Monday, July 19, 2004

First and Second order

Lately I've been thinking about how useful it is to divide problems into first and second order. For instance, when driving, a first-order question is "Am I in immediate danger?" and a second-order question is "Was that my exit?" It only makes sense to look at the second question after you've answered the first. I'm sure we've all seen people who have mixed the order by, say, cutting off a semi in order to get off the freeway. No doubt if you were to ask these people later if they made the right decision, they'd agree that it probably wasn't worth the risk.

Politics is another place this comes up. For months leading up to an election, candidates will say just about anything to get elected. Any chink in their opponents armor is fair game. But once the election is decided, the loser always publicly concedes the election. All of the issues between the candidates were really second-order problems. The answer to the first-order question is that ultimately the people will decide who represents them. Even if you are cynical and believe the loser conceded in order to improve his chances next time, it shows that democracy was the over-riding principle of the election. Starting democracies in places without a strong democractic tradition seems to mostly be a problem of getting everyone to really agree on the first-order issues.

The best time to observe first-order issues is during times of crisis. For about a month after the September 11th attacks, most people in America were focused on first-order things (loved-ones, life, patriotism, evil, and so-on). I imagine it was a lot longer in New York. Then as people started to notice that everyone was agreeing that terrorists are evil and firemen are brave, conversations turned to second-order issues like how much money the vitcim's families should get and which administration was most responsible for the intellegence failures.

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