Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, September 01, 2014

Moving the Ribbon

A good society is one in which people subjectively experience fairness, safety, prosperity, meaningful human connections, beauty, ideas, and freedom of conscience.  (I'm probably forgetting some things, but you get the idea.)  In a later post I may take a closer look at what I mean by "subjectively," but for now just note that it raises some difficulties because people's subjective experiences don't map neatly onto objective metrics.

Most societies throughout most of history have failed to be good societies in such obvious ways that the problems (if not the solutions) have been easy to identify.  To some extent there is still low-hanging fruit in our society, but much less than in the past, and much less than in many other societies.  (This is one reason there are so many people who want to move here.)

So now we are beginning to face trickier questions about how to organize our society.  One way to think about it is that some kinds of scarcity are largely disappearing, but a lot of scarcity remains.

I'm being vague, so let me get to the point.  It is impossible to intervene directly in society to achieve good outcomes most of the time.  Basically this is only possible in very small groups, such as families and circles of friends.  When children are playing, a parent can intervene to generate a fair outcome.  When a friend experiences an unexpected setback (medical, professional, whatever), friends can step in with financial help.

But there are severe limitations to what can be done in these small-scale institutions.  They are totally inadequate to the task of operating a modern economy.  And of course, there is no guarantee that people will behave well.  William Gladstone was aghast when his brother proposed to marry a Unitarian (if memory serves), and threatened to boycott the proceedings.  (His father, the source of the family's wealth, intervened to compel him to accept his sister-in-law as part of the family.  William Gladstone's religious prejudices diminished over time, though more in his public life than his private life.)  Churches (and other religious congregations) are an effort to expand this circle of justice, but again they are far from perfect - even when their ideals are mostly right-minded, they achieve justice at a fairly high expense.

In a modern economy, people need to be able to interact with strangers on an anonymous basis, with trust that there is a high likelihood that promises will be kept and expectations honored.  And there are other, less market-oriented economies of scale that make it desirable to organize through the state rather than smaller units such as the family, the church, the tribe, etc.

But as I said, while you can make a direct intervention in your own family, your own social group, and even your own church or tribe, this kind of ad hoc justice is unavailable to the state.  It must perforce operate through procedures, and so the hunt is on for procedures that tend to achieve good outcomes.  (You might say, lacking the resources to tailor our policies to individual situations, we are forced to do our best to come up with off-the-rack designs that will work for as many people as possible, recognizing that off-the-rack clothes are never going to fit as well as tailored clothes.)  And at this point the appropriate degree of rigor to apply to the analysis is much lower than we might ideally like.  We are forced to make ghastly generalizations with totally inadequate evidence (or maybe a better way to put it is, totally inadequate capacity to process the available evidence).

And so we say things like, "The combination of a market economy, democratic government, and the rule of law is a hugely successful one."  And I think this is true.  But of course, it also appears to be hugely helpful for a society to be English-speaking, for reasons that aren't at all clear.  Famously, Weber thought that Protestantism was the key to progress.

At this point I want to make two observations.  The first is that when you are dealing in procedures designed to achieve a good outcome, it is not a sufficient objection that those procedures sometimes lead to bad outcomes, or that they can appear in some instances to be stupid.  These things are to be expected.  (As an example, people sometimes mock the fact that packages of nuts include a warning:  "CONTAINS NUTS."  This is a "stupid" policy that in fact is almost certainly a good one.  Try to formulate a policy that would exempt nut sellers from allergy warnings without causing problems far more serious than the absurdity of requiring this warning.  I doubt you can.)  A proper objection is along the lines of:  "We could adjust the procedures in such-and-such a way, with the result that we would achieve better outcomes on the whole, taking into account all of the relevant consequences."

This point is heightened by the severe scarcity that still characterizes our policymaking.  Most states' criminal codes probably contain no more than a few kilobytes of data.  In common law jurisdictions, you could expand that to include written court decisions, in which case you might have a few megabytes of data.  (Much of that data will be irrelevant, of course.)  And this is the basis on which we decide guilt and innocence, and mete out punishment, including in many states death, but in all states significant loss of liberty.  But this scarcity is necessary (or at least, almost certainly necessary):  we lack the institutional competence to adopt more fine-grained policies that take into account particular circumstances.  Instead we've added the capacity for ad hoc interventions such as jury nullification, leniency in sentencing, pardoning by the executive, etc.  I'm not saying we've done a perfect job, by any stretch, but the final result is very much a product of our limited capacity, and those limitations will probably not be significantly relieved however cheap processing power becomes.

Our response to this limited capacity is to adopt a mindset in which the procedures themselves come to carry independent moral force.  We expect people to obey the law and behave within social norms, and we don't think it is a sufficient defense that those laws or norms would, if they had been tailored to the specific situation, have yielded a different outcome.  If you break the law, you effectively take on "strict liability" for the consequences.  (That is, you will be punished if anything goes wrong, regardless of whether you should be held "responsible" in some metaphysical sense.  Responsibility attaches to you when you go outside the bounds of the law.)

I want to emphasize this point:  the procedure becomes the substance.  This is probably a necessary accommodation to our inability to pursue substantive justice at the level of the state.  Another way of putting it is that the citizen is expected to meet society halfway.  If society has made a good-faith effort to achieve justice, then it is the citizen's duty to conform himself to the framework established by society.  (In extreme enough circumstances, this duty disappears and rebellion or civil disobedience is justified.  Also, note that a good society will include safety valves so that it rarely asks people to make extraordinary efforts or sacrifices.)

(In Catch-22, there is a map of Italy with a ribbon on it, showing how far the ground troops have advanced.  The pilots and their crews watch it closely, because if the ground troops advance far enough, then the air corps won't be expected to provide bombing support.  A character laughs at their superstitious, pre-scientific obsession with the ribbon - he mocks them for thinking that the ribbon itself, and not the real-world situation it represents, is what matters.  At night someone surreptitiously moves the ribbon past the objective, and so the bombers are not sent out that day.  Just as the ribbon actually took on independent importance, so our procedures take on real-world substance.)

My second observation is that this tendency to turn the procedure into the substance can have an unfortunate deadening effect on thought.  What is in fact a regrettable accommodation is elevated to a matter of principle.  This is the objection to market fundamentalism.  Markets are just the sort of institution that we are forced to adopt as a pis aller; their justification is that everything else is even worse.  But market fundamentalists treat the "market outcome" as though it is some kind of unassailable moral criterion, so that it is enough to say of a policy that it is non-market and therefore must be rejected.  This elevation of procedure to substance and then to normative criterion is evidently highly seductive to some people.  (And so when I once argued that cost-benefit analysis is a good policy only if it leads to good outcomes, this was considered a controversial or incomprehensible claim to make - in fact, I was considered to have been bafflingly wrong, pig-headed in my insistence that cost-benefit analysis might possibly yield bad outcomes, something that my interlocutors regarded as impossible by definition.)

It is a subtle point I am making, because indeed as a policymaking matter we have to do roughly what the market fundamentalists suggest, and make markets the substance of our policy (that is, we must embrace markets and build our institutions around them, and we have to expect citizens to "meet us halfway" by deriving their income and most of their consumer goods from the market).  To put it another way, we lack the capacity to assess the market on a case-by-case basis, and so we generally regard it as sufficient to embrace the market unless presented with a good reason not to.  But we must do it with mental reservations and with a keen eye for situations in which we can profitably diverge from the market outcome.  And while we can and must expect citizens to be exposed to market forces, we need not regard the outcome as wholly just, and we would be prudent to include plenty of sheltered places, plenty of safety valves to prevent our necessary embrace of markets from turning into a source of grave injustice.  Market fundamentalists aren't on board with any of that.  They don't understand that markets are contingently useful.  As a result of the forces I've discussed, we've allowed market procedures to become operationally the substance of our policy; market fundamentalists think this means we've embraced them as our moral criterion.

I'll probably have more to say.  Basically I think these issues are very hard, and our "rational" approaches are subject to far more tradeoffs and intellectual shortcuts than we usually acknowledge.


Blogger Sarang said...

I have made similar arguments in the past, but with "democracy" instead of markets. These are both cases in which one retains or adopts a rule because _empirically_ it seems to work better than other rules at generating a satisficing solution; in both cases, likewise, it is not legitimate to argue for modifications on the grounds that they make the system more democratic/market-based. In both cases there is a theory behind the empirics but the theory relies on so many assumptions that it cannot straightforwardly be generalized out-of-sample.

2:19 PM  
Blogger James said...

Yeah, I see your point. I guess I have more humility in wanting to override democratic outcomes than to override market outcomes, because I attach more moral weight to democratic decision-making than to capitalism.

But I think it's just a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one. I'm happy to override the democratic outcome in plenty of cases (in the sense of thinking it is wrong and should be overturned one way or another, and does not deserve my deference).

It bears more thought, though. Whereas I think markets have basically no value qua markets, and are entirely instrumental, I don't feel quite the same way about democracy.

5:44 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

Yeah I do not attach intrinsic value to majority wish qua majority wish. I agree with most of what Noah Millman has to say here -- http://www.theamericanconservative.com/millman/monarchists-neo-reactionaries-and-neo-fascism/ -- and think it cross-applies to markets.

6:38 PM  
Blogger James said...

I guess on some level these questions start to merge into each other. I think democracy provides such powerful safeguards that it approaches a kind of sanctified status. I suppose if I knew those safeguards were going to be provided in some other way, I might regard democracy as lacking independent moral weight.

But the way I see it, that's a little like saying, "If another substance could prevent scurvy as effectively as ascorbic acid, I wouldn't see any particular need to consumer ascorbic acid." Or maybe, "If you could live without oxygen, I would see no particular reason to breathe." In other words, I think the facts on the ground in support of democracy are overwhelmingly strong, so it takes some very odd contortions to describe a situation in which democracy should be abandoned.

7:12 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

Yes but you wouldn't approve of some course of action (say subsidizing lemon farmers?) on the grounds that it would lead to more ascorbic acid being produced. This is what supporters of proportional representation do with democracy. The distinction between means and ends doesn't depend on there being multiple means to an end; that democracy safeguards some goods (rule of law, responsiveness) is an argument against _no_ democracy, but not an argument for more democracy. (Analogous statements hold for markets.) Also you can imagine "democracy failures" that are analogous to market failures, and of course there are situations (e.g., nearly evenly ethnically polarized electorates) in which democracy is evidently not going to work. Again, this is my take; different things are instrumental for different people and there are probably those for whom freedom of speech is also ultimately justified by appealing to some extrinsic utilitarian consideration.

8:04 PM  
Blogger James said...

Oh yeah, much more important for there to be democracy than for it to take any particular form. The sine qua non, I think, is that the political leadership should fear the voters' response to its decision-making. It also helps if the franchise is widely distributed enough that it encompasses all the segments of society.

8:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

off the track of the conversation the the comment thread. But I think this post ascribes stupidity where one should suspect malice.

Market fundamentalists don't love markets, because they mistakenly believe they have intrinsic value; they love the mix of market and regulation we have now because it results in them being rich. They want changes both more market and more regulation that result in them being richer.

7:13 AM  

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