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Sunday, 31 August 2014

Unintended Consequences

Human beings act purposively. This is the great insight of Ludwig von Mises of the Austrian School of Economics. We act in order to bring about, in the future, a situation which we deem to be preferable to the situation in the present.

Duh? Well, I am not going to summarise Human Action here, or to trace all the consequences of this insight. Suffice it to say that, given the existence of free will, this seems pretty well self-evident. If we have no free will, then all our thinking about thoughts, aspirations and motives is neither here or there. If you regard yourself as a puppet whose thoughts and actions have been entirely pre-determined by Physics and Chemistry, you may as well stop reading now.

If I imagine a state of affairs which suits me better than the current state of affairs and if I believe that certain actions on my part will bring about said state of affairs and if I perform those actions, I am acting purposively. This has nothing to say about the quality of my beliefs or of the validity of my thinking processes or of the truth content of my suppositions. I am hungry. I prefer not to be hungry. I believe that eating will satisfy my hunger – so I eat. I am penniless. I believe that having money is a preferable situation – so I resolve to get a job. I believe that a smart appearance will improve my chances of getting a job – so I wash and iron my shirt.

I assume that the world and his wife will agree: if these are the things you want these are the actions you should take. These are very simple instances of action. Our lives are made up of simple instances and of longer chains of goal oriented (purposive) actions.

As individuals, we sometimes get things right. Sometimes our actions do indeed bring our goals nearer. Sometimes we get things wrong. If we indulge in crystal meth in the hopes of feeling good, we have every chance of feeling very bad in the long run. Wise observers of our behaviour have every right to say, ‘we told you so, you plonker!’

But we are not just individuals. We live in societies. Every action has the possibility of affecting other people. For better or worse, as members of political units, we have, by voting or by acquiescing, actions that affect thousands of other people. We have, therefore, a profound responsibility to examine our beliefs, thinking and suppositions.

The first problem with political action is the problem of knowing what the consequence will be. Firstly, we cannot know for sure what every other human being actually wants. Secondly, we cannot know whether the things they things they want will really contribute to their well-being. Thirdly, political actions that bring about well-being of one group may do the opposite for another group. Fourthly, our calculations may simply be wrong; we may hope to benefit people while actually harming them. We are profoundly ignorant. From this it follows that we should, at least, be very circumspect about any and all political actions. Perhaps we should refrain from any political action until we are sure that the benefits outweigh the disadvantage.

In our big modern states the government has taken on a huge range of responsibilities. The government in effect makes a vast number of decisions for the individual citizen, almost always without knowing what it needs to make good decisions. Doubtless, governments in democracies make decisions on behalf of citizens with benign motives. This always involves spending money; and, since government has no money of its own, it has to expropriate money from the citizen.

Our governments take an enormous amount of money from us to spend on education – and it doesn’t get value form money on what it spends. The same applies to health care.

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