Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Winning by making things worse

If you block the responsiveness of a system to change so it becomes increasingly dysfunctional, you can point to that dysfunction as evidence for the need for change. In other words, in certain circumstances, the worse you make things, the stronger your case looks.

For example, if you make creating new dams politically untenable, then investment in water infrastructure will not keep up with growth in population. So the society becomes more vulnerable to drought. The resulting water restrictions are then paraded as evidence of the need for restrictive environmental controls. The fact that your hostility blocked the responsiveness of policy to changing population does not undermine your case, it reinforces it. You win by making things worse. The effect can also be generated—or magnified—by blocking water prices from reflecting actual demand.

Similarly, the obvious response to population spreading into rural areas is to clear trees and keep down build-up of flammable undergrowth. If environmental controls—based on a green aesthetic—ban tree clearing and block forest management by back-burning, rural and semi-rural areas have increased vulnerability to bushfires. So any resulting disaster can be touted as showing the need for strict environmental controls due to an increasingly dangerous environment. Once again, you win by making things worse.
Of course, this relies on people not being called on the actual effects of their policies. But if you have established that supporting such policies mark one as a “good person”, this makes such “calling” both less likely and much harder. That is, if such beliefs have become status markers, then a lot of people (including people in the media) have a vested interested in not “calling” you. For, in such circumstances, the moral status of one is the moral status of all. All those in the “club of the virtuous” have an interest in maintaining the value of the markers of virtue. This works to discourage awkward evidence from having effect in the public arena: it certainly discourages the “club of the virtuous” from examining their own actions and beliefs.

It is not only environmental policy that works this way. Any situation where there is delayed causation, so that the actual effects of actions are obscure, can operate this way. For example, starving a system of capital investment and/or maintenance so that they service deteriorates so that the drop in patronage can be used as an excuse to further cut spending on the system.

This is even more so if:
(1) beliefs are status markers establishing a “club of the virtuous”,
(2) there is an underlying presumption that the existing system is dysfunctional, so any dysfunction is blamed on “the system”, not actions you have done or supported within it, and
(3) moral legitimacy is established by one’s intentions, so failure do not detract from your legitimating intentions.
Such a situation is rife for “winning by making this worse”.

All the more because this is in no sense a conspiracy. People playing such games do not do it deliberately, they are acting out the presumptions of their worldview. Bad outcomes reinforce their world view, since it is based on a presumption of dysfunction (of markets, of capitalism, of private action, etc). That presumption then legitimates their intention to change things—particularly by having more resources controlled by people like them.

In the case of indigenous policy, having destroyed previous responses to the interaction between indigenous people and the mainstream (missions and pastoral work) and replaced it by mechanisms legitimated by their intentions, not their responsiveness to circumstances, any disastrous outcomes (of which there have been plenty) can just be blamed on “racism”. The cited dysfunction that justified the disastrous policies in the first place.

If you justify your preferred policies in terms of opposition to a fundamentally very successful social system, one is likely to end up embracing a lot of failure.

Consider using official discretions to limit the use of land for housing. By limiting responsiveness to increased demand for housing, that increases prices, which adds the demand for inflation-beating-assets to the demand for houses, which creates housing bubbles. Add in official actions to encourage more lending to the riskier (in part because housing has become more expensive), and you make the financial system more vulnerable to stress. Once that vulnerability is manifested, it becomes “a useful crisis”.

When things are obviously working poorly, the obvious response is to take actions to “fix” the problem. In a market economy, regulatory failure manifests as market outcomes. Blaming “markets” is an obvious and simple thing to do. Explaining the effects of regulatory failure requires telling a longer causal story, which puts one at a rhetorical disadvantage.

Hence one can win by making things worse.

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