Black Swans, Burkean Libertarianism, and Maintaining the Statist Quo

February 12th, 2012

In my writing on black swan theory, I often postulate that doing nothing may be less harmful than doing something. As Taleb noted:

Linked to this need for positive advice is the preference we have to do something rather than nothing, even in cases when doing something is harmful.

(and elsewhere)

Not understanding that doing nothing can be much more preferable to doing something potentially harmful.

The virtue of doing less can be viewed in terms of social cost (when I have a hammer!). Taleb wrote:

“You cannot do anything with knowledge unless you know where it stops, and the costs of using it. Post-Enlightenment.”

I’ve also viewed this in terms of Bastiat (the seen and unseen costs). Though, in any event, more likely than not, doing nothing would seem to be the libertarian things (libertarians like doing less).

But, in our system of government, in order to do less, government has to do *something.* What you ask, how does that make sense? Well, generally when a law or regulation is in effect, it will be carried out. (Unless you are like the current administration which carried out, but didn’t defend, DADT, for example. I suppose a President Paul would just decline to enforce all laws). In order to stop the law from being carried out (outside of executive abstinence), some law would need to be passed to remove the earlier law from the books. So to do less, government needs to do something. Doing less requires (at least in the short term) doing more.

If the new administration (for argument’s sake) wants to stop PPACA, they need to pass a statute that stops it.

Which brings me back to my general thesis. But, whenever any law is passed that impacts a large complex system, there are many unintended consequences that may make things worse (really gray swans in Taleb’s vernacular).

So the same admonitions that go against passing massively complex laws in the first place (attendant with their own gray swans) applies equally to passing massively complex laws that repeal the earlier massively complex law (with more gray swans).

That’s why I’ve described it really as Burkean. Opposing dramatic, sudden change.

Taleb writes that we should like things that have been around for a while:

Things that have worked for a long time are preferable—they are more likely to have reached their ergodic states. At the worst, we don’t know how long they’ll last.*

I suppose even if the thing that has been around for a while is statist. Very often doing the right thing from a black swan perspective involves doing nothing, thus maintaining the status quo (statist quo?), and leaving the anti-libertarian law in place.

To use PPACA as an example, what happens if its repealed? Who the hell knows. If we reform social security? Medicaid? Issues of entrenchment and reliance play more heavily in this calculus.

So in this sense, black swan theory need not be libertarian.

For some time now I have been thinking a lot about what will be the inevitable charge that my black swan approach to law is but a mere rationalization to advance libertarianism. In fact, I have been questioning that myself. Anyone who reads my work on guns, property rights, economic liberty, freedom of conscience, etc. will know how I consider things. This line of thinking–which I still have not yet fully grappled with–may assuage those charges (or not).

And don’t forget. Like Rahm Emanuel said, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.