What’s Right? What’s Left? What Works?
There have been many essays about problems with the old left vs. right political paradigm. I’d like to attempt a view from a higher altitude than usual and hope it might lead to some useful insights. In recent years I’ve begun to see many problems in terms of humankind’s tendency towards two general patterns which affect people regardless of where they sit on any political spectrum: absolutism and entrenchment. The usual solutions offered for our problems in government and economics tend to be alternative absolutisms that end up entrenching themselves if they gain favor. The only solutions I can imagine being constructive would be in terms of pragmatic balance and the humility to acknowledge just how much we don’t understand completely.
Absolutism is a poison whether from the left or right. The choice between communist state control or full-on laissez-faire capitalism is like a choice to be choked with the left hand or the right. They both avoid the hard work of pragmatically determining a dynamic balance between many conflicting forces. There is a human tendency where when we think we have found a solution to something we believe that it might be the answer to everything. One sometimes even sees this sort of thing in science, where a scientist who has some insight into a problem begins to see the insight as and some sort of unifying principle of everything. At first, this is a good thing, insights sometimes have applications beyond the area where they were discovered. But before too long, through processes such as confirmation bias, things can fall into the old trap where if all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. This seems to be a universal human tendency which operates in all fields of endeavor and all ideological bents.
Absolutist thinking presents us over and over with false dichotomies. If markets are a good way to distribute goods and services, we must put up with a totally unfettered financial market. If a state-run system is the best way to assure that all citizens have access to a common good such as quality health care, then we must let the state control all markets. Political and economic debate sounds not so much as a debate over adjusting the thermostat up or down a degree as it sounds like a debate over whether to boil or freeze. If it’s a bit chilly in here, boiling is not the answer. If it’s getting a bit warm, freezing is not the cure. There is an arrogance and a certainty that humans can fall into about ideas where what’s necessary is the humility to acknowledge that no human really understands fully and completely how the balance of the status quo is currently operating let alone what the ramifications might be of fully implementing our ideological theories. Negativity bias causes us to see the problems but be blind to the extent to which things are working, however imperfectly. When dialing the knob toward one end or another doesn’t bring about the desired utopia, it is usually explained away as a problem of not being pure and confident enough to dial it all the way. Markets would be great if they were just free enough or things would be better if we really imprisoned all of those greedy capitalists.
Whichever ideology gains power, its proponents immediately start entrenching themselves in order to keep their grip on power and prevent other ideologies from gaining enough power to steer the boat toward the opposite shore. The hubristic certainty that one has a perfect understanding of problems and solutions seems to feel like justification for any means necessary to keep those horrible people who “just don’t get it” away from the levers of power. Whether it’s politicians gerrymandering districts and manipulating elections, or the winners in a free market digging into a monopoly to ensure they keep winning subsequent rounds, it’s essentially all entrenchment. Ideologues so often dwell on the differences between government and business that they fail to see the important similarities. Both are human social institutions composed of humans with similar human failings. The specific mechanisms of entrenchment are different in business and government, but the more important fact is that the tendency toward entrenchment arises in both from the human nature shared by the people who comprise them. Laissez-faire capitalism ignores this in the business sector. Governments of all political ideologies pretend that entrenchment is not a problem while busy entrenching themselves.
Economics and government are extremely complex in modern society. We need enough humility to acknowledge that we don’t fully understand all the myriad details of how they work. There is so much more going on than any single human brain can encompass. A scientific approach would be to study how things work without attachment to any ideology and accept the message in data. Unfortunately, that is extremely difficult for us humans to do. We always have a point of view and it always colors what we think, see, and do. The methods of science are the best way we’ve figured out to enable flawed humans to make progress in the understanding of very complex systems that are far beyond the power of our human intuition to grasp. Unfortunately, in Economics most of the work done in the 20th century has been ideology-driven. The models start from an ideology, whether it’s free-market or Marx. For all its number crunching and mathematical models, Economics has not been trying to build up a picture of how things actually work from first principles. It’s been top-down thinking rather than bottom-up. When a specific area of study such as Behavioral Economics starts to look from the bottom up, it flat-out disproves many of the fundamental assumptions at play in the top-down thinking applied generally across the wider field. Economics may just have to wait for another generation of entrenched ideologues to die off before a more scientific discipline becomes a reality.
People generally claim to know things that they have no way of knowing. We all have a point of view and it’s always easier to see the fallacies of an opposing side than to see our own. (I am not immune to that, so any examples I give here will be from a point of view.) One ideology I have trouble with is those who advocate “small-government”. What hubris it is to pretend to be able to intuit the proper size for the government of a country of over 300 million people with a GDP in the trillions. But one can see how human intuition is operating here: “the government is doing things I don’t like, so less government would mean less of the things that I don’t like.” That is to ignore how many of the good aspects of the status quo, such as safe streets, clean air, drinkable water, and healthy food, might be due to government actions that would go away with smaller government. (Michael Lewis’s recent book “The Fifth Risk” is an interesting and enlightening dive into what various departments of government actually do, often with little or no awareness from those who benefit.) The negativity bias is at work here where we notice the things we don’t like but become blind to the parts that just work without demanding our attention. Looking in the other direction, I have to acknowledge that people who espouse ideas which I agree with are not immune to the problems of absolutism and entrenchment, which can lead to excesses and blind spots which cause more harm than good.
All sides of the political spectrum can also go astray when they present ideological views as morality. Far too much of the right/left view of economics is based on judgments of greed/laziness. This is related to what in Social Psychology is referred to as the fundamental attribution error. People’s wealth is attributed to their greed, people’s poverty is attributed to their laziness. But plenty of data show that these moral judgments don’t explain people’s wealth or poverty very well at all. One’s economic solution is much more correlated to factors of one’s situation, such as how much money one starts with and pure luck. My personal view is one that supports higher taxes, especially for the very rich, and giving money to the poor (Universal Basic Income). However, I feel it is dangerous to justify the taxes as a way to punish the greedy rich, just as it is dangerous to resist giving money to the poor because that would reward laziness. If UBI is justified, it needs to be on pragmatic grounds of what works best for the economy. I hold to the theory that using the government to pull money down out of the financial stratosphere into the sphere of real wages, goods, and services would make for a healthier economy, one that would make us all richer, including the rich. Our view about money can get in the way of this, but one way of looking at money is as something like a fluid that needs to flow to all parts of the economy, just like oil must flow to all parts of an engine for it to run smoothly. Rather than the fluid pooling up in in the vicinity of the rich, much of the resulting wealth would be in the less tangible form of a healthier society. Basing this view in pragmatic factors means it can be tested and studied and maybe its effectiveness even proven right or wrong. None of that is possible with policies motivated by taxing those greedy rich folks or punishing the lazy poor.
One problem is trying to understand where we are now in the balance. A pragmatic solution would not be one where we totally blow up the status quo, but one where we tip that balance to serve the greater good. The United States seems to have the balance of its policies and economy toward the selfish valuation of personal wealth over a greater good shared by the whole society. Some of our most beautiful and wealthy cities have large and growing homeless encampments. This does not seem in balance. Tipping our national priorities more in the direction of common goods away from personal wealth seems like it would benefit us all.