Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The government is a camel

Over dinner with friends last week, I remarked that our government is a camel.  This was a reference to an old aphorism, "A camel is a horse designed by committee," nicely illustrated in this episode of Parks and Recreation:

The idea is that a compromise among many different opinions results in something that doesn't come anywhere near accomplishing the original goal.  I have often thought that the U.S. government would be immensely improved if it really embraced a single ideology, whether that ideology is liberal, conservative, libertarian, or whatever.  Even though I disagree with some libertarian (or liberal, or conservative) policies, I think that we would be much better off if we let the libertarians (or liberals, or conservatives) have their way across the board, rather than these groups working at cross-purposes most of the time.

I am also gaining more of an appreciation for how deep political differences really are.  It is much more than differences in values or priorities.  In The Political Mind, cognitive scientist George Lakoff describes the metaphors and narratives within which people frame political issues, and how these framing differences inhibit fruitful discussion, not to mention any kind of agreement.  I'm still reading the book, but it seems that Lakoff's aim is to improve the political process by creating greater awareness of our mental processes.  I'm not so sure that that's a realistic goal for the majority of the population (and I'm working on my own grand theory of how to achieve public consensus, but whether I'll get anywhere with that remains to be seen).

A more pointed objection I have to Lakoff is his insistence on the moral mission of government.  He says that health care, for example, is a moral necessity and as such should not be provided by for-profit entities.  Again, haven't finished the book yet, but I'm not sure how he is drawing the line between moral and non-moral issues, and more importantly, I don't know why he assumes that the government is a moral entity.  I'm always in favor of keeping morals out of the discussion as much as possible, especially when it's straightforward to consider welfare in a non-emotional, non-judgmental way.  Certainly the government can, at least some of the time, accomplish things that accord with at least some people's morals, but the real difference between government and firms is that the government is a mechanism for collective action.  Anarchists notwithstanding, we agree to give the government certain power over the citizenry, and if we're more or less in agreement about the aims to which that power should be put, the presence of the government makes everyone better off.  In any given situation, either government action or private action may be preferable because of the different incentives that exist in different kinds of organizations; but starting from the presumption that the government does what is moral is at best unnecessary and at worst very misleading.  The interesting thing here is that Lakoff seems to be subscribing to a narrative of government without being aware of it.  There's irony for you.

Lakoff's discussion of narratives and metaphors is largely consistent with Arnold Kling's three-axes model:
My hypothesis is that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians view politics along three different axes. For progressives, the main axis has oppressors at one end and the oppressed at the other. For conservatives, the main axis has civilization at one end and barbarism at the other. For libertarians, the main axis has coercion at one end and free choice at the other. So here is what I recommend doing when arguing with each:
When arguing with a progressive, start by saying, “It is sometimes appropriate to view particular classes of people as oppressors and other classes as oppressed.” Slavery is an example. Proceed then to suggest that, on the other hand, there are instances in which this way of looking at things is not so compelling. For example, if you think about it, borrowers who obtained homes with no money down are not necessarily oppressed, and the banks that lent them the money are not necessarily oppressors.
When arguing with a conservative, start by saying, “It is sometimes appropriate to view particular practices as barbaric and to view tradition and authority as protecting civilization.” There are, for example, criminals who commit assault and murder without remorse. Proceed then to suggest that, on the other hand, there are instances in which this way of looking at things is not so compelling. For example, if you think about it, Latin Americans who sneak across the border in order to work in this country are probably more civilized than barbaric.
When arguing with a libertarian, start by saying, “It is sometimes appropriate to view particular policies as coercion.” For example, taking tax revenue to hand out political favors. Proceed then to suggest, that, on the other hand, there are instances in which this way of looking at things is not so compelling. For example, if you think about it, it is plausible that some activities function better as monopolies: water and sewer service; courts; road systems. If competition is unworkable, then provision via elected government should not be considered coercive.
I think that this is a very useful model.  Recognizing the presence of all three axes doesn't necessarily lead to agreement, but it helps to put public debate on a reasonable footing.

Update: A few more thoughts on Lakoff, since I was still in the midst of reading when I wrote the post. He presents a very interesting and useful framework for thinking about political opinions and conflict, but there are some problems with his exposition (and possibly with his theory itself) that would make it easy for a reader not to take it seriously:

1. He talks about other models of human behavior and interaction as models, with the necessary disconnect from reality that that implies. He presents an alternative model--that people think within frameworks determined by narratives and metaphors--as if it is not a model, but a literal description of behavior. He spends a considerable amount of time discussing the dangers of taking any one model too seriously, not seeming to realize the potential problems of assuming his model is the right one, period.

2. He steps beyond the bounds of his own expertise. As an economist, I noticed this when he occasionally discussed an economic idea in an uninformed and unsophisticated manner. For example, he claims that insurance is fundamentally "anti-market," in a way that reminded me of what a fairly good undergraduate student might say in class without thinking something through. It's very straightforward to demolish the claim. This made me wonder whether he might be mangling ideas from other fields in ways not noticeable to me.

3. He presents his theory alongside advocacy for progressivism. Not that I would criticize progressivism or advocacy in general; nor would I deny that, in a sense, all research is advocacy research (that's a whole can of worms in itself); but Lakoff takes it to an extreme. He is basically saying that conservatives are doing all these things that are patently bad but are able to do them because they successfully manipulate the elements of his model, and that progressives must understand his theory in order to fight back. This can only limit the appeal of the theory.