Radical Moderation and the Reality of Tradeoffs
Oddly enough, tradeoffs exist...
I used to have really high hopes for what I could teach students in college classes, with complex lists of student learning outcomes and ideas for all the content my students would walk away with, ready to change the world for the better. I’ve since drastically downgraded my approach.
My new focus in almost every class I teach is one single outcome: realize that tradeoffs exist.
This isn’t an indictment of my students. It’s a failure of our culture in general.
As one of the clearest examples of this, I still think - with deep frustration - of the viral article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” where the summary of the author’s predicament seemed to be that she can’t teleport. Which... sure. That’s an irritating part of our embodied lives. But hardly worth 5k words in The Atlantic. My critique of this piece is not that there aren’t deep inequities in the sexual division of labor in modern society. There most certainly are.
But tackling that problem from the position of the most privileged among us - whose problem is not, actually, the deep inequities referenced above, but instead the reality that being a high level Obama administrator in D.C. is not fully compatible with being a fully present parent in New Jersey - is, as the youth say, problematic.
The author’s failure to acknowledge that high-level high-value work in one area might require tradeoffs in terms of high-level high-value work in another area is the same problem I find in my student papers. Students are well aware of the social problems that exist (mostly). They are also ok at identifying possible (obvious) solutions.
Some “Solutions” Suck
The problem comes when it's time to analyze which of these solutions are actually choice worthy and what the costs of those policies in other areas might be.
I used to ask one class why, if we really wanted to eliminate violent crime, don’t we just lock up boys and men between the ages of 16 and 27 or so. After all, men account for around 80% percent of all violent crime in the United States, with most first offenses occurring within that age range.
My student would gape at me, open-mouthed, wondering how they won the pedagogical lottery of a psychotic professor. When I press them, one or two of them inevitably say “because it would be wrong?”
When I press further, the more interesting stuff comes out. “Well, it would be really expensive.” “It would violate people’s rights!” “We’d have to massively expand prisons or something to hold them, which would need staff and who would those people be?”
It’s there - in the tradeoffs between various political, moral, and economic goods - that the really interesting stuff happens. But those are not the conversations we’re having, in (most) college classes or in our daily political and cultural lives.
The problem my students face is an immoderate vacillation between the extremes of utopian optimism on the one hand and corner-solution fear mongering on the other (more on this in another post). Students are faced with a problem, like violence, and they identify a cause (say, poverty). They then home in on one particular part of this phenomenon and offer up a single - usually very expensive - solution to the problem that often does not in fact solve the problem at all, in part because the offered solution is completely immune to any and all tradeoffs in other areas of human political and social life. In essence, the hope that we can solve this bad problem combines with fear about how bad this problem really is, resulting in tunnel vision that lands us in the proverbial soup.
Immoderate Corner Solutions in Every Day Life
Failure to recognize tradeoffs occur across the range of American life:
Conversations around child safety that refuse to recognize the costs of denying children the opportunity to independently explore their worlds.
Discussions about immigration that fail to recognize the tradeoffs between human rights, the costs of the welfare state, and the costs of our existing byzantine bureaucracy that makes it very difficult to immigrate in at all. (See, for example, the facile argument to “just get in line!” when there is no line to speak of.)
Debates over gun violence that refuse to reckon with the cultural reality of gun ownership for rural Americans or with the fact that most of the proposed solutions would have little to no effect on the main issue people want to solve, namely mass shootings.
Proposals for student loan debt forgiveness that fail to account either for the incentives such forgiveness creates for colleges and universities who have already jacked prices up in response to unlimited loan money, or with the tradeoffs involved in a very expensive program that provides relief mostly for middle class people. What else could we be funding with such money that would help lower-income Americans more? Why aren’t more people asking that question?
In part, what’s going on here is what my friend the late economist Steve Horwitz called “corner solution thinking.” For Steve, corner solution thinking is when the risks of one particular outcome outweigh any other costs, with the result that we literally paint ourselves into the corner in the sense that our preferences are insensitive to any other outputs.
The Radically Moderate Reality of Tradeoffs
Corner solutions are bad, in part, because tradeoffs are everywhere and they take a lot of different forms:
Sometimes a proposed solution will create perverse incentives.
Other times, a proposed solution in one area will starve another related (or even unrelated) area of resources, making people worse off in total. One version of this is opportunity costs, or the painful reality that the time, resources, human capital spent in one area means those resources simply can’t be allocated somewhere else.
Sometimes, a proposed solution will crowd out other, more optimal, solutions. This isn’t just a function of opportunity costs, but also a function of perception and awareness of “whose job it is.” If everyone thinks someone else is handling the job (however badly), they’ll be less likely to jump in and do it themselves, which is what we see, in part, with the bystander effect.
Finally, sometimes the easy solution is simply wrong because it entails deep moral violations. Locking up all young men to eliminate violent crime doesn’t require detailed analysis: it’s just a fundamental violation of rights and is (or should be) a non-starter. (See, for example, Cuba’s HIV/AIDS sanitoriums or the U.S. internment of Japanese Americans or U.S. Jim Crow laws as classic examples of this principle failing in practice.)
There are probably lots of others, but these are the main ones that my students and most people having conversations about policy and politics don’t seem to be able to grapple with very well.
Radically Moderate Questions
It’s precisely these tradeoffs we need to understand if we’re going to end up in a better place than when we started. We can get better at thinking about and recognizing tradeoffs if, instead of simply offering up simple and obvious policy solutions, we get better at asking a cluster of related questions about those solutions:
How much does this solution cost? Not only in terms of money, but in terms of time, resources, human capital, media attention, etc.?
What opportunity costs exist? What else could we be doing with those resources?
Does this solution create unintended consequences or perverse incentives, either immediately, or more long term? Does the policy under discussion have the potential to change how the humans in question react to the situation, thus requiring additional layers of policy down the road?
Does this solution prevent other people from solving this problem in other ways we may not be able to foresee? Does it require layers of bureaucracy? Does it make innovation harder? Does it need to?
Are there basic ethical principles, such as individual rights, that such a solution would implicate or even violate? How do we plan to address this? What protections are in place? Can such rights be adequately protected while achieving the outcome we want?
It’s no accident that the people who are the most committed to a particular ideological lens are precisely those people who are not asking these questions. Questions about tradeoffs muddy the partisan waters and make neat and tidy policy platforms fall apart under scrutiny. But that’s exactly why we should be asking them and asking them in a wide range of areas we don’t usually ask them.
Perhaps even more concerning, when people ask about tradeoffs they’re often dismissed from both the left and the right as being insufficiently loyal to the party line. Those on the left who questioned closing schools during the pandemic were targeted by their tribe for being anti-science or insufficiently progressive. It’s not that there was an easy answer to the question of school closures: but the people who were asking about tradeoffs were dismissed by many in the media as anti-science or just bad people in general. The reality was that - you guessed it - very real tradeoffs existed and the costs of school closures are more evident now than ever.
Recognizing and Identifying Tradeoffs in Practice
So what can we do to encourage radical moderation in practice?
The first simple step is to simply acknowledge that tradeoffs exist.
The second is to start working to identify the obvious ones: financial costs, human costs, opportunity costs, constitutional or structural costs, and so on.
The more we do this, the better we get at it (usually), so starting a tradeoff-identification as part of our social and political lives is a great way to instill a little radical moderation into your every day life.
As always, we want to hear from you!
What are the most egregious examples of radically immoderate insensitivity to tradeoffs that you’ve seen in the media? In politics? Are there areas this happens more than others? Do you have any fun case studies we should include in the book? Share them here! And, as always, subscribe and share!