Friday, 10 October 2014

Good Intentions Are Overrated

There is a lot of talk about this year's joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Ms. Malala Yousafzai, but amidst all of it, I cannot find any information about what she has actually done. My ignorance is as deep and vast as the ocean, so maybe she actually has real accomplishments, but what appears to be normally mentioned as her main feats are talks and writings which advocate more education for girls in Pakistan and elsewhere. Now there is nothing wrong with any of this (maybe education is overrated and so she proposes bad policy, but she has the right to do that as far as I'm concerned), but I do not see why it should be worth £860,000 or $1.4 million (then again, the error-prone gentlemen in Oslo have, as far as I know, not violated anyone's rights by awarding the Prize to a great many feeble choices, so I guess that would make it OK).

Yet, awards like this devalue peace. Ms. Yousafzai wants to be a politician. If my impression is correct that she has never actually accomplished anything, never achieved any of the change she frequently talks about (which is OK for a seventeen-year-old), then her career choice means she will continue doing that forever. Remarkable statement? Not at all! If politicians were all about changing the world (for the better or for the worse), we would see a lot of policy changes whenever a new party comes into power. We quite palpably see extremely little of that sort (gated example here), meaning that politicians probably do what popular opinion, or some function of it, tells them to do, rather than influence it. That is why Ronald Reagan said that politicians have a great deal in common with workers in the world's oldest profession.

Ms. Yousafzai has spoken in favour of education for girls which is about as platitudinous as it gets unless one gets into the messy details about the ethics of craving positive rights, or about the economics of third-world education for girls, which I believe, suggests that it reduces domestic violence, but fails to impact policy views or voting intentions (some evidence here). But the yokelry and even most of the gelehrten do not go this deep and tend to think in simplified terms such as "education-good". Not that they are mentally defective; they very likely only lack incentives to think more deeply. So Ms. Yousafzai's campaign for girls' education hardly needs to influence anyone. Things are different in Pakistan, of course, and her very brave outspoken style would not always be platitudinous there, but she is rewarded and seems to be best liked where her words offend no-one and are met with disagreement by rather few (though possibly by many who are well-versed on the issues, I don't know). Would she have received the peace prize if she had campaigned against, say, agricultural subsidies or the minimum wage? Their abolition would surely benefit the world while avoiding the issues of positive rights and difficult cost-benefit analyses, but unlike education they do not enjoy widespread support.

Consequently, if Mr. Jagland and the other members of the Peace Prize Committee are really serious about peace, they should award the price to people or organizations who are likely to bring about more of it in this world. They have got some choices right, like Norman Borlaug and possibly the one to Muhammad Yunus (the evidence on the impact of microcredit is mixed, though I believe theoretically their case is a good one), but this one, the one to the EU (for preserving peace in Western Europe since the end of WWII - have they ever heard of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy?), the one to POTUS, to Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev and a vast array of others, can do absolutely nothing for peace. Professor David R Henderson of EconLog has remarked that some of these prizes could actually promote war, since for a politician to be a peace dove it helps if he has first got himself into a violent conflict.

Again, I don't mean to say that Ms. Yousafzai has not accomplished anything and she is clearly a brave young woman for being outspoken in the face of threats; I merely say that I have not heard of anything she has done. I have looked, but I could have missed it. What seems to be a much more defensible proposition than that she has accomplished great things is that she means well. But given their beliefs, everybody means well. The real trick is to actually do something good. Certainly my own accomplishments are very few, but if my impression of Ms. Yousafzai is correct, maybe mine are more numerous than are hers. If the prize money is taxed, I'm hoping to receive a quiet ceremony next year so that it will be easier to hide the income from the tax authorities.

No comments:

Post a Comment