Conflation of Ends Ruins Everything

Vox Day has often insisted that to the extent an organization’s attention is diverted away from its primary purpose toward goals of social justice, it is prevented from serving that original purpose.

The same dynamic is at work in us. Multi-tasking is inefficient, because it is confusing. It prevents good performance on any one thing. Focus on one thing at a time, and do it well. You will work faster and more efficiently, and your output will be better.

The same dynamic is at work even in our instruments. E.g., low flow showerheads don’t work as showerheads; low flow toilets don’t flush very well. Mandating low flow plumbing is a way to ration water use that doesn’t work, because it ruins the plumbing qua plumbing, so that people must use it more than they would if it worked properly to accomplish the proper ends of plumbing.

That low flow showers don’t work qua showers indicates that the dynamic we have here noticed has a physical basis. And indeed, we find it operating in any physical system. Dam a river, and the river will do its damnedest to destroy or circumvent the obstruction. When you dam the river, you confuse its end of rolling to the sea via the least path by introducing your own artificial ends of generating power, controlling the flow, storing water, etc. Nature will work relentlessly to defeat the ends you have introduced to confuse the hydrological system.

It’s a general phenomenon.

What does this tell us? It tells us that we should interfere with things as little as possible.

Make your acts about only one thing, and let all the other concerns fall away. If you don’t, you’ll soon be burdened with a very expensive and inefficient Rube Goldberg contraption that doesn’t do anything quite right. But if you take care of the one thing properly and well, then you will find that other things fall into place behind it, and generate unanticipated knock on benefits as ancillary functions return to normal and the system settles back into its proper order.

For example, if your objective is to generate state revenue, don’t begin your policy design process with any other objective in view – e.g., reducing income inequality, or helping the environment. Instead, focus only on figuring out what method of collecting revenue will generate the most, while imposing the least cost and deformity on the system that generates the revenues. Once that’s done, then turn and attend to your other objectives, and deal with them precisely, one by one.

If you’ve designed the revenue generation policy properly, you are then likely to find that it will have ameliorated some other, apparently unrelated problems. There can be virtuous unintended consequences, but they generally attend only virtuous policies.

To take another example, low flow toilets were mandated to reduce water consumption, which had been goosed ab initio by enormous public subsidies to water, which reduced prices per gallon. If water prices had been allowed to reflect the true costs of water from the get go, consumption would always have been better controlled – and so would settlement in arid regions like the American Southwest and California.

In general, if you have to maintain an artificial stimulus such as a regulation or a subsidy in order to get the effect you want – out of yourself, your property, your enterprise, or your society – it’s a pretty good indication that the artificial stimulus is compensating for an obscure systemic defect of some sort, that remains uncorrected. NB that the systemic defect in question might lie in your expectations of the system. You might be expecting other from nature than she wants to supply. You might be expecting more than you ought.

In any case, the artificial stimulus is not likely to work for long, because the natural systems it is trying to correct (or, as when we expect from reality what it is not fitted to generate for us, to “correct”) are going to amplify their outputs in response to its presence, thus compensating its effects and frustrating its ends. Such is habituation; such is homeostasis. To get the same artificial effect your policy had at first intended, you’ll have to up the dosage. It’s a vicious cycle, that as it explodes consumes more and more of overall system resources, while performing worse and worse.

Viz., the cost/benefit of medical care or college education in the United States. Viz., anarcho-tyranny, and PC. Viz., the money supply under central bank mandates to maintain full employment. Viz., the bureaucratic state and the surveillance state. These are all positive feedback circuits, addictions that, under their own terms, are bound to increase their activity without limit, and generate more and more perverse effects throughout the system that call out for compensatory interventions of their own, until the machinery overheats and breaks down.

The only way to resolve such viciousness economically is to repair the fundamental systemic defect that lies at the root of the problem your policy solutions intend to fix. And this is ever mostly a matter of ceasing to do what you have been doing. Rip away the many layers of misguided policy fixes, and let things work as they would. Let natural homeostasis return as much of the system as possible to the native balance it ever seeks to restore. Then, and only then, consider whether tweaks to the fundamental system might be salutary.

Usually they are not. This is why traditions generally make sense, and reforms of traditions are so often ruinous.

15 thoughts on “Conflation of Ends Ruins Everything

  1. Pingback: Conflation of Ends Ruins Everything | @the_arv

  2. Fits nicely with Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics (with John Moore’s emendation):

    1. Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.
    2. Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.
    3. The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of the enemies of the stated purpose of that bureaucracy.

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  4. Nice! My front loading washing machine is water-saving and awful. I soak all my clothes and towels in Oxyclean before washing as a result – in lots of water.

  5. My experience with low-flow toilets is that they usually require two or three flushes before they finally swallow what was deposited in them. Hence, no net saving on water use.

  6. Interesting, provocative presentation of the thesis. How strongly would you insist on the “Do One Thing Well” principle? For example, you could draw a distinction between saying:

    “An income tax should only be optimized with respect to a single goal”

    …and a more sophisticated (but also less robust!) claim like:

    “IF you institute an income tax to achieve goal A, and then subsequently allow people to propose goals B, C, D, etc. as desiderata for the administration of tax policy over time, THEN you are more and more likely to get a series of tradeoffs where the policy is re-adjusted to advance one the N subgoals at a small expense to the N-1 other subgoals, and the final result ends up being jointly irrational.”

    That’s just one example: you would also have “… THEN you do more and more damage to the transparency of the institution, and the difficulty of assessing whether it is doing its job creates a principal-agent problem” or “… THEN you create a negative political-economy dynamic where powerful lobbies have extra degrees of freedom to advance their own interest” or “… THEN you fatally damage the integrity and morale of the tax policy staff, making implementation of the policy increasingly incompetent”.

    But you would agree there is a difference between the strong version and the weaker version I’m proposing, right? The second set of claims may add up to a quite strong pragmatic case against adding additional goals once you’ve instituted an income tax to raise revenue… but they don’t change the fact that before you have a tax policy to foul up raising revenue, increasing equality, DEcreasing equality, combatting inflation, encouraging workers to take it easy, and all sorts of other things are all potentially desirable consequences a tax policy could have, and there is no reason not to weigh them against one another.

    • In formulating any policy of action, many things must be weighed. One doesn’t decide to barge into the store for the Cheerios this instant, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, if there is a pride of lions lounging in its doorway.

      It’s just that if you add to the goal of getting the Cheerios an additional goal of feeding the lions, you radically constrain your solution space – which is to say, make it very much harder to discover a satisfactory solution, by increasing the number of constraints on what constitutes satisfaction.

      The difference is in whether you consider the lions vis-à-vis your goal of Cheerios soon – which is obviously prudent – or whether you somehow involve the lions (or the poor, or the refugees, or what have you) in the Cheerios project in such a way as to make it the Cheerios & Lions Project – which is obviously foolish.

      Separate the two goals and make for them two disparate projects.

      E.g., don’t make the succor of the poor an objective of your revenue collection. Instead, collect the revenue, and then if need be succor the poor by some other means aimed exactly at their difficulties.

      When one cleaves to this rule of clarity, the general result – not always, but remarkably often – is that one finds the focused and efficacious policies that it generates have unlooked for beneficent effects upon all sorts of other, apparently unrelated facets of life. E.g., early to bed so as to get enough sleep to work effectively is good for general health, mood, digestion, muscle building, and so forth; and these all feed back in turn to increased capacity for work. Or likewise, optimizing state revenues improves capital formation, start-ups, employment, family formation, and so forth; and these all feed back (through prosperity and morale) to increased state revenues.

      The sovereign must – or ought to – consider all the effects on his future revenues of any revenue policy, so as to approach that policy with the highest net present value of future revenue streams. Should he, e.g., tax earned income or sales? Which will most encourage prosperity, thus increasing his revenue base and compounding his revenues?

      So, in practice, the strong version of the principle subsumes and reckons the concerns noticed by the weaker versions.

      NB that in the foregoing I have characterized the sovereign’s project of generating income for himself from his domains as a problem not of optimizing the income tax, but of optimizing revenues, howsoever collected, and on whatever basis. The income tax is but one option among many, and an exceptionally poor one.

      • I agree that these types of principles work very well a pragmatic rules to structure your life around (a form of discipline). And when a political dilemma can be clearly analogized to the choice between discipline and laxity in personal life (like in the example I gave in my first comment), ceteris paribus.

        But I’m less certain that it works in general. Clearly, as you say, it doesn’t work as a theory of causality. It also doesn’t work as a tool for prediction-making. But your conjecture seems to be that it works as a guiding principle for policy decisions anyway; in effect, you can treat policy dilemmas as though they were choices between discipline and laxity even in the absence of a structural analogy.

        >Which will most encourage prosperity, thus increasing his revenue base and compounding his revenues?

        This very q was in the back of my mind because imho you skipped over the point that a revenue-maximizing tax might well be as high as 70% or 80%. The whole reason that there are any distributional consequences to taxation at all is that, generally, taxes aren’t set to maximize revenue! They are set to balance welfare derived from public spending against welfare derived from taxable activity. If your policy is born with a dual mandate, then most of the arguments against adding a third sub-goal are also arguments against the dual mandate itself.

        (I’m also curious to hear what your view on macroeconomic policy is – there again, you have a dual mandate of high employment and low inflation, to which small countries must add the triple mandate of stable exchange rates. My gut says that even if the dual mandate makes the Fed unmanageable and unaccountable, which it does, there’s simply no point in having a single mandate; the relationship between the price level and business activity is a matter of causality and prediction, not a matter of discipline.)

      • The principle of focus is clearly pragmatic, both in design and in science. It is not a theory, but a methodology.

        If your science is focused enough – as, e.g., controlling for exogenous factors insofar as that is possible – you should eventually be able (at least in principle) to arrive at a formalization of the sort of system under consideration that will allow you to make predictions. That should in turn give you a better grasp of the causal relations affecting system behavior.

        But in the post I was more interested in focus as a pragmatic rule for the design of policies of social conduct.

        The revenue maximizing tax is very unlikely to be high. Tax revenues are a function not just of marginal tax rates, but more of the velocity and quantity of trade. Tax rates too high will reduce trade, reducing revenues. This is the famous Laffer curve. Both the Reagan and Kennedy tax cuts generated massive spikes in GDP, and thus in revenue. It may be that the revenue maximizing tax rate is somewhere around 10%, or even less. How to tell? Keep reducing rates until revenues begin to fall; that’s your sweet spot.

        The whole reason that there are any distributional consequences to taxation at all is that, generally, taxes aren’t set to maximize revenue! They are set to balance welfare derived from public spending against welfare derived from taxable activity.

        Exactly! Collect revenues as optimally as possible; then, in quite a different department of the sovereign administration, spend the revenues, or invest them, as optimally as possible; and to the extent there is surplus, distribute it as a dividend to citizens.

        As to macroeconomic policy, it is indeed incoherent to saddle a single agency such as the Fed with contradictory mandates. But then, I think it imprudent to try to outguess the future with respect either to employment or to inflation.

        Pushing employment by goosing the money supply is like feeding amphetamines to a man tied up in a wheelchair. Just let the poor guy up out of the chair and let him work; i.e., eliminate the other government policies that restrain enterprise, either of labor or capital, and let a thousand flowers bloom.

        Likewise, controlling inflation by messing with the money supply corrects for noise in the signal of the price of a dollar by adding noise of a different wavelength. Eliminate the government policies that artificially promote inflation in the first place, and the only sort of price inflation that will remain will be the type that accurately signals increasing scarcity or increasing value. A good place to start would be to eliminate usury by a sovereign recusal from enforcement of full recourse debt contracts. Then you could allow banknotes to compete, as they did throughout history until that business was nationalized and granted to the Fed as a monopoly.

        The result of a separate pursuit of these two quite disparate policy objectives would be that we’d have as much employment as we wanted, given the actual resources and opportunities really at hand, and the price of a dollar would be an accurate signal of the relative scarcity of this or that resource. Employment and inflation would not then be problems that the government needed to solve, or ought to.

      • Dollars to doughnuts we would find we did not differ on the economic issues, once we had each explained ourselves clearly to each other.

        Thanks for your terrific comments – and for your work elsewhere.

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