Sunday, 4 November 2018

The world is not an engineering problem - an argument against technocracy


Chris Dillow has an interesting blog post about the problems with what he calls 'liberal technocracy':
This urge to express all arguments in consequentialist terms is an admission that liberal technocracy has won. The only acceptable arguments for any policy, it is believed, are consequentialist ones – ideally, along the lines of making us materially better off. And everybody seems to accept Mill’s harm principle, and thus argue for bans on the – often elusive – grounds that the activity in question does indeed impose harms onto others.
You only need look at the new found 'neoliberalism' of the Adam Smith Institute to see the onward march of this "what works is what's right" approach to policy-making. Dillow speaks of how some things are, as it were, felt rather than analysed - the "best case for Brexit is an intrinsic one – that it’ll give us a sense of independence and sovereignty" and when advocates try to set out economic utilitarian gains from leaving their argument weakens. I once wrote a similar thing about Scottish independence:
It's the idea of Scotland in that quote from Henry Scott Riddell's 'Scotland Yet' - not about some idea of superiority, certainly no hatred or dislike, just a message of pride, joy and love for the place. And the nation - that thing we try to define with grand words - is all those who share those emotions, that association.

When Kipling wrote about men having small hearts it was about these feelings - we cannot love everywhere and we cannot expect everyone to love the place we love. But we can share that love with those who do and that is nationhood. No government, no kings, no lords, no oil, no First Minister. Just people placing their boots in the soil and saying "this is my country and I'll work with you to make it better".

If you want independence for reason of blood, for reason of hatred or for reason of greed then you deserve to lose. But if you want independence for pride, joy and love of the place that is Scotland then - for what it's worth - you have my blessing and I wish you well.
The idea here is something we've lost from our thinking, one of those virtues Deirdre McCloskey writes about, the idea of faith, that there are things we have to take as felt not as demonstrated by science. This rejection of maximising utility as the only purpose of public policy is perhaps the single most important thing in McCloskey's triology on bourgeois virtues - that ideas matter as much as science does. And it is true since the things we feel cannot be defined by utilitarian or consequentialist argument - here's economist Don Boudreaux:
There are no scientific ‘solutions’ to society's problems. This reality is so in part because in many cases people legitimately disagree over what arranged changes are desirable and which are undesirable. For example, some people join me in celebrating marijuana legalization; other people disagree sincerely and deeply even if there is no disagreement over the predicted health and behavioral effects of marijuana use. There is no scientific ‘solution’ to this disagreement or to any other disagreement that turns on differences in values and preferences.
This reminds me of P J O'Rourke speaking of his politics - "I'm personally conservative" says O'Rourke but believes government, public policy, should be as libertarian as possible. So a man who believes drinking and smoking are sinful can, at the same time as holding these views, support the liberalisation of their use. But, it is more likely that such a person for reasons of faith - belief without evidence - will oppose liberal drinking laws and even propose stricter temperance or prohibition.

Back at university we coined the term "soft loo-paper conservatism" to describe the approach to student politics where the only care was the good management of the student union and its services to the student body (such as, hence the phrase, insisting on better toilet paper in the union buildings' loos). Management was all that matters - Boudreaux quotes a cynical comment from James Buchanan on economists and public policy:
Once he has defined his social welfare function, his public interest, he can advance solutions to all of society’s economic ills, solutions that government, as deus ex machina, is, of course, expected to implement.
The problem is that politics just doesn't work like this - people have views, felt experiences, faith meaning that the answer might be a different one from that produced through the expert's systems. Nor can we ever be perfectly sure that the expert's answer isn't sub-optimal - there are plenty of examples of technocratic solutions to perceived problems that have failed or, in solving one problem, merely acted to create three new ones. Raising the duty on fags seems to work as a means of reducing their consumption but there's a point at which it creates an opportunity for criminal arbitrage - the cost of making a cigarette is so much lower that the sale price it's worth the risk for the criminal to create a black market.

It seems right that government should seek the 'right' solutions in its policy-making but this assumes that there is such a solution and, indeed, that the negatives of such a policy don't outweigh the benefits of the solution. After all, if we take the utilitarian argument in its entirety, it begins to make the case for a sort of Huxley-esque benign authoritarianism, a Singapore-on-Steroids. For my part, I prefer things a little messy because not only are the solutions so often dependent on coercion but they also require that the ordinary citizen's faith and feelings are denied. Maximising utility seems a good thing but it is not the main reason why people do things like set up business, create charities, build village halls, paint, sing, create or innovate. Technocracy treats the world as an engineering problem when it's an unfolding story, explorers in a dense jungle not white-coated scientists in a laboratory.

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6 comments:

Daniel said...

I dunno. I quite like having a low child mortality rate and the erradication of killer deseases. Technocracy and treating society as an engineering problem has provided a good base line in sorting out some really quite dreadful parts of life. It is much easier to think about life and persue your own path through it when you are healthy and have wealth.

Peter said...

For example, some people join me in celebrating marijuana legalization; other people disagree sincerely and deeply even if there is no disagreement over the predicted health and behavioral effects of marijuana use.

Well, it's one thing if I feel a certain way about something. But in order to create a law that is supposed to apply to everyone equally and therefore control others' behavior regardless of their personal preferences/feelings/beliefs on the matter, I should not at all be able to MERELY depend on my belief to create such a law- It should be required that (as lawmaker) I have empirical evidence backing up my law.

Anonymous said...

Nationalism sounds like a wonderful romantic thing, about loving your land and your people. Yet it inevitably rises up during times of fear, leads to authoritarian leaders, stupid economic decisions, even war and makes life for immigrants hell.

Many people felt that Brexit was a great idea. Now that the consequences are becoming clear, the majority feel the opposite! That should tell you how fickle feelings are and why we don't make major decisions based on them, but somehow it only strengthens your belief..



Matthew Williams said...

I enjoyed following your thoughts through this article, Simon. I would very much agree that the world is a place that we experience and interact with through a subjective lense; these feelings cannot be explained by engineers.
What I think you're missing is that the world you know, the job you have, the society you live in is the product of a human approach dominated by the scientific method. Technology is simply an expression of knowledge gained through exercising the scientific method against the world we live in.
It is important to remember that we are unpredictable beings. It is also important to remember that the human condition is to strive for control over one's environment - and there is no better way to do this than by following the scientific method (and by extension, creating technology). Even Kipling's view of nationhood is a product of a technocratic world in which nations (an entirely made up notion) exist for the benefit of control over one's environment.

Bamboozle said...

Your whole point leading up to "The idea here is something we've lost from our thinking, one of those virtues Deirdre McCloskey writes about, the idea of faith, that there are things we have to take as felt not as demonstrated by science. " I could not disagree with more.

This idea of nationalism is what leads to wars, and de-humanizing those from other nations. I wish i could express how much i vehemently disagree with your position, and will be tremendously happy the day "emotion and feelings" is trumped by "facts and figures" in the political sphere. Out with the lawyers and art history majors, in with the scientists please.

Simon Cooke said...


No intention to defend nationalism (was just an exemplar) - by way of further reference, here's a quote from economist Frank Knight on the subject under consideration:

"Since a fetish of “scientific method” in the study of society is one of the two most pernicious forms of romantic folly that are current among the educated, this theme ought to be developed at a length which is impossible here…. “Science,” in the meaning of the natural sciences, can of course do something toward both explaining and directing social events; and nothing is further from my purpose here than any belittling of the importance of ethics. What I insist upon is an understanding of the meaning and limitations of simple or statable principles in both areas. In the naive form in which both doctrines, scientism and moralism, are usually preached, both are antithetical to the principle or ideal of freedom; they imply, and if taken seriously would lead to, absolute authoritarianism."