September 1st, 2007

On judging large institutions

I'm going to be noodling around with some observations here.

As some of you may have noticed, I'm a libertarian with the usual reflexive mistrust of government and fondness (though snarky in my case) for business[1].

It's occurred to me that there's a strong parallel between the way I feel about government/business, and the way a lot of people on the left (very noticably at the BBC) feel about business/government. If I understand it correctly[4], the idea is that profit-seeking is so personal and short-sighted that anyone who's going after profit should be assumed to be untrustworthy.

The truth is that, now and for the forseeable future, business and government are how quite a lot of the useful work of the world gets done. They could go away--slavery pretty much has--but it doesn't look likely at anything like the present tech and social organization level.

Meanwhile, discussion of regulation gets polluted by people feeling rightly that the other side has either business or government on trial. Either people in business are naturally wicked folks who just will not do the right thing or avoid the wrong thing unless they're forced by disinterested bureaucrats backed by police, or else people in government are a bunch of interfering fools (in some cases, bought by a competing business) who just get in the way. This makes it harder to talk about whether any particular regulation makes sense.

There's a similar pattern when the subject of unions comes up. There's a background noise of unions are wonderful/unions are horrible which distracts from the question of whether a particular union is competent and reasonable at negotiation and honest with its members' money.

Even though I've been noticing this for quite a while, it hasn't had much if any effect on my reflexive reactions. So this is an informal essay, not a call to arms.

The top ends of the footnotes are out of order because I entered the footnotes as I felt the need for them so I wouldn't have pseudo-superscripts that I'd forgotten to write footnotes for. I have much more faith in your ability to find footnotes as needed than I have in my ability to renumber my footnotes and get it right.

[1] A lot of people on both the left and right have this delusion that businesses are efficient at profit-seeking, and there must be a good reason for anything a business does. Austrian[2] economists acknowledge the importance of incomplete information, but afaik, they don't do justice to the business effects of stupidity, ignorance, overload, prejudice, and simply not yet having thought of something which will be obvious in retrospect.[3] Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency by Tom DeMarco is a fine discussion of a large range of business stupidity and what to do instead. I don't know if there's anything comparable for government. Please let me know if you've heard of any such.

Actually, that might be an angle on the business vs. government thing. There's a large genre of how to do business better books (of wildly varying quality, of course). There's nothing I've seen about how to do government better from the inside, even there are a lot of people working in government and some fraction of them would like to get better at their work.

Why did the economist step over a hundred dollar bill lying in the street? If the bill were any good, someone else would have picked it up already.

[2]"Austrian" because they're in the tradition of Ludvig von Mises. They aren't especially writing about Austria.

[3] Considering all that, why do I like business at all? The feedback loop is shorter, and the relative lack of power means that businesses can't create the level of disaster that governments can. And businesses do a lot of useful work.

[4] Considering how hard it is to understand the underlying beliefs of people with whom you share a language and a culture, it amazes me that people make definitive statements about the metaphysics of ancient cultures known only through their artifacts.

Perhaps I have no taste

After a suicide by hanging at Burning man
Pershing County coroners are investigating the scene and preparing to remove the body. Pirtle said the man was hanging for two hours before anyone in the large tent thought to bring him down. “His friends thought he was doing an art piece,” Pirtle said.

The link is from a bradhicks essay about why a sociopath (imho) prematurely burning the effigy at Burning Man isn't something Brad is willing to joke about, and I'll probably agree with Brad (I'm making educated guesses about his line of argument even as I type), but meanwhile I cracked up for minutes about the suicide being mistaken for an art project.