One Man’s Moose

There was a sort of mini-meme earlier this month circulating around left and liberal blogs, a response in a thread at satirizing conservative hostility to government by calling attention to all the high-quality services provided by government that we depend upon in an average day.

It’s an old sentiment, and a perfectly sensible reply to the notion that the state taints everything by its very nature. It’s not likely to convince people who have an impossibly sanctified conception of the market and its capacity to enhance human life, or an equally determined vision of the state as purely and inevitably demonic (save, perhaps, its military or police capacities). But liberals not unreasonably hope to remind most people of the lasting benefits that have followed the early 20th Century expansion of the idea and reach of public services and government responsibilities.

On the other hand, there’s a danger to defending the state as an institution by listing its productive integration into everyday life. For one, it’s important for educated elites in the U.S. and Western Europe to seriously consider the degree to which that state, the state that provides services and protections, is an institution to which those elites have privileged access. It is in some sense “their” institution: they provide its upper leadership and fill out most of the middle management in areas that process or generate expert knowledge and intervention. They feel more comfortable interpreting the state’s activities and interacting with its operations. If they feel at risk from the actions of the government, they’re often more comfortable negotiating or actively blocking those actions. (If nothing else, you’re going to be a more successful NIMBY if you’ve got some money and some education on your side.) When you feel more comfortable with government, it’s hard to understand why anyone else wouldn’t feel the same way.

I’ve pointed out before in the context of U.S. politics why some constituencies flatly reject portrayals of government as a potential savior despite the fact that they’re beneficiaries of many governmental programs and actions. The manipulative cynicism of many conservative pundits aside, a more grass-roots rejection of government often stems from a feeling that the state is simply not capable of systematic improvement to the circumstances that some communities find themselves in. It’s not that it’s incompetent to do so, more that those communities feel a fatalism about the drift of history, a sense that if life is growing steadily worse in its moral, economic and social character, there is no policy, no expert opinion, no government agency, capable of addressing that situation.

There’s another aspect to this populist skepticism about government that I think is much more widely shared and not really ideologically conservative by its nature. This New York Times piece today about a public struggle over the fate of some deer and a moose in Vermont is a pretty good example. On one hand, you’ve got experts trying to manage animal populations so as to minimize the threat of chronic wasting disease on behalf of the public interest. On the other hand, you’ve got a guy with a pet moose that he loves.

The experts are trying to do their best to look out for the people of Vermont and their environment. The policy on chronic wasting disease has the same intent as all the other things that the state of Vermont does to protect its public lands and the health and welfare of the state and its people, all the invisible things that the poster was trying to remind us that we depend upon and expect.

But each of us knows and lives our existence at a more intimate scale, where the abstraction of the public interest seems impoverished and cold compared to the vivid individuality of real people and real circumstances. Pete the moose’s owner is wondering why it can’t be “arranged where nobody wins and nobody loses”, why you can’t have a general policy about moose and deer and elk together in a hunting farm that also makes an explicit exception for Pete or for some deer or for the circumstances of one man’s facility. Vermont’s a small state, after all, and the elk-hunting farm in question is one of only two in the state. Shouldn’t that make it possible to make law and policy which is flexible and circumstantial rather than dispassionate and detached?

The reports about government action which are told and circulate as horror stories are often this kind of tale, where government officials intervene crudely in the name of a policy or procedure into subtle circumstances and produce individual injustice or suffering while claiming to protect a higher or more generalized principle. Sometimes that has something to do with the petty authoritarianism of official culture, the same kind of license that a TSA screener who makes your life miserable is abusing.

Often, however, this is just about an incompatibility between public and individual scales of life. If you start cutting separate deals with everyone who pleads that their circumstances are special, that a legitimate attempt to safeguard the public shouldn’t apply to them, you’ll end up with a public policy that applies to no one. Let’s suppose that the regulations proposed in Vermont are a good way to contain the potential spread of chronic wasting disease. (I’m well aware that you could question them in purely expert terms, but for argument’s sake, let’s put that aside.) So Doug Nelson and Pete the moose get an exemption. Presumably the other elk-hunting farm in Vermont should be offered that too, if it’s asked for. What if someone else rescues some deer and moose under circumstances similar to Nelson and ends up feeling equally attached to them emotionally? The whole point of making an exemption is to recognize the quality and depth of Nelson’s individual feelings and experience with Pete: how could you refuse a similar circumstance in the future merely because it happens after a policy gets made?

What if, what if, what if. These are the counterfactuals that policy-makers tell about exceptions and circumstances, as a kind of totemic ward against their power. If we had to consider circumstances, they say, we’d never get anything done. Or we’d open ourselves up to a kind of corruption and abuse because you would necessarily have to devolve authority to the most local levels of a bureaucracy and trust those individuals to navigate intimate circumstances of real life with discretion and sensitivity. That worries many people as much as inflexible or blanket policies. It’s unnerving, that idea that you can’t really say what an institution or government is going to do until the actual circumstances of action present themselves. It amounts to a blank-check invitation to small-town Bonapartism.

This is the well-worn terrain on which 19th Century liberalism and the modern nation-state were born and it has ever since been the proving ground for that ideal and that institution. I don’t see a way off the map, but it’s well to be mindful of Pete the moose every time we’re tempted to recite the catechism of government’s benefits.

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8 Responses to One Man’s Moose

  1. Bill McNeill says:

    The state is often kinder to people with more money and education for all the reasons you list. However, the same is true of the market. Corporate management is also populated by the educated upper middle class. If you’ve held a position of responsibility in a company you’re more likely to perceive economic crashes as complex events rather than the machinations of a conspiracy of greedy tycoons. If nothing else, a college degree and some savings leave you better equipped to bounce back from a layoff.

    On the basis of class affinity alone, there’s no reason why a sense of fatalistic hostility should attach itself to the one institution and not the other. Likewise, the free market is rife with incompatibilities between the public and individual scales of life. (Sure it made macroeconomic sense for the steel mill to shut down, but now how am I going to buy groceries?) So why has this particular alignment of hostilities come to pass, particularly when it seems counterintuitive–i.e. poor people who stand the most to benefit from a safety net decry “socialism” while upper middle class liberals tap merrily away on their MacBooks about how evil “corporate” America is?

    No answer there, though one possibility is that “the state” is a more concrete institution than “the market”. Capitalism is an idea, but the U.S. (or Vermont) government is an actual entity staffed by real people, some of whom carry guns and are legally empowered to make your life hell. So if you want to put a human face on your generalized sense of decline, the government is the place to turn.

  2. back40 says:

    This analysis doesn’t include entrepreneurs, smaller businesses, yet it may be that this is the demographic that Timothy frets about.

  3. Jed Harris says:

    To me the central point in Timothy’s post is this:

    If you start cutting separate deals with everyone who pleads that their circumstances are special, that a legitimate attempt to safeguard the public shouldn’t apply to them, you????l end up with a public policy that applies to no one.

    The shorter version is the classic bureaucratic argument, “If we let you do it, we’d have to let everyone do it”. (I never realized before, but this is really using Kant to say can’t.)

    But this basic point, however stated, depends on an implicit assumption about the “cognitive” limitations of bureaucracy. Let’s lift that assumption for a moment and imagine that all the game wardens or whatever could see the implications of all their decisions and knew everything relevant including all the other warden’s decisions. As you may recognize these are typical (crazy) micro-economic assumptions.

    However if we make these assumptions about bureaucracy, as free market ideologues do about markets, every warden could cut deals tailored to the individual circumstances of each moose owner, hunter, land owner, etc. while still preserving the effects of the global policy. Some otherwise unhappy citizens could be bought off with voluntary transfers (of money, services, access to other animals, etc.) from others. Quite likely (but not necessarily) some people would remain dissatisfied, but surely far fewer. In addition, everyone could see that the decisions were closely tailored to circumstances, and if they viewed a range of decisions, they could probably see that it would be hard (by hypothesis, actually impossible) to improve on the local tradeoffs. So they’d be more inclined to accept their deals as “the best we all could do”.

    Unfortunately we know these assumptions are crazy. But this scenario does go some way to indicating why a bureaucratic process, as Timothy says, “seems impoverished and cold compared to the vivid individuality of real people and real circumstances.” The problem isn’t mainly the policy goal or the technocratic models, but our (circumstantial) inability to fit the execution closely to the local circumstances. This is basically a problem of data and computation, not an in-principle problem of public vs. private, large vs. small etc. Conceivably we might run into in-principle problems of computational intractability, but that would need to be demonstrated and would be an interesting result. (There are such intractability results for general micro-economic models, but it isn’t clear they apply to the much more limited cases of trying to manage moose, etc. Even if an exactly optimal outcome is intractable, likely a close approximation would not be.)

    The usual market story about letting everyone own their own moose, internalizing all their externalities, etc. obviously depends on just as many unrealistic assumptions about people, knowledge, calculation, etc. as the “optimal game management” story. However there is a potentially important difference. Sometimes market arrangements do actually pull in more cognitive power and relevant data, in that they create incentives for lots of people to locally optimize using abundant local data, and they aggregate those local optimizations in ways that approximate a global optimum. (Of course often they totally screw things up in new ways, typically by incenting the cognitive power they recruit to pursue socially dysfunctional goals, some of which also systematically distort the social process to even more strongly favor dysfunctional ends. See lobbying and regulatory capture.)

    Happily there’s actually no reason to believe that this sort of local optimization and aggregation depends on ownership and exchange. We all locally optimize and help to aggregate our ideo-dialects of our language, various cultural forms, etc. The open source community has figured out how to locally optimize and aggregate software design and construction, etc. etc. For the usual power based reasons all the theory has focused on the exchange case, but it is obviously derivative from the more general case. After all, markets arise from stable social arrangements, not the other way around. If the optimization and aggregation process doesn’t involve exchange, there’s much less opportunity to use exchange based incentives (bribes in one form or another) to distort incentives.

    So my conclusion: Timothy’s formulation tends to locate the problem in the scale or public / private distinction, which are unavoidable and thus lead us to give up. If we recognize the root of the problem is the structure of the process, we should be able to incrementally restructure game management in Vermont (or whatever) to use a better process, and to devote more effort to process engineering. A better process would pull in more information and cognitive resources from the affected citizens and would organize their activities with constraints and incentives so they approximate the intended policy. Unfortunately we don’t (yet) have a good engineering approach to building and managing processes like this, but we surely could create one if we put our minds to it.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I am really finding this a useful and thought-provoking way to circle back around the problem and come at it from some new angles. Thinking about open source as a generalized strategy or at least an insight to possible escapes from the public/private national/local is very stimulating. There’s something here about abandoning the kind of mastery and universalism that liberalism seems too attached to, while not abandoning a way of aggregating knowledge towards shared best practices (which include ethical/moral/social dispensations, not just technical ones).

  5. Jed Harris says:

    Timothy restated my point (in email) as follows: “there is some kind of devolutionist/process reinvention strategy that really gets us out of the weeds of perennial struggles over public/private. To some extent, I was trying to think about this as various experts/state official think about this when I went over the ‘If you start cutting separate deals’ point, that this is the cul-de-sac that they get themselves into.” I hope he won’t mind being publicly quoted.

    So we agree that we’d like to have much better local / global reconciliation processes for implementing public policies. Furthermore the lack of these better processes is very frustrating, which suggests we have some intuition that we could do better. One maybe obvious point here is that we think the devolution could be controlled to hit roughly the same policy target, just in a way that generates less losses and friction.

    To improve matters, we have to understand why we keep getting stuck in this cul-de-sac. Bureaucracy, as a highly evolved set of institutions that maybe started in fertile crescent grain storage management around 5,000 BCE, has had plenty of time to figure out how to do things better. I can’t think of any historical examples where it really got out of this bind. Even if it did, in some cases, we have to grapple with whatever has lead bureaucracy in basically all cultures today to generate similar problems — of course with variations in corruption, efficiency, etc.

    To elaborate on a point I made in my previous comment, we do in fact have such local / global reconciliation processes for many domains in our life, such as “negotiating” changes in our language, social and cultural conventions, background assumptions, etc. etc. Sometimes this is explicit (like the renegotiation of what counts as a “bad word”, who can make jokes about which ethnic groups or what to valorize) but more often it is implicit and mostly unconscious.

    These distributed negotiations are extremely important, though not as far as I know formally theorized (i.e. using game theory etc.) I believe they are responsible for generating, shaping and maintaining essentially all of our institutions — replicated patterns of interaction — and thus our apparently stable social environment.

    So if we have such processes (and have had since before bureaucracy) why don’t they make bureaucracy unnecessary? I guess the main reason is that some processes have to operate in “transaction time” rather than “consensus time”, and also need to maintain more reliable information than social memory typically does. When a farmer in Ur put grain into storage he needed a receipt right then, not when the village discussion could get around to it, and he needed a detailed stable record not whatever the members of the village could remember a few weeks or months later. So we got clerks making marks on a tablet, the rest is history.

    I believe the limits on implementing a broad optimum seeking process at transaction speed are mostly cognitive — humans can’t learn quickly enough, keep enough in mind, make complex enough judgments, etc. to implement a complex, widely distributed negotiation at transaction speed. As long as the process has to go through human minds at each step, and still has to run at transaction speed, bureaucracy (public or “private” — e.g. the “customer service” department) is the best solution ever evolved (ugh). Under those constraints we’re pretty much stuck with the tradeoff Timothy is talking about, and thus the perennial struggles.

    Obviously my thesis is that we can reduce the sharpness of the tradeoff — and conceivably eliminate it altogether — as we augment our social process with the abundant computing, storage and communication we’ve recently gained. This is still pretty speculative but there are plenty of examples of much more rapid distributed negotiations since the web than we could have imagined before.

    Open source, Wikipedia, etc. seem to have partially gotten out of this bind by letting people duke it out through versioned (and often branching) repositories. These repositories can simultaneously contain all the alternatives in contention and make them easy to mutate, merge and experiment with. This option isn’t directly available to us for moose management (though I enjoy the thought of checking all the moose, their owners, and the game management bureaucracy into git, and then instantiating modified versions of the whole lot on multiple branches) but examples like this suggest what may be possible going forward.

    At any rate I’d suggest we set ourselves the goal of eliminating this tradeoff. 7,000 years of “impoverished and cold” large scale social management is enough.

  6. Jed Harris says:

    Thanks for the very positive comment, Timothy.

    You raise an interesting new point: “There???? something here about abandoning the kind of mastery and universalism that liberalism seems too attached to, while not abandoning a way of aggregating knowledge towards shared best practices (which include ethical/moral/social dispensations, not just technical ones).”

    If we want to maintain our sense of mastery and universalism we can regard this as stepping back, and aiming for a masterful, universal process rather than very concrete policies or even end states (97% insured, 5% test score increase per year, etc.)

    This is already prefigured in procedural liberalism. We’re just proposing to add electrons to the mix — which of course turns it into something completely different, but Habermas is still relevant.

    To give us a strong masterful universal liberal battle cry, we’ll need to find clear metrics so we can set goals for process quality, and then fight for them. This seems entirely doable and a good thing to me.

    One curious side note: The attraction of Ayn Rand for many young men I think is exactly her projection of a masterful universal vision with a pretty simple metric. If we came up with the right conceptual framework, someone could then write a tract that would divert a lot of that testosterone fueled energy toward goals we’d prefer. (A science fiction writer? Charlie Stross? too cynical. Bruce Sterling? probably too complex, although he was playing with these ideas. We need cartoons… so I guess it should be a comic book, which would also target the right age group — but I don’t know those authors.)

    Of course this sort of intervention can take a funny bounce, but those are the risks of social engineering, even process based.

  7. G. Weaire says:

    The main thing that I wanted to say is that I’m finding this discussion fascinating, and please continue. But a couple of tangential comments:

    a) “These distributed negotiations are extremely important, though not as far as I know formally theorized (i.e. using game theory etc.).”

    I immediately thought of the sociolinguistics of politeness, esp. the still (I think) leading Brown-Levinson model. This tradition of inquiry is more-or-less entirely about trying to formalize an understanding of this sort of process at the level of conversational interaction.

    b) “When a farmer in Ur put grain into storage he needed a receipt right then, not when the village discussion could get around to it, and he needed a detailed stable record not whatever the members of the village could remember a few weeks or months later. So we got clerks making marks on a tablet, the rest is history.”

    The obvious addendum is that the village memory is manipulable in ways that the marks of the tablets aren’t (and vice versa, of course), and that therefore there is more at stake. But I have a murky, unformed, sense that foregrounding bureaucracy is missing something important here. This is sparked by Michael Gagarin, Writing Greek Law (second time I’ve had occasion to recommend it this week!), with its focus on highly formal public processes that aren’t bureaucratic but aren’t quite the village consensus either.

    c) This is perhaps the same murky, vague thought: the modern state has so much greater a bureaucratic capacity than any predecessor that it’s a difference of degree that adds up to a difference of kind, and that speaking of 7,000 (that should be 5,000 or so, I think) years of bureaucracy maybe isn’t a helpful frame of reference.

  8. Jed Harris says:

    Great to have a comment from someone who knows something about this stuff! Thanks, G. Weaire.

    Starting with the factual details, you are right about Ur, and the development of the first cities in Sumer, being probably only around 3,000 BCE. My bad. So let’s say 5,000 years from the first clerk.

    Also you are right about a difference in scale of maybe six decimal orders of magnitude being certainly a difference in kind (from maybe 100 clerks to maybe a billion or a hundred million bureaucrats of various flavors).

    My own analogy here would be Turing’s original abstract machine compared with the one I’m using to write this. I’m sure the performance difference, storage capacity, etc. is around the same order of magnitude. And Turing couldn’t anticipate the web (and its social consequences), open source, the kinds of conceptual problems large scale software presents, etc. However even today everyone who works with computers is forced to a considerable extent to learn to think the way Turing did in understanding his machine. (This is a way of thinking he crystallized out of social formations such as rooms of young women computing ballistics tables, not something that he came up with ex nihilo, of course.)

    So it would be very wrong to ignore this difference of kind. At the same time, possibly there are constraints that have stayed immutable from Ur to the present.

    I don’t know Writing Greek Law and now I need to. I hope it helps to map more of the conceptual territory also addressed by Elizabeth Ostrom in Governing the Commons and studies of the evolution of the Law Merchant in late medieval Europe. (I’m not actually qualified to evaluate any of the work on these topics, but I find it fascinating.)

    This work is indeed very relevant, I had not thought enough about it in this context. It addresses the evolution of large scale social control processes, which crystallize out mechanisms that work close to “transaction time” — in both cases the mechanisms are effectively “courts” that adjudicate the application of customary or semi-formal “law”. This sounds likely to be consonant with the focus of Writing Greek Law.

    These examples help to define a spectrum of practices. On one end is the clerk, who is performing an extremely ritualized task, ideally not subject to any significant interpretation or discussion, I would guess even after only a few hundred years of evolution of the role in Sumer.

    On the other end is the extremely inchoate processes that govern such things as the evolution of language or taste. They most likely have a lot of structure (I’ll look up the work on the evolution of politeness) but we can’t easily perceive or describe it.

    Adjudication occupies a range somewhere in the middle, still very much a social process but much more ritualized than gossip or even elections. Thinking strictly of time required, a transaction takes minutes or hours, adjudication takes probably at least weeks, consensus on a shift in mores takes years or decades. Another point whose implications I haven’t yet considered: adjudication probably always is entwined with some sort of formal or semi-formal record keeping, to maintain information about specific rights and obligations, precedents, etc.

    The moose example may be helpful here. If more than a small proportion of game warden decisions were adjudicated there’d be no enforcement and effectively no policy — the cost of adjudicating a decision is immense compared with the cost of making it bureaucratically. Conversely the option to adjudicate decisions is a crucial influence on the form of the actual policy as implemented.

    The same is true in Ostrom’s examples and in the law merchant — policies have to be mostly enforced by peer monitoring and/or cheap, local, bureaucratic processes. Adjudication is an expensive, rarely used backup.

    Another crazy thing about micro-economics, by the way, is that it (almost?) universally assumes the cost of monitoring and enforcement is zero.

    Finally, regarding G. Weaire’s comment that “village memory is manipulable in ways that the marks of the tablets aren’t (and vice versa, of course), and that therefore there is more at stake.” Each of these processes is manipulable in different ways (e.g. Madoff for bureaucracy, lobbying for laws, and long term political / PR campaigns for social consensus). It seems to me that manipulation of the longer term processes has more serious consequences, but I’d have to think more about that to have a firm opinion. In response to manipulation, social processes evolve resistance — Ostrom has interesting things to say about that, though not in those words. Banks have well developed practices of incrementally deploying, monitoring and revising new policies and procedures to make sure they are fraud resistant — this is essentially managed evolution. Etc.

    One implication is that if processes change more quickly than the world can test them, they probably will lead us over a cliff. Obviously we’ve gone past that point with global, electronically accelerated capitalism. Evolution does not anticipate, it just tries and likely fails. We’d prefer to do better than that, the question is how.

    Let me go back briefly to my hobby horse of open content production (including open source software and Wikipedia). One thing that helps to make rapid distributed negotiation safer in this domain is extreme transparency. Generally all the consequential interactions are on the public record as soon as they occur (in repositories or email archives). All the history is archived in public essentially forever, so is always available as a resource for analysis or bolstering or attacking a position. This has good effects on incentives, and also on the evolution of discourse norms. The current financial system is pretty far from this, and is working hard to get farther away, by keeping transactions off exchanges, creating opaque securities, etc.

    Another thing that helps open content production is that the payoffs for manipulating the system are generally very low. No one owns the content, and there’s no way for contributors to appropriate a significant share of the social benefits. There have been a few semi-successful cases where commercial enterprises manipulated open processes, such as the Rambus patent scam (essentially Rambus successfully promoted inclusion of ideas in standards, and only afterward revealed it had applicable patents). But these cases are rare and so far the relevant community has always been able to amend its practices fairly quickly and easily to prevent similar problems in the future.

    We are in the process of generating transparency for a lot of existing bureaucratic processes and it probably can and should be made a universal norm for all of them (including game management). Note that simply having public records is not nearly enough — the records need to be on line, accessible without fees, and in a format consistent enough to be searchable. Then open content processes will tend to generate transparency for the process as a whole. There’s still a lot of contention around electronically accessible records — existing interests have thrown up all kinds of obstacles, including trade secrets (e.g. testing voting machines), copyright (e.g. building codes and legal records), refusal to convert to electronic form (e.g. legislative calendars), fees for access, etc. etc. But these excuses usually seem pretty absurd when made explicit, and they are gradually being ground down. Electronic transparency isn’t yet a social norm, but we seem to be slouching in that direction.

    I’m much less clear how we can reduce the payoffs for manipulating social processes. In many cases (such as game management) payoffs are probably already pretty low. But in many important areas like finance and health care they are huge. My guess is that there are ways to restructure our institutions of ownership and control to improve matters but this will be a multi-decade struggle, even when we’re clear about what we want, which we aren’t yet. So I guess our first order of business is to figure out our goals.

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