A tidbit found in a Reason.com article about the unintended consequences of War on Drugs tactics illustrates both the vapidity and destructiveness of “show-off” responses to societal issues. An effort to tackle cocaine use included an initiative to pay farmers in Colombia not to grow coca, presumably to shift the supply-demand curve and make cocaine more expensive. Trouble is, it took time for the payment program to start, so farmers, anticipating it, switched their lands to coca production, so they could then get paid to stop growing it.

The simple, obvious, and eternal lesson here is that people react to changing conditions while still pursuing their self-interest. This is why, despite a century of regulation and half a century of War, nary a dent has been made in drug use. This is why, despite millennia of stigma and centuries of prohibition (secular or religious), prostitution remains commonplace. This is why, despite universal knowledge of its harmful effects, tobacco use continues.

It’s also why higher taxation rates usually don’t produce the forecasted revenue increases. It’s why soda taxes don’t work to combat obesity. It’s why government incentives and targeted tax breaks don’t produce economic prosperity. The list can go on forever.

Why, then, is public policy so rife with such ineffective actions? Why are they so persistent, despite obvious failure?

Because they sell well. Because the act of “doing something” is usually enough to win over voters. Because it’s easy to talk away failure as someone else’s fault, after the fact. Because there are many who profit directly from those actions, and don’t care about the greater overall cost. And, because every issue has many players who want it preserved, because they benefit from its continued existence.

The harm they do is no deterrent. Harm is evident after-the-fact, and thus ignorable either though dismissal as “failure of execution,” through an insufficiency argument, or (typically) because people have moved on to a new issue and don’t notice. Forecasts of harm, even if accurate, don’t carry as much weight as “doing something” does, and rent-seekers and other vested players are quite ready, willing, and eager to downplay and undermine those forecasts.

Harm, however, is the overwhelmingly typical result. Alcohol prohibition created black markets and incentivized the organization of crime. Drug prohibition has wreaked a shocking degree of harm on the world. Regulation, activist government, laws that ban this or tax that or incentivize some things over others far more typically produce negative outcomes than desired results.

One of the greatest frustrations this libertarian feels is the public’s broad tendency to, in the face of problems, demand something be done, by government, now. This attitude persists even when people are confronted with countless examples of past failures, and even when those examples are virtually identical to the current “crisis.” In short, people place far less value on effectiveness than they do on action itself. This is fueled by a press that makes its money off immediacy and fear mongering, and by politicians who know they can score more political points by doing quick-and-showy-but-wrong than by focusing on results-based changes (including those that involve less government).

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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