Monday, April 5, 2010

A seemly modesty

Robert Samuelson explains one of the reasons increasing numbers of people are simultaneously politically motivated and cynical about politics. Having "thrown the bums out" in the last two elections, they seem prepared to do it again - except this time it's the other "bums." Every political issue has moral implications respecting both means and ends, but it is often less obvious that we have grasped them than we are inclined to think. Self righteousness is no more attractive in politics than in personal relationships.
.... Purging moral questions from politics is both impossible and undesirable. But today's tendency to turn every contentious issue into a moral confrontation is divisive. One way of fortifying people's self-esteem is praising them as smart, public-spirited and virtuous. But an easier way is to portray the "other side" as scum: The more scummy "they" are, the more superior "we" are. This logic governs the political conversation of left and right, especially talk radio, cable channels and the blogosphere.

Unlike economic benefits, psychic benefits can be dispensed without going through Congress. Mere talk does the trick. Shrillness and venom are the coin of the realm. The opposition cannot simply be mistaken. It must be evil, selfish, racist, unpatriotic, immoral or just stupid. A culture of self-righteousness reigns across the political spectrum. Stridency from one feeds the other. Political polarization deepens; compromise becomes harder. How can anyone negotiate if the other side is so extreme? ....

American politics caters to people's natural desire to think well of themselves. But in so doing, it often sacrifices pragmatic goals and sows rancor that brings government and the political system into disrepute. The ultimate danger is that the poisonous polarization of elites spreads to the country at large. (emphasis added) [more]
One of the reasons politics has become so venomous is that every issue in society has become a "problem" that politicians should solve. And yet political interventions often just seem to create more difficulties and consequently cynicism about politics grows. Glenn Reynolds reminds us there are practical reasons to have modest expectations about what government can do:
Economist Friedrich Hayek explained in 1945 why centrally controlled "command economies" were doomed to waste, inefficiency, and collapse: Insufficient knowledge. He won a Nobel Prize. ....

In his "The Use of Knowledge In Society," Hayek explained that information about supply and demand, scarcity and abundance, wants and needs exists in no single place in any economy. The economy is simply too large and complicated for such information to be gathered together.

Any economic planner who attempts to do so will wind up hopelessly uninformed and behind the times, reacting to economic changes in a clumsy, too-late fashion and then being forced to react again to fix the problems that the previous mistakes created, leading to new problems, and so on.

Market mechanisms, like pricing, do a better job than planners because they incorporate what everyone knows indirectly through signals like price, without central planning.

Thus, no matter how deceptively simple and appealing command economy programs are, they are sure to trip up their operators, because the operators can't possibly be smart enough to make them work. .... [more]
Thanks to Betsy Newmark for the references.

Robert J. Samuelson - The posionous politics of self-esteem, Glenn Harlan Reynolds: Progressives can't get past the Knowledge Problem