Art Carden  

Sometimes, "Not My Problem" Is the Right Answer

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Mencken on Government... Perhaps the most relevant of M...

Last week, I linked to the LearnLiberty "Why are YOU a Libertarian?" Tumblr. Twitter user @EricPaulDennis posted the following:

However, "Not My Problem" is probably the right response more often than we want to believe. The tradition of what Peter J. Boettke calls "Mainline Economics" connecting scholars like (for example) Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, and James Buchanan, emphasizes the fact that we rarely have enough knowledge about what Hayek called "the particular circumstances of time and place" to interfere advantageously in others' affairs. Too often, the impulse to action clouds our better judgment, and we make an even bigger mess of things.

In his summary of the "Austrian School of Economics" Boettke points out some of the key insights of the "mainline" paradigm. These insights have been applied fruitfully to questions of international political economy, war, reconstruction, and humanitarian adventures by Boettke's student Christopher J. Coyne in his books After War: The Political Economy of Exporting Democracy and Doing Bad By Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails. Here's an EconTalk Podcast with Coyne on the first book. Here's Coyne on C-SPAN discussing the second.


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CATEGORIES: Austrian Economics



COMMENTS (13 to date)
Eric writes:

Do you think "not my problem" sometimes being the right solution may be connected with the "do not touch" moral heuristic mentioned in "An Experimental Investigation of Emotions and Reasoning in the Trolley Problem"

Alexandre Padilla writes:

Actually characterizing libertarianism as saying "no my problem" is actually a significant mischaracterization of what libertarians are saying. Libertarians are actually not saying it's not our problem. They are saying it's our problem but your solutions to our problems are different than the solutions you propose as a non-libertarian because we believe markets are superior to government, we believe decentralized-market-based institutions are less bad than centralized-government-directed institutions to mitigate these problems.

Scott Scheule writes:

There is a distinction being blurred here between "it's not my problem" and "interference is often more harmful than inaction, frustrating as that may be." The first is motivated by apathy, the latter by wisdom.

ThomasH writes:

"Sometimes, "Not My Problem" Is the Right Answer"

Which implies that sometimes it is. Now we need to get down to the business of policy making.

ThomasH writes:

"[Libertarians] believe decentralized-market-based institutions are less bad than centralized-government-directed institutions to mitigate these problems."

This conclusion ought to depend on the problem at hand. It's arguably right about the number of taxicabs that operate on city streets and arguably wrong about the amount of CO2 that ought to be emitted into the atmosphere.

Hana writes:

Of course the contrary view, widely adhered to by politicians and other busy bodies, is 'there ought to be a law'.

Brian writes:

"This conclusion ought to depend on the problem at hand."

It could.

"It's arguably right about the number of taxicabs that operate on city streets"

Yes.

"and arguably wrong about the amount of CO2 that ought to be emitted into the atmosphere."

No, it's the right approach for this problem also. The way we know this is the utter failure of governments to reach an agreement capable of limiting CO2. Government policy is only able to effectively address relatively simple problems because politicians have limited mental processing capabilities. Really hard problems have to be solved by the market, which has an effectively infinite processing capability. Is global warming conceptually simple? No. If it were, governments would have solved it by now. (For reference, think about the speed with which the ozone hole problem was addressed once it was understood.) The current state of international cooperation on global warming after decades of work tells us that nly a market-based approach will work.

ThomasH writes:

According to Brian's analysis, before the adoption of the treaty to limit chloroflorohydrocarbon emissions, it would have been shown to be too difficult for government and hence suitable only for a market solution.

The market has been "working on" the CO2 emissions problem for a couple of centuries now and has not yet found a way to limit them.

Brian writes:

ThomasH,

No, you misunderstand the analysis. Prior to the discovery that CFC's were causing the ozone hole, it was better for governments to do nothing, since any attempt to do something would likely miss do anything about CFC's. But markets would take care of the problem, since CFC's would eventually be (and were) replaced by something cheaper. Once the CFC connection was discovered, the problem became relatively simple; within a few years an agreement was hammered out.

For global warming, action advocates like to pretend that it's all about CO2 (i.e., that it's a simple problem), but it's not. Besides the contributions of other greenhouse gases (such as methane), we must contend with the reality that the dominant greenhouse gas is water vapor and that the strength of the water-vapor feedback is very poorly characterized. There's the additional issue that any consequences worth noting wouldn't happen for many decades into the future, and predictions that far ahead are basically useless. Add in the reality that CO2 from fossil fuels is integral to the world economy, and that CO2 is a naturally occurring gas anyway, and we are left with a very difficult problem. Unless future discoveries reduce it to something simpler, governments will not be able to make a constructive solution. Only the market can get the job done.

And please note that the market can also figure out if global warming even IS a problem--we're not even sure of that right now. The reason the market hasn't solved this "problem" over the last two centuries is that it hasn't BEEN a problem. That's the beauty of the market--it keeps everyone aligned with reality instead of chasing problems that don't exist.

James writes:

Why isn't any non-libertarian taking folks like Eric to task for making comments like this? Ok, I'll do it:

Hey Eric, I know you are just trying to be cute but when you spend your time falsely characterizing the motives of libertarians, you divert attention away from what you should be emphasizing: the case for (progressivism or conservatism or whatever it is that you believe in) is so compelling.

Brian writes:

"`Not My Problem' is probably the right response more often than we want to believe."

Art,

While true, we can say more than this. "Not my problem" is the right response whenever it's, well, not my problem. That is, if something doesn't affect you, you have no reason to do anything about it.

And you got the reason exactly right--" we rarely have enough knowledge about what Hayek called "the particular circumstances of time and place" to interfere advantageously in others' affairs." If act on your behalf instead of on my own, I am choosing to act on the basis of preferences and outcomes that are poorly known by me while ignoring the preferences and outcomes I know best (my own). Such a choice has little chance for success.

If I act only on my own behalf, however, I maximize the benefits of my particular knowledge and minimize the effects of acting out of ignorance--a good thing indeed. This is why rational players are considered to be those who act in their own self-interest.

But I understand that these ideas are hard for people to accept. A good example is Bryan Caplan, who continues to argue for Open Borders on the basis of what he imagines is good for the immigrants. When he says that Haitians are being deprived of their rights to economic self-determination, I say it's not my problem. But if he argues that I am being deprived of my right to interact freely with them and benefit from the interaction, he gets my attention. Restrictions on immigration now become my problem, and I become inclined to do something about it. The appeal for open borders ultimately must be made on the basis of the self-interest of those who are currently citizens, as the "not my problem" approach makes clear.

James writes:

ThomasH:

You write, "The market has been "working on" the CO2 emissions problem for a couple of centuries now and has not yet found a way to limit them."

This is false. Just to begin with, modern production processes are far more energy efficient than their earlier counterparts which limits CO2 emissions. If you mean to say that market forces have not reduced CO2 emissions down to the level you think is right, I'll take your word for it. But from that, exactly nothing follows concerning the desirability of a government driven solution.

Whatever you think the people in the government should do about CO2, there is no reason why you (possibly with others) cannot hire people to do the same thing, presuming that your preferred course of action does not call for criminal acts.

Arthur_500 writes:

It isn't "my" problem! You are ignoring a crucial facet of social problems and that is that we cannot or are unwilling to control the cause of the problem.

It's not my problem to help the homeless, for example. Most homeless are there because they make poor life choices. There are a myriad of programs to help them but they reject the restrictions of those programs. Therefore, social engineers decide that gubment must solve the problem of the homeless and provide for them a place to live without any restrictions of their life choices. However, the problem is not solved you have simply moved the problem out of sight. I say, I have given you every opportunity (charity) and you reject those opportunities therefore, it's not my problem.

Look at Syria as another example. The people of Syria (and the rest of the Middle East, live to kill the leader and then they can be the oppressor. Syria has a tacit understanding not to screw with Israel and that is our only interest in Syria. How they treat themselves is something they decide to make as a life choice. It may not be within our social sensibilities but then we choose not to live there. If they wish to treat women in a certain manner, eliminate those with whom they disagree and gas their enemies I would suggest it is a place to leave. As they choose to stay it's not my problem.

Is this cold-hearted? Well, I don't like pickled beets and I like my steak medium and I don't want you butting in and telling me how to live my life. It's not your problem.

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