Are We *Competent* To Use Government Power?

I have had a couple weeks of absolutely delightful “talking point” conversations with people on Twitter. These have been with several people from the left and right of the modern American political spectrum.

I call them TP convos because they almost exclusively consist of things like, “Marijuana causes insanity” and “Virtue in the People is caused by laws from the govt” on the right, and “Corp greed is destroying America”, “We should equalize all wages” and “The 99% are powerless against big business so lets give lots MORE power to Washington” on the left.

These are really fun because they don’t require much mental exertion on my part and I figure I might be able to get through to people whose depth of thought/research on these topics seems to run rather shallow. Now I don’t say that as a criticism however, I naturally don’t think people SHOULD necessarily spend much effort becoming better acquainted with these issues. Being “informed” in even a marginal sense is a fairly intensive and significant investment of time and energy. Don’t most of us have better things to do?

However, what I am left pondering in more seriousness, is how few people seem to realize they have a shallow understanding of many topics. In our lives we very regularly have to make assumptions, work from incomplete pictures, act from faith rather than knowledge, in other words, most of our day, every day, is made up of a series of our best guesses. That seems fine because individually we balance our certainty (or lack thereof) against the potential outcomes and what we will invest in the action. I guess that Campbell Ave is my quickest route to school, but if there happens to be an accident, it may take me a few minutes longer or I hop over to a different road. In this case the consequences of error in my choice are shallow even when my knowledge is relatively deep (the route I take every day). That seems intuitively rational.

What left me wondering today however, are the deep consequences involved in so many people NOT seeing their own shallow depth of knowledge in areas of political action. Or if they do see it, not limiting the risk entailed in their ignorance by constraining the range of political actions they will endorse.

We have lots of political principles for which there is extensive history and deep knowledge. Freedom of association and conscience, economic liberty, individual choice, strong rule of law, limited government with fiscal restraint… These all have long and proven track records of contributing to human welfare and and flourishing.

Then we have lots of political theories for which there is a weak or non-existent empirical base and possibly strong and well-supported counter-hypotheses. Substance prohibitions, wage floors and other price fixing, trade protectionism, expansive military interventionism and “exploratory” defense policy, extravagant “stimulatory” deficit spending…

If these were personal decisions, we would look at the first group and be willing to invest a lot, we would walk those paths confidently even though they might not be absolutely assured. We would likely put our faith and best guess on those ideas because we understood the deep consequences. That those consequences require a rational person to put their bets on the option with the highest, PROVEN, likelihood of success.

What shocks and dismays me, are how many people, on the left AND right, who continually and adamantly lay their bets down on the second group of speculative, uncertain, risky propositions when the consequences for society run so deep.

At the minimum, people should notice that if their arguments are just a set of talking points they read over the weekend in an email from their preferred advocacy group or heard from their favorite one-sided cable news pundit, maybe they aren’t in the best position to support aggressive, experimental, political policy positions.

If you were investing your retirement savings and you weren’t a full time investment expert, do you lean towards the speculative pork belly or currency play? Probably not. A rational person understands the limits of their understanding and likely goes with the conservative, proven track record of low cost diversified mutual funds. And even more, when that crafty salesperson comes around trying to tell you they have a no-risk, all-reward deal just perfect for someone such as yourself, the rational person can likely sniff out the cheat.

I’m just wondering if we can do a better job of understanding our own limited understanding, admit the hubris in pretending we can plan and design around the influence of human self-interest, and start slamming the door in the faces of the politicians who offer us the “too-good-to-be-true” deals.

The conservative, proven track record of economic freedom and individual liberty seem a secure place to put our faith for the long term prosperity of ourselves and our neighbors. While the flashy, untested claims of politicians whose only incentive is getting 50% + 1 vote in an election less than 2 yrs away, seem a poor object for our trust.

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