If memory serves, Frederic Bastiat was first to use that phrase. He employed it in a discussion of what’s usually called the “broken window fallacy,” an important example of how choosing not to look at some of the consequences of an event or a decision can fatally warp one’s perception of economic reality. Henry Hazlitt made it the core of his treatise Economics in One Lesson, which remains the most important and accessible book ever written on economic thinking. Here is Hazlitt’s “one lesson” in full:
The art of economics consists in not merely looking at the immediate but also the longer-term effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.
This is a perfect statement of how economic analysis “should” be performed. Indeed, it applies more broadly than that. It’s a commandment to which all politicians, policy wonks, and opinion-mongers must be held, regardless of the specific topics about which they prattle.
When a private citizen chooses a course of action from among the alternatives available to him, he’s best advised not to include certain propositions:
- Use magic;
- Have your adversaries abducted by aliens;
- Persuade the Vatican to declare you the fourth Member of the Trinity.
…and others of similar character. When governments choose a course of action, their “thinking” is less restrained. Oftentimes their policy analysts do some very unwise things:
- Overestimate resources or intended benefits;
- Underestimate costs or ignore foreseeable impacts;
- Dismiss the Law of Unintended Consequences.
Governments get away with such foolhardy “thinking” because they can’t be held to account or compelled to give refunds. Private citizens are obviously more constrained than that. Our shortsightedness or excessive optimism normally comes down upon our own heads.
The “what is seen and what is not seen” principle, combined with the “alternatives” principle and the inherent arrogance of those who rule, give rise to my pessimism about the possibility of a “good government.” I wrote three novels to explore this subject in a fictional context, and I’m not done with it yet.
These things are on my mind this morning owing to the well-aged controversy over recreational drugs and whether producing, selling, buying, and using them should be legal.
Over at AoSHQ, Weird Dave has stated the matter with admirable concision:
Legalizing drugs. Where should the line be? I generally define my political leanings as “conservatarian”. Conservative, but with libertarian leanings. The more libertarian the solution to a problem is, the more likely it is to be the correct one. Doesn’t mean it’s the right one, but I think that generally speaking solutions with less government involvement are better than the opposite. So, legalize drugs then, right? Problem solved.
Not so fast.
The libertarian argument that resonates the most with me is “Hey, drugs were basically legal for the first 150 years of America, and caused far fewer problems that the war of drugs does for us now” (CatGirl Kulak makes this argument here) . And I’ll concede the argument, but there are a few big problems with the it:
#1. The moral character of the country in the 19th century was vastly different than the moral character of the country today. A work hard, seize opportunity, delayed gratification, personal responsibility society based upon Judaeo-Christian principles is very different from a me first, instant gratification, I deserve anything I want because I want it society whose “moral” foundations are hedonistic. The two will react to the availability of drugs in vastly different ways.
#2. Social services. In the past they were provided by private, voluntary organizations. There was no 911, no Narcan, no ambulance ride to a million dollars worth of medial machinery to keep you alive, all of it funded by the government from the pockets of the productive citizens to the benefit of the non-productive ones. Sure you could buy laudanum from the pharmacist, but if you OD in an alley or checked out of life and wasted away, well, you did, that’s all. Legalizing drugs with that level of safety net in place is an invitation for people to abuse it.
#3. Drug strength. As I said, you could [buy] laudanum easily. But nobody was selling fentanyl. Smoking pot with a natural THC level of 5-8% is a far cry from the 40-50% that we have today. LSD wasn’t invented until the 1940. Meth goes back to the very end of the 19th century, but it wasn’t widely used recreationally until much later. We’re not talking about the same drugs.
So what are your thoughts on this? Where’s the line?
Despite what I’m about to say, this is as elegant and modest a statement about the problem as I’ve seen in many a year. But the questions that surround the problem are terribly wide. They involve much that most people don’t include in their reasoning. When we confront the problem – and it is a problem; drugs do destroy many lives each year – are we committing any of these errors:
- Are we groping for unavailable resources?
- Are we tendentiously neglecting foreseeable impacts?
- What unintended consequences have arisen from the War on Drugs?
The failure of the War on Drugs to date is a datum of importance. Ron Paul once said to me that every known illegal drug is available to virtually every prisoner in any American prison. By implication, if you can’t keep ‘em out of the prisons, you’re beaten before you start. But does that neglect to consider alternative approaches…that is, alternatives that are actually available? Would a “bigger commitment” – i.e., more people and more money – make a difference? If so, what foreseeable impacts on other phenomena would diverting those resources to drug interdiction have? And always: what other consequences are we failing to take into account?
It’s flip to say that there will always be people who’ll ruin their lives somehow; if not with drugs, then with something else. But it’s equally flip to say that eradicating the use of illegal drugs is worth any cost, no matter how high. It’s shortsighted, potentially fatally so, to neglect to consider the side effects of the War on Drugs. Those extend all the way from petty crimes by junkies and the deterioration of public order, to the corruption of police departments and the enrichment of criminal gangs, to the economies of a considerable number of nations and the consequences for American foreign policy.
A good case could be made that we have too much squalor and suffering, and not nearly enough insight into the future, to make rational decisions about this matter. We can only be sure of a few propositions:
- We can’t use magic;
- We can’t count on help from Antares or Betelgeuse;
- And God Almighty, whatever opinion He may hold, is indisposed to decree a solution.
And so this screed is revealed as a brief for humility and caution: characteristics notably absent from those who presume to rule over us. Bet you never guessed.