The Public Policy Problem

Happened to catch a few minutes of a couple of the network newscasts tonight and it really brought back memories.  Boy, back in the day, that was “the news” of the day.  You got 30 minutes minus commercials and that was it.  Today’s news was the usual mix of human interest, political celebrity and crisis.  Wars and rumors of wars.  Floods, famines and natural disasters.  Pretty Biblical stuff.  A few minutes later, I landed on CSPAN and that bit of great political theater, the Congressional hearing.  Marginally articulate pols from Maine to Montana grilling corporate mouthpieces about the latest “crisis” of the day.  In this case, airline customer service.  

Of course, the gist of all these stories is the underlying assumption that “something simply must be done!”  It underlies not just news reports but most any piece of investigative journalism.   Whether it be one of the cable network features or the old school shows like 60 Minutes and Dateline, the narrative is to expose some unseen crisis, convince us that it is something we need to be very concerned about and, usually, suggest that government needs to step in and make everything better.  If you haven’t noticed this before, just watch for it the next time you watch one of those reports.

Of course this isn’t new.  The idea of “muck raking” journalism dates back to at least the early 20th century.  The very idea of journalism as a profession dates back to around the same time.  The profession takes on almost a crusade-like quality by the mid 1970’s, in the wake of Watergate and the Vietnam War.  Hard for me to say even one bad word about the people who brought down the scandal and war-ridden administrations of LBJ and Nixon.  The First Amendment at its finest!  But it also created the crisis narrative I described above.

At its base, the assumption that “something must be done” goes hand in hand with an increasingly broader definition of what is and is not a matter of public policy.  In some cases, that has been a good thing.  Child and spousal abuse were once considered “private matters” and that was wrong.  But, more often, it has meant more and more governmental meddling in private interactions.  As we have discussed previously, when people have differences with one another, there are two ways to “solve the probelem.”  One is through force and that is the government option.  The other is through negotiation and contract.  The latter should always be preferred but it frequently isn’t. 

Along those lines, I was reading an article shared by one of my Facebook friends tonight.  I knew I would likely disagree with many of the conclusions but I try to expose myself to writings from all across the political spectrum and so I checked it out.  The thesis of this piece was that an appointee of our current Grand Poobah was particularly biased against LBGTQ individuals.  In truth, I had to agree.  Seems like kind of a jerk.  But, of course, there was included several arguments which should have nothing to do with public policy.

It continues to baffle me why anyone would want to do any sort of business with an individual or company that had a bias against them.  You can’t find anyone else to bake you a cake or give you a job?  I would rather know that someone disapproved of me and my lifestyle than give them my business.  Of course I would also tell all my friends and acquaintances to avoid that company.  It is hard enough to succeed in the marketplace when you are open to everyone’s business.  Discriminating against a large segment of the market makes it almost impossible.

And, of course, if I don’t support free health care, which is not truly free in any sense of the word, I want you to die.  If I don’t support public schools, I want ignorant children.  And, if I don’t support the latest round of bombings, I want Sharia law to replace the Constitution.  No, what I refuse to support is a society based on compulsion and, by extension, violence.   All of the goals you seek to achieve can be achieved in a free society and at a lower cost in both blood and treasure.  But those aren’t the kinds of simple solutions that can be described in a news report or articulated in a Congressional committee.  They don’t make headlines or careers.  Public policy does and that is why we must always be skeptical of those who claim that a public policy solution is the only good one.  

So, the next time you see a news report that implies that something must be done, ask yourself if there aren’t better ways to solve the problem than with the blunt force of government.  You might be surprised how often it’s true.  I will be on vacation next week but will try to post something before I leave and maybe even a short post while I am away.  Thanks for reading and have a great week!

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