16 Feb 2012

My Cynicism Runneth Over

Conspiracy, Foreign Policy 6 Comments

I remember one time I shocked the astounded von Pepe by telling him I thought Ted Kennedy was brilliant. The danger of fisticuffs eventually subsided when I clarified that I meant Ted Kennedy was really good at playing the political game, in anticipating what would sell with the voters, etc. I mean really, Ted Kennedy (allegedly) let a young girl drown rather than risk his political career, and yet he will be remembered by adoring fans as a champion of women.

Anyway, this is a typical strain in free-market / small-government rhetoric. The speaker or writer will point to some government policy doing the opposite of what its proponents claim it will do, and then we all laugh at how dumb the politician must be. Why can’t we just say the politician is lying, or doesn’t really care what the actual impact will be? Wouldn’t that be a better explanation? After all, the politicians can hire advisers.

With that context, let’s look at a quote Bryan Caplan reproduced in a recent blog post. The writer is Dan Carroll, who apparently adopted a child from Ethiopa. Carroll writes:

The pattern of behavior from the US Department of State (DOS) is to shut down adoption programs from countries that do not participate in the Hague Convention for Inter-Country Adoption. Superficially, the DOS appears to believe that rate of unethical adoptions out of countries that do not participate in the Hague Convention is too high, and therefore moves to shut down all adoptions out of those countries.

Apparently the fact that most orphans in the world reside in non-Hague countries is lost on the DOS.

To be clear, I totally support Carroll, admire him for adopting a kid from Ethiopa, and applaud him for speaking out against this policy. But nonetheless, I wrote this in the comments at Bryan’s post:

I realize it’s more polite–and probably will convince more people to come over to your side–to not question people’s motives, but I really think this typical passage from the article Bryan quoted is absurd:

Apparently the fact that most orphans in the world reside in non-Hague countries is lost on the DOS.

Like I said, this is typical in the oh-what-a-bunch-of-buffoons-those-bureacrats-are genre, of which I used to be a proud member.

But that’s not what’s going on here. The people in the State Department–especially those promulgating adoption policies–probably know the basic facts about international adoption as the person writing the article.

I don’t claim to know what motivates the policies, but I *do* claim that this isn’t just some honest mistake, and the people in the State Department can’t get to sleep at night because they’re so worried about foreign orphans.

6 Responses to “My Cynicism Runneth Over”

  1. Robert Fellner says:

    Based on Dan Carroll’s reply to your comment, I think he may have misunderstood your point. I think I’ll give it a shot!

  2. Jonathan M.F. Catalán says:

    I’m not sure if it’s true for this case, but it could also be that regulators simply interpret the facts differently than does Bryan Caplan.

  3. Todd Kuipers says:

    I’m with you Bob. I do think that many politicians lie, cheat and steal their way through their policy formation, and it is unfortunate that we don’t call it what it is. But, mostly, I subscribe to the Robin Hanson school of political thought: it’s all about signalling status. Looking like you’re doing good things is the best status marker to obtain to continue in office. It, given human beings’ ability to lie to themselves, also explains why politicians believe that they’re doing good, as there’s a long line of policy wonks lining up to feed at the trough of celebrity, et al. Doesn’t matter at all that the outcome is negative on all dimensions, as long as the praise rolls in. I.e. they’re not dumb, their reward matrix is broken.

  4. Daniel says:

    I agree with your analysis that most of the regulators are not buffoons, but I think the appeal of this type of rhetoric and the reason it is so ubiquitous is that the audience is generally the layman. The average person is in effect a buffoon on most political matters not directly related to their profession or some personal passion. I think this is what allows the political class to get away with so much. So while your point is well taken, I will continue to point out the stupidity of their actions whenever possible. After all, their actions are on record and intelligence and motivation are difficult to prove from a distance.

  5. von Pepe says:

    I still remember that. I think we actually had stop in front of Courant so I could vent. Still, it was a very good step forward in the freeing of my mind.

  6. Dave says:

    Another one is that U.S. military ‘interventionism’ inspiring radicalism and terrorism is an unintended consequence. But the Pentagon actually had a plan in 2002 called P2OG in which they stated that the goal was to ‘provoke’ terrorist attacks.

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