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photos by Lara Shipley

Goldfish Politics

September 24th, 2002 · No Comments

Does it ever bother you that the “chattering classes” are constantly attempting to draw broad lessons for public policy from whatever happened yesterday, totally severed from context? Presumably they do this because CNN/the Internet/etc. have conditioned us to always expect something new, even though a productive debate on most issues would focus on delving more deeply into the analysis of a relatively constant set of facts. Yeah, there’s new stuff every day, but it’s a drop in the bucket. Still, our views on gun control are supposed to be influenced by the “lessons” of Columbine, and Social Security reform is on weak footing because of the “lessons” of the stock market crash. Lessons? What lessons? That markets go down sometimes? What kind of imbecile (1) didn’t know this before the most recent instance and (2) changes his views on the basis of one more “point” in the data set which joins a couple of thousand just like it? I’m picking libertarian-friendly examples here because, hey, that’s what I know, but my point isn’t really “oh, the stupid public should be more supportive of my posiiton on these issues.” I’m just sort of venting my dismay at the idea that the time horizon in either direction is so short that these blips can have significant effects on public opinion. Christ, I feel like Neil Postman. Again.

Maybe it’s a side effect of the whole “new economy” hype. We’re all supposed to be hyperflexible free agents adapting to changing circumstances, rolling with the punches, and all that Tom Peters jazz. And that’s fine. But if I can ref my boy Hayek for the billionth time in a few weeks, there’s a problem when that’s applied to politics. Actors in the market are supposed to use their “local knowledge” to adapt to changing circumstances. Fred’s argument for the market system rested precisely on the ability of prices to aggregate and transmit that kind of information about particular times and places. But despite the warm glow I occasionally feel when pols talk about running government like a business — well, for the three seconds until I recall that they’re full of shit — politics just ain’t supposed to be like the market. Law is suposed to provide the stable framework within which agents in the market do their adapting — Archimedes’s “fulcrum, a lever long enough, and a place to stand.” Maybe the inappropriate application of that adaptive market ethic to politics is an example of the “monstrous hybrids” Jane Jacobs talks about in her analysis of distinct commercial and “guardian” syndromes.

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