When I was a boy my mother and father often put to me a version of a question that parents throughout the ages have put to their children: “If everybody jumped off of the Mississippi River Bridge, would you jump too?!”
Of course, I was asked this rhetorical question whenever I took some inadvisable course of action and sought to excuse it on the grounds that “all my friends did it.”
Even a young child understands, without need of further elaboration, that no action is rendered acceptable simply because lots of other people do it.
This vital piece of wisdom, however, is often forgotten by adults when the discussion turns to public policy. A common justification for destructive government interventions such as minimum wages, mandated paid leave, protectionism, export subsidies, and government-run health care is the indisputable fact that most other governments intervene in these ways.
While awareness of the frequency or infrequency of some practice is relevant when judging the wisdom of that practice, such awareness is never sufficient. Human experience is filled with common practices that are inadvisable. And because governments, unlike individuals, are in the business of compulsion rather than persuasion, we should be especially reluctant to jump from the observation that some government practice is widespread to the conclusion that the benefits of that practice exceed its costs.
Nearly Everything That Is Possible Will Never Occur
“Every government does it!” is not the only weak justification for government intervention. Another weak justification is one that I call the “In theory, X is possible” justification. Examples include “In theory, a tariff that raises the standard of living of everyone in the country is possible” and “In theory, mandated paid leave that helps some workers without harming others is possible.”
Well, yes — just as, in theory, jumping off of a New Orleans bridge spanning the Mississippi River and not only surviving, but enjoying a good swim is possible. Any moderately clever person can describe possible conditions under which I might improve my well-being by jumping from a high bridge into the mighty Mississippi. If I hit the water just right — if I somehow avoid the many strong undercurrents that would drown me by pulling me beneath the surface — if a rescue boat happens to be close by — if my physical stamina, strength, and ability to swim are in peak form — if, if, if. Yes, my surviving such a dive is indeed possible.
But no sensible person would leap from an acknowledgment of this theoretical possibility to the conclusion that most people should routinely jump from high bridges into rivers.
The fact is, almost everything that in theory is possible is in reality highly implausible. And, further, much that is plausible remains in reality improbable.
Economic journals and textbooks are stuffed with demonstrations of the theoretical possibility of the likes of optimal tariffs that enrich the nation, minimum-wage hikes that don’t decrease the employment of low-skilled workers, antitrust actions that improve the economy, and even central planning by governments that produces outcomes superior to those of free markets. But because the conditions required in reality for any of these theoretical possibilities to hold are so precise and implausible — and in some cases downright bizarre — these mere possibilities are poor justifications for government intervention.
Yet another commonly encountered but very weak rationale for government action is “Experts say….”
The economy isn’t a machine that needs fine-tuning by expert social engineers. Instead, the economy is the vast array of detailed commercial interactions of millions of individuals each pursuing his or her own goals, and each with his or her unique bits of knowledge.
For example, no one other than me knows whether or not I value an extra $300 of monthly income more than I value an extra day each month of paid leave. Likewise, no one other than my neighbor knows her preference on this front — a preference that likely differs from my own. Nevertheless, we are bombarded today with reports of self-styled “experts” who assert, despite their ignorance of other people’s preferences, that the amount of paid leave currently supplied on the market is “inadequate.” But because there is no compelling reason to believe that market exchanges consistently prevent workers from adequately prompting employers to take suitable account of workers’ preferences for paid leave, all such “expert” assertions of inadequate paid leave are unwarranted.
Put differently, the only expert on the amount of paid leave that is best for me is me. And the only expert on the amount of paid leave that is best for you is you. No professor, no think tank scholar, no pundit, and no politician has as much knowledge of workers’ preferences as do each of the workers themselves. Therefore, any and all assertions that “experts” have determined that government should take steps to increase paid leave ought to be disregarded, for such assertions in fact aim to impose the preferences of people who are in fact non-experts over the preferences of the true experts — namely, each worker.
There are many other flimsy justifications offered for government intervention. But if even only these “justifications” were heard with greater skepticism, the world would be freer, more prosperous, and more civilized.
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Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with American Institute for Economic Research and with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University; a Mercatus Center Board Member; and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University. He is the author of the books The Essential Hayek, Globalization, Hypocrites and Half-Wits, and his articles appear in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, US News & World Report as well as numerous scholarly journals. He writes a blog called Cafe Hayek and a regular column on economics for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Boudreaux earned a PhD in economics from Auburn University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.
This article was sourced from AIER.org