Oct 8, 2009

Occam's Razor and Politics

The Conservative Party just finished their four-day annual conference, which culminated in David Cameron's speech to the party. This year's speech is even more significant than usual, since it is likely, given the state of the polls, to be his last conference speech as the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Next summer, he will probably be the Prime Minister of Her Majesty's Government, describing what his Government is doing to address the problems facing Britain.

I have mixed feelings about the speech, largely stemming from my mixed feelings about the state of the Tories in general. You see, David Cameron, in some ways, has been the John McCain of the U.K.--he's reliably 'conservative' on most issues, though he has decided that the way to win back Parliament is to adopt many of Labour's policies, including civil partnership recognition and benefits, burdensome taxes on the rich, and heavy, heavy funding for the National Health Service.

What surprises me most about Mr. Cameron's speech is that it reflects what ails the entirety of the European polity today, namely, the belief that society's problems can be answered by applying Occam's Razor. Simply put, Occam's Razor states that if there are multiple possible explanations for an occurrence, the simplest is the most likely. In society and politics, this is certainly not always the case.

Sometimes, it is. Take this excerpt from Mr. Cameron's speech, for example:

The truth is, it's not just that big government has failed to solve these problems. Big government has all too often helped cause them by undermining the personal and social responsibility that should be the lifeblood of a strong society.

Just think of the signals we send out. To the family struggling to raise children, pay a mortgage, hold down a job.

"Stay together and we'll give you less; split up and we give you more."

To the young mum working part time, trying to earn something extra for her family "from every extra pound you earn we'll take back 96 pence."

Yes, 96 pence.

Let me say that again, slowly.

In Gordon Brown's Britain if you're a single mother with two kids earning £150 a week the withdrawal of benefits and the additional taxes mean that for every extra pound you earn, you keep just 4 pence.

What kind of incentive is that? Thirty years ago this party won an election fighting against 98 per cent tax rates on the richest. Today I want us to show even more anger about 96 per cent tax rates on the poorest.


It is certainly true: taking away, through taxation, 96% of the income you earn is an idiotic incentive. No one in their right mind would think that would cause anyone to work more. In my current job, if I had to work twenty-four times as much to earn the equivalent of one unit of untaxed work, I simply wouldn't work. That's Occam's Razor. That's common sense.

However, on another issue, Mr. Cameron misses the root causes by applying Occam's Razor to a problem.

We cannot rebuild social responsibility from on high. But the least we can do the least we can do is pledge to all the people who are scared, who live their lives in fear and who can't protect themselves, that a Conservative Government, with Chris Grayling, with Dominic Grieve, will reform the police, reform the courts, reform prisons. We will be there to protect you.

You may not notice the mistake here, because there a few underlying facts. In Britain, gun control laws are among the strictest in the world. This came through the use of Occam's Razor, noticing the problem of crime (oftentimes perpetrated with guns) and saying that the simplest way to solve the problem would be to rid the nation of guns. They did so. That has made Britain one of the places where you are least likely to be shot. However, in the U.K., 26.4% of the country was victimized by crime in 2002 (3rd highest percentage in the world, according to UN statistics). 2.8% of the country was subject to assault, the 2nd highest percentage in the world. The U.S., on the other hand, with much more lax gun control laws (though still with the assault rifle ban in place at the time), came in as one of the most likely places to get shot, but below average in both world crime and assault rates. Clearly, getting rid of guns--though it may be effective in lowering crimes committed with guns--does not lower overall crime. There could be many reasons for this (culture, other weapons available, number of law enforcement personnel, sentencing levels come right to mind), but I think a major one is that, culturally, it is no longer legal to defend oneself. In the end, that is the point of owning a gun (besides hunting). It is a great deterrent to crime. If you know that I have a Glock in my drawer, you probably will be less likely to enter my home to rob it. If you think I might, you will still be less likely to enter my home. If you know I won't (as is the case in the U.K.), then you have no worries at all about robbing me blind (or murdering me with something other than a gun, or assaulting me or my family, or any other number of crimes).

Mr. Cameron thinks that Britain just needs more policing. That may help, but ultimately, police respond to crimes. Frontline police rarely prevent crime. You don't call 911 because a burglar might appear. You call because someone appears to be in the midst of a robbery. Sometimes they can stop something as it happens. However, the best deterrent is having the criminal know that you aren't the one in danger if they enter your home; they are. Britain, I believe, should loosen its gun control laws. That, paradoxically, is how you'll keep people safe.

I look forward to what I hope will be the Tories' trouncing of Labour next May. However, as American seems to be 'Europeanizing' under President Obama, I hope we realize that the simplest ways to solve problems (e.g. people need health care, just make them buy it; people get shot, outlaw guns; I am not rich and am not a criminal, tax all rich people because they must be) are not always the correct ones. Occam's Razor doesn't always work.


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