The Limit Actually Exists

Education government Health PAPM Policy

Allow your self a one minute and seven second diversion in to what, in my mind, is still one of the more amusing movies I’ve seen.

Pre-trainwreck Lindsay Lohan (and it’s hard to remember a time when she didn’t wear an ankle monitor) is diverted from her task of calculating a complex mathematical equation by realizations about the drama in her life, and is beaten to the buzzer by her opponent (who is wrong).  When she’s given the change to answer the question, in a moment of insight she answers “the limit does not exist”.  She is, of course, right and goes on to be celebrated for winning the math competition, etc.

Right now you’re asking yourself “how is this relevant to… anything?” (and if you’re not, you should be).

I had a conversation this week with a family friend who asked me casually about a situation she was facing at her government job.  She was trying to figure out how to coordinate different government departments to fix a gap that had come to her attention through contact with a service user.  The user had slipped through the cracks of government services and had suffered as a result.  None of the departments were responsible on their own for the result or the mistake, but there was no good reason as to why they couldn’t have worked together to address the problem before it got out of hand.  Over dinner, this friend asked me for advice.

Advice is a dangerous thing, and not having information (more than what I’ve laid down, but less than is necessary to take a crack at the issue) I didn’t give it.  The incident did put me to thinking, however, about the limits of information and knowledge.

It’s not like this topic hasn’t been covered at length by almost every policy theorist ever.  It’s one of the core problems with policymaking: policymakers (often despite their own convictions) are human beings, and human beings have trouble remembering what they had for breakfast, much less what everyone else in their jurisdiction had for breakfast and how that effects their lunch choices and risks of diabetes, and on and on.  If you’re to take Hayek’s word on this (and I’ve never heard a challenge to this that’s the least bit compelling), knowledge is distributed throughout society and is inherently private; the policymaker, as one human member of society, lacks the capacity to know everything and thus must (at best) aggregate.

Too often I hear proposals in my classes which assume either that policymakers are either omniscient or that aggregates don’t discard important information.  In part that can be broken down to the familiar undergraduate hubris, but it persists beyond that.  In my friend’s example, because there was no market (and, realistically, can’t be a market in the type of government services she was working on) there was no clear way to make rational decisions.  Every proposal was a band-aid, and if the same approach was followed every time someone fell through the cracks, the system would quickly become inefficient and unwieldy (ultimately my contribution was to meekly suggest that more case studies be collected, and I suggested that she look at an approach where services are made much more public and notable in an effort to ensure that people in need could, in these cases, do a bit of self-help with government support).

In the classroom, policy theorists will typically pay lip service to the limits on human knowledge, but many (or at least, the people who apply them) proceed to pretend that the limits don’t exist or that they are far broader than in reality.  In three years of undergraduate policy education, the only time I came up against a reading which specifically dwelt on this problem was Charles Lindblom’s “Muddling Through”, a system of policy creation and evaluation which assumes that the policymaker is almost blind and thus relies on incremental changes whose results can be more easily, though still not objectively, measured.  Otherwise we never touched Hayek, Mises, or any other sociologist with a theory of policy knowledge.

Applying to my current program is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, but one of the few changes I’d make is to have a greater focus on understanding what we don’t know and what we can’t know.  It may mean that we’re not able to create broad, neatly-packaged policies, but it would serve us better in our policy careers.  All I can hope is that we get the pretense of knowledge beaten out of us by real world experience once we leave academia.

2 Comments Write a comment


  • Julia 24 February, 2013

    You raise an interesting point, but Kingdon is still my homeboy

    • chris 25 February, 2013

      It’s not as much a problem with Kingdon as with some of the others *cough*Deborah Stone*cough*

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