TCS Daily


'Any Way You Look At It, You Lose'

By Bob Formaini - January 14, 2005 12:00 AM

Now that Bill Clinton's aptly-named "permanent campaign" has resulted in another passed election, followed of course by another permanent campaign until the 2008 election, it's a good time to step back and examine a commonly argued, yet totally fallacious, concept, that being: Public policy can be evaluated in a non-partisan manner and one's "independent" vote then based on the result of those careful evaluations.

Despite the secular worship this idea receives from the media, it is utter nonsense. In fact, there was but one central partisan issue before the electorate, as usual. Is government an entity that exists to "solve social problems," or an entity that exists to set rules and then get out of the way? In America today, there are thousands of well-financed institutions that opt for the former view, including, of course, every government entity from the federal government to the local zoning commission, all "aided" by the billions of dollars spent annually at colleges and universities, think tanks, foundations and various NGOs.

What is usually forgotten in the evaluation of this issue is that all public policy is, to a large degree, an attempt to undo or modify the negative effects of previous policy. Yet, with each new plan or proposal, the ongoing public debate treats the issue as if it were somehow born in a vacuum and moves on from there. Everything that has come before and contributed to the current morass -- think flu vaccine shortage -- tends to be forgotten, or ignored, as we pile plan atop plan, policy atop policy, in an orgy of conflicting, costly and ultimately self-defeating regulation -- think intelligence czar.

Government has not solved many problems it has chosen to fix, and probably never will. This is the central political issue today as it always has been. Those who fervently believe otherwise will spend their time perusing the policy journals and periodicals, pursue degrees at the Kennedy School or similar environs, and work for institutions that pose as social problem solvers. And of course there are millions of such people and they create millions of followers with promises of intellectually tackling serious "issues," then using equal doses of reason and government coercion to "fix" things. Naturally, the coercion part is appropriately downplayed or just ignored.

This ideology is practiced by both the right and left, but is dominated today -- and always has been -- by the left. That is why those who make their livings by writing and/or running their mouths on television have so often been liberals, although, because of the growth of the so-called New Media, others are fast catching up. Liberals actually believe in the "government as problem solver" paradigm, and also believe their opinions are somehow grounded in rationality and best scientific practice. (The stem cell debate, for example, or global warming.) The fact that "science" seems to somehow confirm their pre-existing political and policy preferences seems somehow to elude the people who think this way.

Conservatives (excluding the liberal Republicans within their ranks) do not believe in this paradigm even when they work in institutions which, at first glance, appear to resemble their liberal counterparts. They churn out studies attacking current and past government policies without explicitly stating their central belief: given my political beliefs, those policies were always, in my eyes, doomed to fail. Make no mistake: this central issue is very divisive and leads people into fits of amusing rhetorical rage. (Just read the feedback threads on Tech Central Station columns that deal with alleged scientific truths or untruths.)

In theory, we ought to be able to evaluate a proposal like Kyoto scientifically and then, when the evidence is before us, all reasonable people will agree on the problem-solving political fix. Yeah, right. Or: we can collect and evaluate the data, run some econometric models to "test" it, and then decide whether to raise -- or abolish -- the minimum wage. Yeah, right. And so on ... and on. Why? Because all policy is self-justifying, and creates an ever-larger universe for policy analysts, lawyers, pundits and politicians. Public policy is, and always has been, a jobs program. Which is why, of course, it is worshiped by those so employed and those seeking to be employed.

In A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More explains to the Duke of Norfolk why he won't give in to the king on the issue of the Henry VIII divorcing his latest wife. More (film version) says: "Because I believe it. No -- not because I believe it, but because I believe it."

The "beliefs" of millions of people all over the world are of a different kind. They believe things because others believe them, or claim to, based on the latest research, book or speech by some noted "expert" or some renegade expert the "establishment" is trying to ignore or silence. They believe that cholesterol causes heart attacks and that it doesn't; that Sal Palmetto will save them from prostate cancer or that it won't; that the Earth is warming due to CO2 emissions and we can stop it or that it isn't; that James Madison invented judicial review or that he didn't; that a pyramid under their bed will make them healthier or make them a quack; that people can speak to the dead or they can't; that cost-benefit studies prove the value of Head Start programs unless they don't; that ethnic preferences produce positive, long-term benefits for the economy because "in diversity is strength," or that they are evil quotas; that open borders are the way to go -- unless we close them; that large numbers of undecided voters decide during the debates or that there aren't large numbers of undecided voters; that governments can solve social problems! All based on the learned opinions of their alleged intellectual superiors who are holding the results of the latest "study" in their hands as they run their mouths on radio or television.

But of course our beliefs, unlike the silly, stupid beliefs of our political opponents, are factual, and scientifically proven. (The fact that science absolutely proves nothing escapes most Americans, whether well-educated or not). Their own beliefs are, for them, obviously -- even self-evidently -- true, while their opponents can only claim to believe otherwise because they are evil or possibly misled by cunning politicians. What other explanation can there be for people believing the idiotic things that I don't believe? All such alleged beliefs must, therefore, be mendacious. Let the screaming begin!

Many people have speculated on where America is going and why. But one trend is very clear, and that is the substitution of political "beliefs" for formerly faith-based morality. Feeling morally superior to one's fellow Americans is a goal in life for many, and that feeling is most easily obtained not through good works and personal improvement, but by supporting the "scientifically generated, value-neutral" positions so carefully purveyed by some of our modern political snake oil salesman or perhaps by The New York Times. You know many of these people. The ones who only believe what they do because factual reality -- apprehended and interpreted through human reason -- has given them The Truth.

Even libertarians buy into this way of apprehending the world and thereby supporting -- or not -- various government programs and prescriptions. Ask any libertarian how he solves the "demarcation problem," i.e., how he knows when something ought to be done by the state or not? For libertarians, there are just three possibilities: (1) never -- anarchy; (2) maybe, after a careful empirical analysis tells us what to do (see, for example, Milton Friedman's discussion in Capitalism and Freedom); (3) maybe -- depends on what a prior written constitution allows.

All three positions have virtues as well as problems, but it's at least helpful to know where you personally stand and why. And once you do, whether libertarian or not, this idea that the issues determine people's beliefs and votes can be discarded for the media-created shibboleth that it is. (While we're at it, can we please also get rid of the idiotic idea that the better debater ought to be elected president? Elections are not college debating societies, despite the attempts of the media to portray them that way.) And finally, as we enter a new presidential term, try and keep in mind the words of that great political theorist, Paul Simon:

        Laugh about it, shout about it, when you get to choose,
        Any way you look at it .... you lose.

Bob Formaini is CEO of Quantecon, a Dallas, TX-based consulting firm, the author of The Myth of Scientific Public Policy, and a TCS Contributor.

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