Monday, March 21, 2011

The Magic of Politics

The good news is that there is a formula for getting out of poverty today. The magical steps begin with finishing high school, but finishing college is much better.
Juan Williams Enough pg. 215
Although it's clear when you read the entire passage that Mr. Williams isn't saying that his simple anti-poverty formula is literally magical, in that it invokes some sort of non-scientific causality, he does view it as pretty much a slam dunk, the sort of thing that would clearly and spectacularly successful. But its the fact that Williams is actually willing to use the term "magical" that makes him stand out. Political philosophies are often described in ways that trigger charges of magical thinking from critics, and with good reason. The proponents of policy choices are often (quite understandably) loath to make any mention of the potential downsides and pitfalls of their suggestions. Along with this, they often describe the potential upsides as inevitable, utopian and utterly foolproof.

For example, the Libertarian Party of Minnesota quotes several passages from "Short Answers to Tough Questions" by Dr. Mary J. Ruwart in the Frequently Asked Questions section of their website. In the "Crime and Restitution" section, a simple model of Criminal Justice is laid out. Criminals are required to make restitution, and the criminal justice and corrections systems fund themselves by assessing fees: "Prisoners could work off their room and board in the prison or pay for it out of their own resources," and in the case of bad debts, "The courts and police would probably write off bad debts, and factor them into their fees, just as businesses do today. Since the criminals pay these costs, you won't!" Huzzah! Everybody (but the criminals) wins!

Except if the whole system is run on the money that can be collected from lawbreakers, and it system determines who is a lawbreaker... I can't be the only person who sees a massive conflict of interest there that could easily lead to the sorts of corruption that we currently associate with the Third World. I mean, incentives matter, right? Sure, you could put in an oversight system, but if the answer to "Who would pay for it?" is what I think it is... Of course, more mainstream political parties, like the Democrats and the Republicans can be just as bad. I don't mean to pick on the Libertarians - their choice of Questions and Answers simply made them a convenient example.

It's said that there are three things that you never talk about at dinner parties: Sex, Politics and Religion. Sex is easy - the United States is a more Puritanical nation than we like to think of ourselves, and so talk about sex squicks people out pretty quickly. Politics and Religion, on the other hand are taboo because of the difficulty of having really constructive conversations about what are basically articles of faith - there's about as much evidence of the efficacy of most policy positions as there is for the existence of apples in the Garden of Eden. But a willingness to move politics away from magic and more towards the scientific method - or at least evidence based study, would do a lot to remedy this.


Keifus said...

Ah, I see: magical as in unencumbered with messy empiricism, emphatically not magical as in filled with wonder and beauty. Sneaky title.

I had an idea (thought but unwritten) that what separates idealogues from realists or (for lack of a better word) political scientists is that the former believes things independently of observation. It's more like a religion, faith-based politics, and not anything actually real. It's a handy thing to try and spot.

Aaron said...

Sorry if I baited and switched you, Keifus... I was hoping for a bit of a disconnect with the title. I'm glad that it worked.

And I think that you make a good point that ideologues are basically magical thinkers - mainly because they tend to work causality backwards - we know that the outcomes will be good because we believe the policies are sound, rather than that soundness of the policies being demonstrated by the outcomes. Part of this is simple self-righteousness, but I think that part of it relates to a habit that people have of assuming that the flaws with policies are caused by, and unique to, those policies. So their own policies can't be flawed in the same way.