Archive for February 2010
Like many libertarians, I feel that small government is an eminently practical rule of thumb proven by hundreds (if not thousands) of years of observation. So when Rafe recently posted in response to a presentation that David Cameron made at TED, it got my dander up. Calling the small government philosophy, “… ivory tower idealism,” felt like a blatant misrepresentation. But then I wondered. Maybe Rafe had formed the honest (though mistaken) impression that small government advocates think that reducing government functions will lead to some sort of emergent order utopia?
I don’t know exactly what Cameron said because I can’t find a public video archive. This Guardian account indicates that he mostly hung platitudes on the scaffolding of giving people more choice and transparency. Choice is a big part of small government, but I thought it would be worth outlining what I think is the non-politician’s version of the libertarian small government ideology. It’s far from ivory tower. More like back alley.
It’s based on two observations: (1) local knowledge is important to good decision making and (2) concentration of power leads to abuses. I think few students of political history and organizational behavior would argue against these points, so I won’t detail them here. However, if anyone honestly thinks they are in doubt, I’d be happy to cover them in a subsequent post.
So, any time society assigns a role to government, it incurs the costs of (1) and (2). These costs tend to increase over time and as a situation departs from the ideal future path. So the expected net present value of these costs can be substantial. Libertarians therefore conclude that the benefits that the government brings to a role should, as a general rule, be quite large before we even consider it as an option. Notice that this does not imply no government at all. Rather, it implies we should use government sparingly.
The repeated pattern observed by libertarians goes like this. A problem arises. Everyone (even libertarians) agree that it is problem. Progressives push through a government program to address it. Initially, the program somewhat ameliorates the problem. However, the problem turns out to be trickier than first believed, so the benefits are usually not as great as expected. Over time, the problem evolves and adapts, further eroding program benefits. The government program evolves and adapts too, but more to promulgate its own survival than address the problem.
So we are left with much lower benefits than forecast and significant unforeseen costs (in the form of an everliving, mostly useless program). Libertarians conclude that in many cases the “cure” is worse than the disease. Not that it doesn’t suck having the disease. The irony of course is that the progressives then identify the results of an old government program as a new problem that requires… another government program (cough, cough, government intervention in financial markets, cough, cough).
Of course, some illnesses are actually bad enough that the (painful) cure is better than the disease. In those cases, bring on the government program. But let’s be realistic about the long term benefits and costs.
Things just got worse if you put your faith in the “consensus” about catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (AGW). You’ll recall that the disclosure of internal emails undermined confidence in both the surface temperature record and the peer-review process that qualifies research for inclusion into the blue ribbon International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports.
Now we find out that some of the more sensational claims about potential consequences contained in the IPCC AR4 report are not actually backed up by peer-reviewed research. Instead, they come from assertions made by advocacy groups such as the WWF and Greenpeace. Then there’s the dependence on anecdotal newspaper and magazine reports. Oh, and an amusing reference to a boot cleaning manual from an Antarctic tour operator.
It all started with the infamous, “Himalayan glaciers will be gone by 2035,” claim, which was substantiated solely by a WWF report. Not cool because IPCC rules state they should only reference peer-reviewed research from respectable journals.
Things get worse. Bear with me here. The story is a bit involved, but it reveals how feckless the guys at the top of the AGW food chain can be. India’s environmental minister tried to call BS by referring to, you know, actual measurements of glacial retreat. But the chairman of the IPCC called this “voodo science.” Of course, the scientist who lead the development of that section of IPCC AR4, eventually admitted that the claim about glaciers disappearing by 2035 was not supported by peer-reviewed research. And it turns out that the chairman of the IPCC was actually informed about the problem months earlier.
I realize that people want to defer to the leading scientists in an area. It’s perfectly rational. In fact it was what I did before I started looking into AGW myself. But there should be some evidence that will cause you to update this position. I think we’ve reached that point.