“At the end of 2013, I’m done with belief.”
The words caught my eye as one might expect. I thought, briefly, that perhaps the author was talking about religious belief, or the concept of belief in the field of religious studies. It is of course an ongoing question, if, and if so, how, one is to discuss “belief” in the academy. I quickly snapped out of it. This, after all, is last week’s Times Magazine, and the author was Caitlin Moran.
Apparently she’s columnist of the year.
“But always, these revolutions – however many buildings burn, economies tank and people die during them – begin with a simple, ancient human problem: two, or more, bunches of people who think they’re right, arguing it out. Heat and shouting. Tribal loyalties. [...] People bellowing, fists clenched, for decades at a time, over what they believe [...]“
“The system is no different across so many countries: it’s basically people arguing that they’re right, against other people who also believe they’re right. This is how nations run things. On… feelings. And so modern democracy, the best system we’ve come up with, still essentially rests on something formulated in an early era of faith, priests and a man looking you in the eye and giving you his word. It’s based on belief. They believe in what they are saying, and we believe in their belief.”
“what we need to do is stop talking about our political feelings and beliefs, like teenage girls on a sleepover, and find out, once and for all, which one actually works. Compare the different applications of both methods, across the world, in the past 70 years, and see which one pulls ahead. Crunch some metadata. Run some experiments. Work out some figures. Do randomised, controlled trials in, say, local government.”
Yes, we must welcome our technocratic overlords.
What Moran is arguing for is not that far out. Certainly some aspects of local and even national administration are illogical or inefficient. And I rather suspect that as technology companies such as Google get more involved in implementing and designing government programmes, such randomised, controlled trials will happen more often. They’re already the mainstay of online business. Want to know which homepage design draws in more visitors, causes more clicks on advertising, makes people more likely to buy a product, is more profitable? The answer is something tech companies are already good at, it’s called a/b testing, and you participate whether you know it or not. Ever wonder why Google or Facebook looks different to you than to a friend? Besides slow product rollouts, companies routinely tweak pages and serve up those two different versions (a and b) to see which performs better. If one asked (or contracted) Google to run a government service, certainly the same thing would play out. Really, it’s only a matter of time.
But just because we know how to best reach certain ends doesn’t mean we agree on what those ends are. And this is where Moran demonstrates both naivety and hubris. We don’t agree on what is the good life; but we each believe our vision is the best. Perhaps within smaller communities there can be agreement, but even this will not always be possible. It may be more efficient for the government to run a single rubbish collection agency and to have residents buy a standardized trash can. We can certainly find out how to build the best garbage truck, how to build the best trash can, how to most efficiently service all the dumpsters in a city. But what about the one, or worse, several people who don’t want (or believe in) the city telling them how to manage their households? At this point, you aren’t merely imposing order on chaos, you’re telling someone they’re wrong. And it becomes evident that such policies aren’t neutral or objectively “best”, but certain people think a policy is best because those people have criteria that they – critically or uncritically – hold to be valid for proving what is or isn’t good.
Perhaps many of us will agree that the improved sanitation associated with efficient trash removal is a good thing. But not all will, and not all will agree on how involved the government should be in how people run their households. Trash handling is a local and relatively uncontentious example (particularly in Scotland where it seems incredibly standardized). But look at broader and more consequential disagreements, and it is clear that “finding out some beautiful, dry, calm, illuminating statistics, instead” just isn’t going to cut it.
It’s not that I disagree with her premise, this “ancient human problem” of disagreements based in differing beliefs, or disagree with everything she thinks makes for a good society. I even think that in some cases randomized, controlled trials may be a good idea. It’s just that it is naive to think that rational planning is itself devoid of belief and values. Thinking so is to impose one’s own vision of a good society by dismissing the validity of other’s beliefs.
Moran wants a government and an economy that works; a vision that many, myself included, are sympathetic to. But the only way we know if something works is if we have goals or ideals to measure it by. Until Moran can impose her beliefs of what those goals and ideals should be on the rest of the world, I’m afraid we’re going to be stuck with, well, everyone else’s diverse beliefs.