Abhinav Singh has a piece on arrogance of policymaking.
We are surrounded by people who want to make the world a better place; where nobody has to go hungry, work in poor conditions, be afraid of assault or sleep in the cold. Some also go far enough to want to ensure that nobody should have his feelings hurt, of course with good intention. With the same goal, of a better world, we find each other discussing the means to achieve our common paradise. These discussions and the variety of responses by well wishing individuals often leave us with an overwhelming sense of complexity of the problems – too many variables to take into account, numerous decision modes with several alternative options and each option with its own tradeoffs. It’s a mess!
Policy making, even the most sophisticated version, tries to nudge people to behave in ‘better’ or ‘socially desirable’ ways. These might be sending more children to school, creating more jobs, curbing ‘vices’ like smoking or supplying food to the poor. Every man has to make his life, but the policy maker seems to want to take away every action of thinking off his shoulder and either show him a carrot or bring him the milk. From cradle to grave, as it is often said, he wants to take care that no man makes ‘mistakes’ and lives a life which is ‘lowly’ in its time. Intellectuals pursue these positions of policy making and learn all theories of individual response to incentives and cook up some policy suggestions of their
Adam Smith, in his less popular book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, spoke about the ‘Man of System’ who would be so enamoured of his own system that he would impose it on others without much regard for their preferences or, for their moral autonomy:
“The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.”
A policy, after all, is a decision about how to use the government’s power. You either ban X or subsidise Y. You decrease the interest rate for home loans, but increase the tax on the ultra-rich. It is the manifestation of collectivist thought; that there is something called the ‘greater good’ and that people in government know what that is. Individual plans are inferior because he only has his own interest in mind, while the ‘greater good’ advances the prosperity of the society. The individual is the means while the society is the centre of all discussion. Hence, if the government deems that more schools is what ‘greater good’ demands, it takes our money to spend on building schools, paying teachers’ salaries and gives us more schools. 5 years later, the ‘greater good’ might demand more airports, then more electricity and so on. The government sets the priorities every once in a while, knowing what is for the ‘greater good’, or at least having a rough idea.
It is a necessary evil. Or an evil necessity? What is the difference?