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The Limits of What We Should Do

The role of information, or lack of it.


by James Leroy Wilson
October 17, 2001

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The Limits of What We Should Do_James Leroy Wilson-The role of information, or lack of it. I have never served in the military, and don't know if any service would have taken me anyway. But it's probably better this way when considering war and foreign entanglements. If I had served, I might judge future military action in terms of my own beliefs and interests. What causes do I believe in? Under what circumstances would I give my life, or possibly kill civilians? Answers to these questions may provide the justifications for going to war: "the war I was called to fight in was far less just than this war, therefore we should fight."

But a nation's interests is bigger than one person's judgment or beliefs. More appropriate is to ask oneself what should be required of others and their children. Would I ask you to surrender your life, or put you in a situation where you had to kill? Would I ask you to give your own son to this cause? There's a difference between a sacrificing for a cause I believe in, and forcing others to do the same.

This question also applies to domestic affairs. The nature of government is to force people to sacrifice in some way for purposes it deems good. A political philosophy boils down to what one would force other people to do, even to the point of ruining the lives of some to benefit the whole. It is true that an authentic leader is willing to make the same sacrifices, perform the same tasks, and exert even greater effort, than what is asked of underlings. But politics doesn't, and can't, work that way. Most often leaders - and voters - can't make the same sacrifices asked of others. A hawkish elderly woman can't serve in the military; can't fight. It doesn't matter if she's willing or not. The same goes for a person earning $30,000 who says, "If I earned $300,000 or $3 million, I would gladly pay the higher tax rates. Therefore, the rich should just stop complaining and pay their 'fair share.'"

The often-fatal flaw of this line of thought, which can emerge from either an instinctual or philosophical notion of what is moral and just, is lack of enough information to successfully apply idealistic principles to social reality. Those high tax rates on the rich could be stunting economic growth and employment rates. Friedrich Hayek (of whom I'm generally unfamiliar) is credited with the critique of Communism that economies can't be "planned" well since there can't ever be sufficient information possessed by the planners to address the wants and needs of the people. Economics is like a complex organism; what goes on in one place affects all of it, in ways the planners can neither anticipate nor control.

This is even more true in the world of politics. Law must be limited in its reach, and be close to and in control by the people - as local and democratic as possible - for two simple reasons:
1.If the law is bad, the damage it inflicts is minimized by the small jurisdiction, and can be changed.
2.The law might be good in one place but not in another, and we lack the information to know conclusively what is best for other people in other places.

I don't see any fault with the first reason. It is the glory of democracy, republicanism, and federalism. It is the reason world government is wrong. The second reason, however, raises the question: Are not good laws universally so? Isn't that the definition of a good law?

But that's the risk to take: if one would impose what she believes to be a "good law" on everybody, she must first have complete faith that her belief system from which that law is derived is infallible, and also confident that she has all the information needed to apply her principles all over the world.

Which brings us full circle. The universal law of "human rights" must be a guiding force of United States policy, right? The United States must intervene, militarily if need be, to protect them, right? We have a moral responsibility to the world.

But do we have enough information? Many of us are ashamed that the United States did not intervene to stop the genocide in Rwanda several years ago. But if we sent in troops, what were they supposed to do? Whose side were we to take?

Why are our troops stationed in Kosovo, and watch helplessly as Kosovar Moslems expel ethnic Serbs from the land? Why are we proceeding in this war on terrorism confident that most Arabic and Asian Moslems agree with us and not with Osama bin Laden?

Good laws, even nice-sounding universal principles, won't work if the circumstances on the ground make it plain that the people reject them. Just because we are committed to democracy and human rights doesn't mean that we are all-knowing and vested with the moral authority to exert our will across the world. And wars are dangerous because information - intelligence - is the one thing the combatants need most, but lack.

Our security and liberty are worth fighting for. But using politics to reshape the world is as futile as central economic planning. We just don't know enough to predict how others will react. We don't even know what is good for them. Let's remember this before we look to Washington to solve the nation's problems. And especially, the world's.

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