Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Futility of Advocacy

Many stories are themed in a way such that two (or more) sides are in a struggle for local or world domination (Star Wars and even Björn Kurtén's terrific award-winner Dance of the Tiger come to mind). I wonder why the "good guys" should get so much credit; what reason is there to think they will act differently if in power? After all, if conditions are a certain way under the "bad guys", that is proof that rulers can make things go bad. Maybe the protest songs are right and successful rulers are all the same?

Of course, absent music, there are also other stories which purport to illustrate the difficulty for putatively powerful men to accomplish change. For instance, Robert Graves' I Claudius and its sequel Claudius the God depict the stuttering Roman emperor as a surprisingly cunning Republican, who nevertheless fails to resurrect his cherished system.
The reason Claudius failed to change the system is that "power" is demanding, a theme I have touched upon earlier on this blog (and here, too). To get it means to be obsequious to the right individuals, in particular to those individuals whose support, if withdrawn, does the most damage to one's continued sway. Those supporters, in turn, probably depend on other individuals, and so on. Everyone in this system has certain things he wants out of those in charge. As long as the dominant wish is not policy that is based upon clear-headed reasoning, this means that advocacy has the odds against it from the beginning.

Advocacy is tricky because all the individuals who exert even the tiniest pressure on politicians - which is to say everyone who adjusts his behaviour to public policy, adjusts his behaviour to others' adjustments to public policy, or votes, or just plain "everyone" - have next to no incentive to find out what good policy really is, and about the same incentive to follow their politicians' actions to make sure they adhere to good policy. This is because doing so will have no positive effects on one's own well-being, since one person is rarely going to be pivotal in collective decision-making. Time is scarce, so the individual had better spend it on things which might have some impact.

Thus, the door is opened to interest groups to control public policy. This does not have to be bad, but compared to a universe in which logic and evidence get full respect, policy will suffer. But even without interest-group pressure, rational biases (such as those explored by Bryan Caplan in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter) can help explain democratic shortcomings. 

There are many issues on which logic and evidence provide rather clear policy recommendations, on many consequentialist as well as deontological grounds. Yet, policy repeatedly fails to respect advice based upon such logic and evidence. For instance, minimum wages destroy bargaining options and kill jobs, compulsory military service (even disregarding its ethical shortcomings) is costlier than is a professional army (or no army) and free trade beats restricted trade.

Imagine devising a really clever argument in favour of, say, free trade. It is so clever that anyone who spends two seconds listening to it is instantly swayed forever. That still does not do away with the fact that it is in the self-interest of very few people to make sure that elected politicians follow good policy, and it still does not do away with the fact that many voters - even while convinced of the general beneficence of free trade - have a special interest against free trade in their particular sector.

The world is usefully thought of as being in equilibrium. It is not all bad, because it means we have a fairly stable business environment and of course many things are hunky dory on Tellus. But to change an equilibrium requires changing the rather mighty pressures which bring it about, and advocacy appears ill-suited at that. Perhaps the best one can do is to vote with one's feet. Maybe seasteading will improve migratory choices?

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