The politics of “I don’t know”

My politics these days are increasingly vague, because I’m increasingly uncomfortable with proposing solutions when I don’t understand the problems.

If I had actual political power, that would be one thing – I would try things and see what worked – but I don’t, so I’m left with angry shouting about why everyone fails to see that my obviously correct solution is obviously correct as my main socially acceptable option for political expression.

And I don’t know what the correct solution is.

I’m not quite at the Socrates level of knowing that I know nothing. I know a few things. Unfortunately most of the things I know are “Wow this problem is hard, huh?”

(I also know that the current brand of politics in both my countries is very bad and should be opposed. This post is more about how I’d like things to work once everything isn’t on fire)

Unfortunately “This problem is hard” seems to be literally the only thing peoples’ politics are willing to universally unite against. If a politician admits that a problem is hard and they don’t know what to do about it, they might as well start writing their resignation letter now and save the papers the effort of raking them over the coals and you the time of voting them out of office.

Here are two problems I know to be hard beyond our current ability to deal with:

  1. Centralised planning of a complex system
  2. Decentralised coordination in response to large-scale problems

If you’ll forgive the horrendous oversimplification of politics in a post complaining about the horrendous oversimplification of politics, economic left vs right wing political opinion seems to be largely a split on which one of those two things we want to deny is hard.

Either we should let the market solve everything including the things that the market can’t solve because they require individuals to act against their best interests in order to achieve a collectively better result, or we nationalise everything and the people who are an inconveniently tiny fraction of the population to worry about in our centralised planning get crushed by the system.

How should we solve both of these problems simultaneously? I don’t know.

I sometimes refer to the problem of how you get a large group of people to coordinate for their mutual benefit as the fundamental problem of civilization. Many (most?) ideologies think they have an answer to this problem, but all of the answers I’ve seen seem to be pretty bad.

Which is not to say the current compromise system is good either. In many ways we’re suffering from a blend of the worst problems of each – we can’t coordinate properly, but the giant machine of society still crushes people. To some extent we’ve compromised by each side adopting the worst excesses of the other. Massive accumulation of capital in individuals results in people happily doing their own version of centralised planning, while states generally totally fail to solve coordination problems because politicians are more concerned with soundbites that will get them reelected than the good of the country or world.

Can we do better? I don’t know. Probably. Certainly I’m going to choose to believe we can. But I think as long as we deny hard problems are hard, we’re going to keep failing to solve them.

Does this make me a centrist? I guess this makes me a centrist, so I’ve probably now outed myself to my friends (who are mostly left-wing, as am I on a lot of issues) as literally/figuratively worse than Hitler. I can’t say I’ve found most centrist politicians any more appealing than the run of the mill on either side, but maybe the problem there is politicians and the system they work in, rather than their specific politics.

Does this mean I think better things aren’t possible? No. But I do think that whatever your current politics are, if you don’t admit “I don’t know” as an answer, the way you want us to be going probably won’t get us there.

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