scientific legislation

Can we learn something from the success that is modern science, and apply it to how we govern ourselves?

Some have taken the lesson that science/technology works, therefore scientists/technologists can do good work, therefore government should be run by scientists/technologists. This idea is known as "technocracy", and it is foolish, and unworkable, maybe even a little bit evil.

But I have a better idea, which doesn't require replacing democracy, elections, or any of that stuff. It's based on the idea that a lot of legislation doesn't work -- in a particular sense. Many are made based upon promises of curing some ill, and then deliver no cure, or even create a worse disease. The consequence of this is to create new law after law, regulation after regulation, each trying to patch up the mistakes of the prior ones.

To those who take pleasure in the growth of the state, this does not represent a problem. The more laws, more regulations on the book, the more controlled the population becomes, and the greater the governmental Leviathan enforcing it all. If someone around me would admit to being a jerk who thinks this way, I'd give them a lifetime supply of loathing right then and there.

OK ok, so what's a better plan? Let's borrow a key idea from science: falsifiability, which is a key aspect of the scientific method. The basic idea is that to be believable as a scientific theory, one must make not only a claim, but that claim must be empirically testable. There must exist some kind of experiment or observation that would be able to refute it, if the theory was wrong.

For example, "there is an invisible sky god" would not qualify as a scientific proposition unless the claimant defined the terms, and produced a test ("go pee on the tree, say "woohoo", and she will pop up as a 1cm blue sphere uttering obscenities"). One can pee & peek, and if no blue sphere, then the theory is false. For another example, "who spits against the wind, fouls his beard" (with more precise qualifications) is easily tested, and am happy to report a personal inability to falsify.

Over time, theories that fail their tests are rejected and become superstition, good theories that haven't failed for a long time become known as laws. Thus science grows into a web of propositions, many mutually reinforcing, but each forever subject to eviction upon adverse observation.

How this applies to politics might start to become clear. Take a basic theory is that a law that fails to meet its own standards is a bad law, and that having no law is generally better than having bad law. Let's have acts of government that purport to ameliorate some problem actually include a falsifiable prediction within the statute. If the test fails, the statute is automatically cancelled.

Some examples. A hypothetical Bill to Improve Rich People's Lives, a laudable goal, would have to include a statement of how/when its success is to be measured. Maybe somethign like "in each of the following ten years, the glorious 1%-percentile-of-annual-income would have to exceed the standard rate of inflation". A Bill to Feed the Poor (but Reduce Their Number) could have a statement that after the bill's in operation, the number of Big Macs served on welfare cards will be 10% less than before. Or This Random Act of Congress shall reduce health insurance costs over the aggregate population by 10% by 2018. Or This New Firearms Regulation will help reduce gun murders in Chicago by 10% next year.

If you can't make a strong prediction about its effects, don't make a law strong.

Would it still be possible to game the system? Certainly, there are one or two deviously clever people in politics. But it would discourage a certain type of wishful-thinking-oriented law, whose likely outcomes are so grotesquely disconnected from the dreams, that writing down a falsification clause would make it obvious even to the believers. It would discourage monster omnibus bills, since lawmakers wouldn't want to risk a failure of one prediction rip down the whole kaboodle. It could make government slower and more hesitant. Sounds good to me!

fche Saturday 06 July 2013 - 4:50 pm | | endorsals, politics

seven comments


I like the idea though I’m not sure it works in a lot of scenarios. For instance there were specific predictions made about the stimulus package in the US, a big deal was made when those predictions failed but those predictions were also based on an overly optimistic picture of the recession. Even if you make that adjustment it’s still not clear if the stimulus accomplished nothing or if it averted the next depression, there’s too many other variables in play.

But for something like Education you could try different policies in different districts and actually perform a proper study of different policies. I think that’s the place to start, with policies that can be applied in a small region and can have a well formed hypothesis. Once that’s in place start scaling it up and see how far you can go.

aaron, - 07-07-’13 23:48

“… stimulus … predictions were based on an overly optimistic picture …”

That could be OK; the prediction could include conditionals.
OTOH, with a one-time expenditures, sunsetting the law would not bring the sunk spending back.

“it’s still not clear if the stimulus accomplished nothing or if it averted the next depression”

It definitely did not accomplish nothing – it added trillions to the US federal debt, depending on which you count.

Frank, - 08-07-’13 08:35

“That could be OK; the prediction could include conditionals.
OTOH, with a one-time expenditures, sunsetting the law would not bring the sunk spending back.”

The problem is that macro-economics is really hard, Keynsian vs monetarist vs Austrian school isn’t even settled, the effects are really hard to measure even after the fact, I’m not sure how to come up with a useful test beforehand. That’s not even considering all the factors that can pop up, consider the stimulus, how would you quantify the situations of the sovereign dept crisis in Europe, a terrorist attack in the US, political destabilization in China, you’d end up with something worse than an EULA trying to set of the parameters of the prediction.

“It definitely did not accomplish nothing – it added trillions to the US federal debt, depending on which you count.”

I think it was $831 billion, $288 billion was tax cuts and $144 billion was transfers to lower levels of government (a combination of shifting the debt/avoiding state level austerity), and the rest was actual monetary spending.

aaron, - 10-07-’13 04:57

“theory unsettled … hard to measure … I’m not sure how to come up with a useful test beforehand”

That seems a strong indication that the effort should not have been tried.

Frank, - 10-07-’13 07:14

“That seems a strong indication that the effort should not have been tried.”

By that same standard you can’t pass any macroeconomic bill you can’t raise taxes, cut taxes, cut/raise unemployment insurance, lower/raise the minimum wage, etc. You either have to fill the bills with tautological predictions or not pass anything of significance.

I still think legislation needs to be done more scientifically, and some bills should contain testable hypothesis, but I don’t think it’s feasible for a big swath of legislation.

aaron, - 10-07-’13 15:15

Re. raising taxes, one could predict the intended change of distribution or quantity, with acts-of-god type provisos. With unemployment insurance & minimum wage changes, one could predict greater wealth (as measured for some slice of the population, whatever) — all the things the politicians/activists promise. I think these are actually good candidates for binding predictions.

Frank, - 10-07-’13 15:43

What’s an act of god? A recession in Europe, a big bankruptcy, a war in the middle east, a drop in oil prices? There’s always something happening and I’m not sure we have the social science machinery to define what should be an effect and what shouldn’t.

I think the system I prefer is to include specific metrics and goals, make them prominent but non-binding. Schedule committee reviews (or even general reauthorizations) to analyze the metrics and debate if the bill is doing its job. With your system you’re still going to have to leave it to legislators to debate the legalese of whether it achieved the goal or if there was an act of god, with this system they’re at least debating the evidence and objectives directly. There’s still the risk they’ll turn it into a formality but I can’t see a system as strict as binding predictions surviving implementation.

aaron, - 11-07-’13 02:36
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