Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Progressivism and Time

A flaw in the thinking of "progressives" a.k.a. "liberals" a.k.a. "statists" is their perception of time. From whence this perception derives is unclear to me. It may be an artifact of the 16th and 17th centuries' belief that rationality will solve all metaphysical problems. Descartes, for instance, thought that he could prove the reality of the universe by logically proving the existence of God and deriving the validity of our perceptions from God's existence. The rejection of this kind of hyper-rationality led to an excessive swing in the opposite direction. In proving that we cannot know anything Hume showed the limits of pure reason but did not offer much in the way of practical understanding of how we learn and know things, which we obviously do.

The left, liberals and the academy are schizophrenic. One half of the split personality applies to epistemology, aesthetics and culture. In these areas "progressives" adopt a radically skeptical viewpoint, rejecting the importance of tradition, standards and culture. The ESR blog argues that this is due to Stalinist influence. However, this explanation does not explain the staying power of progressives' disdain for American culture more than a decade after the Soviet Union's fall and more than five decades after Stalin's death.

The other half of the split personality is that when it comes to public policy, the "progressives" adopt an aggressively rationalist stance, arguing that their managerial problem solving skills can solve all problems: from predicting the outcome in the war in Iraq; to running the New York City subway system; to understanding global warming; to understanding abortion; to understanding the optimal way Wal-Mart ought to run itself; to understanding how income taxation will influence capital formation. When it comes to culture, the left, liberals and the academy argue that nothing can matter and that everything is a matter of power, not reason. When it comes to public policy, the left, liberals and the academy argue that their reason is infallible.

Of course, the left's opinion that its reason is infallible is a delusion of grandeur. Hayek called this the left's "fatal conceit". In reality, most everything that the left has attempted to do has failed. Putting aside the mass murder and environmental destruction in the Soviet Union and China, even just limiting the discussion to their influence in the United States, virtually everything that liberals and the left have touched has been destroyed. New York is a shadow of its former self. The welfare system destroyed millions of lives. The health system is a pathetic joke. The education system graduates illiterates. The Federal Reserve Bank caused the depression of the 1930s, the stagflation of the 1970s and today's income inequality. The income taxation system became an assault on middle class mobility.

An important reason for liberalism's, the left's, and the academy's fatal conceit is its failure to integrate time into its thinking. Economists tend to use cross sectional or limited time series-based studies to derive conclusions that may depend on many decades' worth of data. Government budgets are based on annual cycles. Decisions made in one year are forgotten only one year later. Revenues can be raised in year one without contemplating the costs in future years. For example, public sector pension funds have tended to use overly aggressive assumptions because such assumptions reduce contributions in year one while others bear the costs in future years.

Liberalism, then, is based on short term thinking and that is a critical difference between those who advocate laissez faire , i.e., those who value individual rights, and advocates of state-based solutions who favor the collective over the individual in the economic realm. The costs of state-based solutions are borne over many decades, in the end destroying the social fiber, the economy, wealth and the community. However, the benefits are typically short run.

Why "progressives" are short-run thinkers is difficult to understand. It is likely that encouragement of short-term thinking has been integrated into university education, especially in the social sciences. Cost-benefit analysis favors near term benefits over long term costs. A linear or mechanistic view of time is computationally or mathematically rational, although in biological terms and in the long run it will destroy our economy and society. Linear or hyper-rationality may be at the root of progressives' inept public policy decisions. Why they insist on a hyper-skepticism with respect to culture and a linear or excessively short-term "rationality" with respect to public policy is not totally clear to me.

No comments: