Williamson’s Razor


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Fans of Common Core should read this outstanding article by Kevin Williamson on what we can learn about large-scale reform efforts from the VA scandal.

First, Williamson makes the point that reform efforts are often counterproductive even when everyone wants the same outcome:

Democrats did not want the hospitals that care for our veterans to be catastrophically mismanaged while administrators set about systematically destroying the evidence of their incompetence, and Republicans did not want that, either. Independents are firmly opposed to negligently killing veterans. It doesn’t poll well. Everybody is so opposed to that outcome that we created a cabinet-level secretariat to prevent it and installed as its boss Eric Shinseki, a highly regarded former Army general. We spent very large sums of money, billions of dollars, to prevent this outcome, almost trebling VA spending from 2000 to 2013 even as the total number of veterans declined by several million.

Nobody wanted these veterans dead, but dead they are. How is it possible that the government of the United States of America — arguably the most powerful organization of any sort in the history of the human race, in possession of a navy, a nuclear arsenal, and a vast police apparatus — cannot ensure that its own employees and contractors do not negligently kill its other employees and former employees? Never mind providing veterans with world-class medical care — the federal government cannot even prevent bureaucratic homicide. All of the political will is behind having a decent VA, and there is nothing to be gained politically from having a horrific one. How can it be that, with everybody free to vote as he pleases and to propose such policies as please him, we end up with what nobody wants?

Efforts to reform the VA were not laid low by people who wanted veterans to die. Applications of this principle to the rhetoric of CC supporters should be obvious.

The larger point of the piece, however, is that reformers can’t reform unless they have a mental model of how the universe works, but the universe is far more complex than any model the human mind is capable of constructing. The more centralized control your reform requires, the more the real complexity of the universe will defeat your reforms. Conversely, the more your reforms move toward decentralization, the more success they’re likely to have because you’re working with complexity instead of against it.

Let’s call it Williamson’s Razor, the political analogue of Ockham’s Razor. Just as Ockham would have us adopt the hypothesis that fits the facts with the fewest assumptions, Williamson would have us support the reform that alleviates the problem with the least centralized control.

That’s why school choice succeeds at raising standards where centralized efforts to raise standards fail. Choice first, standards second.

10 Responses to Williamson’s Razor

  1. matthewladner says:

    I’m a little curious- surely someone has suggested selling the VA hospitals and taking the VA budget and giving vets HSAs and catastrophic insurance plans.

  2. matthewladner says:

    How many more veterans have to get substandard care and die on doctored waiting lists before they do it?

  3. Ze'ev Wurman says:

    Seems Romney suggested it and our loquacious Nobel laureate disdainfully rejected it …

  4. allen says:

    Mr. Krugman appears to have been silent on the current VHA scandal although that blissful state of affairs seems unlikely to continue. His current silence does, however offer an opportunity to do some science in that predictions can be made regarding the likely tactics Mr. Krugman will employ when he finally chooses to hold forth on the subject.

    – Bush. It’ll be Bush’s fault.

    – Funding. Inadequate funding’s the underlying reason for excessive wait times and why the VHA officials who kept the secret wait lists aren’t really culpable. That was an extremity forced on them due to that inadequate funding.

    – The exception doesn’t undermine the rule. The VHA is, always has been and always will be wonderful. This scandal is an exceptional situation and by no means reflects poorly on the idea of socialized medicine or this implementation of socialized medicine.

    – Politics. This is just another “phony” scandal like Benghazi. There’s really nothing going on here and it’s wildly overblown by scurrilous Republicans for the basest of base political reasons, racism.

    • Joe says:

      Well, yes, it partially is George W. Bush’s fault….his wars added thousands and thousands of veterans to the rolls without providing any additional resources to the effort to treat and take care of those returning warriors. And, yes, the Congress is at fault — both R’s and D’s for underfunding and providing no serious watchdog role for the VA…..let’s face it, our country has a long record of neglect of our returning veterans — and, it’s a bi-partisan record of neglect.

  5. […] Click Here To Read The Rest of: May 23, 2014 at 4:38 am […]

  6. […] such centralized accountability measures are ill-suited to handle complexity and tend to stifle diversity and innovation. As University of Arkansas Professor Jay P. Greene […]

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