Friday, April 1, 2016

Leaving The Question Unanswered

     Note the following headline:

Why Big Government Wants to Micromanage Your Parenting

     Doesn’t that suggest, oh so indirectly, that the associated article will address Why Big Government Wants to Micromanage Your Parenting? I mean, call me dense if you like, but that was the inference I drew from it. Yet the article does no such thing. Read it for yourself and see.

     Though I got a chuckle from the disjunction, my thoughts this morning aren’t about poor headlining. Rather, they’re about the motives we occasionally attribute to institutions.


     Organizations never know anything. – Marc Stiegler

     The inclination to anthropomorphize organizations, institutions, political units, and so forth is an important component of the difficulty we have in comprehending the behavior of such aggregates. It takes only a moment’s thought to realize that an aggregate – an entity composed of a number of individual persons, plus other assets – cannot have motivations, knowledge, instincts, fears, or convictions.

     (Yes, yes, as long as we’re being literal, aggregates don’t really have behavior, either. It’s even slightly misleading to say they have assets. But I trust you’ll follow from here.)

     When “John Galt,” in his classic Dreams Come Due: Government and Economics As If Freedom Mattered, wrote that “The system has a will to live (and to grow like cancer),” he was doing the same sort of anthropomorphizing. “The system,” whatever we mean by that, has no will of any sort. What it has is a population of persons that act in its name. It’s their aggregated will to live and grow that gives “the system” its dynamic.

     For example, when we speak of “the government,” we’re usually speaking of its dynamic: the correlation of incentives and penalties that act upon it through the desires, fears, and convictions of those who populate it. Mohandas Gandhi caught the essence of this when he wrote:

     The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form. The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from the violence to which it owes its very existence.

     A government is merely a facade behind which some group of persons wields coercive force, in each case for purposes of their own.


     We who prize freedom have for some time struggled to find means by which to restrain and reduce government. Yet many of us are in thrall to the facade: the notion that “the government” is a unitary entity with its own motivations. In consequence, we seek to alter the incentives and penalties that apply to something that doesn’t really exist. And of course, we get nowhere.

     Were Carrie Lukas, the author of the article cited in the opening segment, to address “why big government wants to micromanage your parenting” in an analytical fashion, she would make no progress whatsoever for as long as she remained bound to “big government” as an entity with its own motivations. Progress only becomes possible when we address the motivations of those who act in “the government’s” name, wielding its privilege of pre-indemnified coercion:

  1. Job security;
  2. The thrill of power;
  3. The prestige of authority;
  4. The desire to be “socially relevant;”
  5. The belief in one’s moral superiority;
  6. The conviction that an important cause is at stake.

     In the usual case the lower-numbered motivations will be the more powerful and more enduring. (The reasons for this are best left to another screed.) Moreover, as time passes, those within “the system” would be ever more skewed toward the lower-numbered motivations; that is, an ever greater percentage of the persons employed there would be principally animated by job-security and thrill-of-power considerations. They would be innately opposed to anyone who might check their pursuit of those things – most emphatically including coworkers moved mainly by higher-numbered motives.

     Some persons would seek positions in a Child Welfare and Protection department entirely for reason #6. However, once inside “the system,” their prospects would be conditioned and constrained by the motivations and decisions of many others. Imagine that Smith, a firm believer that CWP should only act when a child’s welfare is demonstrably endangered, were to be employed there. If he were to argue for inaction against the many Joneses who want CWP to grow (thus expanding their prospects for security and advancement) and act despite conflicting evidence and ambiguous accounts (because using State power is so much fun), he would almost certainly lose. The aftermath might include his demotion, or a transfer to “less demanding” responsibilities, or perhaps a campaign to persuade him that “a CWP career isn’t right for you.”

     The application of that dynamic to the analysis of “CWP’s behavior” should require no further comment from me.


     It should be clear that we cannot alter the behavior of “the government” by treating it as an entity with motivations of its own. All we can do is influence the incentives and penalties that pertain to those individuals who act in its name and with its privileges. As many a Gentle Reader is currently muttering under his breath, that’s difficult enough.

     The late, great Milton Friedman famously said that it’s less important to get “good people” into government than it is to create incentives for “bad people” to do the right things. Dr. Friedman intuitively grasped the non-atomic nature of the State. He was thereby immunized against both devil theories and savior complexes. However, his insight hasn’t gotten sufficient circulation, possibly because he’s principally known as an economist, and a specialist in fiscalism at that.

     This is how we must reorient: away from such things as charter limitations on governments and toward the re-engineering of the incentives and penalties that apply to the persons within it:

  • Term limits;
  • Elimination of “sovereign immunity;
  • Ironclad protections for “whistleblowers;”
  • Abolition of unions for government employees;
  • Repeal of the job-security provisions of the Civil Service Act;

     ...and any other special circumstances surrounding “government service” – I refuse to call it public service, as there’s nothing a “public servant” hates more than actually serving the public – that energize venal, authoritarian, and self-protective motivations for seeking government positions.

     Shall we undertake this effort with full seriousness, or shall we lock, load, and start discharging government employees “informally?” As much emotional satisfaction as the violent course might offer, the alternative would result in a lot fewer bodies in the streets. The question demands an answer.

2 comments:

Mark Clausen said...

I've seen more than a few local candidates' campaign signs/slogans as they run for various positions such as school board. One common aspect is that everything they propose is:

For The Children!

Run, don't walk from such a person. What they are saying is that their vision of what is right "For The Children!" supersedes that of the parents.

Anonymous said...

"Shall we undertake this effort with full seriousness, or shall we lock, load, and start discharging government employees 'informally?'"

Somewhat tongue-in-cheek (but only somewhat), I submit that this is a false dichotomy. It may not be possible to achieve either. But, that said, there's no reason why we shouldn't at least try to have our cake and eat it, too.