How Best to Fill a Sieve with Water

There are many arguments over which is the correct course of action which I liken to debating how best to fill a sieve with water. By this I mean that they ignore the fact that their premise is wrong.

Obviously the first thing an impartial observer would say when the two camps are debating whether to use a spoon or a cup would be to point out that one can't fill a sieve without first plugging the holes. This seems to be my current role, pointing out assumptions which are either wrong or taken as being obvious without any examination.

Here are a few current (and not so current) examples.

The best way to stimulate the domestic economy is by raising/lowering taxes. Perhaps the best thing is not to stimulate the economy at all but to redistribute the present wealth better or to shrink the economy to a sustainable level. "Growth is good" is the sieve.

The best way to aid the development in the third world is by foreign investment/local projects. That the goal should be "development" goes without saying. What development means is the sieve.

A recently published book "Burning to Read" argues that modern liberalism didn't have its roots in the Protestant Reformation (which the author claims actually lead to fundamentalism), but the Catholic Church. The fact that any authoritarian ideology can be the basis of the enlightenment is the sieve.

The solution to current problems is to elect party A/party B. The fact that elections do not guarantee that the nation has a functional democracy is the sieve. Both parties may represent a small minority who have their own agenda.

The way to control foreign powers is by the use of military might/diplomacy. That other states need to be "controlled" is the sieve. Perhaps they just need to be left alone.

International trade benefits both parties. The debate centers on whether trade should be "free" or there should be a degree of protectionism. The sieve is a two hundred year old assumption concerning wine and wheat and the relative immobility of labor and capital. Also unstated is the sieve of "growth is good" as mentioned above.

Regulation is required by the state because people/institutions are inherently untrustworthy (or evil). In one case we get Puritanism in the other central planning. The sieve is the assumption that one can make a generalization at all.

A similar case arises with the idea that government is overbearing and inefficient/disinterested and the tool of the popular will. Once again the sieve is the assumption that things can be described in black and white terms.

Those who see simple reasons for complex issues will never see the sieve. Those who ignore it after it is pointed out tend to be authoritarians or ideologues.

Moral: Question Assumptions.


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Copyright © 2007 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.