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Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Government Is Ugly

My kids are always trying to determine my favorite color.  That's a difficult task since I point out that I find blue a rather nice color for the sky and green a good color for plants, but if it was instead a green sky and blue plants I would find that ugly.  Nonetheless, they persevere, and through a series of questions about whether I'd rather paint a given wall Color A or Color B, they've determined, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my favorite color is blue and that I definitely find pink ugly (at least when considering painting walls).

It's true.  I do find pink ugly.  I don't know why and there's probably no rational reason for it.  And even if you could prove to me that pink was objectively a great color, that if I painted my walls pink the world would be a better place, that I'd be healthier with pink walls, etc., I'd still rebel against having my walls painted pink.

To me, government is ugly.

Unlike pink, for which I can give no rational reasons why I find it ugly, I can spew forth many supposedly objective reasons why I find government ugly: the corruption, the lies of politicians, the inefficiency, the waste, etc., etc., etc.

Yet even if you could prove to me with certainty that all of my reasons for finding government ugly are wrong, I would still find government ugly.  Even if you could prove that government is perfect, that it can solve all of our problems, that an ever bigger government makes the world an ever better place, I would still find government ugly and I'd still want to shrink government as much as possible.

It's part of my nature.

Just like I inherently find pink ugly, I inherently find government ugly.

Which means that my supposedly objective reasons for government being ugly are not objective at all.  Or perhaps at least some of the facts are objective, but my specific collection of those facts and reasons only exists because I'm just a matched filter designed to specifically collect facts and reasons to match my inherent subjective preferences.

My collection of facts and reasons therefore shouldn't convince anybody else of anything.  If you share my view that government is ugly, then you'll probably find my collection of reasons appealing.  If you inherently think government is beautiful, you won't be convinced by my arguments and there's no reason that you should be.  My arguments are incomplete and just happen to match what I like and dislike.

So there's not much to debate.  You won't somehow convince me that government is not ugly and I shouldn't be able to convince you that government is ugly if you don't already believe that.


Jeff Shattuck said...

I think you're right to say that rational arguments can't change a point of view driven by emotion. And yet, I still (irrationally!) believe that if people who love government just understood better the damage government does, they would not be so quick to try to shift blame for our problems to the private sector. They would also be slower to grant the government new powers.

Hey Skipper said...

Argument by analogy is fine when it clarifies what is at stake.

But I don't think it does here, and where it misses, it misses by a hecatomb.

What are the consequences, other than your personal appreciation of the wall, of slathering it in pink rather than blue? Ugliness, in this regard, is totally subjective, because there are no external, objective reasons to prefer one over the other.

In contrast, governmental ugliness is a consequence of its effects, and the alternative.

The alternative to its absence -- i.e., not painting the wall at all, is a persistant and pervasive Hobbesian security dilemma. That is not merely an aesthetic option.

Beyond that, there are certain classes of problems that are, IMHO, solved quite beautifully with government. Without going to the bother of delineating such classes, I'll just give one example: building codes. Imagine the deadweight transactional costs if they didn't exist. (IMHO, the market cannot possibly function as well, or as cheaply, in this regard.)

In other areas, government is seemingly more analogous to color. If someone views "social justice" (leaving aside how that is defined) more than individual freedom, then that preference will be very immune to argument.

But it won't be immune to reality.

Eventually, unlike merely painting a wall, imposing preferences has consequences. As Spain and Greece are demonstrating at this moment, the results of the kind of government "social justice" requires are, in fact, worse: socialism is a good theory that doesn't work in practice.

Bret said...

Hey Skipper,

Apparently I was slack on being clear about where I felt the analogy held and where it didn't (I thought it was obvious).

Whether or not government is necessary is a different debate than whether or not I find it ugly. No matter how necessary, I still find it ugly.

You wrote that "certain classes of problems" are "solved quite beautifully with government." Those problems may be solved, it may even be the "best" way to solve those problems, and I might even agree that it's the best way to solve those problems, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I won't find the solution beautiful - it will still be ugly to me. And because of that, I would personally choose (and vote for) less efficient, less good solutions that didn't involve government in many (but not all) cases.

Indeed, building codes and inspection is one of those areas that I would get rid of even though I agree with you that it may be a more efficient solution than can be supplied by the free market.

I'm not completely convinced because in this particular case, my experience tells me that the deadweight transactional costs might not exceed the inspection costs.

A couple of decades ago, we put a second story on our house. For the final inspection (apparently a "beautiful" thing in your eyes), we didn't pass. The plans had been approved by the city months before, the inspector readily agreed that we had exactly followed the plans, and he even admitted that what we had done was to code.

So why didn't he pass it? Because he didn't like it. Cost me $2,000 to rip out and rebuild a wall to change it. According to the contractor, this particular inspector had a habit of doing things like this. From the contractor's description of this guy and this experience, I estimate that this inspector imposed a sum total cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on contractors and homeowners. I learned a couple of years later that the city had eventually "reassigned" the inspector to a desk job where he couldn't waste quite so much money.

Could I have appealed the ruling? Yes, but it would've been cumbersome and delayed things by quite a bit. It was easier to bear the cost. If it had been much more than $2,000, I would've had to fight it and if I had lost I would've been screwed. And there are lots and lots of examples where people have been screwed by the government for things like this.

Not so "beautiful" to me.

But the important point is that in many cases the added ugliness of increased government subjectively would cause me to choose the less efficient, non-government economic solution, even if I were certain that it was less efficient. That's my subjective preference.

Because government is ugly to me.

Bret said...


I think of your comment in 3 pieces.

1. Is it just that those who love government haven't had access to facts that bring to light the damage government does? This is actually plausible since many negative government effects are "unseen". In other words, you see the bridge built by government funds, but all of the other possibilities that those same resources could have created and might well have been far more beneficial remain "unseen" forever.

2. But then I wonder if ideology makes it impossible for those who love government to be able to comprehend the damage that is caused by their beloved government.

3. Lastly, it could just be the opposite of my position. Perhaps they understand full well that we're all worse off with government, but they love it so much that they don't care. This is the one I suspect.

Susan's Husband said...


I think for the useful idiots it is (2), they simply can't imagine that government has any costs. I see that all the time. If you point them out, it's just deflected to the private sector (e.g., the evils of Tsarist Russia being the result of free markets). For many of the leaders I think they simply don't care about harm to the peasants, what they can't stand is independence and diversity of thought. It's why generally the first reaction of such types to argument is "shut up!". Finally for the real hard core I agree with your (3) - they want to be masters on a plantation and that requires as much government as possible.

Anonymous said...

Some related thoughts.

Bret said...


I saw that Roger Simon article and the Zombie comment. If I had seen the article soon enough, I would've written this "Government Is Ugly" post as a comment there since I think these thoughts are relevant to Simon's wishing to be able to have more influence on liberals.

For the most part, I think that's impossible. However, at the margin, there are probably some people who don't have such strong subjective preferences like me and can be convinced to see the world differently.

One thing I'd like to mention is that it could well be that decades of observation and thought have led to my thinking government is ugly as opposed to that preference causing me to search for evidence to support it. I rather liked communism when I was 16, but that was before I realized that totalitarian government was required to implement it (if it can really be implemented at all).

erp said...

I spent my whole adult life in an academic milieu and have determined liberals view of the world is made up of leftwing sound bites. McCarthy? All their knees jerk spontaneously -- drunk, Red baiter, liar. Mention the Venona papers and get a blank stare. There is no conversation/discussion/debate possible. We are literally not speaking the same language.

You are right, however, that individuals can cross over, but usually only when there is some personal change in their lives.

As for your 16 year old self's romance with communism, Churchill said it best, "If you aren't a liberal when ...".

Howard said...


A quote attributed to George Washington (although open to dispute) might resonate with you -

Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.

I've also seen it put, " is nothing but brute force."

Hey Skipper said...

Apparently I was slack on being clear about where I felt the analogy held and where it didn't (I thought it was obvious).

Whether or not government is necessary is a different debate than whether or not I find it ugly. No matter how necessary, I still find it ugly.

The problem is organic to your analogy: perhaps "ugly", an purely aesthetic concept, is simply inapplicable to a utilitarian entity.

I think untreated sewage is ugly. SFAIK, there has never been sewage treatment in the absence of government.

Using the concept of "ugly", that means that, with respect to sewage, government is, at the very least, less ugly than not government.

Bret said...

Hey Skipper wrote: "perhaps "ugly", an purely aesthetic concept, is simply inapplicable to a utilitarian entity."

We're well within the realm of a definitional argument here, which I generally don't bother with. But, because it involves my writing, I value your feedback, and I have a series of posts already partly written based on the "government is ugly" meme, I've given it some additional thought.

I find pink walls ugly and by that I mean I experience internal visceral and other unpleasantness when I look at the wall. When I observe government actions or contemplate the concept of government I experience similar, if not identical, internal unpleasantness. So "government is ugly" is simply shorthand for "I find observing or thinking about government leads to me feeling a similar unpleasantness as that which I feel when observing a pink wall which I would describe as ugly."

Do I think my use of ugly in describing the effects of government on me is beyond the bounds of the definition of that word? No, but apparently you do (though you previously wrote "solved quite beautifully" and it seems to me if a solution can be "beautiful" then it can be "ugly" and so, by extension, can the entity from which it emanates).

If this shorthand phrasing and analogy don't work for you I'll only be a little bit disappointed if you choose not to read my upcoming posts on this topic.

Hey Skipper said...

So "government is ugly" is simply shorthand for "I find observing or thinking about government leads to me feeling a similar unpleasantness as that which I feel when observing a pink wall which I would describe as ugly."

Apologies -- I didn't take that on board.

... I'll only be a little bit disappointed if you choose not to read my upcoming posts on this topic.

Oh, right. Like that's going to happen.