When politicians talk about a “failure of imagination,” they are usually talking about the failure of political leaders to implement creative policies to tackle perceived problems. But the real “failure of imagination” is the failure of politicians to imagine the full range of consequences that result from the policies they do enact.
This failure was not as pronounced back when people were less connected. Take, for example, a small town erecting its first stoplight. The goal: to reduce accidents at an intersection. The cost: the cost of materials, labor, and maintenance, and the value of time spent by motorists at the stop. These are not terribly difficult to measure. You can keep statistics of accidents; you can keep a ledger of the direct costs. As for the time value to the motorists, you can listen to them. If the stop light is viewed as a major inconvenience, they’ll likely file complaints or voice objections at public meetings. It is easy to keep track of those affected by the policy. It is also easy to make changes to make things better. It might become clear that the light needs to change more or less quickly. This is easy to implement, and easy to change back if necessary.
Once we become interconnected, it becomes harder to follow the consequences of our public policies. Suppose the small town becomes a through town for trucks transporting goods. Suppose trucker money helps fuel the local economy; gas stations, restaurants and the like. Maybe the stop light delays these trucks on their travel; sure, in each case, it is insignificant, but over the years, these delays add up. Minutes become hours become weeks of idling. That’s lost gas. That’s lost time. But no one is measuring this cost at city hall. Maybe some truckers choose to bypass the town. Local businesses suffer a little, but it’s hard to measure and attribute. And when it’s time for public meetings to discuss the stoplight, the truckers are long gone. These costs never gets considered by the town, and yet it’s real.
This undercounted cost explodes once you take policy to a national or international level. Take, for example, the tax imposed by President Obama on tanning salons. These are a few potential results:
- Fewer people go to tanning salons; those that do go less often.
- Some tanning salons lay off workers; some close.
- People sun at the beach more. The beach becomes more crowded.
- People buy more sunscreen. People get more sunburns. There is less cancer from tanning equipment. There is more cancer from sun exposure.
- Demand for tanning salon equipment goes down. Overseas factories lay off workers; some close. There are small, perhaps negligible affects on shipping and trucking business.
- Traffic patterns change because fewer people are going to tanning salons. Storefronts become empty. Rent decreases to attract new tenants. New businesses go in.
When our politicians measure the effectiveness of this policy, they’ll likely ask only one question: did people go to tanning salons less often? The answer will surely be “yes.” And the policy will be declared a success. But I hope it’s obvious that this is a ridiculous way to assess the policy.
To really assess the policy, we’d have to know all kinds of things we can’t. Did more people end up sunning at the beach, and did overall cancer rates increase? What happened to the salon owners and workers? Did they find better employment elsewhere, or worse? Are their lives appreciably different? What about the workers overseas? Did they find new jobs? Are those jobs better or worse? What businesses replaced the tanning salons? Are they providing more or less value to society than the tanning salons?
Politicians don’t try to answer these questions because (1) they can’t, and (2) they don’t care. They can’t answer these questions because our ability to spread the consequence of public policy far exceeds our ability to track it. They don’t care because many of the aggrieved don’t know the cause of their problems, and those that do are too small a minority to have any voting power.
Ari and I wrote recently about the treatment of workers at Foxconn. Part of what I was trying to say is that it is almost impossible to design a policy to improve Foxconn conditions that won’t possibly make things worse. Right now, people working at Foxconn are there largely because it is better than any alternative. If you disrupt their best choice, there is a good chance you’ll leave them with only worse ones. Even if you make Foxconn better, it may become only better for some; others may be let go, shunted into worse jobs and worse lives. Moreover, anything that affects the cost or supply of an iPhone can create a massive ripple of repercussions. Who is connected to the iPhone? Developers all around the world. Store employees all around the world. Shipping companies all around the world. Telecommunications companies all around the world. Mining companies all around the world. Engineers all around the world. Accessory manufacturers all around the world. Paper companies all around the world. And let’s not forget actual iPhone users, all around the world. Small effects on any of these can become huge in the aggregate. But this aggregate is impossible to measure, much less attribute.
Even if you could measure the aggregate and attribute it to policy, there would still be the potential for gross injustice. A small calculated gain might come result from huge losses for some that are offset by slightly greater gains for others. Too often, these gains seem to go to the politically connected; too often, they come at the expense of the politically weak. Is it ever fair for a small group to suffer a catastrophic loss so that the whole can marginally benefit? Maybe, sometimes, but that’s not a calculation anyone does when they enact policy.
It takes hubris for a President to think that he can devine the solution to a problem like Foxconn, or tanning, or most anything. When libertarians talk up the glory of mutual, voluntary cooperation, they’re talking about a system in which each individual makes a choice based upon his own needs and values. It’s too much to ask for a Congress to know what’s best for three hundred million people, or sometimes seven billion people. But people generally know what’s best for themselves. That’s not to say that they don’t sometimes make mistakes. But when a person makes the wrong choice, it often affects only himself; maybe his family. When a government makes the wrong choice, it affects millions; maybe billions. This doesn’t mean we need anarchy. To the contrary, Government plays an important role in society. But this role generally ought to be to protect individual choice, not to override it.