Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Thursday, March 07, 2002


I was going to get all philosophical here, but I think I will just put something up for my audience (about 20 per day, by my count) to think about, Much has been made of W's hypocrisy on the steel tariffs, how he is betraying the trust of the free-traders. My thought of the day is (a bit of Devil's advocate here, and probably the only time you will ever see a defense of W on these pages), what is so great about consistency?? Especially when the "ideology" that you are supposed to adhere to is really just an ad hoc bunch of things that some old white guys have been saying for 30 years or so, cobbled together with some sops to the Religious right and some, at best unproven, economic schemes that are chiefly designed to help your friends.

A little math history here (d'oh again); In the 19th century and early 20th century, a number of mathematicians, led by David Hilbert, tried to come up with a set of rules (theorems) that explain the behavior of numbers (The Number Theory). The effort was catalogued by Russell and Whitehead in their Prinicipia Mathematica, a monstrous tome in which they tried to ennumerate the knowledge of number theory. If anyone is interested, this category of mathematics includes the blog-famous Goldbach's Conjecture, the still unproven assertion that every even number is the sum of two prime numbers. The dream of a unifying mathematical theory of numbers was shattered by Kurt Godel, when he published a paper titled "On Formally Undecidable Propositions Of Principia Mathematica And Related Systems" in 1931. In this paper he showed that any properly structured logical system of sufficient power was either inconsistent or incomplete. What does this mean? In the formal language of mathematics, it means that no matter what set of axioms you base your arguments on (theorems), they are always either incomplete (there is some proposition that they do not allow you to determine the truth of) or they are inconsistent (they label some proposition both true and false). This is not really a problem for people coming up with philosophical positions for themselves, because we usually don't hold ourselves up to this sort of a bar. (By the way, the Epimenides paradox "I am a Cretan. All Cretans are liars" is a linguistic twist on Godel's theorem, antedated by 2000 years).

Godel's theorem certainly does not force us to abandon a striving for consistent, morally sanctionable, good behavior. But taken allegorically, it might be construed as warning against being too bound to any given ideological dogma. Let's take free-trade as an example. It is by no means clear that in every instance, for every commodity, a free market works best. Many people believe this to be so, others disagree. A few even believe (still!) that central economic planning is the way to go. Regardless of your opinion (and like a**holes, everyone's got one), none of these have been proven or vindicated, although state control of the economy has certainly lost a great deal of its appeal over the 20th century. Does this mean that (getting back to the original subject) steel tariffs are a good idea? No, I don't think so. But let's not rush to the "hypocrisy" judgment without thinking a bit about what this means. It is not always a positive thing to be internally consistent in your behavior. It may be that there is a better decision making rubric than "free markets for all" vs. "free markets for none." Perhaps "free markets for some, little American flags for others??"" (Thanks to Kodos and Kang for that one!)

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