Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Practical Man

Coyne today:

Every now and then, I have to remind myself of something that ought to be obvious but seems incomprehensible to me all the same: namely, that a good many people who go into politics --most people, in fact --don't give a fig about policy.

It isn't just that they don't know the first thing about it, and usually get it wrong. It's that they couldn't care less. It doesn't even occur to them that they should care. They do not inhabit a world in which policy matters. To them, politics is strictly about gangs -- only instead of Crips and Bloods, they're called Liberals and Conservatives.

That's your ordinary politician. But of these there is a special breed, who glories in the title of the Practical Man. The Practical Man is not just ignorant of policy. He is hostile to it, at least so far as this involves the careful and systematic study of a subject, the fruits of which he is inclined to dismiss as "ideology." His ideology is to have no ideology, on which point he is as precisely dogmatic as any pharisee.


This will come as a surprise to those who think of policy and politics as being somehow related. But they are not -- or if they are related, it is in active opposition to each other. I can say that with some confidence, at least, with regard to economics.

All of economics is devoted to the proposition that there is no such thing as a free lunch. All of politics is devoted to the opposite conviction. All economics teaches that you can't get something for nothing. All politics supposes that you can -- or that you can at least persuade other people that you can. Economics is about scarcity, universal and inescapable. Politics is about limitless plenty.

Spend a little bit of time in politics and you will quickly come to this conclusion, especially if you "give a fig" about policy. Any unfortunate policy wonk who tries to explain why a certain policy will eventually (or not-so-eventually) hurt someone, even if it is popular, will be told that they are not being practical, and being practical is what politics is all about. Popular equals votes. You can't get anything done if you don't get votes, but all you can get done with the votes is something that will hurt. Wonderful.

I actually like to think of the study as economics as a study of practicality, which is a bit ironic in light of the way politicians have twisted the word "practical."

Economics tells us if what politics wants to give us is achievable and if having it using the plan proposed is sustainable. If having what we want is not sustainable, then continuing on with the proposed plan is not practical.

But, heaven help us, even the policy wonks are starting to get caught up in the distorted version of practicality. Just ask a Conservative small-government policy wonk who hasn't abandoned the party until a tax cut comes 'round the bend what he thinks of Harper's spending spree last year. You'll likely hear about how "We can't do anything until we get a majority," but you probably won't hear a comment about promising spending sprees and delivering cuts to government is kind of like some sort of "hidden agenda," or how it seems like you're either a liar or a socialist if this is your plan.

To close it out, here's a bit of blunt economic reality. I don't really have anything to add, nor is it all that related to what I said above... I just enjoy it so much that I couldn't not include it.

Consider that 98% of all bad policy amounts to nothing more than ignoring opportunity costs: the simple axiom that the cost of something is measured not just by the actual sum of money used to produce it, but what the same funds might have purchased, diverted to another end-- the profits forgone, the jobs not created, because that money was spent in one way and not another.

This has nothing to with that mythical media beast, "conservative economics." It isn't conservative or liberal. It isn't even economics, come right down to it. It's physics. More in one place means less in another.

Cross-posted to The Natural Society

1 comment:

NB taxpayer said...

As someone who once worked for three different opposition members of parliament, I always found the question much more principled and intriguing than the answers.