Wednesday, November 28, 2007


People believe things for a variety of reasons, some pretty good, others not so good. I think in the pre-renaissance days people tended to have a strongly conservative bias. That is, if things had been done a certain way for a long time, that was considered to be strong evidence that there were good reasons for doing things that way (even if nobody remembers what the reasons were) , that change is likely to be for the worse, and that going back to ancient ways is likely to be an improvement over modern ways.

Conversely, in modern times there seems to be a what I call a "progressive bias". By this I mean not a belief that all change is good, but that after a change has been adopted for some time, the fact that the change has occurred is strong evidence that it constitutes an improvement. Those who advocate undoing some particular change are accused of wanting to "turn back the clock", as if all social and technological change were interwoven to the extent that one couldn't possibly overturn Roe vs Wade without also putting lead back in the gasoline and eliminating the personal computer.

I think it's beyond reasonable dispute that increases in scientific and technological knowledge in general represent a genuine improvement. But the case of social change is much less clear. Certainly some social changes are for the better, and some for the worse, but we won't necessarily agree as to which are which, and it's not at all clear to me that there's a strong tendency either way.

This is not to say that social change is anything like random. Over the last few centuries there has been a general tendency towards centralization of authority in many countries. One major reason for this is that a strong central government is necessary for fighting modern wars. Another is essentially Parkinson's law: in the absence of an external counterbalancing force, entities tend to increase their own jurisdictions.

There are major drawbacks to excessive centralization. It forces everyone to accept "one size fits all" rules that don't really fit anyone particularly well. People sometimes talk of states as being like "laboratories", but I think this is a very bad metaphor. It seems to imply that the purpose of "experiments" in these "laboratories" is to discover a "right" way of doing things, which will later be copied by the other states, either voluntarily or through federal legislation.

Referring to moving to a different jurisdiction as "voting with your feet" is an even worse metaphor. In terms of actually improving one's own life, voting is among the crudest and least ineffectual means available. Ineffectual because your individual vote is highly unlikely to ever decide an issue, crude because it requires enforcing your own preferences on everyone else in your jurisdiction. One might as well refer to undergoing surgery as "loading your shotgun with scalpels and shooting yourself".

A typical example: I think most Californians are glad that casino gambling is not legal in most of the state, even ones that are also glad that it is legal in Nevada if they feel the desire. Personally I would just as soon see it legal anywhere, but it makes no practical difference to me either way. I'm not a libertarian, I don't think that people who may have problems resisting the temptation to gamble are being unreasonable if they want to live in communities where there is not legal public gambling. But it seems to me almost beyond reasonable dispute that most people will be best off if regulations of this sort are kept at as local a level as possible. I'll probably write more about this in a future post.

Changes in laws aren't just caused by political forces, though, but by changes in norms. Earlier generations were, in general, harder, tougher than mine, and I think the next couple generations will be still softer. "Nanny state" regulations are becoming more common, among other reasons, because to oppose them is to be seen as lacking compassion. Even arguing against a policy on pragmatic grounds, while fully supporting the policy's aims, can be seen as lacking compassion. Caring is more important than results. Personally I don't see this change as being a good thing.

One can't derive a pure ought from a pure is, of course, but even if one subscribes to modern norms, one might want to consider the possibility that the true reason for this is simply that they are modern norms, that they are acquired from society without much questioning, and that accepting them brings approval and challenging them brings hostility.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work, George.

-Sam Boogliodemus