I would like to tell you about a serious condition afflicting thousands of policy analysts. It’s called Petty Little Dictator Disorder, or PLDD, and you or someone you love could be suffering from this epidemic sweeping through our think tanks, advocacy groups, and government offices. According to the description pending for inclusion in the DSM V, here are the warning signs of PLDD:
- Do you spend a fair amount of your time imagining how the government could be used to shape people’s behavior for their own good?
- Do you tell yourself and others that you believe in liberty and stuff but there are negative externalities, information costs, and children who need protecting from their parents, so we need to step in?
- Do you use the word “we” a lot to refer to government action by which you really mean you and your friends?
- Do you consider yourself an expert despite having never really done anything or rigorously studied anything in your life?
- Do you feel the need to communicate your expert opinions in no more than 140 characters more than 1,000 times a year because you need constant reinforcement in the belief that you are changing the world?
- Do you sit in cafes or bars with your colleagues and have conversations that resemble dorm room pot-smoking bull sessions about how it would be best for families to live in apartments above bodegas with the sound of light rail roaring just outside their window because, after all, the life you currently have and enjoy is the same thing that families with three children and a dog should want?
- Do you think science or a panel of experts can identify the right way to do almost anything?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be suffering from PLDD. But don’t worry, help is available. Here are some steps that may address your PLDD:
- Think about how others have plans for their own lives just as you have a plan for yours. Just because you don’t understand their plan doesn’t mean that theirs is not legitimate or that you should impose your vision on them.
- Recognize that just as others are subject to limited information and systematic deviations from rationality, so are you. You shouldn’t imagine that you are the rational, well-informed one whose plan can fix the defects from which others suffer.
- Remember that you and your friends are not the government. Once the government takes responsibility for an issue, no one can completely control what the government will do and those with the strongest vested interests (and often not the best intentions) are likely to have more influence than you.
- Be humble about the limits of your knowledge and expertise. You may have gone to an elite school and have always been told how smart you are, but that doesn’t mean that you understand everything. Understanding comes from real experience and/or rigorous examination of an issue. Reading a bunch of articles or having spent a few years as the deputy assistant director of whatever does not count as experience or rigorous examination.
- Don’t confuse the constant sound of your own voice (or Tweets) and the praise of your friends with actually influencing things. Roosters may be noisy but they don’t actually make the sun come up. Pick your topics, develop real expertise in those topics by having meaningful experience and/or engaging in rigorous scholarship, and then communicate when you really think you have something to add.
- If you choose meaningful experience as your path to expertise, remember that it takes many years of experience to develop expertise. Rigorous scholarship allows one to generalize from a systematic review of evidence relatively quickly, but it is virtually impossible to generalize from experience until you have accumulated many years of it.
- Dorm room, pot-smoking bull sessions are fine if you are in college, but you really need to grow out of them if you want to be a serious policy expert. Sitting around after you’ve graduated college and agreeing with your friends about how much different occupations should be paid, what kinds of cars people should drive, what people should eat or drink, etc.. just makes you the Peter Pan of dorm room, pot-smoking bull sessions.
- Understand that “ideology” is just the negative spin that people suffering from PLDD use to describe the principles or values of people with whom they disagree. There is nothing wrong with having an ideology (or principles and values) since it helps guide you about the ends for which you are striving. Just be sure not to confuse your ideology with an empirical claim.
- Be humble about the ability of science or experts to resolve questions, just as you should be humble about your own expertise. Science provides a method for understanding the world, but it does not answer questions about principles and values. And even when it comes to empirical questions, science always leaves some uncertainty. That doesn’t mean you should reject science and embrace the nihilistic view that science just consists of lies and manipulation to disguise interests and power. But it does mean you have to be wary of interest and power corrupting science just as they can corrupt everything else.
PLDD has often gone unnoticed and untreated. Attention has instead focused on BSDD — Big Scary Dictator Disorder. And while it’s true that people with BSDD, like Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il, have posed grave threats to the world, the dangers of PLDD are more insidious. People with BSDD are relatively easy to recognize, there is strong motivation to mobilize an opposition to their disorder, and the condition is quite rare. When it comes to PLDD, however, people hardly notice how their liberty is chipped away bit by bit by those suffering from PLDD. PLDD is also very common, by some estimates afflicting a majority of policy analysts. And the righteousness and good intentions of those with PLDD undermine the effective mobilization of a response to the disorder.
I hope you will help me fight the scourge that is PLDD. Try to check this disorder within yourself and watch for the signs of it in others. Together, we can win the war against PLDD.