22
Dec
09

Process people

We discover with pleased satisfaction this insightful comment from Megan McArdle:

Libertarians are process people, something that our political opponents find impossible to believe can be real, rather than disingenuous.  So when I say that I think Lawrence v. Texas might be the right result morally but the wrong result legally, it must be that I secretly want sodomy to be illegal, or at the very least don’t care.  Or when I am troubled by government intervening in the Chrysler bankruptcy process, it’s because I hate unions.  And of course, when I am against post-hoc legal judgments against bankers or their bonuses, it’s just because I’m an apologist for rich people.

But to a libertarian, process matters.  Having a good process is better than getting a good outcome, because a good process is one that maximizes your chances of getting good outcomes over time.

(Emphasis added.)

It’s tempting to rephrase this as “the ends do not justify the means”.  That is, of course, bullshit: the ends are the only things that can justify the means used to achieve them.  But if you’ve read your Sartre you’ll understand that ends go much further than one can comfortably and conveniently consider.  The process by which a bill is passed, for example, is itself one of the consequences of passing the bill: it establishes precedent and reinforces the means and powers used.  Those means and powers will touch a lot more than just the one bill.

Ms. McArdle worries about the way that health-reform bills going back to the Baucus proposal gamed the CBO estimate process and the don’t-touch language in the Reid bill that dodges around Senate procedural rules, but “process matters” is a bigger, more general principle than that.  For example, much of Bush 43’s term was marked by an expansion of executive power and a diminution of executive accountability.  This has now become business as usual, and conservatives are howling about it now that a left-progressive is doing the same thing.

Ratings on mortgage-backed securities form another example:

One of the reasons that we got so deep into the crisis is that people were substituting ratings for common sense.  Not all people, but enough.  If a security was rated AAA, well then, it must be an excellent security.  People confused the rating with an actual prediction of the future.

Indeed, the rating was supposed to bear some (not perfect) resemblance to the future.  But the more important the rating got, the more money there was to be made by gaming it.

The raters used metrics–perhaps more than they should have.  So if you knew the metrics, you could tweak the security to get a good rating on your toxic waste.  In the past, a well designed security would (arguably) have naturally passed the metrics.  But now the point was not to build a well-designed security; it was to design a security that would just barely pass the standards used by Moody’s or S&P.  Then people would buy your crap, and…  oops! we crashed the financial system.

(The whole article is worth reading.)

Process matters — but most people see process as only a means, not an end; something that deserves no weight of its own.

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