Heavily invested in sacred cows


11:30 am - February 27th 2013

by Chris Naden    


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This neat piece from Steve Benen reminded me of this longer, but wonderful piece from Jonathan Chait in 2005 on epistemic closure and the remarkable lack of interest, from the right, in evidence-based government.

The New Republic piece is full of quoteable moments, and well worth reading in full, including this on the non-equivalence of the parties;

Part of this difference reflects the cultural predilections of the last two presidents–Bush is the instinctive anti-intellectual who likes to go with his gut, and Clinton is the former Rhodes scholar who relished academic debates. But it also reflects the natural tendencies of conservatism and liberalism.

Clearly, after the 112th Congress and the theatrics of the 2012 Republican primary, Chait’s theme has been much explored since. The rise of the Murdoch-influenced ‘conservative’ press, and its influence on creating an extraordinarily lucrative rage market for Limbaugh, Beck and company; the disturbing elevation of Paul Ryan and his numberless economics; Sarah Palin; and the radicalising effect of two cycles of TEA-Party politics in the House and in State Houses across the country have all washed the GOP further from their old moorings on the shores of reality. Here’s J. Bernstein in 2011:

No, the difference between the parties is how well party dogma is aligned with reality. [..] Republicans are required to be sceptical of evolution, to deny climate change, pretend missile defense works, and otherwise ignore real-world evidence. […] a lot of GOP policy positions [are] “conservative” in the sense of being aligned with what Rush or Beck says, but not in the sense of being aligned with ideological conservatism.

Which got me thinking about the UK. There are certainly ideological factions in parliament. British government has clearly been divorced from any great emphasis on evidential policy for some time. But in the same way that the GOP has become an echo-chamber of dog-whistles and plutocratic catechisms, rather than becoming an ideologically conservative policy actor, the UK scene is ignoring evidence not so much for reasons of ideology as for reasons of faith and habit.

One cannot overestimate the power of habit in British politics; which is mostly a Sir. Humphrey-ish artefact of the professional civil service. It is amplified in the echo chambers of the tabloid press. The Sun, the Mail and their ilk exist, like Limbaugh and the departed Breitbart, to serve a market in fear and rage. Several, in fact; for example, the under-educated working class rage is mostly in the Sun, the educated middle-class rage is mostly in the Mail. Humans are habit-forming and change resistant, older humans are more so, and thus change can be easily presented in a manner which will induce fear and rage in a lucrative and electorally effective demographic.

Then we come to faith. Both major parties have significant and strident minority membership from the wing-nut end of socially conservative Christianity, but that’s not really one of the core articles of faith which have been so damaging. Both major parties also have a religious faith in the free market fundamentalism of the Great Moderation. Both have been captured by financial vested interests. Both have nailed their trousers to the mast on Austerian fantasies and will find it very difficult to climb down.

Both major parties are instinctively authoritarian, and with the triumph of the Orange Book faction of the Liberal Democrats, they’re not much better. Both major parties (since the New Labour course change) are reflexively, rather than in any real sense ideologically, right of centre. Once again, the Liberal Democrats aren’t much better. It should be noted that this matters relatively little as the Coalition may prove to have done more damage to the LibDems than 1983 did.

That British government is no longer moored to evidentiary standards of reality is visible in a number of very high profile incidents. The Dodgy Dossier, for one. The Nutt Sack affair. Public-Private Partnerships. ATOS. Faith schools. The entire Broken Britain narrative, which I have ranted about before. Ridiculous rhetoric on immigration. And in probably the most egregious example currently going, George Osborne’s economic policies.

Both major parties, and to a lesser extent the LibDems front bench, are heavily invested in sacred cows. That’s not a good way to run a country.

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About the author
Chris Naden is a real ale landlord, a Druid and a great fan of Spider Robinson. He is committed to making Britain better by persuasion, education and political action.
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Reader comments


`Both major parties, and to a lesser extent the LibDems front bench, are heavily invested in sacred cows. That’s not a good way to run a country.’

The apparent insanity of the Tea Party and the emergence of a British version out of the Tory Right, UKIP and various other right wing nutters is the only possible response of the ruling class and their political lackeys to the collapse of global capitalism. Interest will always trump logic and evidence leaving the defenders of the capitalist order looking increasingly bonkers as they depart further and further from reality. It is why socialism can only be achieved via revolution because no matter how indefencible the capitalist system becomes those with an interest in defending it will not sucumb to rational argument. They will literally drive the UK back to a New Dark Ages before giving up on their largely counterfeit claims (glued together in the back rooms of various banks) on the social product and wealth.

@1

I can’t help but be reminded of a free-thinker in the SWP next to me at an anti-BNP rally. “We support the BBC, don’t we?” He asked of a fellow member.

The new right has stolen a lot of the tricks of the old radical left and is just as dangerously bonkers.

Re evidence-based policy, this is worth a listen:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01phhb9

UKLiberty: yes, that was a very good piece. I have a great deal of time for Goldacre. However, comma, I think examining just two of the instances I cited, e.g. the Dodgy Dossier and the Nutt Sack affair, will make it clear what I was talking about. There are significant policy issues on which even when clear, real knowledge exists, the government shuts their ears because the conclusion is not politically viable in the current press climate, or sacrifices a party-political sacred cow.

Goldacre’s primary point is that using knowledge is difficult in complex systems, and can lead to unintended consequences; yes, I agree. But there are real problems in our governance with the powers that be obtaining useful knowledge and deliberately locking it in a drawer because they don’t like it. That’s not at all the same.

One of the other problems is that politicians who do like science also lose their seats. Evan Harris lost because homeopaths allied against him.

Until the electorate starts voting for politicians who say “well I did think policy x would improve things, but it turns out I was wong”, then there is little incentive for governments to build in collection of evidence, evaluation and RCTs into policy.

People really shouldn’t follow sentences like Interest will always trump logic and evidence leaving the defenders of the capitalist order looking increasingly bonkers as they depart further and further from reality with It is why socialism can only be achieved via revolution because no matter how indefencible the capitalist system becomes those with an interest in defending it will not sucumb to rational argument. for many, many reasons.

Until the electorate starts voting for politicians who say “well I did think policy x would improve things, but it turns out I was wong”, then there is little incentive for governments to build in collection of evidence, evaluation and RCTs into policy.

Not much chance of that since every politician who even contemplates changing their mind to match reality is instantly denounced as a hypocrite or accused of a humiliating u-turn rather than welcomed into the fold.

But there are real problems in our governance with the powers that be obtaining useful knowledge and deliberately locking it in a drawer because they don’t like it. That’s not at all the same.

IIRC that was one of Gus O’Donnell’s poins in the same programme.

9. Man on the Clapham Omnibus

Research carried out in an effort to distiguish between conservative thinking and liberal thinking reveals that with the former the brain is distinguished with a larger right hand lobe of the amydala. This organ is responsible for ,amongst other things, the perception of threat. Thus the conservative brain is likely to be over reactive to events without necessarily all the rational equipment necessary to understanding the event they are reacting to.
The liberal brain is, in contrast, charicterised by a more developed frontal lobe which assists in the weighing of evidence and the ability to understand many sides of an argument.
Refering to conservatives it is easy to see why they are perhaps more susceptible to explaining reality in terms of religious thinking even if not in outright religious declaration.

Research carried out in an effort to distiguish between conservative thinking and liberal thinking reveals that with the former the brain is distinguished with a larger right hand lobe of the amydala. This organ is responsible for ,amongst other things, the perception of threat. Thus the conservative brain is likely to be over reactive to events without necessarily all the rational equipment necessary to understanding the event they are reacting to.

Might as well abolish voting then – just get your callipers out and measure headbumps.

The liberal brain is, in contrast, charicterised by a more developed frontal lobe which assists in the weighing of evidence and the ability to understand many sides of an argument.

Refering to conservatives it is easy to see why they are perhaps more susceptible to explaining reality in terms of religious thinking even if not in outright religious declaration.

Religious thinking and other teleologies are a spandrel based on a misapplication of Theory of Mind to non-agentive forces like earthquakes, the weather and plagues. It’s an excess of empathy rather than a lack of it.

As an Aspie I’m less vulnerable to this than neurotypicals. Vote for me and hope (pray?) my capacity for systematized thought trumps my apparent indifference to human suffering.

@9
Research has also shown that 9 out of 10 smug humans on proverbial public transport can’t tell bogus reductive research with laughable conclusions from anything approaching actual science let alone logical thought. Thus proving beyond all doubt that most self professed liberals are suffering from advanced confirmation bias and need immediate remedial treatment.

12. the a&e charge nurse

Anybody who has read Bad Pharma (Goldacre) will know that research is indeed subverted by profit motive.

Even the relatively straightforward matter of comparing tablet A to tablet B is virtually impossible given that there is no mechanism to ensure that ALL trial data is made available (a large proportion of unflattering studies are simply buried) neither is there a robust enough regulatory framework to ensure that the way trials are conducted are above board – the fundamental reason for such a corrupt system of course is the fabulous amount of lucre to be made from a newly patented drug.
http://www.ted.com/talks/ben_goldacre_what_doctors_don_t_know_about_the_drugs_they_prescribe.html

So what chance for more complex social phenomena – but even if this evidence COULD be captured, rather like the pharma industry there are still strong financial, or political reasons for suppressing unwanted findings?

A&E Charge Nurse: you’re raising a good point, but I was mainly talking about instances where there actually is good evidence and consensus, but political / media and financial incentives lead government to suppress or ignore findings.

Worthwhile starting with a Goldacre quote.

“You cannot reason people out of a position that they did not reason themselves into.”

People believe a lot of dumb things. They believe a lot of dumb things because they find comfort in believing those things. Nuance does not sell in contemporary democracy. Issues are black or white, there is a right answer and a wrong answer, a policy is either always right or on all occasions always wrong. The world can be split into good people who are the people I support in politics. The other side are not just wrong, they are evil and because they are fundamentally evil they want to do evil things. That is the world as seen through the eyes of political activists and obsessives. If you think believing dumb things only affects the right might I suggest you read BTL on most CiF articles.

I think the case of linking the UK Right, which is pretty much the Conservative party with the the craziness of the anti-science and anti-modernity of the contemporary U.S. Right is weak to absurd. Around the fringes there may well be elements of the UK Right who would agree with the Beck/Limbaugh tenuous view of reality, but that type of thinking is hardly dominant. Most of the dominant characters in the contemporary Conservative party would not be out of place in the Clinton or even the Obama administration.

The dominant strain of thought in the UK is statism. The majority of the electorate are statists and so are the politicians. Whenever there is a problem with whatever the immediate default question the electorate ask is, what is the government going to do about X problem. We get statism, which is neither left nor right because we are one of the most centralised countries in the world. Local communities have been reduced to dependency by the man who knows best in Whitehall. The “something must be done” brigade brought this about over many generations. The Liberals used to believe in federalism where one trusted local communities, alas no more. The Conservative party has never trusted the people. The contemporary Labour party does not just dislike the people, they openly despise the people who vote for them. That is the dominant strain of thought by the UK political class. No matter the colour of the rosette most of them agree with the Left view, the UK people are scum.

I am sure you do not mean it that way but some parts read like the condescending rage that the Technocracy cum Quangocracy, often display towards the dumb proles. If only they would stop reading the rightwing press, they would be enlightened and being enlightened would mean agreeing with us. Population 63 million and daily press circulation around 8 million. If they are sceptical about the EU, they can only have reached that point of view because the rightwing press told them to think that way. The population being obvious automatons incapable of thinking for themselves. Understanding “the truth” can only ever lead people to agree with us.

Duped into buying cheap food by clever advertising instead of buying overpriced organic carrots. Duped into falling for clever advertising by going on holiday abroad and forgoing the pleasure of walking up a hill in the pissing rain. Duped into driving by the fossil fuel industry instead of cycling. On the endless stupidity by the proles goes compared to the choices of the new superior elite. All driven by the rightwing press.

The UK elite/establishment/political class do not lack trust in science and evidence-based policy, they lack trust in the people.

15. Man on the Clapham Omnibus

10 Shatterface

‘Religious thinking and other teleologies are a spandrel based on a misapplication of Theory of Mind to non-agentive forces like earthquakes, the weather and plagues’

I think thats more magical thinking rather than religious.
Religious thinking usually requires an agent although the causal bit …(well we dont like to think about that)

Me Aspie too BTW but not even I would vote for me.

16. Man on the Clapham Omnibus

11. Thornavis

I believe I read the study in an American Scientific Journal.
Whether of not you attach credence to it is up to you.I merely offered it up as a contribution not as an endorsement. Watch out there’s a tiger behind you!

Richard W:

Most of the dominant characters in the contemporary Conservative party would not be out of place in the Clinton or even the Obama administration.

Yes, I know. That’s why I said, “the UK scene is ignoring evidence not so much for reasons of ideology as for reasons of faith and habit.” I specifically did not claim that the mainstream of the Tory party had been dragged to the right by ideologues like the GOP. I did say that they and the entire UK political scene have been pushed, or have chosen to run, towards certain irrational and damaging issue positions as a result of relentless, and largely fabricated, campaigns by the sensationalist press establishment. In which we are very similar to the US, though thankfully we dodged a bullet with FauxNews UK: there Limbaugh, Beck, Breitbart, Fox. Here the Murdoch press, the Dirty Digger, the Mail and so on.

I then went on to talk in detail about what habits and which faiths I meant. And to provide a series of case studies to illustrate my point, which I notice you don’t engage with. However, attempting to pick out a quote from your post to hook onto:

The UK elite/establishment/political class do not lack trust in science and evidence-based policy, they lack trust in the people.

I’m not going to argue with the main thrust of your comment. I think you have a possible point, in parallel to, rather than against mine.

Regarding technocracy and public opinion; look at the specific examples I pointed to. This isn’t a technocrat / populist argument; this is a democratic argument. The tabloid press most certainly deform public opinion, I’ve never heard anyone in modern politics argue that they don’t. Again, I talked about that with specifics above.

My point was that there are issues where the only reason the government is not only ignoring, but actively suppressing, evidentiary policy-making opportunities because of their fear of what the Sun and the Mail would say to elderly angry people. A classic example is the Nutt Sack affair; recent polling indicates that a majority of Britons support significant change to drug policy but Prof. Nutt got sacked for saying they were right.

I am not exclusively blaming the echo-chamber; I am also blaming the elderly angry people and the blindness of politicians.

18. the a&e charge nurse

[17] maybe there are some overarching reasons why politicos are afraid of evidence, electoral expedience, and deference to the establishment being fairly high up on the list, but I’m sure there will be some differences if we tackle this question from a case by case basis?

Take Nuttgate – Johno, the home sec at the time said -“Professor Nutt is indeed a reputable scientist whose views on drugs policy are well known. However, his role as my principal adviser was to (unsurprisingly) present advice. It is the job of the government to decide policy. Professor Nutt was not sacked for his views, which I respect but disagree with (as does Professor Robin Murray, who wrote in your newspaper on Friday). He was asked to go because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy. This principle is well understood and long established”.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/nov/02/drug-policy-alan-johnson-nutt?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487

Nutt’s list is fairly uncontroversial but it does not necessarily follow that policy automatically flows from this work (because the evidence only takes us so far) – it might imply a certain direction, of course, but that is not quite the same thing.
It may be the likes of t’fail, and its readership, not to mention good old political expedience ARE hampering a healthier relationship with evidence (in the social sciences) but very often there is simply insufficient data to determine with any certainty what the alternatives should be such as decriminalising drugs, for example – something I would personally be in favour of.

Drugs policy is a great example of how evidence conflicts with politics. The ostensible purpose of the drug classification system is to classify relative harmfulness so that penalties are proportionate. But that is not how drugs are classified.

Letter from Alan Johnson explaining the sacking: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/upload/091118-b-letter-from-alan-johnson.pdf (“We remain committed to … evidence based policy making” – hoho”)

Letter from Nutt explaining his side:
http://www.parliament.uk/documents/upload/091118-a-letter-from-prof-nutt.pdf

A number and variety of experts have concluded that there is no point in offering advice to the government (of whatever party in power) because it will be ignored. Several of Nutt’s colleagues resigned not merely or because of sympathy but because the government does not listen. This is not a happy situation to be in. I would prefer the government said that “we don’t classify based on harm, we classify based on what is politically expedient,” because that would at least be honest.

Incidentally, it’s worth pointing out the apparent consensus for say cannabis to be classified differently from the government’s wishes: e.g. scientists, Transform, ACPO…

It isn’t always a case of, “well, one bunch of experts say X and another bunch say Y, so we’re going with Y.” It’s sometimes, “all the experts say X but we’re going with Y.”

UKLiberty:

That, right there, that’s it precisely. That’s the problem I was trying to illustrate.

Also:

I would prefer the government said that “we don’t classify based on harm, we classify based on what is politically expedient,” because that would at least be honest.

True: but it would still, of course, be very bad policy.

where i live it’s just words,
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RnW8dmJ0Fl4

25. Man on the Clapham Omnibus

17. Chris Naden

Not wishing to seem rude but I am left with the overwhelming sense of ‘so what’ with your article.
The overarching project of western ‘democracy’ is how best to manage capitalism.In this context all knowledge is essentially ideology and all political parties are immersed in its practice. All dominant classes and their political representatives are interested in one thing;power (financial and ideological) and how to maintain it.
So where do we go from here?

MotCO:

Not wishing to seem rude but I am left with the overwhelming sense of ‘so what’ with your article.

That’s an entirely reasonable position :) As you can see, I disagree with you, and I think this is why:

The overarching project of western ‘democracy’ is how best to manage capitalism.

With which I strongly disagree. The over-arching project of western representative democracies is to manage the public good; yes, a very large component is the economy, which is the only thing I can imagine you mean by managing ‘capitalism’. Also yes, many governing mechanisms may influence the economy, or use economic incentives to influence outcomes. But efforts to cut down on STDs and unplanned pregnancy are not done because they will keep more women in the workforce which ‘manages capitalism’, they’re done because they constitute a public good. Efforts to end discrimination or provide working opportunities for the disabled are not worthwhile because they’re good for the economy (they are); we do these things because they are a public good.

The same is true of many other things the government does, or tries to do; returning to the Nutt Sack affair, the government’s argument for maintaining failed policies which vastly damage ‘capitalism’ and the legal economy is that they are pursuing a public good. They’re empirically wrong, but that’s the argument.

And then there’s this:

In this context all knowledge is essentially ideology and all political parties are immersed in its practice.

Absolutely and categorically not. Ideology is about interpretation of knowledge, not about the knowledge itself.

We know the War on Drugs has failed. Ideology occurs in the evolution of the answers different actors have to that problem; the prohibitionist answer is “Double down! More jail-time for young black men! More fishing expeditions and racially-profiled spot searches! More scare stories and false science! More profits for the prison-industrial complex!”, etc.

The liberal answer is “The WoD doesn’t reduce drug use, doesn’t affect addiction rates at all, doesn’t reduce social harm: it does fund (and, like alcohol prohibition in the USA, has frequently created) organised crime networks and their concomitant death tolls. Drug policies do deform the free market, not to mention savagely affecting human rights and individual freedoms around the globe. Here are some things that the data says will change that. Let’s try those.”

Each answer is to some extent ideological; one is founded in fact and interpreted via ideology, the other is founded in media hysteria and decades-old culture wars, and ignores any data it doesn’t like. As UKLiberty points out above, the consensus against the WoD is now huge. It includes sitting presidents, health organisations, three past Secretaries General of the UN, human rights organisations, multiple actual countries (like Portugal), and among other UK actors, the most senior Police Officers we have. 18 US States have demonstrated that cannabis has medical uses and two have legalised or decriminalised recreational use. There is a bill working through the corridors of the Hill to federally recognise and accept medical marijuana. David Nutt’s work with the neurology of halucinogens continues to show good medical results, and the IDF are still treating PTSD with MDMA and LSD.

This does not reflect ambiguity in the data or even in the workable policy alternatives. This is a case of politicians ignoring reality to save themselves from sacrificing one of the sacred cows of the fear and loathing machine that fuels social conservatism in Parliament and the tabloid press. And I think that matters a great deal.

Other such sacred cows in which the national debate is heavily distorted by similar perverse incentives include but are not limited to immigration (fact, popular misinformation, and public policy), support for torture and other dodgy foreign policies, George Osbourne’s economic policies, and so on.

Now; you’ll notice that I did not, in the article, list climate change. Here there’s a genuine ambiguity; not about climate change, in any way, but about consequences, remedies and policy outcomes. I know which set of arguments are convincing to me personally, but I can see that there is real ambiguity in the question, and that the debate about policy alternatives is not purely counter-factual and hysterical, as it is with drug policy. Even the Tories recognise that climate change is occurring and that some of it is anthropogenic; but there are legitimate differences of opinion about how much we care.

And regarding your last question: if I knew what could be done about it, I’d run for Parliament.

27. Richard Carey

When has government ever followed an ‘evidence-based policy’ approach?

@ Chris Naden,

the main flaw in your position is a failure to distinguish between society and the state. The war on drugs is an example you give. The real question is whether such a war is legitimate for the state to prosecute, not whether it is working, according to the evidence.

Evidence can be found about particular government interventions, but the usual situation is thus: a problem is identified and government intervention instituted to deal with the problem. Time passes. Evidence reveals the problem is now just as big as before if not bigger. At this point, some say; ‘the government must do more’. Some say; ‘just imagine how bad it would be if the government hadn’t done anything’. Others still say; ‘the government should never have got involved in the first place. The evidence, if it is scientific, is value-free and supports no political position.

the main flaw in your position is a failure to distinguish between society and the state.

Actually, I make that distinction quite clearly. I am speaking throughout my piece of situations in which the state is acting counter to the interests, desires or both of society.

The war on drugs is an example you give. The real question is whether such a war is legitimate for the state to prosecute, not whether it is working, according to the evidence.

I see no ‘or’ here. Both questions are real. Both are necessary. The idea that government legitimately has a hand in regulating public health is not controversial, and therefore it has a legitimate interest in drug policy.

That policy does not work. According to the evidence, it does not produce the specified outcomes, or indeed any desirable outcomes at all. In fact current policy works against both the public health and the good of society.

Most of your next paragraph seems to be meaningless platitudes, I’m afraid, but I can respond to this:

The evidence, if it is scientific, is value-free and supports no political position.

… because it’s self-evidently nonsense. Let us take two examples; public health and road safety.

In two cases from the first category, AIDS and teenage pregnancy, scientific (‘value free’) evidence pointed very clearly to specific policy remedies. We knew that education from an early age, social signaling and free, private access to contraception are how you bring down teenage pregnancy rates and STD transmission rates. So we did that and it worked. Entirely scientific evidence clearly indicated a policy remedy which produced the desired outcomes.

With road safety we can look at two types of case; seat-belts / airbags and traffic lights / speed-cameras.

We found clear, unambiguous evidence that seat-belts, then airbags, save lives. We applied that knowledge to select policy actions which both effectively informed the public and mandated the provision of safety equipment. It worked. Once again, ‘value-free’ evidence supported a specific policy outcome and implied specific policy measures, which worked as intended.

There is considerably greater ambiguity in the ‘value-free’ data available about traffic lights and speed cameras. It is probable, or at the very least possible, that these measures produce the desired policy outcome (less RTAs). However, there are a wide range of other measures which also achieve that goal, and there is considerable ambiguity in the ‘value-free’ data about which would work best, in which contexts, and which combinations. Here, data does not clearly support specific policy methods or measures.

Yes, sometimes reality does clearly imply what we should do to manage the public good. My problem is with instances where that is true, and the government ignores it for reasons of faith and habit.

Chris:

An interesting piece and a rather beautifully written one, too.

The war on drugs is a classic case of evidence been ignored in policy formulation. Yet it has to be said that drugs are a special case in that there is peer-reviewed scientific evidence about them and their dangers. And we can see that the present policy does not work.

Unfortunately, we cannot do repeatable experiments in economics, so to say that Osborne’s or indeed Balls’s economic nostrums are lacking in evidence is to miss the point that there are rational arguments for both positions but no hard evidence.

Moreover, when it comes to the even more fuzzy area of social policies, much of what passes for evidence is propaganda from right- and left-wing think tanks, lobbies or pressure groups. And sometimes the ‘evidence’ is no more than a study of studies – in effect a literature review.

That said, there are other major areas of public policy where evidence is ignored. One huge one is the NHS. It has been known for a long time that Germany, France and Scandinavia have better health services than the NHS. We also know that these countries have a mix of public and private provision in health. Yet any attempt to introduce more publicly-funded but privately run provision into the NHS is met by quite irrational resistance. Even when 20 or more UK hospitals are being investigated for excess death rates – and after the appalling suffering of patients in Staffs – many, if not most, on the liberal-left treat the NHS as a sacred cow.

Similarly, look at the outcry about about free schools. These work well in Sweden where schools are even allowed to be run for a profit. As such, they seem to be an idea worth trying in the UK. Yet the opposition to them has been deeply prejudiced and irrational.

30. Richard Carey

@ 28 Chris,

“The idea that government legitimately has a hand in regulating public health is not controversial”

That’s a dodge. The question is whether it is right, not whether it is not controversial.

“We knew that education from an early age, social signaling and free, private access to contraception are how you bring down teenage pregnancy rates and STD transmission rates. So we did that and it worked.”

How has that worked? A quick perusal of google indicates that you will struggle to justify that statement, and more than likely you are giving an example which conforms to what I said above, which you dismissed as platitudes.

“Yes, sometimes reality does clearly imply what we should do to manage the public good.”

As ever, the question is; who’s “we”?

“My problem is with instances where that is true, and the government ignores it for reasons of faith and habit.”

You’re no different from them. You just have a slightly different view of what is the public good, therefore you’d manage the same system of coercion slightly differently.

TONE:

Unfortunately, we cannot do repeatable experiments in economics, so to say that Osborne’s or indeed Balls’s economic nostrums are lacking in evidence is to miss the point that there are rational arguments for both positions but no hard evidence.

That’s actually quite easy to dispute, I’m afraid. The google terms you’re looking for are ‘macroeconomics natural experiment’ and more or less anything Paul Krugman has written since 2009. What used to be an outlying viewpoint is now the majority view expressed by the ECB, Ben Bernanke and the IMF, in addition to all the actual economists. The only people who don’t share it are political actors who are operating with seriously perverse incentives. Like climate science and drug policy, the only voices speaking in support of these failed ideological policies are voices whose salaries depend on them not changing their minds when they’re proved wrong.

Richard:

That’s a dodge. The question is whether it is right, not whether it is not controversial.

Ok, sure, that’s fair. Yes, the government has a legitimate interest in the public health, as a subset of managing the public good. The argument for building municipal sewers is morally identical to the argument for rational drug policies.

How has that worked? A quick perusal of google indicates that you will struggle to justify that statement

Bullshit.

more than likely you are giving an example which conforms to what I said above, which you dismissed as platitudes.

Nope. Read the graphs. What I dismissed as ‘meaningless’ platitudes was this paragraph:

Evidence can be found about particular government interventions, but the usual situation is thus: a problem is identified and government intervention instituted to deal with the problem. Time passes. Evidence reveals the problem is now just as big as before if not bigger. At this point, some say; ‘the government must do more’. Some say; ‘just imagine how bad it would be if the government hadn’t done anything’. Others still say; ‘the government should never have got involved in the first place.

The paragraph is either a string of plague-on-both-their-houses whataboutery or it’s meaningless. There’s no content other than ‘we never know anything and nothing ever works so we shouldn’t even try'; on that basis, please call for the abolition of the police force, the NHS and all marriages, forthwith. If your paragraph means anything, it means everything, and I don’t think you’re stupid, so I took the charitable route and assumed you were ideologically committed to a position that is irrational (i.e. school-boy libertarianism)

As ever, the question is; who’s “we”?

There’s no ‘as ever’ about it, this is the first time that question has been asked of me in this thread. However, I can rephrase my point to avoid your fourth-form debating tactics:

Nation-states form to solve collective action problems. We live in one which gains its legitimacy from a representative democratic structure and a long-lasting commitment to managing the public good. In some collective action problems, there is real ambiguity in data or analysis, resulting in legitimate difference of policy opinion, which we resolve through representative institutions advised by professional experts. In other collective action problems, neither data nor remedies are ambiguous, and on average our institutions respond appropriately. In certain cases, political or partisan sacred cow issues prevent the government from acting upon clear data and with equally clear policy recommendations; a classic example being the Nutt Sack affair.

Is that clearer on who ‘we’ is?

You’re no different from them.

Please prove that, with cites, references and ideally some kind of legal documentation? I most certainly am nothing like David Cameron or George Osbourne, except in the very general sense that I’m white, male and a subject of the United Kingdom.

You just have a slightly different view of what is the public good, therefore you’d manage the same system of coercion slightly differently.

Hell no. If it were up to me, the modern state wouldn’t exist in anything even approaching this form. It isn’t up to me. My commentary is based on the system as it exists (I’m an historian by training, so paying attention to what actually happened is kind of what I do). My ideals might be utopian, but I know what the word meant in Greek, thank you very much.

Also, to TONE: thank you for the compliment on my writing! Sorry I didn’t get that in my initial response. I got distracted by fishslapping Richard. :)

33. Richard Carey

@ 31 Chris,

“The paragraph is either a string of plague-on-both-their-houses whataboutery or it’s meaningless.”

No, it’s making the point that the same statistics will be used by different groups to argue different cases, and each will claim to be taking a rational approach, so quoting data does not end the debate, especially when there is disagreement on the ends that should be sought, as well as the means. As for the link via the term “Bullshit” (charming), I see nothing there on STDs, which was part of your claim. In any event, it’s not possible to make a causal link between those statistics and particular policies, although there may well be an interrelation.

“I took the charitable route and assumed you were ideologically committed to a position that is irrational (i.e. school-boy libertarianism) … I can rephrase my point to avoid your fourth-form debating tactics”

If you’re going to attack other people’s sacred cows, you should be aware of the one you’re riding on, which seems to be an unquestioning belief in the right of the state to intervene in questions of ‘the public good’. But this should not be presumed, but rather argued in each particular case. It does not follow that the provision of municipal sewers justifies whatever other measures are deemed to be for ‘the public good’.

The system just lost an extended comment reply to Richard Carey. I’m sorry, but right at this moment I don’t have time to replicate it, so I’m going to have to stop with the most substantive bit and come back later:

The article above was not the one I meant to link you to. The one I had in mind is here: my bad, sorry. I’ve got quite a lot of Unity articles in my archive and grabbed the wrong one.

Richard:

You should have followed the link in the section on David Paton’s nonsense as it leads to a post in which I did tackle STD rates/trends – http://www.ministryoftruth.me.uk/2012/12/18/teenage-pregnancy-sti-infections-and-emergency-contraception/

Neither is necessarily a straightforward issue and public policy interventions have their marked limitations but one thing that is clear from the evidence is that the alternative that tend to be favoured by social conservatives tend to be markedly worse than other interventions.


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