Arnold Kling  

Park Ranger, Continued

In Defense of Supernanny... Last Stand of the WORST...

My earlier post drew a number of helpful comments, including one from Karl Smith on his own blog.

it is right that take the knowledge of market failure that we have and do what we can to alleviate what suffering we can.

No we should not pretend that we know best where the economy should end up or that our cognition is any match for evolution. However, we set aside all value if we say that we cannot use what little we do know to ease what pain we can.

I see this as an attempt to seek an intermediate ground between my metaphorical park ranger (who does not intervene--and some commenters point out that actual park rangers in fact do intervene in some ways) and my metaphorical museum curator, who would like to design everything.

The question I have is how we know where to draw the line. In particular, what stops the technocrats with the greatest degree of hubris and overconfidence rising to positions of power?

I'll say more on this metaphor in subsequent posts.

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COMMENTS (6 to date)
David writes:

I think we should accept that we don't know where to draw the line and that we're bound to draw it too far to one side or the other. I'm prepared to accept that that means we should take a conservative approach and intervene less than what our best guess says we should (others will disagree). But it's intellectually lazy to say that simply because we don't know where to draw the line we should never intervene at all - if we take that approach then we're certainly drawing the line in the wrong place.

David O writes:

To build on the analogy, if a park ranger saw a bird injured on the ground and decided to take care of it, would it be excessive intervention? Probably not, in the same way that libertarians are generally in favour of helping pet causes through charities rather than through government. But those actions are on the scale of an individual actor. Larger scale actions - like burning down the forest to kill the bird's predators, or perhaps attempting to poison the bird's predators - which are more analogous to excessive government intervention that harms very many members of the forest (like taxation harms a broad section of society) are very much unlike caring for an injured bird in a manner befitting a park ranger.

bill shoe writes:

I saw your recent Pepperdine talk where you used the rain forest metaphor, and I thought it was quite good. I think it works better in talk than writing but it's good either way.

It was effective for me because the conclusion line ("Public Policy Schools just make Museum Curators") was very simple. All necessary explanation had already occurred, so you didn't have to dilute the conslusion by explaining it.

The concluding line is also non-pejoritive enough for people who disagree (I'm guessing here) that they will ponder the metaphor instead of instantly dismissing it.

Should have said hello to you, maybe next time. Thanks for coming.

Eric Hosemann writes:

In your earlier post you said that curators at a botanical garden make sure "nothing grows where it shouldn't." In nature, what grows where it shouldn't? If an organism finds enough sustenance to grow, then it grows. It will not weigh ethical considerations before doing so. Whether something grows in the right place or not is of no concern to nature, only to us. Nature is concerned with living and not deliberating about living.

I find your distinction a creative and a good way to understand the economic behavior in the main. All economic actors are at times park rangers and museum curators. Individuals act to organize the world around them in a ways that are conducive to specialization and exchange. They must be curators in this sense, making sure that no errant weeds crop up in their plans or balance sheets. They must also be park rangers as well, assessing the state of the market in which they wish to trade before offering input as to how it should be arranged.

Economists balance the park ranger and curator roles too. They must observe the state of the market as it is while attempting to build a static model they believe best describes some aspect of the market. Their conception of the market is necessarily frozen in time, like a museum display. I interpret your use of these metaphors as an attempt to understand what happens when economists force their museum concepts onto their observations about reality.

Troy Camplin writes:

Just because one doesn't think that ignorant lawmakers and bureaucrats -- who are ignorant because they cannot have the local, tacit knowledge necessary to make good decisions for anyone but themselves -- are of any use to anyone and cannot actually help anyone, that does not mean one does not have compassion, or that one does not believe that people should act compassionately. People should. But they should with the knowledge that only they can have. We have the choice between being compassionate and wise and compasisonate and foolish. Those who think government can do anything beneficial with its compassion are foolish. All beneficial compassion is local.

fundamentalist writes:

Hayek's answer to this question was that the state should not favor any one group over another. Laws should affect all people equally. For example, the state should not tax one group more than another, as "progressive" (but really regressive) taxation does. And the state should not give money to just one group of people. If the state wants to give money to people, it should only do so if it can give the same amount to all citizens. Such policies would end SS, Medicare and many other state programs. But the principle is consistent with the philosophy of the rule of law: all citizens must be treated equally before the law.

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