25 January 2016

What to do when doing nothing isn't an option?

"In a previous post, I claimed that there is a bias in public policy debates toward doing something, rather than nothing, even if doing nothing might be the right thing to do.  But I also promised in a future post—this one!—to say more on the matter.  The gist of my earlier post is that people in the liberty movement often lose arguments by simply denying that there is a problem, or by claiming—which amounts to the same thing—that the proposed solution won’t work, and therefore “we” should do nothing.  Since libertarians often want the state to do nothing (though the “Right Kind of Nothing,” to be sure!), this seems facile.

We can do better, I think, by agreeing with the premise that there is a problem.  Often, a small restatement of the problem helps.  If someone is upset about inequality, I always wonder what they are really worried about.  So, I ask:

Isn’t the real problem not inequality, but poverty?  Rather than taking envy, which is a sin, and trying to raise it to the status of a virtue by calling it social justice, why don’t we try to help poor people?  Furthermore, if the poor in the U.S. have it so rough, why do genuinely poor people from the rest of the world want so desperately to come to the U.S. and be poor here instead of being poor where they are?
As you can imagine, hilarity ensues.  Still, I actually agree that poverty is a problem.  The best cure for poverty is a job, however.  If I can get my conversational partner to agree on that, we have a place to start."

There's several issues on which this is a useful critique. The War on Drugs or the War on Terror I'm not inclined to see as very serious problems worthy of massive state involvement, much less along the lines that the governments involved have typically proposed to wage these fights. But I'm fully aware there are (many) people with serious problems with drug addiction and some (very small) number of people who might wish to commit acts of atrocities upon civilians and citizens in this country for political or discriminatory purposes. It's very easy to see that these are problems worthy of "doing something" about. It is not so easy to convince people that "what we are doing" or "what is proposed to do about it" is not helpful toward alleviating those problems or indeed may be making them worse rather than better. But supposing that's done, there still needs to be something involved as an alternative. I typically would propose something at that time, assuming people are still listening. Likewise if people want to complain about legal abortion I can point out that there are pretty beneficial things going on (even at planned parenthood) that have made abortions less likely. And have done so far more safely and easily than whatever it is they propose to have people do. This isn't exactly greeted as wondrous news either.

So I would suggest one of the problems is simply convincing people what's going on isn't actually working usually succeeds in moving the goalposts. And that will usually show they have other preferences revealed besides actually dealing with a problem as listed. That can be helpful and clarifying. But it is usually not that productive. I'm less convinced that there's a case to be made that immigration is a serious problem. Or that Citizens United has undermined democracy in some critical way. So sometimes there's a strong problem of not seeing a problem and not being able to find some common ground.

The bigger problem this identifies therefore is simply not wanting to find the common ground for many libertarians. By ignoring the possibility of pushing the existing state toward a more free society in favor of demanding the demolition of the existing state this is engaging in a pointless intellectual exercise. Nobody else fights that battle. The hill to die on there is of no value to the existing world. By contrast, pushing the state to do a little less somewhere is something almost everyone does some of the time and to which is a cause people aware of things government does (and probably should not do) can usefully apply themselves.

Liberals wanted the state to be less discriminatory in marriage laws, and allow both straight and homosexual couples to marry. I viewed this as a positive benefit in the freedom of individuals, as deciding who to marry and accord various privileges and benefits to is a significant act for (most) individuals, and as such it should be to someone of their own personal choice rather than someone the state approves of such choosing. The correct and helpful response to this as a movement was not "demand the state abolish thousands of marriage regulations" by "abolishing marriage as a state institution" but rather help to see that the state applies them in a non-biased way. One could always come back around later and start tearing up some of the less useful and effective regulatory benefits once that benefit to freedom is established. Start with the benefit to others first though, or it is less clear that your motive is in fact the liberty of human beings (and is not something else like "traditional religious views should dominate the public sphere").

In other spaces. Liberals used to have a civil libertarian streak (during the Bush administration, it has clearly faded now that Obama was in charge of the nefarious organs of power to which they objected), and wanted to limit (if not abolish) the powers of the surveillance state to impinge on the rights of citizens to privacy and protection against general and unreasonable searches. This was a useful ally to have to protect the rights of individuals and their freedom from an overextended state. While I'm often more dubious of the interest of modern conservatives to protect individuals and individual liberties (particularly their current crop of Presidential candidates), they do occasionally nod toward making less arbitrary regulatory red tape in the formation of businesses or the sale of otherwise safe goods or to the experimentation of new goods. As an example, medications long approved for sale in both the US and EU for instance should be purchasable from EU sources, at steep discounts, and in general, much of the FDA's drug regulations seem more productive at (excessively) protecting existing markets than allowing new and safe drugs to enter and compete (and perhaps lose). Conservatives have noticed this as a fair target for reform. They've also slowly started to help to push against the growth of the prison state, because of its bloated size and ineffectiveness at continuing to lower crime while also re-integrating some of those we send away to prisons and jails in the first place.

It would be helpful if these sorts of pragmatic approaches predominated. Seek some form of common ground, and then ruthlessly ally with whomever demonstrates a path toward it that can be agreed upon.
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