Bryan Caplan  

Arbitrary Intervention

PRINT
Ron Paul vs. the Median Voter ... Timothy Taylor on Health Care ...
Life is full of suffering.  At least that's what the Buddha tells us - and if you're a glass-half-empty kind of person, you'll find endless confirmation.  In a statist society, our response often seems to be, "If there's a problem, government needs to fix it."

On reflection, though, that's not how actual governments work.  At all.  Imagine writing a list of everything wrong with the world.  There's hunger.  Broken hearts.  Unemployment.  Screaming at your kids after a bad day at work.  Cheating on your girlfriend.  Pollution.  Heretics.  Burning of heretics.  Promiscuity on TV.  Promiscuity in real life.  Obese kids.  Obese adults.  People coughing without covering their mouths.  The Islamist threat.  Seniors eating dog food.  The decline of marriage.  Bosses who scream at their workers.  Kids who don't call on Mother's Day.  People who don't read books.  School bullying.  Boring jobs.  Boring teachers.  Men dying years younger than women.  People who don't know how to start small businesses.  You could go on and on.  And on and on and on. 

Go on, try it.

Now ask yourself, "How many of these problems does government even claim to try to alleviate?"  No matter how statist your society is, there are probably ten problems the government ignores for every problem it tries to address.

A Panglossian economist would instantly invoke scarce resources and marginalism to explain these patterns.  But if you put such preconceptions aside, this story isn't very plausible.  Consider this thought experiment.

1. List as many societal problems as you can think of.

2. Forget everything you know about actual government activity.

3. Rate the problems on your list by (a) severity, and (b) responsiveness to government action.

4. Remember everything you know about actual government activity and see how closely it matches your ratings on (3).

I say you'll find a massive mismatch.  For example, we spend trillions fighting terrorism, but mere billions reducing traffic fatalities.  And the reason isn't that terrorism readily responds to money, while traffic fatalities don't.  We spend 10% of our budget helping relatively poor Americans, but use the Coast Guard to prevent Haitians from sailing here to shine shoes to save their starving kids.  Again, the reason isn't that cash is a panacea for relative American poverty, or that Haitian immigration doesn't put food on Haitian kids' tables.  Once you make a token effort to suppress your Just World bias, actually existing government intervention looks incredibly arbitrary.

Why then do people support the interventions they do, while apathetically ignoring countless other forms of human suffering and degradation?  For the most part, people support the interventions they have because they have them.  It's not about the severity or treatability of the problems.  It's about conforming to our secular religion.  Our society says that poverty among American seniors would be a terrible problem.  So we have massive social programs to prevent it.  How do we know this "disaster" is especially pressing in a world so full of suffering?  We don't.  We don't even try to do a fair accounting.  Instead, we make stuff up, and shame anyone who subsequently furrows his brow.  Simple as that.



COMMENTS (20 to date)
Gian writes:

Government actions are not arbitrary since it acts for the Nation which is a compound of the People and the Territory. Or as Aristotle puts it, the material cause of a City is the people and the land together.

Since the libertarianism lacks the concept of Common Good ("Lose the We"), it is not surprising to see the actions that originate from the concern for Common Good as arbitrary.

Evan writes:

Most people don't support government intervention by attempting to quantify how bad a problem is and how responsive to government intervention it is. The support government intervention based on how badly the issue in questions scares/P.O.s them.

Very few people do cost benefit analyses when they support policies. They just think "That problem is scary/infuriating. Let's find a way to fix it."

If I had to hazard a guess as to why people behave this way, it would be that our instincts about what problems are the most urgent and what problems are the most fixable evolved in an environment different from the one in which we now live.

For example, in the old days having a large predatory animal near your village was a huge danger, so we evolved to instinctively regard this as an urgent issue. So, when the media overeported shark attacks, people demanded legislation to fix it, even though sharks killed far less people than disease or car crashes, and there wasn't really an unusually large amount of attacks that year.

@Gian

Since the libertarianism lacks the concept of Common Good ("Lose the We"), it is not surprising to see the actions that originate from the concern for Common Good as arbitrary.
I think Bryan is arguing that, even if you accept the existence of the Common Good, current policy is poorly designed to promote it. Many policies have bad priorities and attack problems that are not that urgent and also very difficult and expensive for the government to solve, while ignoring more cheaply and easily solved problems that cause greater suffering.

jseliger writes:

One optimal approach might be to adjust your attitude as an individual: accept that some bad things are going to happen and try not to let those things bother you unless you can do something about them.

This could be a variation on building a mental or emotional bubble.

Insight writes:

"For example, we spend trillions fighting terrorism, but mere billions reducing traffic fatalities. And the reason isn't that terrorism readily responds to money, while traffic fatalities don't."

The problem with these sorts of arguments is the lack of a baseline. We don't actually "know" that trillions spent on terrorism hasn't prevented New York from being nuked or a weaponized smallpox pandemic or other multitrillion dollar counterfactuals.

We don't know that it has either.

In fact the marginal dollar spent on terrorism and traffic above these baselines might have both have one dollar of marginal benefit. Of course, it may not, but there is no valid argument to that effect without actual evidence.

Less sensational examples where spending varies on a local level or frequently over time and effects can more easily be inferred are likely better.

Greg G writes:

Yes it's true that governments often do a very bad job of prioritizing the problems they try to solve.

Know who else often does a very bad job of prioritizing the problems they try to solve? Individuals.

I wonder if these two things could be related.

adam zur writes:

One person wrote: "Since the libertarianism lacks the concept of Common Good ("Lose the We")"
This is one thing that bother me about the john Locke point of view. but on the other hand the point of view that does into account the we (Rousseau Hegel Marx seem to have a problem concerning the state of nature). To the the state of nature is benign. and yet the Marx thing is that all higher aspirations cant be linked to money. according to him people have a point of view because of what money class they belong to. This seems like contradiction in Marxist thought. IE we would all be nice if we would have the exact same amount of money. But then where is the "we". The we only exist if everyone has exactly the same amount of money. But until then we are raving wolves?

Why I bring this up is that in fact the lack of the "we" does bother me in America. It seems like Allen bloom said: if you tell everyone that their motives are monetary alone then eventually you will succeed in creating that type of person.

rpl writes:
Since the libertarianism lacks the concept of Common Good ("Lose the We"), it is not surprising to see the actions that originate from the concern for Common Good as arbitrary.
Sorry, where, exactly, did we establish that the actions of government actually support the Common Good in practice? It seems to me that if we try Bryan's exercise, substituting "support the Common Good" for "alleviate problems," then we end up with precisely the result that Bryan describes. I don't see where you've even attempted to argue otherwise. In fact, your post seems to be mostly an example of what Bryan describes in the penultimate sentence of his post:
Instead, we make stuff up, and shame anyone who subsequently furrows his brow.
Randy writes:

@Bryan,
Excellent post.

Finch writes:

This isn't meant to be a rebuttal of your argument, but we spend a more fighting traffic fatalities than terrorism.

You can certainly debate what fraction of defense spending is really used for fighting terrorism, but Americans spend something like a trillion dollars a decade on cars, and cars would cost perhaps 1/2 to 1/3 that without safety regulation. I base that on estimates from an automotive engineer friend and the cost of new vehicles in places that don't have these regulations. That's not even including what we spend on roads and policing.

R. Richard Schweitzer writes:

Accepted: This post is about the U S
Government(s) [the several levels].

The real issue (and this is a point with normative Libertarianism) is that the functions necessary for dealing with the issues involved should not be, and cannot succesfully be, assigned to performance through the mechanisms of governments.

Recommended: The History of Governments -From the Earliest Times by S E Finer (Oxford 1997) 3 vols. Perhaps the greatest study since Decline and Fall.

Floccina writes:

It is probably dumb to put just this in the comment but I just had to say that this is a great post.

kebko writes:

Exactly.

Think of all the safety regulations on cars. Yet, we leave maintenance of brakes and tires in the hands of owners, with no oversight. And, you can get your tires at Charlie's Corner Used-Tire Mart. Every second we go down the road, we are trusting that strangers driving at us with about 4 feet of spacing at 60mph are properly equipped.
People assume that regulations are keeping us safe, and they take for granted the most obvious and overwhelmingly more numerous situations where markets keep us safe.

Likewise, we credit the health inspector for safe food, yet there are thousands of poisons which could be applied to our food, clothes, or other products, which no inspector would ever be in a position to check. In fact, it would be impossible to check every product for every possible poison that might have been useful in its production. Yet we wear clothes and eat food that was created, shipped, and prepared by unsupervised strangers without thinking twice about it. The fact that we feel safer because of inspectors who happen to be looking at 20 out of the 100,000 possible dangers is ludicrous.

Peter writes:

Don't forget that good Policy is dashed upon the rocks of Politics every day. In politics, whatever you determine the "good" to be, there is always someone on the other side disagreeing and doing everything they can to stop you.

John Barker writes:

I am living in Chile and you can smoke in restaurants here. Some have smoking sections, but bars do not, or I have not seen one yet.
So if it is common knowledge that smoking causes health problems even second hand smoke. Are these people hypocrites if they ask for other legislation to protect them, but when it comes to their precious cigarettes than the government should stay away?
I was also thinking if people have no regard or respect for smoke in my face, (yes I can choose not to go to this restaurant and hope non-smoking restaurants pop up and private establishments are allowed to make their own choice), why as a productive person who makes money should it be "fair" to take my money to give to the less fortunate. These same people who have no regard for me with smoking think I should have regard for them. Is this argument the same in principle?

Richard writes:
Why then do people support the interventions they do, while apathetically ignoring countless other forms of human suffering and degradation? For the most part, people support the interventions they have because they have them. It's not about the severity or treatability of the problems. It's about conforming to our secular religion. Our society says that poverty among American seniors would be a terrible problem. So we have massive social programs to prevent it
To call such distinctions between problems "arbitrary" is to imply that

A) they are not universal, but specific to certain cultures
B) no logical distinctions can be made between the areas where government intervenes and where it doesn't

Poverty amongst older Americans is seen as something for the government to solve because it's what people think of as an economic issue, while people not calling their grandparents is about how people treat one another in non-pecuniary relationships, and thus less of a "public" issue. Whether this is a logical distinction or not, people all over the world make it.

Where government intervenes is not "arbitrary" because it can be predicted from a few simple rules that are applied by all countries. The most obvious are...

1) Economic relations are more appropriate for regulation than lifestyle choices, which are more appropriate for regulation than interpersonal relationships
2) The well-being of citizens is a larger concern than the well-being of non-citizens

This does not explain everything, including why we care more about terrorism than traffic deaths. But it is an answer to most of the problem raised in the post.

J. W. writes:

Richard, your simple rule #1 only pushes the difficulty back a step. To say something like "The distinction between X and Y is not arbitrary; it is simply based on the distinction between economic relations and lifestyle choices" does not in itself overcome the difficulty of the basis for the distinction between "economic relations" and "lifestyle choices." Doing chores, for example, might be an "economic relation" or a "lifestyle choice" depending on arbitrary distinctions rendering some forms merely chores, other forms apprenticeships, and still others internships. Drawing lines to categorize such similar human activities for the purpose of applying different regulations and taxing schemes is necessarily arbitrary and it is hardly universal.

Richard writes:

Just because there are grey areas does not mean that the distinctions are meaningless or arbitrary. They may or may not make sense from a normative perspective, but they do have their own internal logic.

I disagree that it is "hardly universal." Are there any countries that regulate social relations as much as they do the economy? Maybe you could make an argue for a few Islamic theocracies, but that's about it.

J. W. writes:

"Just because there are grey areas does not mean that the distinctions are meaningless or arbitrary. They may or may not make sense from a normative perspective, but they do have their own internal logic."

You're shifting goal posts. To be arbitrary is not the same as to be meaningless, senseless, or illogical. Moreover, laws do in fact draw hard lines between different categories of human activity, even though people might commonly recognize certain areas as "grey." (Even laws that are vague as written are enforced with hard lines: you're found either guilty or not.) And these hard lines differ across time and place at the whim of those with political power.

"Are there any countries that regulate social relations as much as they do the economy?"

That's actually irrelevant to my point about the distinction between "lifestyle choices" (or "social relations") and "economic relations" (or "the economy"). The point isn't about the extent of regulation but the distinction of categories. Furthermore, wouldn't an answer to your question require first defining "social relations" as distinct from "the economy"? One would have to establish first where the line (or grey area) is and whether it is actually universal across time and place (which you seem to doubt, evidently).

Gian writes:

In a statist society, our response often seems to be, "If there's a problem, government needs to fix it."

Mankind is sufficiently rational to be able to demarcate private sphere from the public. The State follows its own Natural Law.

But the modern age does not recognize Natural Law and hence we see all kinds of excesses.

Nicholas writes:
. Gian writes:

In a statist society, our response often seems to be, "If there's a problem, government needs to fix it."

Mankind is sufficiently rational to be able to demarcate private sphere from the public. The State follows its own Natural Law.

But the modern age does not recognize Natural Law and hence we see all kinds of excesses.

Most armies in the history of the world were used to defend decadent rulers from popular uprisings of people wishing nothing more than to have the crown's yoke lifted off their shoulders. What part of that followed natural law?

As for the modern age, only recently have 'smiley face' governments come to fruition.

But to your earlier point about the common good, it seems you're skirting around a straw-man. Why do you get to decide what it in the common good? Why do you think you can decide what is in the common good? The Hyakian insight was that the 'common good' can only be revealed through emergent processes. And by the way, the true 'common good' irrespective of nationalist lines on maps. We all want a better world for our children and grand children, the difference is we want to build it peacefully and voluntarily, while statists wish to impose it through violence. Yes, ideally you'd prefer everyone followed your vision voluntary, but the overriding principle of every statist is that the hearts and minds you can't convince, you're content to leave bullets in.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top