Economics in one lesson

Cite this Article
Geoffrey A. Manne, Economics in one lesson, Truth on the Market (May 31, 2009),

Several people, including Josh, have drawn my attention to John Hasnas’ excellent op-ed on the Sotomayor nomination in the WSJ last week.  Just in case you don’t read the same blogs I do, I thought I’d highlight it here.  It is brilliant.  Here’s a taste:

One can have compassion for workers who lose their jobs when a plant closes. They can be seen. One cannot have compassion for unknown persons in other industries who do not receive job offers when a compassionate government subsidizes an unprofitable plant. The potential employees not hired are unseen.

One can empathize with innocent children born with birth defects. Such children and the adversity they face can be seen. One cannot empathize with as-yet-unborn children in rural communities who may not have access to pediatricians if a judicial decision based on compassion raises the cost of medical malpractice insurance. These children are unseen.

One can feel for unfortunate homeowners about to lose their homes through foreclosure. One cannot feel for unknown individuals who may not be able to afford a home in the future if the compassionate and empathetic protection of current homeowners increases the cost of a mortgage.

In general, one can feel compassion for and empathize with individual plaintiffs in a lawsuit who are facing hardship. They are visible. One cannot feel compassion for or empathize with impersonal corporate defendants, who, should they incur liability, will pass the costs on to consumers, reduce their output, or cut employment. Those who must pay more for products, or are unable to obtain needed goods or services, or cannot find a job are invisible.

The point, derived from Bastiat, is extraordinarily powerful, and, as Hasnas notes, the lesson is as important for economists as it is for judges (and for everyone else).  Making decisions on the basis of only the most visible effects of behavior under scrutiny is always a recipe for bad decision-making.  I’d also add that taking advantage of the relative obscurity of broader effects is the essential root cause of the depredations of politics and politicians, who never miss an opportunity to demagogue about a favored interest or idea to the exclusion of the (usually far greater) broader and longer-term effects.

Someone should write a book about the importance of this one idea.