Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

That noble cause

with 3 comments

One of the greatest problems with today’s democracies, possibly societies, is the over-focus on “noble causes” and populist single issues*, while firstly failing to provide a program that is suitable for society as a whole, secondly ignoring the negative effects of the solutions to these causes, thirdly often providing unrealistically easy solutions and measures, fourthly not bothering to truly find out whether these causes are just or at all relevant. To boot, the causes are often misrepresented or presented so simplistically that uninformed voters draw incorrect conclusions.** And, no, I am not talking about populist or one-item upstarts—I am talking about established main-stream parties and politicians.

*I will use “cause” to denote both below, for the sake of simplicity, but without an intended limitation in meaning. This especially since the border between the two can be hard to detect or depend strongly on perspective.

**Be it deliberately or because the politicians’/propagandists’ own understanding is too shallow. Both can apply, but I suspect that in the more strongly ideological movements the latter is the greater problem.

The reason is easy to understand: Such causes are easier to sell to the broad masses, and promise greater gains in votes than a more responsible and nuanced approach. This especially since there is often a cost–benefit distribution that leaves a smaller group considerably better off and/or seeing its demands met, while the rest of the population takes a small hit and/or is unaware of the larger hit it does take: The smaller group sees enough benefit to influence its decision making; the larger group does not see enough detriment to be moved to opposition. Of course, while the cost of one cause might be small, the accumulated cost of a few dozen can be quite large…

In most cases, however, such approaches are at best irresponsible, at worst highly detrimental. A good example is the common “Green” drive to abolish nuclear power at all costs, especially exploiting the fears around nuclear accidents with a mixture of fear-mongering and misrepresentation. Look at what happened in Germany with its “Energiewende”*: At an enormous cost, a government intervention succeeded in considerably increasing the use of renewable energies; but this was all wasted, because the corresponding reductions in use of other sources were mostly limited to nuclear power—with the use of the far more problematic fossil fuels actually increasing**… Exaggerated fear of nuclear power left the environment worse off than before the Energiewende!

*Roughly, “energy turn-around” or “energy revolution” (“revolution” having unnecessarily strong connotations).

**At the time I last looked into numbers, possibly two years ago: In the long term, this will obviously be better. An improvement might or might not already have taken place, but I am not optimistic—and even if it has, it does not change my point: The brunt of the reduction should have been put on fossil fuels to begin with, with reduction of nuclear power being a mere nice-to-have.

Schooling* is another good example, even source of examples: Every now and then some nit-wit politicians insists that more schooling is needed to solve this-or-that societal problem, without considering consequences (cf. e.g. [1]). Every now and then some change is implemented to solve a problem with the current schooling that ends up making things worse (notably in math education). Every now and then disproportionate extra regulations are added (e.g. in that small children are suspended for a triviality, like using a hand as a pretend-gun or kissing someone on the cheek, because there is a fear of real gun use or sexual harassment among high schoolers). Etc.

*The recurring reader is aware that I am highly critical of schooling, as opposed to education, in general. Here, however, I do not deal with this overall problem, just with the additional problems caused by unwise new measures pushed through to solve some (perceived or real) problem in the guise of a “cause”.

Of course, sometimes the cause can be something more trivial, yet still have a downside not appropriately considered. For instance, recent regulations in NRW (my state/Bundesland of residence in Germany) require all apartments to have a smoke alarm; this smoke alarm has to be serviced by a professional once a year. Now, I could easily imagine that the installation of a smoke alarm has a net benefit: The one-time cost is not overly large and it can help with saving lives. However, an annual servicing? This is a recurring cost and forces tenants to take a significant chunk out of their workday*. And: It brings very little benefit… I note that the voluntary smoke alarms of old usually went entirely without service, barring a battery change every few years; that the likelihood of malfunction within a year is so small that the value added through the service is negligible; that even the requirement to have a smoke alarm is not universal, making the service requirement disproportional; that e.g. the chimney inspection for my gas heating (which can actually cause or contribute to a fire) is once every three years; and that the number of apartment fires in Germany has dropped very considerably over time anyway. (I also note that there are many who suspect that even the requirement to have a smoke alarm in the first place is driven mostly by manufacturer lobbyism… Cf. e.g. a German article.) Five years, for instance, might be an appropriate service interval with regard to costs and benefits—one year is not even remotely close.

*Based on my limited experience so far, the service company one-sidedly dictates the time and date, which then naturally tends to fall in the middle of the ordinary work-day. Combine this with a commute…

The problems do not end with the negative side-effects or the lack of benefit, however. Consider the relevance of a cause: For instance, many political causes of today are strongly rooted in the non-negotiable premise that any difference in outcome goes back to a difference in opportunity. With such a world-view, many problems are severely exaggerated or even created out of the blue. Is is a cause for government intervention (e.g. through affirmative action) if the proportion of women on a certain corporate or governmental level, or even within a certain field, is lower than roughly 50 %? No! We have to consider aspects like voluntary choices and life priorities, potentially differing skill sets and levels, differing interests, … Now, if we can determine that the same proportion of men and women want to do or be X, that they have the same skills, that they are willing to sacrifice as much to get there, …, then we might have a cause for government intervention. There is, however, no proof that this is the case—on the contrary, even the attempt to prove it is usually left out: We see a difference in outcome; ergo, it must be discrimination, indoctrination, Patriarchy, structures, …

A particularly insidious problem is that such causes are often insatiable: Once the original goal has been reached, the goal posts are moved further away; with the same thing happening again and again, every time the next goal is accomplished. In many cases, the point is exceeded where a fight for justice/equality/liberty/… is turned into its opposite, because the push has gone too far. Very often, the continual pushing of the goal posts is only possible through (typically intellectually dishonest) re-definitions, deliberate misinterpretation of statistic, “willful ignorance”, or similar means. A good example is poverty, which in modern Leftist rhetoric is usually taken to mean e.g. someone earning less than a percentage of the average—making people “poor”, who have in their lives never gone hungry or lacked a roof over their heads, and opening the doors for vote fishing with “childhood poverty” even in countries like Sweden and Germany.* How absurd such a measure is, is proved by the fact that it is possible for someone to grow “poor” when, all other factors equal, someone else becomes wealthier…

*In these countries, childhood poverty, in any real sense, is almost non-existent. Poverty, in general, does exist, but is rare and is mostly either limited to short times or caused by own negligence or laziness. Even the single mother working a minimum wage job, which is one the worst long-term and non-negligent situations that do occur, would be the envy of many of her ancestors—no matter how unfortunate her situation is compared to the current average. As for her children: I had a similar situation for several years of my own childhood—and grew fat and spoiled. In the roughly 35 years since, things have not changed for the worse.

This cause obsession leads to poor decisions and poor policy, it raises taxes, introduces inefficiencies, limits personal freedom, worsens bureaucracy, … The positive effects are usually considerably smaller. I urge the politicians to be more responsible in their actions; the voters to never support a cause they have not understood.

(Many other examples than the discussed can be found, especially within the Left and the PC crowd, or looking at some charities, that reward the giver with a warm feeling, keep their employees paid, make the chairman and the odd middle-man wealthy, and achieve very little for the needy.)

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Written by michaeleriksson

December 10, 2017 at 2:01 am

3 Responses

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  1. […] damaging legislation are coming true. (And, yes, these fears were a strong motivator behind my previous post, on “noble causes”.) I note that nothing has actually changed over the last few months that makes new legislation […]

  2. […] Shortly after finishing my last post, I went to buy some groceries—and promptly encountered another cases of a misguided noble cause: […]

  3. […] limited to what is necessary—not what buys more votes. Further, it is a good example of how a “noble” cause does more harm than good to […]


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