violence against the person or legitimately owned property of another. That is, in the free society, one has the right to manufacture, buy or sell any good or service at any mutually agreeable terms. Thus, there would be no victimless crime prohibitions [i.e. drug prohibition—ed.], price controls, government regulation of the economy, etc.
Now, I have never been happy with the NAP, for reasons I discuss here and here. But even if we accept the premises of the NAP as valid, many libertarians fundamentally misunderstand it or misapply it, in ways that are profoundly damaging to our society.

The NAP is a theory about the appropriate uses of government power. It states that governments, a class of actors prone to oppression and the excessive use of power, should only use their power to regulate directly aggressive behavior, and not to enforce broader standards of morality no matter how laudible. It is the responsibility of civil society (says the NAP advocate) to enforce codes of morality, withut using coercion. Otherwise, you run into the slippery slope; power-hungry governments will take the opportunity to expand its power at the expense of the people, leading to tyranny.

Some libertarians make the mistake of carrying that argument one step further. They say that since governments should not prohibit certain behaviors such as sexual promiscuity or excessive body-piercing, therefore such behaviors have nothing wrong with them and nobody can make any objection to them whatsoever. After all, who are we to judge? Let people do what they want!

This line of argument is perhaps inevitable given that many libertarians follow the philosophy not out of any deep convictions on the role of government per se, but because they want their own personal tastes (such as drug use) to be legitimated. Therefore, it is not sufficient for a class of behavior to be permissible by law; what they want is for any social stigma attached to it to be removed. (Witness the continued efforts by the homosexual lobby to portray homosexuality as a "normal lifestyle.")

But this argument is flawed. It may be bad policy for governments to prohibit drug use, for a number of reasons (not least because of the power it gives to criminal networks); but that does not mean that drug addiction is a good thing, any more than alcoholism should be tolerated by other people merely because alcohol is legal. Similarly, merely because promiscuous or deviant sexuality may be consensual does not mean that it is without cost, and cannot be opposed on the grounds of morality.

This is one reason out of many, I think, that the Libertarian Party has been relegated to the fringe. It has largely been taken over by activists with a social agenda that transcends the boundries of mere government action or inaction. If libertarians want to have any practical influence over the course of government, they had best start thinking about how to promote moral behavior as a societal goal, without using coercion. Most Americans will not tolerate moral anarchy, and that is what the LP is offering them.

Quote of the Day

In the modern social order, the person is sacrificed to the individual. The individual is given universal sufferage, equality of rights, freedom of opinion; while the person, isolated, naked, with no social armor to sustain and protect him, is left to the mercy of all the devouring forces which threaten the life of the soul, exposed to relentless actions and reactions of conflicting interests and appetites….

It is a homicidal civilization.
—Jacques Maritain, Three Reformers