25 August 2010

A complexity theory

A thing which occurs to me is that most of us operate from a set of first principles in our private actions, to avoid moral pitfalls or as a consequence of learning from such pitfalls. We see these as generally binding upon our own private affairs. Generally a person who does not want to have sex with someone else they find unattractive (or off limits for some other reason, such as commitments made to other parties that are not present) will not do so without resistance (or a highly altered mental state). Generally a person who does not want to ingest some chemical or even a particular food or drink into their body will not do so voluntarily, and so on. These principles may be seen as directly actionable as they apply only to one person.

Translating those subjective and basic rules into more complex political views however is very difficult. One of the better Hayekian insights is that communities and societies tend to function based on a set of shared moral assumptions but that teasing out what those are, removed from the circumstances and behaviors of individuals in them, is going to be very difficult at best. It might be a good starting point to say that people should pay their debts, but then we arrive at circumstances where debts cannot be paid and will not be able to be paid, and so on. All of these shared rules are considered binding, under most circumstances, but they are distributed and agreed upon and accepted by all players within that society (and punishment of rule-breakers is deemed fair and accepted when they are not accepted). However all of these rules operate individually very differently, they are often valued at different priorities by different parties, and as a consequence, you have a very muddled set of rules in practice even before trying to codify them as binding laws through a machine of political influences. Arriving at a set of hard and fast, easily actionable, rules that would apply to all people based on a set of individual interpretations of what the rules are is therefore almost impossible without also coordinating with others as to what those rules will be and making agreements to enforce those rules. That can be done both within the machine of a legal stricture or without it, through cultural and social disapproval.

In both cases it is incumbent on us to determine a method of enforcement that is not inconsistent with other binding principles (for a legal case, Constitutional restrictions on government power may suffice as a shorthand for this restriction, for the cultural, some limitation on individual action against others, such as violations of life and liberty through extralegal means or vigilantism might be about all there is). But again, these other binding principles are generally interpretations once they arrive at the actionable individual level and a game of prioritizing which are more valued must commence.

Primarily the problem of politics in a democratic society is twofold
1) That there are decisions made through majority rule that are inconsistent with these (shared) first principles (eg, a law is passed that is Unconstitutional or unenforceable) and these rules are imposed against an unwilling, or more commonly unpopular, minority against their will. Some of these are sensible universal moral imperatives. Laws against the commission of murders or theft or rape or torture for instance are generally acknowledged as universally valid in a large diverse society (people do not want their property or lives at risk unnecessarily) and in general such laws are easily or clearly enforceable as one party is clearly a complainant and another a violator of some social or moral norm. Laws which are passed however governing consensual behavior of others is a little trickier, as it implies harms which expand beyond the parties involved, perhaps threatening the broader society or more commonly simply being offensive. This leads to the second problem.
2) That there are assumptions made by individuals that their own private morally binding views are universal and therefore should be made universal. Generally most people arrive at their private moral views through private disgust for a particular action (an emotional reaction to it) or through some derived wisdom (eg, religious instruction or someone told them not to do X), or some combination of the two. These are fine for personal action. They are inherently messy when they are turned into political views as you immediately run into people who disagree on most controversial subjects (which is most non-universal moral imperatives). Such disagreements do not go away simply because both sides might claim truth or rightness to be on their side.

Whats more, it may be possible to agree to some set of moral imperative, but not agree at all on the method of achievement for that. So we might all agree that it is morally and socially better to have clean rather than dirty water in a lake or river or in a reservoir for drinking water, but not agree on who should determine how it gets cleaned when it is soiled by human industry or use, or how that cleaning should be paid for, and even what constitutes "clean". All of these are legitimate political views, policy views, which can proceed from a set of first principles. If instead, you operate from the conclusion that it is best to look for the empirically best result, then you do not have some dogmatic conclusion that only your private ideological views should be actionable. Your principles may still be guiding or actionable for yourself without fail, but you must argue in defence and support of them against opposing views in order to make them binding on other people.

Another problem with this is that making all of these arguments politically actionable means that influential and most interested parties may skew the result against diffuse parties who might otherwise be able to make a concerted opposition of their preferences without some political interference. So for instance, making the determination of what constitutes "clean water" can become a political question with one answer rather than an empirical one, which would tend to have one which is beneath some actively valid health or safety threshold (at least for human beings, if not for the general ecosystem as a whole, another question entirely). Now, in general, clean water is usually an uncontroversial subject matter in a developed economy like the United States. Most individual people can simply assume that a system of rules are being enforced and followed when they use their water and indeed, food and water safety is looked at somewhat seriously and rigorously by most major market participants over and above what government imposes (now days at least) because it imposes costs of cleanup or public image disasters that are highly controversial when such rules are broken. It is generally very clear, empirically, who violated the rule and how it was violated, and punishment is easily applied, both through strict legal processes and extralegal market (social pressures) decreases.

By contrast, an issue like drug legalisation has all sorts of uncertainties built into it. What drugs should be legal, how do we determine which are and which aren't, how should people access the legal ones, how should we punish illegal use or distribution, should there be a tax to cover externalities, and how do we catch violators? All of these properties must be derived from a person's moral set of values. Even if we were to agree, which we have not, on some moral universal imperative that "all drugs are bad and people should not use them without strict supervision or control, such as in a medical emergency" it does not follow that each of these policy positions are necessarily clear and unimpeachable. It becomes often necessary to make a concerted case to argue for each separate decision rather than to simply state "drugs are bad" and that "people who want to legalise them are bad too", or even would want to use them and so on. These cases are vastly improved in their strength if they can have some empirical grounding behind them. A drug which kills most of its users for instance would be generally bad on the theory that people should not distribute something which constitutes a mortal danger to most of its consumers (again, some sort of first principle), but we would at least be able to show that most people who do X, die. An outcome Y which people (consumers) find undesirable, much as the outcome X of having dirty water is undesired. It is less clear that in the case of water purity however that there is some universal desired good here. Some consumers risk some shortened life spans or addiction to alter their mental state through experimenting with chemicals of various sorts (some legal and some not). We may find this generally abhorrent from the outside or from our private perspectives of what chemicals we would safely ingest by choice, but they clearly do not. It relies on us to convince them that it is a general harm that they are committing to themselves, and certainly to recognize when that harm has become more external and inflicted on others then to act in some fashion. But it is highly dubious to assume that our private demands are actionable moral imperatives because they have different preferences as consumers (ie, enjoyment of life or social lubrication or a sense of control through "medication" over a temporary personal issue with work or life may be preferred circumstantially over a general prohibition of narcotic or alcohol use). It is difficult to decide politically that our preferences imposed from above through a system of coercive control should automatically override their more local preferences specific to their own situation because we cannot show an empirical net harm is being committed in many cases (perhaps in the case of clinical addiction or certainly with violent criminal actors). Ergo, it is better that our preferences should have to compete against theirs without the benefit of political force and will in a general case like this.

Deciding forthwith that disagreement with some code of private conduct constitutes a treasonable offense to some dogmatic corner solution position (drugs are bad and should be illegal) does little to sway the opposing underlying arguments being made (drugs may be bad, but making them illegal is worse for instance). In situations like this, some empirical proof leaning one way or the other seems an appropriate arbiter of policy rather than dogmatic principle. If in fact a policy of illegality imposes severe costs in the form of decreased liberties, increased police costs, and severe crime in drug trafficking neighbourhoods, then this should be empirically demonstrable (and it is, generally conclusively). The same would be true that if regulation of clean water imposes some arbitrary cost through enforcement mechanisms over and above what might be attained through private arbitration, it might be beneficial for political policies to step away from that issue. On that point, we have a less clear answer whether it is legal and governmental processes of regulation or the social approval of clean water enforced through extralegal market demands, or both, that effectively creates clean water. Where we have little clarity and a system which generally produces the public's desired outcome, it may be best to leave it as is, even if that in some minor way curtails liberties. These situations are few and far between that a political process has produced a truly and empirically desirable outcome. Largely because too many political processes end up as gaming for economic rents by powerful entities, but also we so diffuse the costs of incorrect/mistaken policy assumptions (or apply them to unpopular political factions, such as the poor or minorities) that few people see the consequence of their bad choices and preferences of policies when applied at large. Much less universally.

The general point being raised here is what constitutes fealty to some set of principles. A dogmatic view is that errant paths in any way or form are to be avoided, including sometimes views which might advocate toleration or acceptance of others behavior (or essential biological nature). Most of us will have some limited set of essential priorities which are important enough on which to seek avoidance rather than tolerance and that is entirely fair. But few of us will have a subset of such priorities, and an ordering of them in some rank fashion, that will match up with another person's in any actionable way that they will be bound to those ideals. That distinction implies that there is a vagueness over which of us possesses any essential truth as to what is the right set of priorities, either in general or even for ourselves as individuals. Arguments which conform to the idea that one side is automatically right or, worse, righteous, may be generally ineffectual without making empirical claims of knowledge as to the real world impact of those views or the desired methods of their implementation.

The general critique of libertarians vis a vis conservatives is often that they rely far too much on a dialectic of traditional value and appeals to (often mythical) heritage rather than a proven value and appeals to the actual effectiveness of that heritage. This makes their arguments and, in particular, their public policy positions very weak when presented against liberal/libertarian or progressive value systems over time even if the underlying values are indeed shared or otherwise desirable (such as for example, monogamous relationships between loving partners or the general avoidance of abusing substances or perhaps even a modest/healthy respect for meritocratic, ie earned, claims of authority)
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