Number fetichism and policies.

Measuring the effect of public policy is vital for any governance organization (I am not, of course, including the State in that expression, as it can be said to be concerned with governance merely in the loosest sense possible).

For instance, if there is a policy of foreign aid in place, one should desire to see where the money goes and how it is used, one would desire to see some metrics. One should be concerned by the percentage of said aid that ends in the pockets of dictators and their corrupt cadre, the percentage that actually helps the population at large, and whether the local society is on the whole helped or hindered (something which State are distinctly disinterested in doing).

In short, numbers have a place. They are indicators of success or failure as regards to the stated goals of a system or institution. But numbers cannot usurp the function of those goals. When numbers become social policy, then human beings become secondary at best, or at worst obstacles in the way of success.

A stellar example of this in recent years is the so-called “No Child Left Behind” act, a product of demented minds within the Bush misadministration. NCLB holds as premise that the education system can be reformed “scientifically” by holding schools accountable in accordance with results obtained by their students on standardized tests on reading, math and science. All schools receive subsidies to implement NCLB, but those schools which fail to pump out their quotas, or fail to show progress, must go through remedies, and if those fail, reductions in subsidies.

Imagine we take this State program, but replace “schools” with “factories,” and “standardized tests” with “shoes.” This is pure communism, of course: goals set by numbers. For anyone who understands the nature of capitalism and communism, this should not be a surprise: the only difference between capitalism and communism is one of degree. NCLB is merely an extreme of one end appearing in a government which is closer to the other end.

Most interesting to me is the language used to promote NCLB. It is wrapped in such flowering language as “rigorous scientific research” and purports to objectively measure an “achievement gap” through a mere single-variable numerical “standard.” The name itself, “No Child Left Behind.” The desire expressed that better students be divested of their advanced classes and put back in the general school population to “help” the average and inferior students. All of this is very communist in nature.

The end result of any communist programs is: substandard quality, cookie-cutter results, no considerations given to individuals. This is also the case with NCLB. The end result of a program where schools are measured and judged by the performance of their students in reading, math and science, is an education system where students learn reading, math and science in an inferior, rote, cookie-cutter fashion, and where other disciplines are neglected. The actual results are far, far worse, and, to be honest, downright scary.

Due to this total failure, they have to constantly reset the goalposts. And of course politicians are clamoring for more funding, following the principle that when the State fails, statists invariably implore the State for even more intervention, like clockwork. In a market, failure is failure. In government, failure is success. In no case can a politician or activists consider State intervention as the problem, since the existence of the State is considered to be necessary and its justification infallible. The problem is always with people being too selfish or corrupt: the solution is to redouble efforts on what is ultimately a deeply flawed doctrine (the doctrine that we need the State to “force people to cooperate”).

Number fetichism is related to utilitarianism, the moral position of “the greatest good for the most people.” Utilitarianism, after all, is a form of moral bean-counting: in theory, if you can moderately benefit a lot of people by killing a few, then it would be a moral action (depending on the kind of utilitarianism, as there are many). In short, utilitarianism is what people generally have in mind when they think about “selfishness,” the desire to hurt others in order to further your own interests and that of your society.

What they have in common is the desire to impose coercive “standards” on society in the name of “scientific improvement.” Their idea of science and standards is in fact statism hiding as pseudo-science. It has been proposed that the real goal of NCLB is to eliminate all education beyond the bare necessities, making people more ignorant and compliant. I can’t say whether this is true or not, but one cannot argue against the fact that NCLB puts education and public schools in the hands of the federal government. He who has the gold, sets the rules.

While keeping in mind that metrics are important to gauge the effects of policies, we must acknowledge that number fetichism and coercion go hand in hand. The real issue, therefore, is not whether standards are good or not. We must not let the debate degenerate that low. We must, rather, point out that the real issue is one of choosing between numbers and people, between numbers and morality, between “scientific” coercive control and voluntaryism.

One thought on “Number fetichism and policies.

  1. jdavidb July 25, 2007 at 09:39

    Remember also that since the first raiders rode into the first town and proclaimed themselves kings (or priests, or both — hmmm, probably both) governments have found it necessary to make people accept the fact that they are robbed of their liberty and wealth by providing just enough “services” with that stolen wealth to make them just barely content enough that they do not revolt.

    So it is very much in the government’s interest to collect a lot of numbers on how effective the programs are. But the true effectiveness of a government program is not whether or not it succeeds in the purpose that was given to the people for that program. Its true effectiveness is whether or not it is keeping the people content enough, and measuring that may have nothing to do with measuring its success. Hence irrelevant metrics like moving educational targets.

    If you convince the people that the service couldn’t be provided without government at all, then they will gladly accept a poor service under the belief that it is far better than nothing, and that as long as we can keep control of the service through government we have the hope of eventually regulating it, reforming it, and changing leaders enough that some day it will be good enough. That again helps keep the people from withdrawing their support of the government.

    If we could get enough people to stand up like you and me and quit supporting the robbery and enslavement of our neighbors, eventually it would collapse. It wouldn’t take convincing everybody. I’m sure you already realize this, but I wanted to mention it for your other readers, to give them hope. :)

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