Saturday, April 9, 2016

Ideology and laziness in politics and economics

Continuing on the theme from yesterday, there is a particular argument structure that just drives me nuts.  It goes something like this:  every sane, intelligent, well-informed, well-meaning person must agree with me, so everyone who doesn't is either insane, stupid, uninformed, or somehow morally compromised at best (i.e., corrupt if not downright psychophathic).

The relevance here will be obvious from my last couple of posts, but this is an important general principle that I try to impress upon students.  No matter how well-thought-out your opinions are, someone smarter than you, who has devoted his or her life to the study of the subject, thinks you are a  moron for thinking what you think.

And that brings me to Sanders, goo-gooism and accusations that anyone who disagrees with he who walks on bong water must be either crazy, stupid, unformed, bought off by the Hillary campaign, or just plain evil.

Let's define our terms here.  "Goo-goo."  Short for "good government."  A derisive term used by empirical political scientists for those who claim that some "good government" reform will solve all problems.  For Sanders, that would be campaign finance reform.  The central plank of Sanders campaign is as follows:  the first and most important priority must be a constitutional amendment to give Congress the authority to restrict spending on political advertisements.  Then, big restrictions.  Once you do that, everything else falls into place for his "revolution."  Single-payer healthcare, massive tax increases, you name it.  Sky's the limit.

What's more, according to Sanders, there is no point doing anything else first because any legislation that can pass in a pre-constitutional amendment system must definitionally be too small to bother.

Let's unpack this.  We have a term in social science:  the "counterfactual."  What if the world were otherwise?  According to Sanders, the "counterfactual" world without privately financed campaigns is one in which everyone wants single-payer healthcare.  Translation:  everyone secretly wants single-payer healthcare, or just knows nothing. There are actually plenty of reasons that most of the country opposes single-payer healthcare.

Let's list a few of the obvious ones:

1) Opposition to the principle of redistribution.  This is a competing values question.  Widespread access to healthcare versus the moral question of achieving it by having the government put a gun to everyone's head and saying, "you will pay for other people's healthcare or else."  If that is theft, then can you justify theft in the name of charity?  Let's not pretend there is only one side here.

2) Single-payer healthcare costs less.  That's good, right?  Well where is the best research done?  Here.  Where the companies that make cool stuff profit handsomely.  Take away that incentive, and reduce the quality of research.  Other countries have much cheaper healthcare.  Why?  They have single-payer.  And everyone around the world uses drugs 'n stuff that we make.  And a lot of the companies' profits come from high prices here.  Other countries get cheap healthcare because we subsidize them by being the ones who pay higher costs.  Fair to us?  Maybe not, but without that, less research.

3) Centralized authority.  Nothin' bad ever came of that, right?

4) Individualized plans.  Market-based systems allow product differentiation.  There are efficiency benefits to that.

5) Transition costs.  We have had a mostly private system for a long time.  Transitioning is difficult and costly.  And lots of people are on the losing side of those costs.

Did I just change anyone's mind?  Of course not.  That's not my point.  My point is that off the top of my head, I can list five big reasons that a well-informed, well-meaning person might oppose a transition to single payer that have nothing to do with being bought off.

To Sanders and his ilk, none of these topics even merit the slightest thought. They are just so obviously wrong that nobody could put any weight on any of these arguments.  Nope, the only reason Congress doesn't pass single-payer healthcare is that people are bought off.  Notice, then, the real point of goo-gooism.  Ego defense.   If you are an advocate of single-payer healthcare, reading my short summary of counter-arguments won't change your mind, but if you hadn't thought of these issues before, then you should probably think about them.  The problem is that doing so is psychologically uncomfortable.  In technical terms, thinking about these issues in a serious way causes cognitive dissonance for advocates of single-payer.   How do you avoid that uncomfortable feeling?   Disregard the arguments entirely, and just tell yourself that all sane, intelligent, well-meaning, well-informed people agree with you!   Anyone who makes this kind of argument doesn't really believe it anyway, so you shouldn't give it any real thought.   They're just shills for the insurance lobby!  Corruption!  Campaign finance reform!

Here, then, is the real problem with goo-gooism.  The point is to dismiss all political disagreement as being in bad faith.  That way, you never have to question yourself.   Laziness of the worst form.  Always remember, smarter and better informed people than yourself think your beliefs are nonsense.  And maybe they are.  Don't be like Bernie Sanders.

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