The High Road and the Low Road

Jim Henley makes a good observation:

Across a whole range of problems there’s a class of responses I’ll dub the “low road” and another class I’ll call the “high road.” Examples of the former include war, torture, sanctions and blockades, imprisonment, aversive conditioning of all types (spanking; “dominance”-based animal training). Examples of the latter include diplomacy, rapport-building, civil disobedience, the free exchange of goods and ideas, decriminalization and rehabilitation, positive conditioning (of humans and animals).

I don’t presently care to argue that there is never any “need” to go down any given low road. In some cases I may support some low roads for some purposes. Locking up murderers, for instance. In other cases – torture – I have a much easier time saying “Never go there.” But what we see over and over again is that we judge high-road approaches as failures unless they produce nigh-instant and complete favorable results, while we show nearly infinite patience for journeys down the low road.

Nine years into the invasion of Afghanistan we have to agree that pulling out after a decade is just too soon. Back in 2001, the Taliban’s failure to turn over Osama bin Laden within a couple of weeks showed the hopelessness of diplomacy. When torture “works” at all it takes weeks and months, just like more classic rapport-building methods of interrogation. And it involves more false positives. Plus, oh I forgot to mention, it is deeply evil. But even though classic interrogation methods produce statistically better results, we live in fear that there may be some time somewhere that torture might get an answer that classic interrogation missed, so of course we must continually torture for that possible moment’s sake…

The war on drugs will surely work at some point – we’ve only been at it for 90-odd years, trillions of dollars and countless deaths and humiliations. But should anyone anywhere decriminalize anything, a single death or inconvenience in the first week would condemn the entire effort.

The distinction Jim’s drawing here is closely related to the top-down/bottom-up distinction I’ve been exploring. A big part of the problem, I think, is that it’s just much harder to articulate how and why “high road”, bottom-up strategies will work.

We’ve seen how counterintuitive people find Wikipedia compared with the traditional editing process. In Jim’s examples, the same basic fallacy is at work, there’s just more violence involved. It’s easy to tell a story about how a blockade will work: you make a list of stuff you don’t want the regime you’re blockading to have and prevent it from having them. It’s much harder to explain how free trade can undermine despotic regimes, because it’s a decentralized process involving thousands of personal cross-border relationships. Likewise, it’s easy to explain how shooting a suspected terrorist with a Predator will reduce future terrorism. It’s much harder to explain the subtle ways that declining to shoot a suspected terrorist (who might, remember, actually be innocent) with a Predator drone might help in the long-run effort to fight terrorists. So too often we opt for top-down strategies that produce what seem to be direct and immediate results (even though they have terrible side effects) over bottom-up strategies that work in more subtle and indirect ways but work better in the long run.

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2 Responses to The High Road and the Low Road

  1. Rhayader says:

    I really liked that last paragraph. I’m reading The Black Swan right now, and Taleb talks at considerable length about the “narrative fallacy.” It just struck me that our need for a narrative might cloud our perception here. Like Tim said, it’s much easier to explain top-down solutions. There is a causal chain, a logical progression. This is easy for our brains to interpret and remember. A decentralized, organic process, on the other hand, is too messy and complex to be summarized with bullet points.

  2. Barry says:

    I also note that the low road is so often preferred by elites (when it benefits them, of course). They tend to want to ‘give up’ on things which hurt them as soon as possible, while sticking with things which aid them forever.

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