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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Too Much Information

Most people are, I hope, familiar with the incredible universality of mathematics. At the most primitive level, they learn this in first grade when they learn that the observation that three apples plus two apples gives them 5 apples is a special case of the arithmetic result 3+2=5. Less well known is a common beautiful mathematical phenomenon: many problems are hard to solve until they are generalized. In other words, it may be easier to simultaneously solve infinitely many different but related problems than to solve a single one alone. The reason for this varies. Sometimes the salient features of a problem only become visible when viewed from a sufficient distance.

In government the same phenomenon holds. It is often impossible to decide rationally whether to support or oppose particular legislation unless one has a governing rule guiding one's support or opposition to large classes of legislation. There are simply too many plausible ways to spend taxes, too many unintended consequences, too many opportunities to feed sweets to a diabetic, and too many "slippery slopes" for a rational legislator to decide issues in isolation. A rational theoretic framework for deciding issues is often called an ideology. For some reason, many view this term negatively, with the subscribers to an ideology called ideologues, and the latter term synonymous with unreasoning dogmatism and inflexibility. Hayek, in The Constitution of Liberty observes,
" A government that claims to be committed to no principles and to judge every problem on its own merits usually finds itself obeying principles not of its own choosing and being led into action it had never contemplated."
This statement applies equally to individual legislators, and by extension, to individual voters.

In my canvassing work, I have encountered many unaffiliated voters who proclaim proudly that they adhere to no party; they always "vote for the man - not the party." Invariably, these voters are dramatically less informed about the issues and candidates than their partisan colleagues on both the left and the right. It seems their position is simply an excuse for intellectual laziness.

Life is too messy to fit into any axiomatic framework (which is another way of saying again that I am not a Libertarian), but in politics as in mathematics, the attempt to frame all issues within broader theoretical/philosophical contexts is an essential exercise for informing our views on the issues and conversely for testing and developing our ideology.


  1. I think libertarianism offers a great deal by attempting to find axiomatic frameworks, and this is basically what you are talking about when defending "ideology". It's true that libertarians fight over what the proper axioms should look like (i.e. non-aggression principle, action principle, whatever) that may simply be a reflection of the messiness you note in life. BTW, I like your blog's political analyses; I'm a libertarian mathematician who is also interested in politics.

  2. I find the libertarian framework sufficiently compelling that even when I disagree with it, it helps me frame my own position.