Thursday, October 15, 2009

Inertia works against collective action

"Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." - George Washington.

We commonly hear claims like "Someone should do something!" or "There ought to be a law ...". Before a government agency runs off and tries to save the world, we need to consider something very important: static inertia works against action, especially collective action. What I mean is, it is hard to change the "at rest" state of things. It is also hard to make things different from the way things are now, unless the intent is that we all just let go and let things return to the "at rest" state. Put in more basic terms, it is always harder to effectively do something, than not.

This concept is not new. It is common sense that it takes resources and work to keep things organized. In science, the concept is called entropy, which is the tendency for ordered things to become disorganized. In political philosophy, the concept ultimate "at rest" state would be anarchy. I think of the difficulties of public policy related to working against anarchy as overcoming social entropy.

What this means is that for every public policy proposal, we have to think beyond the intended goal. There must be controls for enactment, enforcement, efficacy, and efficiency.

Enactment is about policy become reality, being instantiated. Typically this is begun by legislative action. Zero-based budgeting and funding is generally considered but not always (see the modern US Congress). How do we pay for policy x? Generally public revenues are in the form of taxes or fees or penalties.

Taxes themselves are of course a form of public policy and suffer from the same provisos against government action. I suggest the least obnoxious form of taxation is a consumption tax on complementary goods should be the starting point (and ending point) for all public expenditure. An excellent example would be a gasoline tax dedicated to public highway construction and maintenance.

Enforcement is where things can get really sticky. The two main reasons for this are:
1) unintended consequences - Think of how other things are affected indirectly: will people spend less or save less? Will they become less self-reliant? Will we unwittingly reward immoral or illegal behavior?
2) enforcement as its own end instead of means. Think of the county sheriff who is under pressure to fund local government with traffic and parking ticket quotas. Or the seizure of real property tangential to a crime for the funding of government budgets.

Quality measures like efficacy and efficiency are also important and frequently overlooked. Efficacy is about how well things work as planned and designed. An illustrative example here is mandatory education: do we have more or fewer people with secondary school educations entering the workforce (notice I did not say diplomas) than we might have had otherwise? Unintended consequences come into play here as well. Efficiency is about optimum outlay of resources during the execution of the policy itself. Think of the idea behind competitive bidding.

All four of these ideas are given short shrift in public policy debates. If we critically assess with honesty most congressional acts, state agencies and even local ordinances, we would find they are of questionable value, at best, and many are simply not worth it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

John Mackey on the right path

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, recently wrote an OP/ED piece in the Wall Street Journal touting some health insurance reforms. In that piece, he hit upon the major issue with the current administration's approach to health care reform:

"Many promoters of health care reform believe that people have an intrinsic ethical right to health care-to universal and equal access to doctors, medicines, and hospitals. While all of us can empathize with those who are sick, how can we say that all people have any more of an intrinsic right to health care than they have an intrinsic right to food, clothing, owning their own homes, a car or a personal computer? Health care is a service which we all need at some point in our lives, but just like food, clothing, and shelter it is best provided through voluntary and mutually-beneficial market exchanges rather than through government mandates. A careful reading of both The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter, because there isn’t any. This “right” has never existed in America."

Mr. Mackey is right on. The first sentence of the quote frames the issue correctly. And he explains why, to those who believe in the "intrinsic ethical right" of health care, in terms of feasibility and formality this idea should be a non-starter. Of course these truths will not convince most on the left to abandon ideas like single-payer or universal coverage.

The more basic problem with thinking that health care is a right is that this concept is based on a moral or ethical ideal rather than an essential principle of reality. People will tend to operate for self-interest first, then worry about everything else (including cooperative or collective ideals) later. This is a reality many simply ignore, because they really, really want to believe in the ideal, reality aside. This idealism is just as misplaced here, as is it for those who advocate prohibitions against alcohol and other drugs. People will want to do what they will, no matter how bad Ted Kennedy or Richard Nixon wishes it were otherwise.

Economics is the social science of scarcity. Economics and the free market not only accept the reality of human self-interest, they leverage it! Idealism that seeks to impose "rights" beyond this reality are fighting against human nature. Generally speaking, the complexity and cost of laws / regulations, and the corresponding bureaucracy to enforce them, make most social initiatives based in idealism impractical. Until the social reformers accept this reality, we will continue to have these debates about public policy and what is and what should be.

I for one am ready to move on.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Reese wrong on gay marriage

Recently, a Charley Reese article defending the “rights” of gays to get married recently appeared on He wrote: “Logically, to forbid something, one must demonstrate that the forbidden act will cause harm to others. OK. What harm will befall you and me and our children if two homosexuals get a marriage license?”

Mr. Reese states the problem backwards: marriage licensing is not a prohibition, but a government intervention. When “denying” gay marriage, government is not forbidding anything; it is simply not extending the social benefits of marriage to individuals who choose to partner with those of the same sex.

Now one could say that government should not be in the marriage licensing business in the first place, and I would agree. But let’s not overlook the reason for the institution of heterosexual marriage: any children which might result. The family unit is the most important sociological construct in the history of man. To say it has been wildly successful seems trite. So to extend the institution of social union of any type to homosexuals seems pointless, sociologically.

Moreover I can tell you some harm it would do. For every married gay or lesbian with a stay at home partner employed by the government, it will costs the citizens more. Of course we know there shouldn’t be so many government jobs, but that is a trend that looks to be increasing. I admit it is a relatively small amount, but it is real.

There is also the idea that we are formally endorsing, socially and culturally, the idea of same sex relationships. (This is of course what the gay movement wants.) For what reason can government impose a condition that is to many religiously objectionable? Seems like some have found a weak point in the wall between church and state. I will have none for me, but thank you.

Finally the whole idea that marriage is a right is, well, wrong. A married couple is a collective of two. The couple do not have more or less rights together than they do as individuals. Any man and any women can each individually marry anyone else of the opposite sex, so gays can (and do) marry, just not anyone of the same sex.

Can't we focus on something more important by now? This whole gay marriage thing is a huge distraction from truly important issues like our ever-expanding and unconstitutional federal government and our unsustainable foreign policy.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Liberal Mind

At various times, I have wondered why anyone would ever be a liberal. (To be fair I wonder a bit more about the neo-cons too but that is a different topic.) So I thought I would put my thoughts down here.

So why are there liberals? Well I have come upon an answer that satisfies my curiosity. The liberal mind is one that puts ideals before principles and utility. The specific ideals vary somewhat, but generally they are based on the ideal of nobility of man. Some specific policy goals based on this idealism include: No one should ever go hungry. Everyone should get health care and education. The elderly should all be treated with dignity and respect. Everyone should have the chance to own a home. The poor deserve welfare. and so on

Now don't get me wrong, as ideals go, these are worthy. I fully endorse any private, charitable enterprise that seeks to fulfill in part one of these goals. And there are many great charities out there.

But where government attempts to step in and meet some of these goals, there are several issues that are given short shrift. The biggest of these is based on principle. In order to effect mandates, government uses force or its threat to attempt to ensure compliance. The principle violated here is the libertarian principle of non-aggression, or prohibition on the initiation of force. It is a wonderful principle because it does not fight human nature. No one likes to be told what to do after all. And any public policy that must resort to compulsion is doomed to fail, at least some of the time. It will require more resources and provide more chance for government initiated acts of injustice.

So we have a choice. We can put ideals before principles and accept the use of compulsion for things like collecting taxes, with the idea that government can somehow be trusted to adjudicate how to spend those taxes. Or we can work toward our ideal voluntarily as guided by principle. The choice seems obvious to me.