Turtles, Turtles, Everywhere

Will groks the “turtles all the way down” fallacy:

Earlier on, Hirshleifer makes the excellent point that advocates of higher taxes and bigger government, who are appalled by economic inequality, are well-nigh blind to the rather more objectionable inequalities in political power that are a necessary part of their schemes. If the objection is that consumers have irrational preferences, so that they are lead into self-defeating, utility minimizing status competitions, then the objection applies equally to the political class...

Arguments for new or bigger government initiatives driven by a charge of irrational or self-defeating preferences almost always make an implicit, arbitrary, exception for the ruling class. There's no good justification for invidious comparisons between ideal coercion and non-ideal agency, and vice versa. If you think the pattern of voluntary interaction "fails" according to some standard due to some psychological foible, you've taken on a burden to demonstrate that the same foible does not imply that state action will lead to an even more serious failure.

This is perhaps the strongest argument against statism: applying the countless critiques of capitalism to the critics themselves. Without a doubt, you will find that it's turtles all the way down.

Share this

a government program

a government program actually will receive more scrutiny from more divergent parties than individuals’ purchasing decisions.

But only concentrated interests have an incentive to scrutinize. Vigilance from divergent parties is a public good -- hence underproduced. Unless you think the laws of economics magically stop applying in the political marketplace -- which, I imagine, you don't.

As I like to say, I have

As I like to say, I have never once met an advocate of central planning who didn't envision himself as the central planner.

Oh yes, the "political

Oh yes, the "political class" which is not ourselves. What a time-dishonored way of avoiding responsibility. Government can only be about "them" making decisions for "us" and never the twain should meet. Once that piece of rhetorical garbage is swept away, the "exception" doesn't seem all that noteworthy; a government program actually will receive more scrutiny from more divergent parties than individuals' purchasing decisions. When you bought your last car, how many people got to vote on your decision? How many even had a chance to comment? Government might not be as responsive to distant or non-economic or conflicting concerns as we'd like, but (at least in a democracy/republic) it's designed so it can collect and focus those concerns. It can even do so through the market, by levying fees or granting incentives to correct for hidden externalities or other distortions, but it's something the market cannot do by itself. Price and convenience will always crowd out other concerns, and the aggregate of a million consumers bowing to price pressure in make a single purchase decision apiece is not the same as a million voters expressing multiple concerns through the political process. The dynamics of many acting separately are not the same as those of many acting together, and the real fallacy here is a false analogy.

Lisa Casanova: The thing I

Lisa Casanova:

The thing I want the government to do most is just leave me the hell alone.

Everybody wants to be left alone when a bill comes due. It's easy to sit back in your twenties or thirties, having enjoyed the benefits that come from having grown up in the US instead of Afghanistan or Zaire, and say that henceforth you want to be left alone. Let's frame this as a business deal. During the first half of the contract term you will provide me a service, with little or no consideration in return. During the remainder consideration will be exactly equal on both sides. Sound fair? Didn't think so. That's what your "leave me alone, but only after I got mine" amounts to. Maybe you consider it unfair that you emerge from childhood owing a debt from a contract you didn't sign, but that's the way society works. You're welcome to join (or try to create) a society where that's not the case.

nelziq:

You seem to believe that (1) government can sucessfully address issues that are not fully addressed by the market and civil society, and (2) government will address the right issues.

Some of the time. Let me repeat: some of the time. Government is certainly not perfect - not even close - but neither are markets. Where one is weak, the other might be strong and should be considered as an alternative or supplement. Neither is good or evil in and of itself but in how it's used. What I actually believe in is rational choices about how to solve problems that lie on the boundary where either might apply, instead of blind adherence to dogma that insists one be given precedence in all cases.

The fact is that politicians have their own incentives (getting elected) that conflict with making law that is in the public good

Where there is a disconnect between the two, there is a problem...but is such a disconnect an intrinsic feature of government or an artifact of how certain governments have evolved? I happen to believe the latter. Is that allowed here? Yes, as I said, government as it exists today is insufficiently responsive to its citizens. I think there are numerous remedies for that, from eliminating the redundancy of a bicameral legislature to proportional representation to greater federalism, that don't involve throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The wisdom then would not be to say “there is a market failure, let the government fix it” but rather, “there is a market failure. would this be better or worse then the alternative government failure.”

Then we agree, because that's pretty much exactly what I would suggest also.

Brandon Berg:

As I understand it, the “turtles all the way down” fallacy is when you propose as a final solution to a problem something which merely shifts the problem backwards.

The real fallacy is assuming that all systems are of one type, or that the relationship between components must be of the same type (as they must in the metaphor). There are self-sustaining systems and non-self-sustaining systems. There are systems in which components are mutually sustaining. Any computer scientist could tell you about infinitely recursive systems, and they're quite real. Pointing at any such category of systems and screaming "fallacy" is really quite silly, when there's a whole taxonomy of systems which one ought to consider. The "turtles all the way down fallacy" reveals more about the speaker's conceptual limits than any actual fallacy.

Brian Macker:

I am grateful that a idiot like you didn’t get to vote on it.

Ahhh, I see you haven't changed. Every site has to have their enfant provocateur, I guess.

My car was made by thousands if not millions of informed private choices. Choices made by just the right people.

That seems like a rather astonishing leap of faith. Have you spent any time in the actual business world? Have you never seen anyone promoted into a position for reasons other than competence? In fact some of the choices in your car were probably made by very wrong people, just as happened with the Pinto or Explorer.

Political processes do not conform to the sort of trial and error evolutionary processes that all creative processes share in common.

Don't they? I could have sworn that even a nation as young as the US has tried multiple policies, some retained and some discarded as experience was gained. I guess I was imagining that. What (a single instance of) government lacks is not trial and error but competition, and even then it's not a total lack. Obviously there's still competition within a federalist system, and even without that there's competition between nations. Governments do compete, and do evolve, perhaps not in the same way or even at the same pace as the private sector but not zero either.

The system that produced that car was the free market and not any political process

Actually it was a complex interplay between the two. Do you think the government had nothing to do with how that car got produced? From safety and efficiency standards to educating the workers and setting standards for the roads on which the car will be driven to direct research grants/subsidies, the government was quite involved. That free market is kept free in part by government action to prevent monopolies, provide the legal system in which contracts have meaning, and generally maintain faith in market institutions. I'm not saying that the government should (or could) in any sense be the primary agent in the design or manufacture of automobiles, but to say that they're not part of the system that does so is simply naive.

I'm not sure how many

I'm not sure how many economic fallacies Platypus committed in his one short comment, but the number is large. Let's see, he ignored or was not aware of: rational voter ignorance, Arrow's impossibility theorum, and Coasian bargaining as superior to Pigouvian taxes. Can anyone spot any others?

Being "ignorant" of various

Being "ignorant" of various theories' misapplication is not the same as a fallacy, Micha. That's a reprehensible way to debate.

Being “ignorant” of

Being “ignorant” of various theories’ misapplication is not the same as a fallacy, Micha.

I'm not sure I understand. If I write as if "ignorant" of the fact that "corellation does not imply causation," haven't I committed a post hoc fallacy?

Platypus, My basic problem

Platypus,
My basic problem with government, and my supposed influence or lack thereof on it, is this: The thing I want the government to do most is just leave me the hell alone. I have commented before that one of the obvious examples is the fact that I live in a house, which I share with a man, with not a marriage license to be found anywhere. In my state, this is a crime. While rarely enforced, the law does give the state the power to mess up my life anytime, because my fellow citizens disapprove of all those younguns shackin' up. I also want the government to get its busybody nose out of decisions about my medications, their risks, and their benefits that rightly belong only between me and my doctor. And that's just the beginning. If I choose not to do business with Wal-Mart, Kroger, GlaxoSmithKline, Microsoft, Chevrolet, or any other company, they tend to leave me alone. Not so with government. So my question is: how much time and energy out of my life should I have to devote simply to getting the government to leave me alone? This includes the time it takes to convince total strangers I'll never meet (who are not harmed by my actions but nonetheless disapprove of them, or believe I ought to make better choices than I do) that I deserve just to be LEFT ALONE. There are plenty of things I want to do in life, but I could spend all my time using this wonderful power I supposedly have over the government just trying to get it to stop interfering with my life. How is that a better result than would happen in the market?

While important, Lisa, I

While important, Lisa, I don't think that addresses either the topic of Micha's post or Jeff's reply, that being the assumption of (greater) rationality in the governing class than those being governed.

Libertarians of course want government to leave us alone. The argument that Micha addresses is that "We should not be left alone; we lack the rationality to be left alone, and thus, should be subject to government supervision."

Scott, did I miss the

Scott, did I miss the announcement of a competition for worst abuse of rhetoric? Can you not see the difference between an economic theory (let alone the misapplication of one) and a basic rule of logic? Coase, Arrow, etc. do not rise to the same level as the principle of post hoc even when applied correctly, but that wasn't the case here. For example, Coase states only that all government allocations of property rights are equally efficient because of subsequent bargaining; it has little bearing on the current topic of whether trust in government to make certain decisions might be justified. Arrow says that no voting system is perfect (for a certain definition when three or more options are involved) but does not say that voting is therefore useless to determine preference (the only way Micha's criticism might apply). Flinging all those names around served no purpose that would not have been better served by attempting an actual counterargument. Would someone like to make the case, despite clear evidence to the contrary, that the deliberative processes behind the passage of a bill in congress are the same as those by which you decide which sandwich to buy, and thus that failing to treat those processes as identical justifies a charge of inconsistency? Maybe you should consider the "ouroboros fallacy" of markets which rest not on a stack of turtles but on themselves.

Scott, did I miss the

Scott, did I miss the announcement of a competition for worst abuse of rhetoric? Can you not see the difference between an economic theory (let alone the misapplication of one) and a basic rule of logic?

Of course. But to be "ignorant" of an economic theory would seem to imply committing an economic "fallacy." I chose logical rules and fallacies to be more illustrative.

For example, Coase states only that all government allocations of property rights are equally efficient because of subsequent bargaining

In the absence of transaction costs, yes.

it has little bearing on the current topic of whether trust in government to make certain decisions might be justified.

Perhaps, but if off topic, it is surely no more off topic than your:

It can even do so through the market, by levying fees or granting incentives to correct for hidden externalities or other distortions, but it’s something the market cannot do by itself.

Which of course deals with externalities, explicitly, which is precisely what the Coase Theorem deals with. Indeed, the Coase Theorem is entirely about how the market can fix distortions "by itself." Hence, Micha chalking this up as a fallacy.

Would someone like to make the case, despite clear evidence to the contrary, that the deliberative processes behind the passage of a bill in congress are the same as those by which you decide which sandwich to buy, and thus that failing to treat those processes as identical justifies a charge of inconsistency?

That seems to be a straw man. Wilkinson is welcome to clarify for himself, but what he seems to be saying is people are at least as irrational in their private decisions as they are in their public ones. I see no reason to differentiate those two roles. It is true that people deliberate in the public sphere -- but they also deliberate in the private sphere.

Maybe you should consider the “ouroboros fallacy” of markets which rest not on a stack of turtles but on themselves.

I have, and I don't consider it fallacious.

As to the worst rhetoric competition, interested readers are welcome to determine the rankings for themselves.

Would someone like to make

Would someone like to make the case, despite clear evidence to the contrary, that the deliberative processes behind the passage of a bill in congress are the same as those by which you decide which sandwich to buy, and thus that failing to treat those processes as identical justifies a charge of inconsistency?

Why would any of us want to make your strawman argument for you? Of course the market process and the political process work differently; if they didn't, there would be little reason to favor one over the other! But that doesn't mean we can't use economic analysis to understand both. Both involve human action, incentives, scarcity, and limited (and distributed) information.

The inconsistency lies not in assuming the two are not identical, but in assuming that the same foibles and irrationalities people exhibit in the marketplace will not be so expressed in the political sphere.

Platypus, You seem to

Platypus,
You seem to believe that (1) government can sucessfully address issues that are not fully addressed by the market and civil society, and (2) government will address the right issues. What you describe as governments job, " levying fees or granting incentives to correct for hidden externalities or other distortions" is all well and good, but there is little evidence that this is what governments spend most of their time doing. The fact is that politicians have their own incentives (getting elected) that conflict with making law that is in the public good and voters are not willing or able to reward politicians that did so even if they existed. This is not to say that the government is never the solution. However, the government is an institution just like the market: it also has its own internal rules and it is likewise operated by limited and falliable humans. The wisdom then would not be to say "there is a market failure, let the government fix it" but rather, "there is a market failure. would this be better or worse then the alternative government failure." Without further confusing metaphors, i think it would be accurate to say that its humans all the way down.

Platypus, As for your

Platypus,
As for your "scrutiny" argument, I would like to know how many man hours went into deciding that it would be best for me to pay social security taxes on my paycheck. Who went through my personal finances and crunched the numbers and decided that it was what I really ought to do? Even if lots of time went to thinking about it, per capita it has to be less than the time spent choosing pizza toppings.

And amidst all the

And amidst all the substantive debate, I'll just take issue with the wording. I like the "turtles all the way down" metaphor, but does it apply here? This seems more like "you can find turtles everywhere." "Turtles all the way down" applies in cases where the parameters in one model are the outputs of another model. E.g., supply and demand interact to yield prices in the market for consumer goods. But where does the supply curve come from? Producers calculate costs using factor prices. Where do the factor prices come from? Supply and demand in the factor markets. And where does supply in the factor market come from? Supply and demand in other factor markets, ad infinitum. That's turtles all the way down.

As I understand it, the

As I understand it, the "turtles all the way down" fallacy is when you propose as a final solution to a problem something which merely shifts the problem backwards. For example, the claim that we can solve the problems of corporations wielding undue power by putting even more power into the hands of the state. This may be a valid intermediate solution, but you have to explain who will guard the guardians. If you ignore that question, it's turtles all the way down.

Supply and demand have a final cause (at least within the framework of economics). There are all sorts of complex interconnections and feedback relationships between supply and demand for different goods, but ultimately everything can be traced back to consumer preferences. So it's not turtles all the way down.

What Brandon said.

What Brandon said.

Platypus, When I bought my

Platypus,

When I bought my last car nobody got to vote on it except my children, my wife and me, and the votes were not even. The kids only got to vote on color and the choice had already been cut down to red or green.
I am grateful that a idiot like you didn't get to vote on it.

The funny thing is that you think that means something. Why should your not voting on the car I am going to drive and pay for matter to me?

That doesn't mean the car was produced with the limitations of my families expertise on cars. I'm a smart guy and certainly could understand everything about the car, in fact I am smart enough that if I had chosen to do so I could have become a mechanical engineer. But there is far more than any one engineers input in the design of a car and I certainly couldn't do them all in a single lifetime.

My car was made by thousands if not millions of informed private choices. Choices made by just the right people. Choices tested by a process very similar to the trial and error processes of science.

Political processes do not conform to the sort of trial and error evolutionary processes that all creative processes share in common. The reason why the shark is such an efficient predatory or the bee is so good at collecting nectar has to do with trial and error, variation with cumlative improvement. Political processes have no such mechanism.

The system that produced that car was the free market and not any political process. In fact if it was attempted via a political process it just wouldn't happen. That holds true even if that political process was running in parallel to the free market and was able to see what the market was doing.

Which is why Soviet cars were such crap.

For the record, whatever you

For the record, whatever you may think of him, Brian, Platypus is certainly not an idiot.

Platypus- The intrinsic

Platypus-

The intrinsic feature of government that most libertarians object to is the initiation of force. We might be individualistic, but none of us seem to object to voluntary consensus-seeking--only to this being imposed upon us by an organization that threatens us with forceful imprisonment if we do not fund it and abide by the results.

That seems like a rather

That seems like a rather astonishing leap of faith. Have you spent any time in the actual business world? Have you never seen anyone promoted into a position for reasons other than competence?

I don't have time to respond in full to your post, but I was astounded by the double standard in this paragraph. Have you ever seen anyone elected to office because of competence at governing? Has any voter ever been given an extra vote because of competence? Short of outright felonious behavior or an inability to register and get to the polling place, has anyone ever been denied a vote because of incompetence, or because of gross negligence in past voting?

The market system is designed to select for competence. Sometimes it doesn't work out perfectly. But it generally does a pretty good job. Democracy doesn't even try.

In fact some of the choices in your car were probably made by very wrong people, just as happened with the Pinto or Explorer.

Yeah, but when that happens, I don't have to buy it. If nobody wants it, they stop making it, or may even go out of business. When was the last time a government program went out of business for lack of willing buyers?

I don’t have time to

I don’t have time to respond in full to your post, but I was astounded by the double standard in this paragraph.

It's not a double standard for the very simple reason that I'm not the one claiming one system is always and without qualification superior to the other. A large part of my point all along has been that both have flaws, and to a certain degree those who harp on about the flaws in government while ignoring those in markets are the ones promulgating a double standard.

The market system is designed to select for competence. Sometimes it doesn’t work out perfectly. But it generally does a pretty good job. Democracy doesn’t even try.

Do you really believe that? Are you really such an elitist that you think only the special few attempt to evaluate competence and value it highly in candidates for office? No, the system of selection for government office isn't perfect either, but your claim that it doesn't even try is simply untrue.

When was the last time a government program went out of business for lack of willing buyers?

When was the last time a company embarked on a project that it knew would lose a ton of money, because it was considered morally necessary? I've said it before and I'll doubtless say it again, but comparisons between business and government only go so far. Those who insist on pressing them further than they actually apply for the sake of a slogan or soundbite merely end up looking like fools.