Playing the Indian Card

Saturday, September 09, 2017

The Socialist Response to Hurricane Harvey

Had a lengthy discussion with a bunch of leftists over on Facebook.

It was prompted by a post from Bernie Sanders arguing, in effect, that Hurricane Harvey was an argument for socialism. After all, can we expect free enterprise to clean up after the storm?

A reasonable point, if debatable. A lot of businesses actually are chipping in, on their own bat. Given a free market, it is actually in their interests to do so. Good PR, good advertising. There is a lot of talk too about the “Cajun Navy.” As at Dunkirk, private citizens do seem able to mobilize to help one another in a real crisis without government being involved. At least, they do in a relatively healthy society. Granted that government should be involved at such times, Hurricane Harvey has not been an obvious model of the efficiency of government over private approaches.

Then someone chipped in in the comments that free enterprise was responsible for the hurricane in the first place.

This seemed to me obviously delusional. So they never get hit by hurricanes in Cuba?

He actually replied, “but look at Canada! Look at Sweden!”

Indeed, there are no hurricanes in Canada or Sweden. There may, on the other hand, be something other than socialism that they have in common, that might account for this. Need a hint? Check a map. Moreover, one thing they obviously do not have in common is socialism. Canada is less “socialist” in even the “social welfare” sense than most of Western Europe. If Canada is “socialist,” essentially any country other than the US would appear to be “socialist.” Sweden is more or less indistinguishable from that pack. It is a quaint urban myth that Sweden is “socialist.” Sweden has been moving to the right for a generation or more.

But others chimed in, and in agreement with this first comment. Even granted that government cannot control the weather, they argued that the damage was far more extensive than it should have been, because Houston has poor zoning regulations, and a lot of people had built dangerously; and then not bothered with insurance.

“Houston is famous for having virtually no city planning or zoning. Flood planes, build baby build. Insurance, who needs it. This is the free market loading up on risk. Well, the bets been called and it's time to pay up.”

The beauties of urban planning. 

Seems like a backwards argument to me. Surely this particular moral hazard is worse given more government intervention. Why indeed bother with insurance if you can be reasonably confident that, if the worst comes, the government will come in and bail you out with relief money? Wouldn’t people in fact be more cautious about such things precisely when their own money is on the line?

Ah, they replied, government is good for protecting people from things like their own greed.

“The government is wise, well intentioned and takes the long view. Therefore it won't let its citizens take unreasonable risks. It creates things like regulations, plans and standards to protect people from their worst desires, greed being one of them.”

Does that sound right? Wait a minute. Why should government be wiser at this, or less greedy, than the individuals involved? Surely only if we can confidently assume that government officials are significantly smarter than the general population, and significantly more moral. Not just a little smarter and a little more moral—a lot more. Because their special magical wonderfullness must overcome the probability that the individual has a better idea of their own wants and needs, and better knowledge of the immediate situation on the ground.

By what mechanism might this be possible?

In fact, it would seem that the risk of humans being greedy is exactly why the free market is the better approach, where it is practical. In a free market, if anyone gets greedy, they lose. People stop buying from them, or stop selling to them, or stop working for them. It with a socialist system, in which the government has enough power to reach in and tinker more or less at will, that greed gets free rein. Checked ultimately, in a democracy, at the ballot box, but that is a weak, infrequent, and very blunt method.

But, the leftists replied, civil servants are chosen by competitive examination, ensuring that they are in fact smarter than the general population.

I cannot quote them there. I find they later deleted this comment.

This is, certainly, the best idea in choosing members of a civil service. It is the old Confucian idea. But there are reasons why it does not work that well in practice—in China, it fell apart about as soon as it had to deal with the Western free market traders on its borders.

Not, mind you, that it is actually followed in Canada or the US in the first place. This “competitive civil service exam” seems to be a myth. I have several times been hired to essentially civil service positions, and there was no rigorous process involved. It seemed pretty ad hoc each time. Competitive exams may be used for some high positions, but not for civil service positions generally. And even when they are, I note that the current practice in the Canadian civil service, officially, is not to hire on merit. The requirement is only that managers hire someone who is competent for the position. Beyond that, if nothing else, “affirmative action” trumps merit. And that leaves a wide latitude allowing managers to exercise personal preferences, cronyism, or self-interest.

As a result, we can best assume that the average civil servant is of average intelligence. He or she is chosen more or less at random from the general population.

But even given rigorous tests and qualification requirements, as Confucianism used, there is an immediate and seemingly insurmountable problem: how do you qualify the people who wrote the tests in the first place? If they are themselves randomly chosen, just the guys who happened to be there, there is no telling whether the tests are meaningful. Confucians based theirs on the personal prestige of Confucius, who set at least the curriculum. You almost need to be able to appeal to some figure like that, and their own prestige is a matter of faith. Not that faith is a bad thing. But it is banned from consideration in the Canadian or US civil service apparatus.

Confucian civil service exam, Song Dynasty

The second problem—and this bedevilled the Confucian system—is that you have to be able to rely on the moral uprightness of those who give and mark the test. Without some supervision—and who then supervises the supervision?—they are entirely likely, in the natural run of human affairs, to cook results to help friends, those most like themselves, or those prepared to slip them something on the side. So that the qualification process is ultimately dubious on these grounds alone.

Confucianism assumed, to counter this, that Confucians would all have signed onto and would honestly practice a well-known code of ethical conduct. That was their defense against this; and that was the true core of the Confucian system. And it was not a strong defense, as it turned out. Not strong enough. But without a similar strongly shared sense of values and of honour, without a specifically religious mandate, no Canadian or American system can hope to do even as well.

Which brings us to our second problem: government will do better than the private sector only if we can assume that civil servants are more moral, less inclined to do things out of self-interest, less motivated by greed, than the general population. Otherwise, instead of tending reliably to the best interests of all, they will may exploit their powers to benefit themselves. If they are no more inclined to do so than the general population, they are still a worse solution than leaving it to the general population.

A leftist respondent replied, that so long as you pay civil servants an adequate salary, they will have no motivation to look to their own self-interest. They will do what is best for all.

A common socialist assumption, I guess. But surely the same assumption must then apply to businessmen, entrepreneurs, and corporate executives. They are already well-paid, the lot of them. So it stands to reason that they will always do what is best for everyone, and never act otherwise, without any need for supervision, checks, regulations, or balances.

So why have government regulation in the first place?

To be clear, there is a case for government regulation. Just not this one. An example: doping in sports. Given a completely free market, each athlete faces a cruel choice: either dope up, and risk their health, or not dope up, and risk their career against those who might. Accordingly, it is sometimes in everyone’s interest to have government, or some overseeing body, regulate.

But a more important issue is that it is always in the self-interest of those responsible for regulating to add more regulations. Each new rule increases their power, and their opportunities, if they are so inclined, for graft. Extra regulations will also find support among the regulated: for those already on the playing field, each new regulation increases the bar to entry, protecting their interests against competition.

Let me now point out that, without a strong religious mandate, any “Confucian” system of choosing the supposed best and brightest will actually work to produce a civil service morally worse than the general population, instead of one morally better. Making it that much more important to keep government out of any areas where it is not truly needed.

Because as soon as such a system, relying as it must on everyone behaving with strict morality in order to work, is morally breached, it actually selects for immorality. Once “everybody knows” within the organization that the selection process is bogus, or at least once those in charge of screening know it, as they would have to, it becomes in everyone’s interest inside the organization that any genuinely moral people, or at least any genuinely moral people of intelligence, be kept out. They could ruin everything! Everyone could lose their job!

We see this situation now, I submit, in our schools, in our universities, in our media, as well as in the civil service proper. I suspect it is common in the professions generally. It is only part of the awful price we pay jettisoning our traditional Judeo-Christian moral code. We started to do that in the late 19th Century, and it has been accelerating in recent years.

I’m afraid my friends on the left do not even have a case that government, unlike business or individuals, “takes the long view.” This is actually a fundamental problem with democracy. Each of us as individuals takes the long view: we are concerned about our own future for our natural life span, and, if we have children, for indefinite generations to come. This is the strength, too, of a monarchical system.

Democracy sacrifices that. While civil servants may count on job security until retirement, this still leaves them with less skin in the game, or no more, than the average citizen. And their political overlords, to whom and to whose interests they are largely answerable, have much less cause for forward thinking than this. For a US congressman, the natural horizon is the next election, in just two years. Granted, they may get reelected. Who knows? The president, chief of the civil service, has no reason to look more than eight years ahead—after that point, he cannot be reelected in any case.

By contrast, the typical corporate executive can count currently on holding his position for an average of 9.7 years. And most big corporations give executives stock options, ensuring substantial reason to tend to the longer future of the company.

For an entrepreneur, the horizon is a lifetime, plus descendants until Doomsday. That is where the real forward thinking will come. By comparison with a Steve Jobs, an Elon Musk, or a Jeff Bezos, government is always mired in the moment.

I hate to think of myself as "on the right." Ideology is a replacement for thought. I just want to find the best solutions to problems. But it seems to me that folks on the left, if sincere, must just be terribly naive. Or themselves in government.

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