Tuesday, May 23, 2006

More on the D of I

Man oh man, was that last post ever convoluted. My train of thought completely derailed, leaving a twisted morass of semi-cogent criticisms that did little to flatter my position. But I’ve got a couple more thoughts on the definition of insanity that somehow managed to escape, so I’ll present them in a (I hope) much more organized, approachable, and concise fashion.

As I explained yesterday, defining insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” necessarily implies that expecting the same results from consistent action is reasonable. But the set of activities that counts as “doing the same thing” is left up to the reader’s judgment. While most would presumably agree that the set should include voting for the same person, it is less obvious whether a partisan voting pattern is comparable, especially since parties are well known for changing their platforms over time. Also, should the generic act of propositioning women count as “the same thing” in the same way that repeatedly propositioning the same woman would? This lack of denotative clarity severely undercuts the quote’s force as a general maxim in addition to tempting its advocates to use it only when convenient to their arguments.

Even if we narrow our view to only those cases that are more or less unanimously agreed-upon as “doing the same thing,” we’d still find that our Franklinism grossly overestimates the power of human agency in most real-world endeavors. To see why this is so, let’s have a look at voting for the same person, the example Michelle Malkin presents. A vote for Ray Nagin is insanity, she claims, unless you want the same results as last time. But Ms. Malkin fails to acknowledge the great number of factors that must be taken into account when assessing a city’s political and social outcomes, of which a mayor’s “competence” is only one (defining competence as a context-independent trait is another major error). These would include (but are certainly not limited to) public opinion, other legislative bodies such as the city council, the robustness of the tax base, and the tractability of the city’s problems, which combined may in the end prove more decisive than any one man’s political abilities. Rather than arguing why a specific alternative candidate would do better by New Orleans than Nagin, Malkin appeals to a well-known but poorly supported piece of “conventional wisdom” to glibly glorify change for change’s sake. Serious situations deserve serious analyses, but unfortunately the blogosphere tends to reward snark over substance.

EDIT—If I had to distill my objection to this bothersome phrase down to two sentences, I'd do so thusly: Any decision over whether to maintain strategy or adopt a new approach to a given problem should remain open until the pros and cons of the status quo have been thoroughly examined against the inherent value of and transition costs to whatever alternatives are on the table. Asserting that "doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results" is "insanity" preemptively closes all such questions to debate in an inappropriately sweeping fashion.