Over at Quora, Sayed Hajaj explains a common fallacy in politics and social science, something he calls The Past Hoc Fallacy”:

It goes something like this: “In the past, we did not have much X but we had a lot of Y, now, we have more X and a lot less Y. Therefore, not having as much X would result in more Y”.

It is usually contracted to: “we’ve tried reducing X and it led to Y”.

A few examples: “We’ve tried not polluting, and it led to pirates”, or “When I played with toys and went to bed on time, I was shorter. Therefore, sleeping earlier and playing with toys makes people shorter”

I’m sure you can see what is wrong with this type of argument.

  1. It looks at changes in absolute levels rather than trends. As global temperature increased, the number of pirates in the world has decreased. This does not mean that a change in one has resulted in a change in the other.

  2. It is not specified whether the change in Y precedes the change in X. If Y decreased before X increased, then there is no basis to say that an increase in X is responsible for the decrease in Y, causality and time travel don’t go together.

  3. It’s possible for Y to have been decreasing anyway, and for X to have slowed it down, but because we don’t have an alternate reality to examine, we can only observe the seen. We do not know what could have happened had X not increased.

Sayed Hajaj then applies it to common objections to libertarian ideas:

[R]eplace “X” with “level of government” and “Y” with a list of things that, from a Western 21st Century perspective seem horrible but from an 18th Century perspective is far better than the alternatives in existence, e.g “low(er) wages, long(er) hours, poor(er) working conditions” etc.

The problem is that, even if you had current levels of regulation at those times, all of these problems would still exist. The technological development that allow us to live our relatively comfortable lives did not exist then. People took these relatively uncomfortable jobs because the alternatives at the time were worse.

Many of those laws that supposedly solved these problems only came to pass as the problems were disappearing. For example, the 40 hour work week was due, in part, to Henry Ford calculating that people who worked longer than 40 hours are counterproductive.

Often, government actually impeded or slowed down that process.

I wrote an appreciative response, which I placed on Quora as a comment to Hajaj’s excellent post:

People do not really think in terms of cause and effect when systems become complex enough to obscure causation. They think in terms of the association of ideas — or, in political debate, “guilt by association.”

Which also explains, perhaps, why they engage in such high reliance upon stated intentions in establishing policy. Our public intention on Problem X is associated with our solution, Fix Y. That is, Problem X, Fix Y, and Outcome Z follow each other “naturally,” because of the mental operation associating Outcome Z as the end with their chosen fix to Problem X.

Unintended consequences occur, of course, for a variety of reasons, but Herbert Spencer called it The Law of the Multiplication of Effects. Outcome Z is the end, or chosen imagined outcome, but other outcomes come about, say, M, N, P, and Q. These other outcomes are often not even imagined, for reasons that cause and effect are messy in complex systems, so progressives (and conservatives) just stick to the end (Outcome Z), and forget M, N, P, and Q. And when N and P and Q come to pass, it is easy to attribute them to other causes, not Fix Y or the obsession with Outcome Z.

So how is this problem obvious to us and not to others? Maybe it is because we have seen N and P and Q result so often from reforms. Maybe some of us have been hurt by them.

But more likely it is the result of attention (it takes effort for most people to think objectively about social causation), differing bias forcing reconsideration of standard social causation accounts (Spencer’s list of biases that can prevent good social science is still worth reading, in The Study of Sociology), and . . . higher IQs.

It’s been shown that while progressives tend to score higher on IQ tests than conservatives, they also show that libertarians outscore progressives. On average. (Of course. It’s not a law. One of my favorite libertarians was a retired seaman who seemed to be operate at less than 80.) And it takes mental sophistication to map a complex system.

But progressives suffer also from Dunning-Kruger, and think they are smarter than they actually are — perhaps because they compare themselves to conservatives. But they are also, let us remember, proud products of public education in our time, which has degraded to produce the illusion of learning where little exists. Progressives are the credentialed elite of the cognitive elite. Those credentials are important, and they take their awards earnestly, as did the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.

And one reason progressives try to reduce libertarians to a type of conservative is to let them off the hook, allow them not to address the more sophisticated arguments.

Most are scared of the critique Sayed Hajaj has made. It freaks them out. They are trumped.

So the critique must be buried. And calling libertarians “right wing” and “far right conservatives” helps them in this.

Guilt by association.

My working model of ends and means incorporates all this, hinted at above.

I almost never hear this discussed popularly. Nor can I remember the simple schema advanced by a philosopher — though it has to be in Aristotle or Ludwig von Mises (Human Action) or G.L.S. Shackle and I have forgotten where, precisely, it was spelled out.

I reformulated the idea (“discovered it”!) in the context of contemplating the praxeology of Mises (Theory and History and The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science were my main focuses of my early reading on the subject), the unnamed praxeology in Herbert Spencer’s Data of Ethics, and the aborted praxeology of Destutt de Tracy.

Here we go:

  1. Every cause has multiple effects (Spencer’s Law of the Multiplication of Effects).
  2. Every contemplated act must then be seen as a possible cause . . . with multiple effects.
  3. The basis of a deliberate action (there may be other kinds, such as spontaneous and habitual) is imagination of a possible flow of cause-and-effects:
  4. an actor imagines an optional act as well as its possible (expected) effects.
  5. The effects the actor likes are then compared with other effects of the act as well as with the expected effects of other optional acts.
  6. The latter effects — given up by not engaging in the optional, unchosen act(s), and also the results of inaction — are considered the opportunity costs of the chosen act.
  7. But in the former scenario, the non-preferred effects are the negative or inutile externalities of the act (from the perspective of the actor),
  8. as are, also, the unforeseen effects of the act — unless judged, after the fact, as beneficial. (I don’t remember what I called these.)

This is just the schema for action. I call it simple, but you see how complex it is. Eight steps! I could be forgetting some. (It’s been years.) Now, imagine acts in society with multiple actors, each acting and causing multiple effects, and acting in expectation of other acts (some not turning out to have been engaged, and with most unforeseen). And it gets even more complex, for I’ve not explained value; and I’ve not explained what economists put in a black box, all the psychological and situational factors that lead to preferences, in which the tree of causation spreads out backwards, so to speak — as Spencer confessed later in life, every act has multiple causes.

Liberty is important as a baseline of social action in part because policies seeking governmental programs with specific goals are hubristic and prone to failure. For “obvious” reasons.


N.B. Yes, I know my Quora response could have used more editing, but this is what I do between jobs. Scarce time makes haste makes . . . waste?

The subject of another post, perhaps.

And, in my haste, here, I may not have formulated properly the latter part of the schema for action. It’s been 20 years, folks! And this is just a hasty note scribbled on a blog.

The Quora discussion is on the libertarian Quora blog, Liberty At Large, which might be worth looking at carefully. Some really smart contributors.