Bryan Caplan  

On the Complexity of the World

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Confession: I have been enamored of extreme policies for as long as I can remember.  When I was around ten years old, for example, I decided that all smokers should be summarily executed.  Adults' attempts to rebut my visionary proposals usually proved counter-productive.  Why?  Because they came off as completely evasive.  They almost never engaged the specifics of my ideas.  Instead, the typical adult condescendingly told me, "You don't understand the complexity of the world."  Such vague objections, I decided, were a clear sign that my juvenilia was rationally unassailable.

One of the biggest lessons I've learned in the meanwhile: The Complexity of the World Argument (CWA) is deep and important even though most people lamely trot it out when they can't think of anything concrete to say.

I started to reassess the CWA when I discovered economics.  One of intro econ's main lessons, after all, is that feel-good policies often have bad indirect consequences.  Imposing a price ceiling on food doesn't just make food cheaper; it also discourages the production of food, and fosters black markets and rent-seeking.  Banning pre-existing conditions clauses doesn't just help sick people get affordable insurance; it also makes insurance more expensive, and encourages healthy people to drop out of the risk pool.  When economists like Mises drew the more general lesson that the failures of government intervention naturally spiral into further interventions, it blew my mind. 

Stories like these didn't merely demonstrate that the CWA had some real-world relevance.  More importantly, they showed that intellectually powerful yet socially invisible arguments exist.   "I haven't heard anyone provide a good argument against X" is only weak evidence in favor of X, because good arguments are routinely, widely overlooked.  The longer my economic education continued, the more relevant the CWA seemed - especially when I discovered that strong objections are often vulnerable to even stronger rebuttals.  Branching out into psychology showed me that I'd been blind to a whole world of additional insights.

In time, however, I realized that there's another field that illustrates the CWA better than any other: history.  Fact: A brutal Communist dictatorship rules North Korea in 2014 because one Serbian shot one Austrian in 1914.  If you know basic history, this seemingly bizarre claim should be obvious.  In 1914, however, this ripple effect was so utterly non-obvious that no one on earth is likely to have considered it!  (Disagree?  Look at how bad even experts are at far less remote predictions). 

Once you merge basic history with the biological fact that none of us would be here if our fathers had crossed their legs one more time, the CWA becomes overwhelming.  The tiniest change in your reproductive behavior eventually changes the identity of every living human.  And some of those humans will make choices that affect billions.  The tiniest change in the behavior of Lenin's parents prior to his conception would have annulled his existence - and a world without Lenin would be a very different world than the one we've known.

After you stare into the face of the CWA, there's no going back.  The only question is: How can you live with it?  Once you fully absorb the CWA, confidence in your long-run, big picture predictions sharply falls.  If you adhere to norms of rationality and candor, the CWA requires you to moderate your claims - and alienate the overconfident masses that surround you.  If you're a strict consequentialist, belief in the CWA is almost paralyzing.  How are you supposed to maximize overall X if long-run, big picture predictions are so tenuous?  How?  How?!  How?!?!?!

From other ethical perspectives, however, the CWA cuts the Gordian knot of indecisiveness.  Suppose you have a modest moral presumption against murder.  The CWA reminds you that such scruples could easily have bad long-run consequences.  After all, you could be sparing an ancestor of the 23rd century's Hitler.  But the CWA also saps the strength of every attempt to defease your presumption against murder.  It is nigh impossible for a reasonable person to be 90% confident that murdering a seemingly harmless person will ultimately make the world a better place.

The upshot: The CWA combined with homely moral presumptions logically leads to a bunch of extreme policies.  Not summarily executing smokers.  I was totally wrong about that and so much else.  But the CWA does elegantly support policies like libertarianism, pacifism, tolerance, and general passivity.  In a world as complex as our own, you have no compelling reason to get your hands morally dirty.  Just leave other people alone, wish them well, and beautify your Bubble.


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Mark Bahner writes:
Fact: A brutal Communist dictatorship rules North Korea in 2014 because one Serbian shot one Austrian in 1914.

Real fact: A brutal Communist dictatorship rules North Korea in 2014 because, just like people refusing to try the experiment to kill all smokers, no one has ever tried my idea of "Rent a Coup."

"Rent a Coup"...why aren't economists studying this excellent idea?

Thomas writes:

[Comment removed for rudeness. --Econlib Ed.]

Will May writes:

"But the CWA does elegantly support policies like libertarianism, pacifism, tolerance, and general passivity. In a world as complex as our own, you have no compelling reason to get your hands morally dirty."

Well, there's no compelling reason to keep them clean either.

"Once you fully absorb the CWA, confidence in your long-run, big picture predictions sharply falls. If you adhere to norms of rationality and candor, the CWA requires you to moderate your claims - and alienate the overconfident masses that surround you."

I don't see how you can have this both ways. Either it raises your confidence in your views or it lowers it, but not both (and not, it lowers your confidence in all your non-libertarian views, but raises confidence in your libertarian views). The second quote here, about lowering your confidence, makes a lot more sense to me.

The CWA ought to make you more Burkean; highly sceptical of science applied to complex social events and more comfortable with time-tested rules for which we cannot provide complete justification.

Sam Haysom writes:

[Comment removed for rudeness. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Miguel Madeira writes:

«no one has ever tried my idea of "Rent a Coup."»

"Rent a Coup" was probably one of more tried ideas in 20th century (perhaps not in direct payments in cash, but in implicit payments "If government X is deposed, the new government will have our full support and aid")

Daublin writes:

Isn't the CWA just the conservative point of view?

There are factors that none of us understand, so there is safety in doing things the same way we've always done it.

Jeff writes:

In other words, the complexity of the world just confirms your belief in things you already believed for reasons having nothing to do with complexity?

That sounds like confirmation bias to me.

vikingvista writes:

The incentive of many people, particularly those interested in political office, is not that a nice outcome occurs, it is rather that *some* substantial outcome occurs which they caused.

For them, life has meaning to the extent that they leave a mark on the world. Any mark is better than no mark.

Pajser writes:

Complexity of the world is really more argument for conservative than libertarian point of view. Libertarianism and particularly anarchocapitalism are defensible only if that argument is not taken as very strong.

Daniel Klein writes:

"If you're a strict consequentialist, belief in the CWA is almost paralyzing. How are you supposed to maximize overall X if long-run, big picture predictions are so tenuous? How? How?! How?!?!?!"

First off, maybe you shouldn't suppose that philosophical action is a matter of maximizing. Maybe life presents you with options, you get a sense of which two seem most relevant, options 1 and 2, and then you ponder which of those better serves overall X. No maximization is involved in that procedure.

Gordon Tullock wrote a piece called "Thinking about Thought" that suggests that this is how we go about our philosophical life.

Hazel Meade writes:

How did WWI lead directly to N. Korea being a brutual communist dictatorship?
I'm not sure I see the connection.
I can see the connection between WWII and N. Korea, maybe, but WWI was pretty much a European thing. I don't think there is any inevitable causal connection between WWI and WWII, especially when it comes to East Asia either.
Communism was going to arrive in the East irregardless of what happened in Nazi Germany, the Japanese were likely to invade China, regardless of whether or not they had Nazi allies half a world away. I just don't see events in Asia and Europe from WWI through the Korean War as being tightly interrelated rather than loosely correlated.

Christopher Chang writes:

Indeed. And a supermajority of Americans want to beautify a bubble called the United States of America, while leaving other bubbles alone. (In a similar manner as other UK-derived nations of immigrants, such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.) The principled thing for an open borders zealot who doesn't like the kind of bubble Americans want to build is to move to a place, like Sweden, where the natives' views are far more compatible with theirs.

Anyone who really believed in the superiority of open borders would overwhelmingly prefer that path, which wins via peaceful competition, to the sort of thing which went on in the UK 10 years ago, or which is being attempted in the US now. In fact, they would take pains to distance themselves from any association with the latter. Caplan and many other open borders advocates are now sending an unmistakable signal that they do not believe open borders can win on its own merits, but that they consider government duplicity to be justified in imposing their inferior preferences on an unwilling populace.

As the saying goes, you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. In order to spend 99% of your time peacefully in your bubble, it is necessary to act in self-defense 1% of the time from those who do not respect its boundaries and try to take what you have by force.

The good news is that violence is unlikely to be necessary. Democracy really only does one thing--counting up the "soldiers" on each side while skipping the actual destructive fighting--but it does that fairly well. The immigration-restriction side in the US knows they win in the end as long as they don't give up, and citizens in numerous Western countries have demonstrated the necessary perseverance. The UK is recovering from having its "nose [rubbed] in diversity" (though I find some of their attitudes, such as anti-Polish sentiment, quite strange); the US can too.

In the meantime, I advise other restrictionists to take pains to leave alone any open borders advocate who actually respects citizen consent. They are likely to have legitimately good ideas.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"I don't think there is any inevitable causal connection between WWI and WWII, especially when it comes to East Asia either.
Communism was going to arrive in the East"

Even without the defeat of the russian army and the bolshevik revolution?

Mark Bahner writes:
"Rent a Coup" was probably one of more tried ideas in 20th century (perhaps not in direct payments in cash, but in implicit payments "If government X is deposed, the new government will have our full support and aid")

Yes, this is a very different proposal. This is an open proposal to the lower ranks of the army (colonel and below) to depose an unelected dictator (e.g. Raoul Castro, Kim Jong-un) and set up a democracy.

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