Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Pride of the Ph.D.

One of my favorite writers on policy is Jim Manzi. He has a book coming out called "Uncontrolled" in which, I take it, he explores the limitations of social science (at least as currently practiced) and the value of randomized controlled trials.

In commenting on the book, Arnold Kling writes something that I think goes to the heart of what makes many people - including me - conservatives. Kling begins by noting that society, at any given time, includes both "embedded" wisdom and "embedded error." He continues:

The application of social science to public policy is an attempt to use conscious knowledge to replace embedded error. What I call Hayekian conservatism is the view that social scientists know so little that these attempts are more likely to undermine embedded wisdom than to correct embedded error. Therefore, policy ought to be cautious. .....
Hayek would argue that there is embedded wisdom in society that is beyond the understanding of social scientists. Call these the "unknown knowns," if you will. That is, social scientists are not aware of how habits and institutions work, but these habits and institutions have, through evolution, accumulated tacit knowledge. As social scientists, we can make some guesses about how property rights, the rule of law, trust, and trade contribute to higher per capita GDP. However, we are not able to explicitly "fix" underdeveloped countries. Richer countries are richer in the unknown knowns.
Extremely well put and much more important, I think, in the Age of Obama. As I argued here, he is strongly in the tradition of "top-down" Progressivism. He favors comprehensive, uniform, centrally determined policies.

(H/T: Russ Roberts)


Billiam said...

Just a thought. Maybe the reason underdeveloped countries can't be fixed, at least in the short term, is that it takes a long time, 3-4 generations, to get people to do a thing differently. You can't take a tribal people, like say, Afghanistan, and turn them into the French overnight. Our leaders don't get that. It would take a country that backward and tribal many generations before you could make even modest change. The corruption, the bribes and tribal loyalties are ancient.

Remember, the founders were British in origin and had already grown up under ideas fostered by the Magna Carta, etc. They had been exposed to education beyond the tribe. Does this make sense, or am I totally hosed here?

Anonymous said...

What's unfortunate is that you don't get it that Obama is a pragmatist, an incrementalist, and a student of Niebuhr -- indeed probably the first United States President who has ever read him. ObamaCare, the example you probably think of to support your fictional notion that Obama is a supporter of comprehensive, uniform, centrally determined policies, is a market-driven, incremental reform providing for decentralized experimentation. If Obama were who you imagine he is, he would have proposed single-payor.

Rick Esenberg said...

Actually, the paper that I wrote and linked to was presented at a conference on Niebuhr and public policy. I considered Obama's clain to be be Niehuhrian and suggested that he was not.

As far as being the "first President" to read Niebuhr, Carter prattled on about Niebuhr as well.

ObamaCare is none of the things that you mention and, of course, Obama himself said that it was "the way" to single payer. It may well turn out to be since there is little chance it will actually work. It's not a coincidence that he deferred its implementation until after 2012.

Rick Esenberg said...


I think you're right. Cultural capital is really important.

George Mitchell said...

Randomized trials are the "gold standard." Vouchers have been subject to more such studies than any other K-12 program, with mostly positive results. Readers of the Journal Sentinel have not been told that. With one exception in the era of school choice the local print media have assigned education reporters who don't understand the basics of social science research. Thus, the paper trumpets completely meaningless data from DPI or truly egregious "studies" such as recently issued by the Public Policy Forum. The editorial page searched for someone to rebut the recent findings of real scholars and had to resort to Alex Molnar.

Anonymous said...

"That is, social scientists are not aware of how habits and institutions work, but these habits and institutions have, through evolution, accumulated tacit knowledge."

What tripe! Every social science discipline – with the exception of psychology – has at least one distinctive strategy for doing institutional analysis.
Inherent in this process is the assessment of group dynamics and individual behaviors. Now, certainly one could argue that social scientists may lack the means to carry out their findings, or may underestimate the forces that derail their proposed solutions. But to say that, in essence, social scientists are "clueless" in regards to how institutions and habits is a major stretch.

The work of Jane Addams at Hull House is a PRIME example of how individuals developed programs best suited to meet the needs of society (i.e. the poor and newly arriving immigrants) at a time when public services were non-existent. The institution at the time--corruptive government--was carefully examined by the Social Gospelers. They developed a wide range of strategies to teach people how to better themselves, i.e. to change or alter their behaviors. One can provide evidence on Jane Addams and company assisted in the homogenization of our culture because of their ability to comprehend institutions and habits.

Billiam--"It would take a country that backward and tribal many generations before you could make even modest change."

Your statement seems condescending to the Afghans in that America should not even bother "changing" them because they are so "backward" it is not worth the effort. Do you really mean that the United States should not and cannot impose its will on individuals because they are, in essence, "inferior"?

I think some clarification is in order here.

Billiam said...

Anon 6:24

No, I wasn't saying that they are inferior, though, I'll take this culture, with all its faults, over theirs. Cultures and people do not change over night. Afghanni's don't go from being/acting for tribal interests one year to being/acting like Europeans the next. To expect them to is idiotic. That's the point. We here in the US seem to think that people think the same, or act the same as we do, if only given that ethereal Freedom. They don't, as should be obvious to anyone.

Also, is it not arrogant to think they'd want to be like us? As to whether we should be there? I think not. After we took out the Taliban, we should have left. We're not that good at Nation building. Should we impose our will on them? Harsh as it may sound, no. The mission was to take out the Taliban, not turn Afghanistan into a faux democracy. Is that any better?

Anonymous said...

Anon 6:24 p.m. here...I thank you for your clarification.

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