The Why-Policy-Wiki

“Normative as positive” (NAP) — explaining that the [education] policies actually chosen were chosen because they maximize an individualized social welfare function — fails as a useful general positive model of schooling. While NAP can perhaps accommodate the fact of some direct production of schooling by some governments, the reality is that (nearly) all governments produce education and that, by and large, this is their only support to education. Moreover, NAP fails not just in the large but also the small: there are six additional common facts about educational policies inconsistent with NAP. (more; HT Bryan Caplan)

That is Lant Pritchett, and I share his frustration. People usually explain their government’s policies via scenarios wherein such policies would help the world, or at least their local region. But when you point out details at odds with such simple stories, such people are usually uninterested in the subject. They switch to suggesting other scenarios or problems where policy might help, also with little interest in the details.

This evasive style, i.e., the habit of pointing to a diffuse space of possible scenarios and problems instead of particular ones, is a huge obstacle to critics. If you put a lot of time in critiquing one story, people just note that there are lots of other possible stories you didn’t critique.

This style helps people maintain idealist attitudes toward institutions they like. In contrast, people do the opposite for institutions they dislike, such as rival foreign governments or profit-making firms. In those cases, people prefer cynical explanations. For example, people say that firms advertise mainly to fool folks into buying products they don’t need. But the evasion remains; if you critique one cynical explanation they switch to others, avoiding discussing details about any one.

To solve this evasion problem, I propose we create a new kind of wiki that surveys opinions on policy explanations. In this new wiki readers could find items like ” 68% (162/238) of college graduates say the best explanation of government running schools, instead of subsidizing them, is because educated citizens can pay more taxes to benefit other citizens. 54% (7/13) of economics PhDs surveyed say it is to push propaganda.”

Here is how it would work. There would be three category hierarchies: of policies, of policy explanations, and of people with opinions on policy explanations. Each hierarchy would include a few very general categories near the top, and lots of much more specific categories toward the bottom.

Anyone could come to the wiki to contribute opinions on policy explanations. They would first give some demographic info on themselves, and that info would put them somewhere in the category hierarchy of people. They could then browse the category hierarchy of policies, picking a policy to explain. Finally, they could browse the category hierarchy of explanations, picking their favored explanation of that policy.

Users could start by being shown the most common explanation offered so far for similar policies by similar people, and then browsing away from that. Users could also expand the category hierarchies, to add more specific policies and explanations. For particular policy explanation pairs, users might add links to relevant theory, evidence, and arguments. Users might also upvote links added by others. This would help later readers search for well-voted evidence and theory close in the hierarchies to any given policy explanation.

By using category hierarchies, a wide range of people could express a wide range of opinions. Experts could dive into details while those who can barely understand the most basic categories could gesture crudely in their favored directions. Given such a wiki, a critic could focus their efforts on the most popular explanations for a policy by their target audience, and avoid the usual quick evasion to other explanations. Prediction markets tied to this wiki could let people bet that particular explanations won’t hold up well to criticism, or that popular opinion on a topic will drift toward a certain sort of expert opinion.

Of course this wiki could and should also be used to explain common policies of firms, clubs, families, and even individuals. I expect some editorial work to be needed, to organize sensible category hierarchies. But if good editors start the system with good starting hierarchies, the continuing editorial work probably wouldn’t be prohibitive.

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  • Daublin

    I’d love to see more structured approaches to organizing and analyzing debates. I haven’t seen a single one that gets very far. Everything I find is an argument for a particular position, chock full of the kind of “evasion” you discuss.

    Eric Drexler suggests that we could extend the concept of a jury trial to be used for other areas of knowledge than deciding whether someone is guilty:

    http://e-drexler.com/d/06/00/EOC/EOC_Chapter_13.html

    Here’s a fun quote from the article:

    “To see the value of due process, imagine its opposite: a process trampling all these principles would give one side a say and the other no chance to cross-examine or respond. It would meet in secret, allow vague smears, and lack a judge to enforce whatever rules might remain. Jurors would arrive with their decisions made. In short, it would resemble a lynch mob meeting in a locked barn – or a rigged committee drafting a report. ”

    He could have dropped the word “rigged”.

    For the particular suggestion you make, Robin, there will be an issue finding the right set of people to be able to vote. You could pick them yourself, but then you’ll face an allegation of bias in the selection. If you open it to the Internet at large, you’ll get random people voting just for fun and not really thinking about it.

    • arch1

      I too would love to see more structured approaches to organizing and analyzing debates. Since Robin’s proposal is a step in this general direction (and OK since evasion of the kind he describes irks the heck out of me:-), I like it and would likely participate as a user.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I don’t need to pick the right people to vote if I have a good category hierarchy of voters. Each reader could focus on looking at votes by the subset they respect.

    • Ronfar
  • RJB

    The basic argument seems little different from the “just world hypothesis”: people tend to believe that features of the world they can’t changes are in fact just, wise and optimal. Why isn’t
    It positive as normative.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    This evasive style, i.e., the habit of pointing to a diffuse space of possible scenarios and problems instead of particular ones, is a huge obstacle to critics.

    Partly because this line of “criticism” is itself often hypocritical; worse, it’s often duplicitous. It’s too obvious that many such “critics” are exploiting the cognitive dissonance produced in an advocate (of, say, public education) by demonstrating that the reasons to support an institution aren’t the actual reasons for its existence. If many in the audience are confused about the distinction between explanation and justification, many of the critics are quite prepared to disingenuously exploit that confusion to undermine support for institutions they don’t like.

    In short, you guys often are the real instigators of the described signaling contests.

    A more intellectually honest approach would be for the “critics” to include counter-intuitive or anti-ideological explanations for institutions they like.

    • oldoddjobs

      What would an explanation have to look like to qualify as “counter-intuitive or anti-ideological”?

      In my experience most people flatter themselves by imagining that they are uniquely free of “ideology”. The other side is full of dishonest ideologues, peddling wicked formulas. My side just deals in Truth, which is not a system, or a worldview, or anything so crudely partisan as all that – it’s just the honest Truth.

    • IMASBA

      “It’s too obvious that many such “critics” are exploiting the cognitive dissonance produced in an advocate (of, say, public education) by demonstrating that the reasons to support an institution aren’t the actual reasons for its existence.”

      Indeed, the state and the people may have different reasons for supporting the same things, but that doesn’t mean the people or the state, or both, are wrong and it also doesn’t mean the thing is bad.

  • IMASBA

    “Given such a wiki, a critic could focus their efforts on the most popular explanations for a policy by their target audience, and avoid the usual quick evasion to other explanations.”

    Well, that could be helpful but in my experience the biggest problems with evasions etc… are in fields that simply have few singular truths or easy explanations (that fit in a single sentence).

    “To solve this evasion problem, I propose we create a new kind of wiki that surveys opinions on policy explanations. In this new wiki readers could find items like “ 68% (162/238) of college graduates say the best explanation of government running schools, instead of subsidizing them, is because educated citizens can pay more taxes to benefit other citizens. 54% (7/13) of economics PhDs surveyed say it is to push propaganda.” ”

    I’ll use this example to demonstrate the problems with your approach.

    1) You’re effectively sampling ideology, not necessarily truth.

    2) You’re playing with words: “propaganda” carries a negative connotation, has different meanings to different people (is it propaganda to force evolutionary theory into biology class instead of genesis?), the state propaganda may be worse than the alternative forms of propaganda, the negative effects of the propaganda may be outweighed by the positive effects of providing education to the poor and middle class.

    3) It is a fallacy to only see singular meanings: why can’t the government run schools to both educate the public and spread propaganda?

    Incidentally there is a simple economic answer to why it’s a bad idea to subsidise schools without controlling them when a large percentage of parents would need those subsidies: it just leads to a vicious cycle of subsidy –> price increase –> more subsidy –> additional price increase –> more subsidy, etc… (not every government uses that reasoning, but it is sound). The US college grant system and the Dutch housing market are examples of this vicious cycle.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Of course policies have multiple causes. But it is a lot to ask people to lay out an entire causal network with strengths etc. So let’s start by asking people for their opinions on the strongest causes, and then later maybe we can get them to say more.

      • IMASBA

        Exactly: there are limits to what is possible in human language (if something is caused by a causal network with different strengths, etc… you cannot really explain it any other way without losing information) so there is no way to remove all the noise, evasion tactics, etc… from debates. You may solve one problem with your scheme but you always create a new one at the same time, it’s like an uncertainty principle of debate.

  • Ronfar

    Policy is usually a result of compromises between people with different aims and goals. It’s generally going to suck because whenever anything that actually would be very effective at satisfying one set of values is proposed, someone else is going to hate it and sabotage it. By the time the negotiations are over, what’s left is the worst thing that the members of the dominant coalition is willing to tolerate.

    Case in point: the Israeli parliament tends to consist of slightly less than half liberals, slightly less than half conservatives, and a small number of religious nuts. Guess who most consistently gets what they want?

  • Greg

    Good idea.

  • Tobi

    Reminds me of the efficiency explanations for the common law…