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Less Government, More Sense

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

Individual rights. Economic freedom. Increased competition and productivity. These talking points are often foundational to the rhetoric of small government advocates. There are, however, plenty of supporting arguments that don’t achieve nearly the amount of exposure as these more traditional persuasions.

One such point sprouts from trends in human behavior as identified through social scientific research. Now, the problem with social scientific research, as noted by the Austrian School of Economics, is that it is impossible to hold all variables constant when dealing with human beings, and therefore truly controlled experiments cannot exist. For this reason, Austrians refute Positivist, research-based assumptions about human behavior, and instead draw from the concept of Praxeology, a more philosophically based assumption which notes that every conscious action is intended to improve the actor’s satisfaction.

While the empirical study of human behavior may not adequately serve to make De Facto claims, that is not to say that such research is of no use. Indeed, when evaluated in light of Praxeology, such findings can aid in the ability to forecast generally, though not as a matter of fact. This alignment of Praxeology and Positivism can serve as a powerful persuasive device for members of either school of thought.

In 1986 Richard Petty and John Cacioppo developed a theory based on social scientific research known as the Elaboration Likelihood Model. ELM posits the existence of an “elaboration continuum”, suggesting that people will be more or less likely to elaborate on their thoughts during a decision making process depending on the circumstances. The opposite ends of this elaboration progression yield corresponding levels of thought processing which can be identified as Central Route and Peripheral Route.

Central Route Processing requires intensive thought and scrutiny. It is more likely to occur when the decision maker has increased motivation or ability. Peripheral Route Processing is less cognitively intensive, and relies more on superficial judgments. Conversely, this is more likely to occur when the decision maker has less motivation or ability. One of the determining factors of a subject’s motivation is their involvement with the issue at hand, also referred to as perceived relevance.

Various studies have given credence to the claim that when a subject has higher perceived relevance to an issue, their motivation is increased, and they are more likely to employ Central Route Processing. Less perceived relevance lends itself to decreased motivation, likely resulting in Peripheral Route Processing.

These claims emerging from Positivist studies are coincidentally compatible with the Praxeological view that decisions are made on an ordinal basis, identifying that the conscious mind is capable of only one decision at a time. Based on this understanding, it is sensible to believe that individuals will put less effort into decisions that are less relevant, because realistic time constraints prohibit intensive and comprehensive evaluations of all given circumstances.

The implications of these assumptions have far reaching potential in the political realm. Government intervention throughout society removes the relevance of decision making from the individual, and therefore is likely to invoke a less logically aware voting constituency in regards to various societal issues. Advocates of big government often cite the inadequacy of the population to manage their own affairs, and as a result call for the necessity of a “big brother” to forcibly “protect people from themselves”.

Regardless of one’s philosophical approach to understanding human behavior, the evidence forecasts plainly against the value of big government. While it may be true that a majority of the population in today’s society wields a less than logical understanding of politically infused issues, the reason for this may not result from a natural incapacity, but from a lacking motivation given the systematic loss of individual relevance. As this loss of relevance is incurred at a more substantial rate, so too is the loss of motivation for the logical assessment of government managed issues. The resulting consequence is a voting constituency who is inclined to make superficial judgments when electing political representatives, because of a lack of motivation to scrutinize important societal affairs.

This trend of lost relevance is not healthy for the development of society. When fewer people are logically assessing the most important issues of our time, it follows that the resulting consensus will be less adequately able to respond to these issues because the free exchange of ideas will be less prolific.

Just another reason why less government makes more sense.