In the opening chapter of Applied Economics, economist Thomas Sowell decries our tendency to look only at the intended goals of public policy rather than its unintended consequences:
The point here is not simply that various policies may fail to achieve their purposes. The more fundamental point is that we need to know the actual characteristics of the process set in motion -- and the incentives and constraints inherent in such characteristics -- rather than judging these processes by their goals. Many of the much discussed "unintended consequences" of polices and programs would have been foreseeable from the outset if these processes had been analyzed in terms of the incentives and constraints they created, instead of in terms of the desirability of the goals they proclaimed. Once we start thinking in terms of the chain of events set in motion by particular policies -- and following the chain of events beyond stage one -- the world begins to look very different.
Liberals are famously guilty of this kind of short-sightedness. Health insurance mandates get more people insured, but overload the medical system when thousands of new customers try to get care; generous housing incentives during a boom cycle lead to massive foreclosure rates during a bust; price controls make products affordable in the short term, but destroy markets in the long term. The road to Hell is paved with good, liberal intentions.
But as Ricochteer Conor Friedersdorf argues over on the Atlantic, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform is a perfect example of how liberals aren't the only culprits. While no one could possibly question Norquist's goals, Friedersdorf offers a powerful argument against his chosen method of a no-new-taxes pledge:
What Norquist doesn't understand or won't admit is that deficit spending is worse than a tax increase, because you've got to pay for it eventually anyway, with interest. Meanwhile, you've created in the public mind the illusion that the level of government services they're consuming is cheaper and less burdensome than is in fact the case. If you hold the line on taxes but not the deficit, you're making big government more palatable.
Back in 1986, if taxes had been raised every time federal spending had increased, and voters knew that taxes would go up again every time new federal programs or spending was passed, the backlash against big government that we're seeing now would've started a lot sooner, and been much more broad-based. Had that been the policy, it's doubtful that George W. Bush would've passed Medicare Part D. Instead, the Baby Boomers have borrowed a bunch of money that my generation and my children's generation is going to have to pay back. But their taxes didn't go up. Thanks for that, Mr. Norquist. I'm not sure what to call it, but fiscal conservatism isn't it.
I can't find any way to disagree, though I'd be curious to hear what others on Ricochet think. Also, are there other examples of conservative stage one thinking?