Tag Archives: Policy

Occam’s Policy Razor

Nine experiments provide support for promiscuous condemnation: the general tendency to assume that ambiguous actions are immoral. Both cognitive and functional arguments support the idea of promiscuous condemnation. (More)

The world is full of inefficient policies. But why, when many can can simply and clearly explain why such policies are inefficient? The following concrete example suggests a simple explanation:

Logically, it doesn’t seem cruel to offer someone an extra option, if you don’t thereby change their other options. Two thirds of poll respondents agree re this prisoner case. However, 94% also think that the world media would roast any nation who did this, and they’d get away with it. And I agree with these poll respondents in both cases.

Most of the audience of that world media would not be paying close attention, and would not care greatly about truth. They would instead make a quick and shallow calculation: will many find this accusation innately plausible and incendiary enough to stick, and would I like that? If they answer is yes, they add their pitchforks to the mob. That’s the sort of thing I’ve seen with internet mobs lately, and also with prior media mobs.

As most of the world is eager to call the United States an evil empire driven by evil intent, any concrete U.S. support for torture might plausibly be taken as evidence for such evil intent, at least to observers who aren’t paying much attention. So even those who know that in such cases allowing torture can be better policy would avoid supporting it. Add in large U.S. mobs who are also not paying attention, and who might like to accuse U.S. powers of ill intent, and we get our situation where almost no one is willing to seriously suggest that we offer torture substitutes for prison. Even though that would help.

Similar theories can explain many other inefficient policies, such as laws against prostitution, gambling, and recreational drugs. We might know that such policies are ineffective and harmful, and yet not be able to bring ourselves to publicly support ending such bans, for fear of being accused of bad intent. This account might even explain policies to punish the rich, big business, and foreigners. The more that contrary policies could be spun to distracted observers as showing evil intent, the more likely such inefficient policies are to be adopted.

Is there any solution? Consider the example of Congress creating a commission to recommend which U.S. military bases to close, where afterward Congress could only approve or reject the whole list, without making changes. While bills to close individual bases would have been met with fierce difficult-to-overcome opposition, this way to package base closings into a bundle allowed Congress to actually close many inefficient bases.

Also consider how a nation can resist international pressure to imprison one disliked person, or to censor one disliked book. In the first case the nation may plead “we follow a general rule of law, and our law has not yet convicted this person”, while in the second case the nation may plead “We have adopted a general policy of free speech, which limits our ability to ban individual books.”

I see a pattern here: simpler policy spaces, with fewer degrees of freedom, are safer from bias, corruption, special-pleading, and selfish lobbying. A political system choosing from a smaller space of possible policies that will then apply to a large range of situations seems to make more efficient choices.

Think of this as Occam’s Policy Razor. In science, Occam’s Theory Razor says to pick the simplest theory that can fit the data. Doing this can help fractious scientific communities to avoid bias and favoritism in theory choice. Similarly, Occam’s Policy Razor says to limit policy choices to the smallest space of policies which can address the key problems for which policies are needed. More complexity to address complex situation details is mostly not worth the risk. This policy razor may help fractious political communities to avoid bias and favoritism in policy choice.

Yes, I haven’t formalized this much, and this is still a pretty sloppy analysis. And yes, there are in fact many strong criticisms of Occum’s Razor in science. Even so, it feels like there may be something to this. And futarchy seems to me a good example of this principle. In a futarchy with a simple value function based on basic outcomes like population, health, and wealth, then voting on values but betting on beliefs would probably mostly legalize things like prostitution, gambling, recreational drugs, immigration, and big business. It would probably even let prisoners pick torture.

Today we resist world mob disapproval regarding particular people we don’t jail, or particular books we don’t ban, by saying “Look we have worked out general systems to deal with such things, and it isn’t safe for us to give some folks discretion to make exceptions just because a mob somewhere yells”. Under futarchy, we might similarly resist world disapproval of our prostitution, etc. legalization by saying:

Look, we have chosen a simple general system to deal with such things, and we can’t trust giving folks discretion make policy exceptions just because talking heads somewhere scowl. So far our system hasn’t banned those things, and if you don’t like that outcome then participate in our simple general system, to see if you can get your desired changes by working through channels.

By limiting ourselves to simple general choices, we might also tend to make more efficient choices, to our overall benefit.

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A Wonk’s First Question

Imagine you are considering a career as a paid policy wonk. You wonder which policy area to work in, and which institutions to affiliate with. If you want to influence actual policy, rather than just enjoying money and status, your should ask yourself: do those who sponsor or cite efforts in this area do so more to get support for pre-determined conclusions, or more to get info to help them make choices?

Sometimes sponsors and other consumers of a type of policy analysis know what policies they prefer, but seek prestigious cover to help them do it. So they pay and search for policy analyses in the hope of finding the support they need. With enough policy analyses to choose from, they can find ones to support their predetermined conclusions. But they need these prestigious cover analyses to appear, at least to distant observers, to be honest open attempts at discovery. It can’t be obvious that they were designed to support pre-determined conclusions.

At other times, however, sponsors and consumers are actually uncertain, and seek analyses with unpredictable-to-them conclusions to influence their choices. And these are the only cases where your being a policy analyst has a chance of changing real policy outcomes. Such audiences may see your analysis, or be influenced by someone else who has seen them. So for each analysis that you might produce, you should wonder: what are my chances of influencing such an open-minded chooser?

Here are a few clues to consider:

  1. How predictable are the policy conclusions of the most popular policy analysts in this area? High predictability suggests that sponsors reward such consistency, as it aids their efforts to collect support for predetermined conclusions.
  2. How interested are sponsors and other policy consumers in policy analyses done by very prestigious people and institutions, relative to others? The more open they are to products of low prestige analysts, the better the chance they seek information, instead of just prestigious backing for pre-existing conclusions.
  3. How open is this area to funding and otherwise supporting large relevant experiments (or prediction markets)? Or to applying a strong standard theory with standard assumptions, which together often imply specific conclusions? The more that people are willing to endorse the policy implications of such things before their results become known, the more open that area is to unpredictable new information.

It should be possible to collect evidence on how these factors vary across policy areas. Perhaps a simple survey would be sufficient. Might that publicly reveal to all the relative sincerity of different kinds of sponsors and consumers of policy analysis?

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