Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Socratic wisdom and political thinking

An idea that occurred to me only recently in this form, but is certainly represented in the work of Hayek, is that, in considering public policy, it is as important to firmly establish ones ignorance as well as ones knowledge. I believe much of what underlies classical liberal and libertarian thinking is the recognition of how one acquires knowledge, and how this knowledge can and can't be broadly applied. Thus it is important to consider what knowledge central governments don't and never can posses, such as the important time and place knowledge that allows individuals in the market to make intelligent decisions. These individuals also have limited knowledge of the market as a whole, and this is why the price system is so vital; it provides an easily understandable gauge of various complex market conditions.

Any person can also recognize that there is no simple, universal formula for the good life, and thus, if we care about fostering well being, there is a strong case to be made that the role of any central authority shouldn't be to establish and enforce such a formula, but rather to remove obstacles in the way of the creation for varying lifestyles. This, I think, is the central argument in favor of freedom as the chief virtue to be promoted by governments, and it rests largely on the recognition of limited knowledge.

Socrates' great wisdom lay in the knowledge of his own ignorance. This lesson, while widely recognized, has not taken hold among many intellectuals. Part of the reason why so many intellectuals oppose capitalism lies in their tendency to look for universal ideas. In this they follow Plato more than Socrates. Socrates was not a universal skeptic. He understood that knowledge was first and foremost a process, one which required constant dialogue with others. The case for liberalism (as always here, of the classical, non-American sort) lies in this principle. The principles it does hold as universal are the prerequisites for the open pursuit of knowledge and happiness. It recongizes the limits of knowledge, but also what makes it possible to make this a practical concept.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Musings on the latest scandal

To the few of you following this blog, my apologies for the lack of recent posting. There certainly has been no shortage of subjects to write about of late. I'm working to have something intelligent to say about current events. My first stab will be the scandal surrounding lobbyists and certain representatives in Washington. I have to state here that I'm still informing myself on the details of this matter, but I thought I'd offer some basic ideas about what this latest kafuffle may mean for the state of our government.

I doubt that any thoughtful commentators on government affairs will be confident that any reforms enacted will do much to address the problem as most people see it: deeply entrenched special interest exploiting access to and financing of legislators in order to influence policy tailored to their narrow interests. Without oversight from a vigilant electorate, politicians have little reason to hold themselves more accountable to their constituencies, much less to enshrine a system to enforce accountability.

I count myself among the skeptics. Because the government enjoys such broad powers to distribute wealth (not its own, of course), the incentive to influence government policy is great.
The problem, as many see it, is the involvement of large sums of money, which are used to wine, dine and otherwise court the favor of law makers. In principle, I see no problem with prohibiting this kind of thing as a matter of professional ethics. I suspect, however, that a ban would only drive these dealings underground, just as a prohibition of other highly attractive practices, such as drugs or prostitution, has done little to actually curb these activities.

As long as government is in the business of deciding winners and losers in the marketplace, the incentive for individuals are groups to gain favor by dubious means with lawmakers will be too great to halt. Even if giving direct favors is not involved, interest groups will still invest in mobilizing voters around tribalist credos, smear campaigns, and other means to persuade a sufficient number of voters that the narrow interests of the group are also the in the interest of voters as a whole.

While it might be described as democratic, even publicly endorsed plans to redistribute wealth or regular commerce and other behavior suffer from removing vital time and place knowledge and drives markets.

For years some have proposed complete public financing of elections as the only permanent solution to our ills. How placing the selection of viable political candidates completely into the hands of government will promote greater democracy is honestly beyond me. If anyone arguing this case has anything positive to say about Howard Dean's or Ralph Nader's recent presidential campaigns, they have already severely undermined their argument. Public financing of elections, it seems to me, would be a perfect example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater; in removing government accountability to "special interests", you also remove most of the accountability to the voters in general. Public financing will inevitably favor incumbents and the party establishment, and supporters of grassroots movements should take a hard look at these proposals. At the very best, they represent a substantial trade-off.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I tend to think that only a government with substantially fewer powers will be reasonably immune to corruption. A government required to focus on maintaining basic common law principles will attract public servants suited for that task. What resources go where, and how one goes about exploiting them, is done most efficiently, and, I think, most democratically within free market conditions. The market may produce both winners and losers, but at least they are chosen by consensual agreements, rather than by a body whose choices, at best, pander to the most well organized portion of its constituency, and are enforced by its monopoly on legitimate coercive power.