In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

Models and Melodrama

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It is a matter of how we see the world. (Edited: Nature)

The world we live in is complex. Companies drown in data. Politics suffers in statistics. There is a great variety as to how people interpret what is around us, and how we proceed in studying problems — whether social, political or economic — and suggesting solutions.

“Essentially mathematical way”

Two methods of understanding the world are through mathematical modelling, and through melodrama. This is not a claim that only intelligent people, or members or advocates of particular political parties, pursue one of these methods above the other.

In his famous article on comparative advantage, economist Paul Krugman wrote [1]:

At the deepest level, opposition to comparative advantage — like opposition to the theory of evolution — reflects the aversion of many intellectuals to an essentially mathematical way of understanding the world. Both comparative advantage and natural selection are ideas grounded, at base, in mathematical models — simple models that can be stated without actually writing down any equations, but mathematical models all the same.

Politics can be similarly viewed through the lens of mathematical modelling. Policies have consequences, and it is desirable to know what they are, and if they align with original intentions. People are expected to act in a particular way, following a policy, in accordance with a model, with its factors derived from empirical study.

Policies also have opportunity costs, whether taken by private institutions or by governments. For instance, a decision by a students’ union to spend its money and time in one way, means that the same money and time cannot be dedicated to other causes or campaigns.

There are trade-offs, and allocating constrained time, money, effort and people means precarious decisions must be made. Models facilitate understanding, allowing theoretical comprehension of the world around us, even clashing with senses of intuition.

Heroes and Villains

Politics can also be viewed as a melodrama. Events are not understood as a consequence of policies in the status quo, or from past experience or record history, but as the direct will of certain actors. There are heroes and villains.

An example of this clear melodrama is the debate around rent controls. Rent controls are notoriously popular, pitting poor tenants against landlords. The implications of rent control are not considered, because the world is interpreted as a story: there are bad landlords raising the rents on tenants, who must be stopped, and rent control is the means through which this aim is achieved.

Politics becomes a form of substitution: Labour for Conservatives, Greens for Labour, Conservatives for Labour, the true people for their oppressors, the acolytes for the outcasts. This rhetoric may be masked under metaphors of society, ignoring the decision-making units within that society and how their incentives change from one policy to the next [2].

The zenith of this rhetoric is that only one set of government policies becomes morally acceptable, and all others must be the preserve of the corrupt, the stupid, the ignorant and the evil. This seems to particularly hold in discussions around the British National Health Services, whereby the idea of a state-funded, state-run healthcare system is considered to be the only moral option.

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The state not running everything is outrageous, apparently. (Source: Twitter)

This moral supremacy is asserted in spite of the proliferation of mixed — but still universal — healthcare systems in European countries, using both public and private providers, using state-run insurance with private payments [3].

To govern is to choose, and our choices have consequences.

References

[1] Krugman, P., 1996. Ricardo’s Difficult Idea. MIT. Available from: http://web.mit.edu/krugman/www/ricardo.htm [Accessed: 26th February 2016]

[2] Masters, A., 2014. Thomas Sowell: Society as a Metaphor. In Defence of Liberty. Available from: https://anthonymasters.wordpress.com/2014/12/08/thomas-sowell-society-as-a-metaphor/ [Accessed: 26th February 2016]

[3] HSPM, 2016. Compare countries. Available from: http://www.hspm.org/searchandcompare.aspx [Accessed: 26th February 2016]

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This entry was posted on March 10, 2016 by in National Politics and tagged , .
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