The lower-order effects of bad policies tend to be both obvious and frustrating. Mass unemployment is a lower-order effect with complex higher causes. Part of the business of democratic politics is providing pat, limited explanations for those pernicious and painful effects that makes the issues less messy and comprehensible in as simple a model as is possible for the average person to understand. Once that person comes to believe that they understand both cause and effect, they can be militated in favor of some political cause or another.
The truth content of the entire exercise doesn’t really matter — the lower-order effects might only exist in the media, and the causes identified might be entirely irrelevant to the purported effects.
Here’s a fictional one:
C02 emissions caused by humans/livestock → Melting polar icecaps & glaciers → Arctic polar bears must flee south → Polar bears die tragically fleeing climate change → You have a moral obligation to reduce emissions to save the innocent polar bears.
None of this needs to be true for it to be effective as a political narrative. In fact, the less verifiable that it is, the better, and so long as it seems compelling and urgent, the masses will rush to support a story which is emotionally compelling but false than they will be willing to support a story which is emotionally inert but true.
The challenge with addressing real root causes of real problems is that in the political realm, the causes are likely to be fractal rather than something that can be easily reduced to a soundbite. Unlike in the laboratory environment, in which the complexity of nature can be reduced and controlled, chaos is the rule outside the lab, and establishing a clear causal chain is extremely challenging or impossible.
That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to establish causality or to bring order to nature. Specialized knowledge and specialization in labor is how civilization tames different natural spheres. Transforming coal into usable electricity is possible thanks to the engineering discipline, and extracting that coal is feasible thanks to the discipline of mining. Specialized financial knowledge is necessary to coordinate those disparate stages of production. Political knowledge is necessary to keep the miners from slaughtering their bosses and vice-versa. This complexity is what Hayek wrote about in “The Use of Knowledge in Society.”
While the title is about knowledge, knowledge isn’t necessarily what people have trouble with — it’s the acknowledgment of ignorance which is more challenging, as is the admission that some mysteries are unsolvable. But leaving some areas mysterious is uncomfortable — we want to convince ourselves that we know what’s going on with the world, that we understand more than we do, that we can predict more than can be predicted. It’s a source of consolation. The danger of this innate human tendency tends to become more severe when we attempt to simplify the impossibly complex in human affairs to generate that palliative effect. We create entire sky-castles of breezy causal reasoning chains which rely on models of things that can’t be modeled, attempting to rationalize things that reason tells us can’t be subjected to that sort of rationalization.
The 20th century approach to liberal arts education has mostly been a creation of head-stuffing — encouraging students to memorize these sorts of pat reasoning chains so that they can buttress more political interventions and the growth of bureaucratic management. These stories are often supported by emotionally powerful tales that lend them some shrill urgency. Professors test for ideological conformity and passion, because knowing the party line and truly believing it generates a reliable sense of legitimacy for the state. This method is common to all rationalist politics regardless of what position the ideology has on the ‘spectrum.’
This differs from the classical liberal arts, which were heavy on the transmission of cultural experience from thousands of years of Western history. Rather than the reduction of history to the pat reasoning of a small number of liberals thinking over a short period of time, it was more about 1,000s of years of history recorded to the best of our ability. Students would then go on to further studies in their specialization. And those students were not the bulk of society — not even the bulk of the intelligent — but a tiny fraction of the elite.
Egalitarian political systems — like the United States after Andrew Jackson expanded the franchise — tend to be uncomfortable with gross disparities in knowledge, especially the kind which is supposed to elevate the student politically over others which the ideology considers politically equal. Simplifying the incredibly complex makes it easier for people who aren’t equal to see one another as equals, to maintain a pretense of egalitarianism, and the ability of an ordinary person to grasp the whole of human experience rather than only a tiny portion of it.