The Idea Trap


A fascinating essay by Bryan Caplan on the vicious cycle in which developing (and developed) countries can become ensnared.

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  1. This theory appears to apply to other political fields besides economics – check the results of gun control in various locations. Gee, our little bit of gun control didn’t reduce crime, so we must have more. When that doesn’t reduce crime, then we need even more, again and again until you end up with the situation in England or Austrailia (or DC).

  2. I dunno. There are good examples where the vicious cycle has held sway for economic policies, but there also some counter-examples. America and the UK around 1980, and New Zealand and Ireland in the mid-to-late ’80s come to mind. Also, at this moment, Western Europe’s ongoing economic malaise is bringing about a gradual rethinking of the European welfare state in many places.

    Of course, while the economic situations that brought about these reforms were/are bleak, none of them could be viewed as truly disastrous.

  3. I think the weak link in the analysis is the attribution of counter example entirely to luck. I think he makes some good points but is perhaps a bit too enamored with his hypothesis to consider that perhaps it works both ways, and therefore it goes in one direction sometimes but the opposite direction other times. And maybe there are factors beyond what he’s discussed that determine which direction prevails. Still, he should be commended for that rarest of commodities, an original idea (and, that is, one which may be useful). As they say in the reserach laboratory, this bears further investigation!

  4. billy Bob is right. Another example: responses to terrorism that breed more. The U.S., Russia, and Israel are stuck in that trap.

  5. billy Bob is right. Another example: responses to terrorism that breed more. The U.S., Russia, and Israel are stuck in that trap.

    We’re rife with such positive feedback cycles: War on Drugs, War on Crime, War on Terror, etc. The common thread in all these is the role government plays in supressing individual liberties and consolidating more power to itself and the ruling class. The culprit is the centralized accruing of power, in a positive feedback cycle, where it keeps gorging itself and demanding more.

  6. I’ve called thinking of the kind Caplan describes “elephant whistle thinking”, after the joke (you’ve probably heard it before, but just in case you haven’t):

    A man sees a man standing on the corner, furiously blowing a whistle for no apparent reason. So he goes up and says, “What are you blowing that whistle for?”

    “This is my magic elephant whistle! Blowing it keeps rampaging elephants away.”

    “But there are no elephants around here!”

    “See, it works!”

    Elephant whistle thinking works the other way, too – if we were overrun with elephants, the man would think that the answer was to blow his whistle even harder. (Parallels with the gun control movement are left as an exercise for the reader.) The “deregulation” of power generation in California is a similar case – they make a dog’s breakfast of something, call it “deregulation”, and then say, “Look, we’ve proved that deregulation doesn’t work!” The only way I can think of generalizing these observations is that humans are remarkably resistant to learning from experience.

  7. “We’re rife with such positive feedback cycles: War on Drugs, War on Crime, War on Terror, etc.”

    I agree with the sentiment, but we have to be careful here. One aspect of the cycles that Caplan talks about is the extent to which we assign single variable causes to multi variable problems. Unfortunately, libertarians are prone to the same thing. In the case of terrorism, it may be true to some extent that the collateral damage of killing terrorists breeds more terrorism. It may also be true that US foreign policy breeds resentment. From these, it does NOT follow that US foreign policy causes terrorism, nor does it follow that you can’t kill terrorists down to a much lower level by waging a war on terror. What follows is that these are two variables to consider in a many variabled problem. It is not obvious that modifying your behaviour to accomodate terrorist demands or letting them live to spare innocents would be a more effective policy.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I buy into the (Mises?) argument that it is a ‘happy coincidence’ that liberty and effective society are corrolated. I don’t necessarily buy that liberty is the unitary cause of all good outcomes, or that just being free solves all problems. Just speculating, but could this be an origin of the minarchist / anarchist split among libertarians?

  8. liberty is the unitary cause of all good outcomes, or that just being free solves all problems

    I think that’s what we would call reductionism. As a point of debate, it’s also what we might call ye olde strawman! 🙂

    Look at it like this. All science is based on probability. I once read that if the universe were big enough (which it probably isn’t), someone could someday heat up some water and get ice cubes! Naturally, when dealing with human behavior, the odds are such that the less likely outcomes are much more common. Plus, human society is much like the weather, where there are so many variables that even hard science often makes bad predictions.

    In sum, I have no problem saying that overall, the more freedom, the less social problems. But you may sometimes have to look at thousand year trends to see this. It’s not always going to hold in any given micro situation, the same way that a particular individual may be more likely to buy something at a yard sale when it’s more expensive because he thinks it must be more valuable, but that doesn’t mean the law that demand and price are opposed has been disproven.

    As far as terrorism goes, few if anyone doubts that murderers must be brought to justice, and since this conflict has aspects of warfare, few doubt that some rules of warfare apply, as in killing foreign enemies in lieu of trial.

    But that doesn’t mean that all actions we take in that pursuit will necessarily ahve beneficial results in the long run. Presumably you will consider that an oversimplification of your position. Well, tit-for-tat.

  9. Jason Ligon,

    Thinking more about what you’ve said. I’m no military expert, but it sure doesn’t seem to me that most wars are won purely or even primarily on attrition. That is, while killing the enemy is important, it’s not diminishing their numbers that’s most important. Rather, it’s usually a strategic matter of taking territory and destroying their ability to fight back. And that’s the most difficult thing about this war and why it’s often not helpful to think in terms of traditional war. I think the main things we can do is to show that those who perpetrate and plot acts of terror will accomplish nothing and will pay. Obviously, if we know the whereabouts of such people, we should do what we can to eliminate them. But I think you’re barking up the wrong tree if you think that the point of doing so is reduce their numbers per se. And the fact that others can always take their place is not a trivial reason why.

  10. fyodor:

    I can’t speak for your position, but I have been in many, many conversations in which libertarian opposition to the war was outlined and detailed by repeating the word ‘blowback’ hundreds of times. There is an assumed superiority not only of the ideological purity but also of the efficacy of non engagement. Engagement is an assumed evil when the blowback argument is made.

    I did not mean to imply that there are no good libertarian arguments against the war, just that the one so often employed is an example of Idea Trap type thinking.

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