Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
Wirkman VirkkalaAgainst the Simple Scenario of Rescue
Posted at 6:03 pm on January 30, 2011, by Wirkman Virkkala

Social causation cannot be simply drawn on a line, so public policy cannot be conceived in a one-dimensional fashion. See a goal? Find a means. Stick to it.


It doesn’t work, because each cause has more than one effect, and the selected effect, the end, is not all that must be considered.

You will often hear conservatives complain about progressives’ lack of understanding in this department, how those on the left too often have a one-dimensional view of problems and solutions. Is somebody poor? Tax somebody else and give the poor guy some money. It’s as simple as that!

Well, of course, it isn’t as simple as that. And economists have been exploring the complexity of social causation since before Adam Smith. Unfortunately, advocates of dirigisme have won the public debate, for the most part, characterizing laissez faire as “simplistic” while their own notions depend on rashly over-simplified justifications and visions of causation, while the allegedly “simple” system of liberty has, for its justification, a complex, multi-causal, massively cybernetic view of social dynamics and order.

But, lest we target conservatives for too much praise, it’s worth remembering that even the savviest of them reduce their ideas to the starkest simplicity when it comes to foreign policy. They see a problem elsewhere, some bad guys doing something bad to some other folks, who may or may not be good guys. The solution? Send in the marines! Bomb them! Set up an “army base”!

All for Peace, of course.

The idea that such a course — what might be called American garrison state imperialism — might have unintended effects? Well, conservatives then regurgitate the “wisdom” of Lenin, and talk about broken eggs and the traditional cost of making omelettes.

In the course of writing about the current Egyptian revolt, Paul Jacob, a libertarian who often writes for conservatives, neatly challenges American imperialist simple-mindedness (see his regular weekend column on Townhall; see also his own website):

Some argue that Americans must support despots to block more serious threats. They forget that freedom and democracy must continually win the hearts and minds of the world’s people. To constantly wed our foreign policy to the thumb-screw can only breed enemies from people who should be our friends. Empowering the lesser of two apparent evils in every instance means that America’s face to the world can appear most clearly as one thing: Evil.

Talk about the wrong message, the wrong stance.

Jacob, a supporter of what he calls “citizen-powered government,” is a fairly well-known activist for term limits and the citizen initiative process. His take on democracy is not majoritarianism so much as constitutionally limited government supported by an active citizenry — that is, republican. In the old sense. This puts his brand of libertarianism a long way from, say, the anarcho-capitalism of Murray Rothbard . . . but not so far from the Constitutional approach of Rep. Ron Paul.

Or the Tea Party.

So I was curious to see how’s readers reacted to Jacob’s recent column. Townhall readers can be pretty “far right” — but I have been noticing a subtle trend, there, away from the brain-dead Rush-Limbaugh-dittoism of the past. Could it be that the Tea Party has leavened the lump of the Townhall readership?

The early comments, so far, have pleasantly surprised me. Not the usual screaming legion of America-über-alles imperialists.

Though social causation in conflict still strikes neoconservatives and many others in the traditional alliance of the Republican Party as a fairly simple matter — as America’s Strong and Good, and No Match for Anyone Else — it could be that there is hope. It could be that conservative-minded folk will realize (are in the process of realizing?) what they have long suspected in the domestic sphere of life — that simple scenarios of rescue don’t cut it as policies because society is more complicated than progressives believe it is — applies also to the realm of international affairs.

As Paul Jacob indicated, there’s a trouble with the allegedly “sophisticated” ploy of backing dictators to fend off worse dictators: The public face you place in front of the world becomes that of supporting suppression.

And that is the very opposite message Americans want to send to the world. Or to each other.

NOTE: Paul Jacob’s column is also available as a PDF.

Filed under: Unintended Consequences
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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson






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