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Friday, June 06, 2003
Apropos of Arendt:

The ridiculous is not a joke--and vice versa.

More later, once me and Jason discuss, but I can say that what I've gotten into so far of this next section of The Origins of Totalitarianism is real, real good.

Briefly, though, let me talk about unintended consequences for a bit. I would make the claim that there is no such thing as a public policy without unintended negative consequences, and it behooves (!) all public servants to keep this in mind when governing. Arendt makes some fucking mind-blowing connections between colonialism and its unintended consequences, like this one:

Race was the Boers' answer to the overwhelming monstrosity of Africa--a whole continent populated and overpopulated by savages--an explanation of the madness which grasped and illuminated them like "a flash of lightning in a serene sky: 'Exterminate all the brutes.'" [From Heart of Darkness, which she calls "the most illuminating book on actual race experience in Africa."] This answer resulted in the most terrible massacres in recent history[1], the Boers' extermination of Hottentot tribes, the wild murdering by Carl Peters in German Southeast Africa, the decimation of the peaceful Congo population--from 20 to 40 million to 8 million people; and finally, perhaps worst of all, it resulted in the triumphant introduction of such means of pacification into ordinary, respectable foreign policies.

I'm sure you can see where she's going with this: massacres-as-foreign-policy becomes massacres-as-domestic-policy and becomes the Holocaust and the Stalinist purges; all this as the result of some foreign adventures. Serious stuff. But these kind of historical examples tend to blind us a bit to the smaller-scale tragedies that can ensue from mismanagement of government. So let's instead use one of my favorite metaphors: public policy as computer programming.

Now, this may seem counterintuitive at first, since programming is such a precise and self-contained activity, whereas policy making is much more freeform, indeterminate, and sprawling. But certainly policy is the process of inserting new programming into the political system that will then change its operation, and in an ideal state will then change the behavior of its users/actors ("citizens"), either by encouraging positive behavior ("Register for the draft and we'll give you college tuition on loan") or avoid negative behavior ("If you're out of work, don't beat your wife and rob coffee shops, just take some money so you can get by without breaking down"). So it is, in a sense, an effort at programming the body politic.

As for the preciseness part, far from the perfect coding envisioned in the early days of the discipline, it becomes clear as computer science progresses and invents more and more high-level meta-languages that the code continues to behave unpredictably and that it remains a tricky proposition to tell exactly where a bug comes from, and so anticipating problems is still something that requires a certain skill and a reasoning prowess above simply knowing how to tell the machine what to do. So if you're trying to, say, create a public policy that will encourage a certain behavior, you maybe realize beforehand that it's going to conflict with either an established policy that prescribes something like the exact opposite (an earlier bit of code), or is going to run into opposition from other administrators (other programs) or is going to run into public opposition (conflicts with the operating system or machine code). Thus you either change the new code, or try and kludge the old code, or hack around the old code with a whole new bit. And maybe it works, or maybe it doesn't, and maybe you ship it anyway.

But a lot of times you don't catch a problem, and it causes an immediate bug that you can patch (but some people don't get the patch), or it causes a long-term conflict which you can't patch and later programs just have to code around--or, worst of all, it goes totally undetected because it's so low-level it's hard to notice, or it doesn't anticipate a certain future situation, and it causes problems no one ever thought it would. Like, say, the Y2K bug.

A lot of computer geeks are put off by politics, I think because of its imprecise nature, but it would be nice if they realized that just as it requires a certain skill to be a computer programmer, it requires a certain skill to be a politician or policymaker, and there's just as much precision and intelligence required there, too. There's just a lot more old code you have to work around.

More on Arendt--presumably more coherent--later.

[1] Arendt, an anti-Stalinist if anything, I think wrote this before the full extent of Stalin's genocides was known. Isn't it nice, though, how she doesn't use scare quotes around "savages" and "monstrosity"? Oh, and it's a nice reminder that colonialism by democracies can be just as bad for humanity as totalitarian ideologies.