The motivations of those who wield state power can sometimes be difficult to decipher. In some cases, there are multiple plausible explanations for why politicians want to achieve certain goals, why judges make certain decisions, and why the enforcers of state policy behave the way they do. As such, I suggest a heuristic to simplify the matter, which I will name after myself because I have never seen it expressed in the following manner.
Reece’s razor: Whenever there are several possible explanations for a government action or policy, the most cynical explanation is the most likely to be correct.
Here, cynicism is to be understood in its modern sense: a belief that other people are motivated primarily by selfish interests, to the detriment of what is best for society as a whole. It should also be understood that the razor is to be applied in cases where all else is equal; i.e. the available evidence does not clearly favor one explanation over another.
Now, let us see Reece’s razor in action. We will examine five examples of government action or policy, come up with several possible explanations for each, and see which explanations are selected by Reece’s razor.
1. Why do local governments want to ban ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft?
One possibility is that politicians are simply concerned for the safety of those who would use ride-sharing services. Another possibility is that established taxi services do not want to lose their government-protected monopolies and have asked politicians to ban their upstart competitors. Yet another possibility is that ride-sharing services have decreased the number of DUI arrests, each of which puts thousands of dollars into local coffers. The idea that politicians care more about a source of government revenue than about human lives that could be saved by decreasing the number of impaired drivers on the roads is the most cynical explanation, so Reece’s razor selects it.
2. Why is public education of such low and declining quality?
One possibility is that there is not enough money being spent on education. Another possibility is that is that there is no free market competition with education options that have other curricular requirements than those mandated by the state, leading to a curriculum that is of inferior rigor. Yet another possibility is that in an economy where both parents must work to support a family, they cannot spend enough time with their children and teachers cannot compensate for this. Still another possibility is that public education is of low quality because those who wield power do not want an enlightened population who can reason for themselves. The idea that politicians and business leaders care more about having obedient workers who are intelligent enough to perform needed labors but not intelligent enough to realize the extent to which they are being exploited than about giving children a quality education is the most cynical explanation, so Reece’s razor selects it.
3. Why has the War on Terrorism taken so long?
One possibility is that government militaries are ill-designed to fight such a decentralized foe, which makes a war against terrorists take longer to win than a war against another state. Another possibility is that tactical blunders have caused Western powers to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, thereby prolonging a war that should have been won years ago. Yet another possibility is that a refusal to properly identify the enemies as a large number of individual Islamic extremists has prevented a victory, as an enemy must first be identified before it can be defeated. Still another possibility is that a perpetual war is in the rational self-interest of politicians. If the War on Terrorism were won, then the rationale for police statism and massive military spending would vanish. If the War on Terrorism were lost, then the state would fail at the one job that it is supposedly solely capable of performing, namely keeping its people safe. The ideology of Islamic terrorists disallows a draw, so the only other option is an endless war. The idea that politicians care more about expanding state power and getting money into the hands of the defense contractors who fund their campaigns than about the human lives lost on both sides of the conflict is the most cynical explanation, so Reece’s razor selects it.
4. Why is the government going after Ross Ulbricht and others who create drug exchanges?
One possibility is that politicians care about their citizens and want to make it harder for them to obtain substances that will harm or kill them, while drug exchanges like Silk Road make it easier. Another possibility is that such exchanges make it easier to contract other illegal services, such as assassinations, and the state has an interest in protecting its people from such victimization. Yet another possibility is that tales of hidden Internet activities that violate the law are useful propaganda pieces to convince people of a need for government to monitor and spy on Internet use. Still another possibility is that violence in the drug trade provides a rationale for spending on police forces and the prison industrial complex, and sites like Silk Road were making the drug trade less violent. The ideas that politicians value a rationale for government spending and spying on citizens more than the safety of their constituents are the most cynical explanations, so Reece’s razor selects them.
5. Why do war crimes tribunals focus more on those of higher rank who give orders and less on those of lower rank who carry out the orders?
One possibility is that popular views of morality hold those with more authority as being more responsible, and that governments reflect these views. Another possibility is that resources only allow for a certain number of trials, and these resources should be spent to try those with command responsibility. Yet another possibility is that trying those of lower rank for their activities would lead people to question the deeds of their own nation’s soldiers, which is against the interest of the ruling classes. The idea that the ruling classes care more about staying in power than about seeking justice is the most cynical explanation, so Reece’s razor selects it.