Thursday, August 03, 2006

Using the Right Tool for the Job

Tim Lee makes a great observation about ends and means while discussing Matt Yglesias’ insightful post regarding the uselessness of violence in achieving the kind of goals we would like to achieve in the Middle East. It's worth quoting at length:

…the policy tools you use largely dictate the kinds of policy ends you can achieve. Brutal repression is generally not a good way to create a liberal democracy. Prohibition is not an effective way to reduce drug use. Government construction is not generally a good way to create safe and attractive housing for poor people.

Unfortunately, this is a point that tends to get lost on politicians, who are often intoxicated by the power of the tools at their disposal. They come to believe that they merely need to decide on a goal, and the awesome machinery of government will go to work making that goal come to pass. That works pretty well if your goal it to blow up a building, construct a new highway, or send a man to the moon. But it tends to backfire when your goal involves reshaping fragile, highly interdependent social systems. Because the same lumbering giant quality that makes government so good at blowing things up and sending people to the moon tends to shatter the intricate social networks on which liberal social goals depend.

People who don't grasp this problem get drawn into asinine political debates that miss the real issue: should there be liberal democracy in Iraq? Should people use fewer drugs? Should the poor have more housing? The answers to these questions are obvious, but the fact that the ends are clear doesn't mean that the means are obvious.

I am (rightfully) pretty hard on politicians, but for the most part I don't think they are actively evil and destructive people - the just have some outrageous and contempuous (but well-intentioned) ideas about how to create a better world. The problem-solver in all of us wants to believe we've got the answers to whatever situation we're confronted with. But usually the correct path isn't immediately obvious and we need to step back and let things develop. A precautionary approach, whereby you reduce the risk of catastophic consequences, is a wise outlook. Society can be amazingly resilient (which can of course be both a blessing and a curse), and so-called "lawmakers" need to realize that laws aren't really made (or at least maintained) in the policies they create, but in the social institutions people create with each other. Giving a little more thought to using the right tool for the job would go a long way in creating a more effective government.


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