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Objective Policies

Most laws in most countries are made based on the subjective judgements of their lawmakers.  They should instead be based on a well-defined common ethics and objective scientific evidence.

Table of Contents

Highly Illogical1
Studies by Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman have demonstrated that the frequently-made assumption that human beings usually act rationally is incorrect.  This is particularly true when making judgements of the type required by economists and lawmakers that involve assessing the relative well-being of different individuals.  For example our sense of well-being tends to be dependent on our current state of affairs.  Two individuals, one with great wealth and one of modest means, can both be happy, but if the former were to be suddenly transformed to the state of the latter, she would be made extremely unhappy2.  This fact affects how we make judgements about others.  A wealthy person may assume that a person of extremely modest means is unhappy, because she bases her judgement on her perception of how she would feel in the other’s situation.

Psychologists have also found that human beings are systematically biased in their judgements.  And, while we handily observe the bias in others, we tend to be blind to our own biases3.  This produces the perception in each of us that we are reasonable and unbiased, while others are clearly biased.  A particular form of this, known as the confirmation bias4, is used to support and perpetuate our current beliefs.  We seek out data and commentary that corroborate those beliefs, and avoid or discount those that counter our beliefs.  Indeed, for the latter, we attempt to disprove or discredit them rather than take them as evidence that our beliefs should perhaps change.

Irrational Policies
Our politicians and lawmakers are not immune from these biases, and this is reflected in our policies and laws.  It is almost a truism that many of the things that governments (or large organizations in general) do are highly irrational.  I will discuss here a few examples from the United States of policies that are irrational, at least from a utilitarian prospective (I will discuss the ethical basis for policies below), or for which more data are needed for a rational decision regarding policy to be made.

A prime example of a decision made by the U.S. Government that was most likely irrational was the one to invade Iraq in March of 2003.  While we now have the advantage of knowing what the consequences of that decision were, it can be reasonably argued that most of them could have been predicted at the time that the decision was made.  Indeed, it is difficult to find any good that came from the decision.

  • The primary reason for the decision, that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, proved to be unfounded.  Even if the fact turned out to be true, there were at the time numerous other countries that were known to possess such weapons, and there was no reason to single out Iraq among them as meriting invasion5.  In any case, the expected good, had weapons been found, would have been modest, and the actual good was nonexistent.
  • Another reason stated for the decision was the alleged sponsorship of al-Qaeda by Iraq, and in particular by Saddam Hussein.  However, no evidence of such a link was ever found, and intelligence at the time indicated that no such link existed6.  On the other hand, after the fall of Saddam’s government, al-Qaeda supporters quickly organized an insurgency that continues to this day7.
  • A third reason that was given was the desire to spread democracy.  However, while Saddam’s regime was extremely oppressive, it is difficult to argue that Iraq today is better off than it was before the invasion.  Thousands of civilian deaths occurred as a result of the insurgency against the new government, and violence in the country continues.  It is also difficult to claim that the threat of insurgency and violence could not have been foreseen as a consequence of the fall of the existing regime.
  • In addition to doing the world no good, and to harming the people of Iraq, the invasion was disastrous for the United States.  The fact that the invasion and subsequent war accomplished nothing means that the 4500 U.S. deaths and the 32,000 U.S. wounded from the war served no purpose whatsoever.  The war is estimated to have directly cost the country over $750 billion, and with indirect costs included, over $1 trillion8
    The war was also, in sum, a major foreign policy setback for the U.S9.

An example of an irrational policy that continues to this day is the War on Drugs.  Most people believe that if most recreational drugs were made legal and regulated like alcohol and tobacco is today, the harm from doing so would be much greater than the status quo.  However, an examination of the harms from both options reveals that this is not the case.  The harm from legalizing drugs is purported to derived from the fact that drug use would increase dramatically.  The only evidence that we have in this regard is from prohibition, during which levels of alcohol use did not drop dramatically10.  This level of harm should be measured against the harm caused by the current War on Drugs, which is substantial, and has numerous sources:

  • Direct Costs: The current cost of enforcement and incarceration due to drug offenses in the United States is $41.3 billion annually11.
  • Opportunity Costs: Taxing legal drug use at rates comparable to tobacco and alcohol, would provide an estimated $46.7 billion in revenue to the U.S. Federal Government12.
  • Organized Crime: Any time there is a demand for a product that is illegal, a black market for it will arise which tends to be supplied by organized crime.  This was true for alcohol during prohibition, and is true today for illegal drugs.  Legalizing most recreational drugs would eliminate this market, and with it all of the harms caused by this form of organized crime, not the least being the many deaths from gang turf wars.
  • Petty Crime: There is a well-established link between drug use and petty crime13.  Furthermore, a reduction in the supply of drugs results in a corresponding increase in their price14.  Assuming that drug users engage in petty crime at least in part to pay for their drugs, legalization would then decrease petty crime rates.
  • Deaths Due to Overdose: 80% of drug deaths that are listed as overdoses are actually caused by “impurities and other factors that would not be present in legal preparations”15.  Legally produced recreational drugs would be subject to the same standards of quality that are required of other drug production, and would thus eliminate this cause of death completely.
  • Foriegn Policy: Many of the illegal drugs consumed in the United States are grown and/or manufactured outside of the country.  In an attempt to stop drugs are their source, the United States has used its might to force source states to ban these activities.  This policy exports many of the domestic problems due to the War on Drugs to these countries, and perpetuates the hatred for the U.S. that is prevalent in many parts of the world.

An entire class of policies that do not make any sense are economic subsidies.  In my essay on Budget, Taxes, & Jobs, I discussed two such subsidies, explaining in detail why both of them were irrational.  Many subsidies do result in short-term improvements, but they invariably lead to overall harm in the long run.

There are also many issues for which sufficient data are not available to make a decision.  One example of such an issue is gun control.  Both sides of the gun control debate can refer to statistics from narrow studies that support their position.  However, the data  regarding whether or not society is better off with or without private gun ownership is equivocal, in part due to the difficulty of isolating extraneous factors.  I know of one study that examined this question directly16, and concluded in favor of gun ownership.  However, this study needs to be corroborated.

Foundational Ethics
Due to the power that governments possess, irrationality in government is a huge problem for all of us.  Two steps need to be taken to significantly reduce this irrationality:

  1. There needs to be a clearly defined and articulated ethic on which government is to found its laws and policies.
  2. There needs to be a commitment to using science, and only science, to provide answers to empirical questions relevant to these laws and policies.

A foundational ethics is required for consistency with regard to questions that are not empirical, but instead involve value judgements.  In my opinion, the correct ethics would consist of two requirements:

  1. No law or policy should unduly harm any individual or class of beings.  In other words, the ends cannot justify the means.
  2. Any law or policy should be proven to promote the common good more than if the law or policy did not exist.

Both of these requirements involve the concept of harm.  We all have a good intuitive understanding of what harm is, and it should not be difficult in most cases to determine whether or not a particular action harmed a particular person (assuming that all of the relevant facts are known).  Where the concept of harm becomes more problematic is with respect to the second ethical requirement listed above, and in particular with regard to the “common good”.  Nearly all policies and laws will help some people and hurt others.  If this is the case, then how can we measure the level of common good?

One well known method proposed by some philosophers is utilitarianism, in which the sum of everyone’s good or harm from a particular action is added together to produce a total common good or harm from the action17.  However, in order to produce such a sum, a cardinal measure of each person’s good or harm must be available, meaning that we must be able to measure a magnitude of good or harm from the action.  Usually such a magnitude is thought to be represented by a change in the overall well-being of a person, with an increase being good for that person and a decrease causing harm.  However, philosophers are not even close to a consensus on how to measure well-being18.  Furthermore, these magnitudes must be on the same scale for each person (or other type of being), such that they can indeed be added and compared.  This is another big problem, known as the problem of “interpersonal comparisons of utility”19.  Even if these practical problems could be overcome, many additional problems with utilitarianism have been pointed out by philosophers over the decades20.  For example, most of us would believe that extra resources should be provided to a handicapped person in order to raise that person’s level of happiness such that it is at least closer to the level of normal healthy people.  However, utilitarianism would say just the opposite: the fact that the handicapped person requires more resources for the same level of happiness hinders the ability to maximize total good, and therefore dictates that the handicapped person receive fewer resources!

For this reason, I believe a more complex measure of the common good would be needed.  It would include individual levels of well-being, but would not be a strict sum of these measures, and would include measures of community or broad social well-being, such as egalitarianism, social indicators such as crime rates, and environmental well-being.  The current measure of well-being used for economic decisions in the United States is Gross Domestic Product, which is worse than utilitarianism because it essentially sums resources instead of well-being21.  Many alternative measures of well-being have been proposed, such as the Social Progress Index22.  A measure such as this should be selected or devised by governments, and then used as a basis for complying with the second ethical rule above.  The choice of this function would certainly be contentious, but any reasonable function would be better than none, as it would eliminate the use of subjective judgements as the basis for making policy and laws, and therefore also eliminate the corresponding potential for doing more harm than good.  If need be, the function could at any time be changed, although this would require a review of all existing laws and policies for consistency with the modified function.

The other ethical requirement is to prevent undue harm.  This means that no individual or group of individuals (or, to some extent, other living things) can be sacrificed for the common good.  Pure utilitarianism does not include any such constraint, and this is another major complaint against it.  For example, it would allow the sacrifice of a healthy individual in order to harvest his organs and save the lives of five people who otherwise would die from a specific type of organ failure23.  On a broader scale, it would allow global warming to proceed unabated if the economic costs of stopping it were too great, even if it could be shown to do great harm to certain groups of people and ecosystems.

The process for creating and evaluating policies and laws should also include some prohibition against undue harm.  The exact form of this rule will again be contentious, as almost any new law or policy will hurt someone.  One approach would be to prohibit any harm to any individual unless the benefits to society would help her in the long run, or if the harm to her prevented future harms to other individuals24.  Regardless of the form of this rule, it must also take into account harm done to animals and nature.  While they should be afforded some level of protection, they obviously cannot retain the same rights of humans beings, and the extent of their rights should decrease with decreasing complexity of the life form25.

Scientific Knowledge
The preceding section described a basis for value judgements.  However, these value judgements depend on empirical facts.  In particular, an empirical measure of harm done by any proposed policy or law must be obtained in order to meet both of these requirements.  The fact of the matter is that often policies or laws are made based on assumptions about these values which are outright wrong.  The use of assumptions is most often necessitated by a lack of good data.  This fact is illustrated by the situations described above.  For example, it is assumed that legalization of drugs would do more harm than that done by the War on Drugs, but as I argued, this is very likely not the case.  The example of gun control presents an illustration of a situation in which more, better data are desperately needed.

Thus, another good rule for policy making would be to only allow the creation of policies or laws for which the risk of potential harm was very low.  If the data are not available to assess this risk, then scientific studies should be commissioned to gather and corroborate the required data before the policy or law is put into affect.  This rule would be necessarily probabilistic: Low risk policies or laws could be passed in cases where the expected probability of not doing harm was high, and where there was a need for urgency.  One example of such a law is the revenue-neutral tax on greenhouse emissions mentioned above.  However, skepticism should apply here: if the law or policy is in doubt, it should be delayed until better data become available.

Vetting Policies and Laws
All policies and laws should be bound by the requirements described above.  In particular, they should all comply with the ethical requirements of causing no undue harm, and contributing to the common good.  All empirical facts that contribute to the assessment of good or harm must be vetted by the scientific method.  If the data to support these facts does not exist, studies should be commissioned to obtain the them.

In order to ensure that all policies and laws comply with these requirements, an amendment should be made to the U.S. Constitution to require that these standards be upheld when making all laws.  In addition, skepticism in policy and lawmaking should be required by verbiage such as “beyond a reasonable doubt”.  In other words, no law or policy should be put into force unless all of the relevant scientific facts, plus the fact that it will increase the common good and that it will not cause undue harm to any individual or group of individuals, should be known beyond a reasonable doubt.  The fact that this would be part of the Constitution would not only force compliance by Congress, but also would be the basis for challenges to laws before the Supreme Court.

Existing laws and policies should be reviewed for compliance with these requirements.  Presumably Congress or the President could create a task force to perform this review.  Any law that did not pass muster would then be sent back to Congress either for revision or repeal.  Furthermore, all laws and policies should be reviewed in this regard on a periodic basis, in order to take into account any new information that might change the standing of the policy or law with respect to these basic requirements.

The process for creating policies and laws in free countries is not bound by the type of restrictions found in the legal process and the scientific method.  For this reason, they tend to be based on unwarranted assumptions and questionable ethics such as theological voluntarism26.  The more powerful the polity, the more dangerous this situation, and therefore this situation is most problematic in the United States.  Our country and indeed the world would greatly benefit from, as George H. W. Bush put it, a “kinder, gentler nation”, in which laws and policies were not put into force unless they were proven to be on a firm ethical foundation, and based on sound scientific evidence.

End Notes

  1. The title of this section is taken from a track on the music record album Mr. Spock’s Music from Outer Space, by Leonard Nimoy (Dot Records, Nashville, TN, 1967).  The belief in the irrationality of human beings that was the defining characteristic of the persona of Mr. Spock has been validated in recent decades by psychologists, as described in this section.
  2. Kahneman, D. & Varey, C., “Notes on the psychology of utility”, Interpersonal Comparisons of Well-Being, J. Elster & J. Roemer, eds., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1991, pg. 127-163.
  3. Chao, Eveline, “You Be the Judge”, Princeton Alumni Weekly, Vol. 114, No. 4 (Dec. 4, 2013), pg. 20; available online at URL=<http://paw.princeton.edu/issues/2013/12/04/pages/0020/index.xml>.
  4. “Confirmation bias”, Wikipedia, URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias>.
  5. There are at least nine countries that are suspected to possess nuclear weapons alone.  See “List of states with nuclear weapons”, Wikipedia, URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_states_with_nuclear_weapons>.
  6. “Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda link allegations”, Wikipedia, URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saddam_Hussein_and_al-Qaeda_link_allegations>.
  7. “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”, Wikipedia, URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_State_of_Iraq_and_the_Levant>.
  8. “Financial cost of the Iraq War”, Wikipedia, URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Financial_cost_of_the_Iraq_War>.
  9. “On Balance, Iraq War’s Impact on U.S. Foreign Policy ‘Clearly Negative’”, Council on Foriegn Relations, Interview of Richard N. Haass by Bernard Gwertzman, URL=<http://www.cfr.org/iraq/haass-balance-iraq-wars-impact-us-foreign-policy-clearly-negative/p10132>.
  10. See for example “Alcohol during and after prohibition”, Wikipedia, URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcohol_during_and_after_prohibition>.  Most studies found a 10-30% reduction in alcohol use as a result of prohibition in the United States.
  11. “War on Drugs”,  Wikipedia, URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_on_drugs>.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Martinhago, F., et. al., “Drugs Use And Petty Crimes: A Study With Prisoners Of Blumenau Regional Prison”, Rock Your Paper, URL=<http://rockyourpaper.org/article/drugs-use-and-petty-crimes-a-study-with-prisoners-of-blumenau-regional-prison-1bbbc8ccf24c8adf5ab1e1baa6c2694a>.
  14. “War on Drugs”, op. cit.
  15. Ruwart, Mary, “Does the War on Drugs really kill more people than illegal drugs do?”, LibertarianAnswers, URL=<http://libertariananswers.com/does-the-war-on-drugs-really-kill-more-people-than-illegal-drugs-do/>.
  16. Annear, Steve, “Harvard Publication On Gun Laws Resurfaces As Talks About Firearms Continue”, Boston Magazine, August 30, 2013, URL=<http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/blog/2013/08/30/harvard-gun-study-no-decrease-in-violence-with-ban/>.
  17. The theory of utilitarianism was first proposed in 1776 by Jeremy Bentham in the preface to his essay A Fragment on Government (for full text see http://www.efm.bris.ac.uk/het/bentham/government.htm).  He later expounded on this principle at length in his book, The Principles of Morals and Legislation (1781), in particular Chapter I.
  18. Many measures of well-being have been proposed, such as pleasure, happiness, and satisfaction of desires.  I personally believe that rather than relying on reported measures of well-being, as has been traditional in philosophy and economics, that this is a task for biologists, medical professionals, and psychologists, in that some objective measure of well-being should be developed.
  19. For a brief introduction to this problem see “Social choice theory”, Wikipedia, Interpersonal utility comparison, URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_choice_theory#Interpersonal_utility_comparison>.
  20. For a brief discussion of the problems with utilitarianism and additional references on the subject, see my essay on Guidelines for Creating a Theory of Ethics, in particular the section on Other Ethical Systems.
  21. To see why this is so, consider a situation in which most of GDP flowed to a few individuals, with the rest living in poverty.  Because the masses in poverty could make much better use of these resources than the rich persons that control them, utilitarianism would dictate that some of these resources be redistributed to the poor.  However, the level of GDP would remain (ceretis paribus) the same regardless of whether or not this redistribution was made.
  22. “Social Progress Index”, The Social Progress Imperative, URL=<http://www.socialprogressimperative.org/data/spi>.
  23. For further discussion on the need for a moral constraint against individual harm, the reader is referred again to my essay on Guidelines for Creating a Theory of Ethics, in particular the section on Guidelines for a Theory of Ethics. In that essay, I refer to any ethical theory that includes such a constraint as “protective”.
  24. Another approach that is less satisfactory in my opinion would be to rule out specific classes of actions that generally tend to cause undue harm to certain individuals.  This is the concept behind the U.S. Bill of Rights.
  25. for more details on these ideas, see my proposed Theory of Ethics.
  26. For a summary of the many proposed systems of ethics and their shortcomings, the reader is again referred to my essay on Guidelines for Creating a Theory of Ethics.

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