Thursday, September 24, 2015

You usually can't do several things at the same time

Pope Francis's visit has sparked the predictable controversy we always see when a politically sympathetic figure declines to accept liberalism's priorities. He's an outspoken critic of inequality, racism, and climate change denial - three of the greatest challenges facing the left today - but because of the Church's conservative positions on things like the role of women in the clergy, we get criticism like this (pulled from my Facebook news feed):

Elizabeth Bruenig, with extraordinary patience, details why it's pretty unrealistic to expect a Catholic Pope to dismantle the Church hierarchy while simultaneously waging an enormously controversial political war on behalf of the poor and the climate - but while she's correct, I don't think we should rest her case on the particulars.

There is, after all, no reason to simply assume that we can "deal with both poverty and gender issues at the same time". Obviously we should deal with both at the same time if we can, and we'd certainly be fortunate if that were the case, but it's entirely possible that we would be better off dealing with them separately. If that's true, then we would in fact be doing a disservice to both the poor and women by trying to take on both challenges at once.

Logically, assuming that two things are easier to accomplish than one is a rather blatant version of the conjunction fallacy. If we suppose that any given political objective will take a certain investment in time and resources, it follows trivially that two objectives will take a greater investment than either one on their own. Similarly, if we Venn diagram the bases of popular support for any given two issues, the overlap will almost always be smaller than either constituency on their own. It's easy to see how these dynamics would play out in terms of actual political organizing and strategy.

Perhaps by happy coincidence political incentives and resources could align for the Pope in such a way that he could enact the entire liberal wish list all at once, but this is some pretty ambitiously wishful thinking and not something to be simply taken for granted.