On the Complexity of the World
By Bryan Caplan
Confession: I have been enamored of extreme policies for as long as I can remember. When I was around ten years old, for example, I decided that all smokers should be summarily executed. Adults’ attempts to rebut my visionary proposals usually proved counter-productive. Why? Because they came off as completely evasive. They almost never engaged the specifics of my ideas. Instead, the typical adult condescendingly told me, “You don’t understand the complexity of the world.” Such vague objections, I decided, were a clear sign that my juvenilia was rationally unassailable.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in the meanwhile: The Complexity of the World Argument (CWA) is deep and important even though most people lamely trot it out when they can’t think of anything concrete to say.
I started to reassess the CWA when I discovered economics. One of intro econ’s main lessons, after all, is that feel-good policies often have bad indirect consequences. Imposing a price ceiling on food doesn’t just make food cheaper; it also discourages the production of food, and fosters black markets and rent-seeking. Banning pre-existing conditions clauses doesn’t just help sick people get affordable insurance; it also makes insurance more expensive, and encourages healthy people to drop out of the risk pool. When economists like Mises drew the more general lesson that the failures of government intervention naturally spiral into further interventions, it blew my mind.
Stories like these didn’t merely demonstrate that the CWA had some real-world relevance. More importantly, they showed that intellectually powerful yet socially invisible arguments exist. “I haven’t heard anyone provide a good argument against X” is only weak evidence in favor of X, because good arguments are routinely, widely overlooked. The longer my economic education continued, the more relevant the CWA seemed – especially when I discovered that strong objections are often vulnerable to even stronger rebuttals. Branching out into psychology showed me that I’d been blind to a whole world of additional insights.
In time, however, I realized that there’s another field that illustrates the CWA better than any other: history. Fact: A brutal Communist dictatorship rules North Korea in 2014 because one Serbian shot one Austrian in 1914. If you know basic history, this seemingly bizarre claim should be obvious. In 1914, however, this ripple effect was so utterly non-obvious that no one on earth is likely to have considered it! (Disagree? Look at how bad even experts are at far less remote predictions).
Once you merge basic history with the biological fact that none of us would be here if our fathers had crossed their legs one more time, the CWA becomes overwhelming. The tiniest change in your reproductive behavior eventually changes the identity of every living human. And some of those humans will make choices that affect billions. The tiniest change in the behavior of Lenin’s parents prior to his conception would have annulled his existence – and a world without Lenin would be a very different world than the one we’ve known.
After you stare into the face of the CWA, there’s no going back. The only question is: How can you live with it? Once you fully absorb the CWA, confidence in your long-run, big picture predictions sharply falls. If you adhere to norms of rationality and candor, the CWA requires you to moderate your claims – and alienate the overconfident masses that surround you. If you’re a strict consequentialist, belief in the CWA is almost paralyzing. How are you supposed to maximize overall X if long-run, big picture predictions are so tenuous? How? How?! How?!?!?!
From other ethical perspectives, however, the CWA cuts the Gordian knot of indecisiveness. Suppose you have a modest moral presumption against murder. The CWA reminds you that such scruples could easily have bad long-run consequences. After all, you could be sparing an ancestor of the 23rd century’s Hitler. But the CWA also saps the strength of every attempt to defease your presumption against murder. It is nigh impossible for a reasonable person to be 90% confident that murdering a seemingly harmless person will ultimately make the world a better place.
The upshot: The CWA combined with homely moral presumptions logically leads to a bunch of extreme policies. Not summarily executing smokers. I was totally wrong about that and so much else. But the CWA does elegantly support policies like libertarianism, pacifism, tolerance, and general passivity. In a world as complex as our own, you have no compelling reason to get your hands morally dirty. Just leave other people alone, wish them well, and beautify your Bubble.