Sunday, October 8, 2017

The aggregation of unanticipated consequences

From chapter 17, "Beyond Politics,"  in Thinking About Politics:  American Government in Associational Perspective.

We thus arrive at the very heart of a key problem in political analysis. Abraham Kaplan has written:
[T]he wholesale imputation of motives generates the so-called "conspiratorial theory" of society: whatever happens, it is because someone wanted it to happen.
. . . There is nothing "pseudo" about such explanations: they are just manifestly false, overlooking the enormous role of unanticipated and even unintended consequences of most actions, to say nothing of natural processes apart from our actions altogether. What sustains these explanations is not evidence but the secondary gain of personification. . . . "The Hoover depression" thus constitutes, not merely a distinguishing label, like the "Victorian age," but an implied assignment of responsibility, as in "the Napoleonic Wars." Footnote 19

As Kaplan indicates, many people find it easier to blame the world's political troubles on the machinations of a few highly evil men rather than trying to understand what is happening in all its complexity. Thus many people found a motion picture such as Dr. Strangelove, which implies that the cold war and the threat of the total destruction of civilization are the fault of a few very bad men, to be highly realistic. Another film about the end of the world by nuclear war, On the Beach, was regarded as sentimental and soft-minded because its characters were all basically decent people. But as Herbert Butterfield has put it,

Civilization may be wrecked without any spectacular crimes or criminals but by constant petty breaches of faith and minor complicities on the part of men generally considered very nice people. Footnote 20
Although Butterfield sees men as creatures who make history, he maintains that:

The pattern of the history making which we shall carry out will not be the product of my will or of yours or indeed of anybody else's, but will represent in one sense rather what might almost seem to be a compounding of these wills or at least of their effects--something which sometimes no single person will either have intended or anticipated. Footnote 21

Butterfield is probably quite correct as far as he goes, but he would probably not deny that at least some of the connections between apparently innocuous individual actions and social catastrophes or disturbances may be discernible, at least after several recurrences of the particular catastrophe, and that a general awareness of the causal relationship may make it possible for individuals to modify their actions slightly in the future so as to avoid further examples of these particular disasters. In fact, one of the fundamental tasks of the social scientist may well be to try to sort out the interconnections between individual actions and social consequences and to make enough people aware of them so that they may act more successfully in the future. The troops can break step crossing bridges.
Hans Morgenthau, a distinguished political scientist, was therefore being very ambiguous when he said that:

The intellectual possibility of a theory of international relations depended upon the recognition that the relations among nations are not something which is given to man, which has to be accepted as given, and which he must cope with as best he can, but rather that the relations among nations have been created by the will of man and therefore can be manipulated and changed and reformed by the will of man. Footnote 22

It would seem that Morgenthau's "will of man" is a very unclear concept. What he may really be trying to say is that to a great extent relations among nations have been the result of the aggregation of unanticipated consequences. In this sense international relations, and other political institutions, can be described as the unwilled result of willful actions by individuals who are pursuing other ends. They are thus an intermediate case between the physical universe, which we must indeed accept as given and "cope with" as best we can, and the personal arena in which we can fabricate our relationships rather deliberately. In this intermediate area of institutions and large scale interactions, there can be no doubt either that changes can be made or that they should be made. But it is clear that to change present patterns of international relations, for example, is not at all as easy as Morgenthau's words might imply, since there is no such thing as the "will of man," but only the wills of individual men.
This state of affairs is undoubtedly a mixed curse. It helps to explain why institutional inertia is perverse and why improvements do not come easily. But it also divorces the contours of human institutions from the fads and follies of the short run and allows them to evolve almost automatically in the light of accumulating experience. A kind of "social Darwinian" process unfolds in which less efficient institutions are relegated to the "dustbin of history" as a result of their inability to compete with more efficient ones. We find here a close analogy to the role of economic markets which, as Hayek notes, permit societies to act as if they understood masses of information which no single human mind or organization could ever grasp or process. The results of deliberate efforts to shape human institutions, largely by means of armed conquest from outside, revolution from within, and even peaceful reform, have not been entirely impressive or commendable. There is, therefore, at least something to be said for the unplanned approach to change which brought us things like the English Parliament and constitutional monarchy.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Ayn Rand's unintended influence on my thinking

The following is quoted from chapter 15 of my 1981 college textbook:

Henry George and the Metaconstitution

George's basic economic analysis of the two factors of production--"land" and labor--is strikingly similar to that suggested by the general theory of associations that has been presented in this text. The similarity is all the more striking in light of the fact that I had never read a word of George nor even a decent summary of his views until after having arrived at the same conclusions by a somewhat different route. Ironically, my conclusions were inspired more by the archreactionary novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand. Protracted study of the problems of regulating the American economy and of corruption led me to conclude that government privileges should go to the highest bidder for limited periods. This conclusion applied specifically to the right to broadcast programs over the radio and TV airwaves. The idea of generalizing this approach and extending it to land did not occur until I read the following passage in an essay by Rand:

There is no difference in principle between the ownership of land and the ownership of airways. Footnote 25

The statement was obviously true, but not in the sense Rand intended! Rather than applying the prevailing capitalist approach to airwaves as well as to land, Rand's assertion could equally well be read to suggest applying the approach appropriate to airwaves to land as well. In this sense, it might be rather impiously claimed that the solution to the problem of property suggested by association theory and metaconstitutional analysis is a dialectical combination of Ayn Rand and Henry George.

Friday, June 16, 2017

A bit more autobiography

Sixty years ago a band conductor ruined my possibility of a journalistic career, or so I thought until recently.

As a freshman at Willamette University in 1957, I signed up to be a reporter for the student newspaper instead of joining the band. Since I knew something about music, the editor sent me to interview Willamette's band conductor about his plans for the year. Maurice Brennan was an old friend of my father, who had been a band conductor himself before going into electronic engineering. Brennan talked me into joining his band, which meant I didn't have time to be a reporter. If I had continued with the newspaper, who knows what it might have led to?

As this story suggests, careers can hinge on incidents that have influence way beyond their immediate significance. I entered Willamette hoping to join the U.S. Foreign Service, but my senior year some faculty persuaded me to shoot for a college teaching career. However, the foreign languages I took because they would be helpful in diplomacy were an asset when I entered the doctoral program at Johns Hopkins University in 1961.

The JHU political science degree required a reading knowledge of two modern languages. Several of my fellow grad students got hung up on this requirement. One unfortunate young lady had studied only Latin and classical Greek, which didn't count. I passed both tests within two weeks.

After finishing at Johns Hopkins in 1964 I accepted a position at Adrian College where I remained until retiring in 2000. While there, I started writing occasional op-ed columns for the local daily and a few other papers. During an emergency in the mid 1970s my wife and I wrote all the editorials for the local paper for three months. And I wrote a college textbook, published in 1981.

After retiring and moving to Corvallis, I continued to write occasional op-ed columns. But one couldn't exactly call that a “career.” Dabbling, perhaps, but not career.

Recently, though, another twist of fate may have given me a new a journalist! I read in the New York Times that one Christopher Ruddy, an old friend of President Trump, has been urging Trump to endorse a single-payer insurance system to replace Obamacare. I sent Ruddy nine of my op-ed columns arguing that conservatives need to get over their knee jerk hostility to single payer insurance. I suggested these might be ammunition for his commendable campaign to get Trump to sign on.

Mr. Ruddy turns out to be founder and CEO of , which among other things publishes an on-line journal with major readership. Three days after I contacted Ruddy, the opinion editor at invited me to write a weekly column. I have been doing this since early April, and it has been great fun.

Maybe at age 77 I am finally a journalist. Take that, Professor Brennan!