Bryan Caplan  

First Cut

Lorenzo on the opponents of ne... Silent Citizenism...
When I try to convince my ideological opponents that a government program is a waste of money, I often succeed.  More than a few liberals have responded to my case against education by shrugging, "You're totally right - what a waste of taxpayer money." 

In most cases, though, my sense of accomplishment is short-lived.  Ideological differences re-surface as soon as I advance to what I believe the next logical step: Spending cuts.  To me, the concession that "Subsidizing college is a waste of money" leads straight to "Let's stop subsidizing college."  My liberal fellow travelers almost invariably demur: "No, let's find a better way to spend the money."

As a rule, I try to defuse ideological deadlocks with apolitical analogies.  So consider this scenario:

I argue that your toenail fungus cream doesn't work.  I convince you.  Which of the following reactions is more sensible: "I'm going to stop buying that stupid cream," or "Let's reallocate that money to a toenail fungus remedy that actually works"? 

The former, of course.  Why?  Because refraining from spending money is easy - and finding effective toenail fungus remedies is hard.  Once you realize you're wasting your money, you can and should stop at once.  In contrast, the mere fact that you want an effective toenail fungus remedy does not give you the knowledge find such a remedy.  Maybe you should look for a good way to spend your money after you cease wasting it.  But stubbornly wasting money because you have no good way to spend it is crazy. 

Will this apolitical analogy really dissolve ideological deadlock?  Probably not, but it should.  Reaching a political consensus on "a better way to spend the money" takes years, decades, or eternity.  Refusing to cut wasteful spending until we agree on the right way to reallocate is therefore a great way to keep wasting money for years, decades, or eternity.  When you realize a war is doing more harm than good, you should make peace - not slowly look around for a good war to fight instead.  When you realize a government program is doing more harm than good, you should pull the plug, not slowly look around for a good program to fund instead.  No matter what your ideology.

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COMMENTS (26 to date)
Mark Bahner writes:

But...but...I've still got the toenail fungus!

I don't see the point in discussing anything until I get rid of it.

MikeP writes:

I have to say I don't buy this apolitical analogy at all!

Seriously? If one remedy doesn't work I should give up? Of course not! I already budget $X to deal with the problem. It's worth at least that much to me to get rid of the toenail fungus. If one remedy doesn't work, I'll try another one. I might even spend more money on the likelihood that a more effective treatment costs more!

Consider poison oak or poison ivy. I could treat such exposure with soap (free), with Technu ($9), or with Zanfel ($31). If soap doesn't work, I'm not just going to stop looking for a solution and suffer for a week with an itchy weeping rash because another remedy might also not work.

So not only do I not buy this apolitical analogy, the lesson I take away from it is exactly the wrong lesson for the oversubsidizers of education!

Rob Rawlings writes:

If you want to cure your toe nail fungus and get psychic benefit from trying new toe nail fungus cures then what is wrong with spending your money on new toe nail fungus cures ?

If I insisted that my desire for an effective toe nail fungus cure necessitated tax-funding then my toe nail fungus obsession would be a different story.

koenfucius writes:

Shouldn't the analogy have been the choice between

a) stopping buying the cream
b) finding a different use for the cream, say as shaving cream, or as a spread for toast?

That might've made the point more clearly, I think.

BC writes:

If you stop wasting your money on toenail fungus that doesn't work, then that money will stay in your bank account, the place where the money comes from. In the language of liberals, that's called "spending" money on tax cuts.

konshtok writes:

how to get statists to give up other peoples' money

As already said convincing a progressive that a gov program is wasteful is not the same as convincing her to stop spending the money. she'll simply look for different and more "efficient" ways to spend.

so the trick is to:

A.) convince her that the goal of the program is harmful . In the case of education you point to the lit maj barrista and how subsidies ruined his life.


B.)You need to spin the spending cuts as just spending (e.g. "we'll spend the money saved from cutting on subsidies for the middle class" )

Kevin writes:

I think this would probably be more clearly presented as threeoptions...

a) Continue subsidizing education (status quo is good policy)

b) Continue subsidizing education, but look for alternatives (status quo is bad policy, an alternative is clearly needed).

c) Stop subsidizing education, look for alternatives (status quo is bad policy, but keep an open mind that the money could theoretically be useful to improving education at some point).

The progressive default is (a) but Caplan is able to argue them to (b), despite ultimately wanting to get them to (c). Why the disconnect? The median progressive is almost by definition optimistic about government's ability to solve problems, and probably doesn't want to disrupt existing beneficiaries of the subsidies before a viable alternative is found and in place.

Alternative, Snide Explanations: The median progressive prefers the government spend money even if the real value of that spending is net negative for society. Their scales are biased in favor of "spend the money!"

MikeP writes:

Maybe there's an analogy that can be drawn from poison oak treatments.

If I think the probability I encountered poison oak is low, I'll use soap. If I think the probability I encountered poison oak is higher, I'll go through the expense and trouble of using $9 Technu. But I probably overestimate the probabilities, so my use of Technu is mostly signaling.

But you can bet that if I actually break out in a sumac rash, I'll be buying the $31 Zanfel that I otherwise pass by on the drug store shelf. I haven't yet needed to acquire it, which means the signaling is working. Or it means I'm immune to poison oak, which I'll never know unless I stop the signaling.

kyeyune writes:

"my case against education".

It is obvious that countries that don't waste money on education, are the most prosperous places on earth: Congo, Somalia, etc.

As long as Americans don't understand this, they'll remain dirt poor.

Pat writes:

I think that's a bad example. Toenail cream is not expensive and there are lots of different types of cream on the shelves. People will stop using that stupid cream and try some other kind. The same goes for individual government programs. No one program costs an individual that much so they'll be more likely to just try some other remedy for the same problem.

I'm really surprised you chose that example, I would expect the other side to make it.

Philo writes:

I think your ideological opponents think it is *easy* to find good ways for the government to spend the money it has been wasting on education. You think it is hard, perhaps impossible. That is the crux of the disagreement.

blink writes:

The difference in perspective comes down to "problem focus" vs. "solution focus." You advocate the later -- pay for an solution if and only if it is effective. Your interlocutors assign money to bins labeled according to problems. From this viewpoint, taking money "out of the bin" is not an option that naturally comes to mind.

If you want to win your spending debates, you are going to have to get others to adopt your meta-frame. Help them to see the opportunity costs of tying up money in a unicorn bin.

But what is "ideology"?

Bryan says, "When you realize a government program is doing more harm than good, you should pull the plug, not slowly look around for a good program to fund instead. No matter what your ideology."

Certainly I agree with your sentiment, Bryan, but I point out that statism is an ideology. For almost any problem that might arise, leftists look for solutions by looking (through their mainstream media) to the democratic government. Leftists see government as the source of solutions. Leftists are not conditioned or educated to consider that problems often have non-governmental solutions.

If you say government should stop spending money stupidly, leftists will think that you want to stop all efforts to solve the problem under consideration (just look at the comments above!), because leftist mainstream-media-minds see no possibility of voluntary action.

This unconscious habit of perception is an ideology, as I see it.

RPLong writes:

I'm glad I wasn't the only one who felt that was a bad analogy.

You know what I think is a better one? Cold-FX. People waste a lot of money on a pill that produces absolutely no physical benefits. We might be able to convince them that this is a bad idea, but as soon as we did so, some of them will be on to the next miracle cure (echinacea? ginseng? zinc?). We couldn't ever convince them to stop spending their money on snake oil because the act of seeking out miracle cures is the means by which they feel they overcome their colds.

There is a technical term for when people engage in compulsive thoughts or behaviors in an effort to overcome feelings of powerlessness.

MikeDC writes:

It's polite to ignore the naked self-interest involved, but the discongruity can clearly be explained by naked self-interest.

My back of the envelope calculation is that there are roughly 5.5M teachers and administrators in K-12 + University education. They're overwhelmingly liberal. In fact, they represent a core, and perhaps decisive member of the voting coalition that is the Democratic party.

Massively cutting their funding would be like giving your toe fungus analogy to... the maker of the toe fungus cream you find ineffective.

MikeDC writes:

To put it another way, I don't think the average committed liberal would take a purely instrumental view of education policy. And liberals often support make work jobs for their own sake. So they include this effect as a "benefit" to the policy that you and I do not.

Kitty_T writes:

I think the problem a lot of readers are having with this analogy is that it skips a step. It is not enough to convince someone that money is being wasted on an ineffective solution to a problem.

You also need to convince them that the existence of a problem does not inherently imply the existence of a solution, and there is in fact not good evidence of the existence of any such solution.

MikeP writes:

Philo states the problem with the line of argument very well. The opponents honestly feel that government spending is almost always helpful -- with the usual exception for military spending.

They also see politics as a battle between those who do not want the government to spend money and those who do -- a battle that determines the tax structure. They are not going to back away from the existing tax paradigm even if they become convinced that in some particular instance the government is misspending the proceeds: They have a long list of things government could do if only it had more money.

Musca writes:

Spending on A or B isn't the only motivation. There's also (and mostly) the knowledge that taxation has removed wealth from the wealthy, even if the "best" recipient people or programs are in dispute. Based on the evidence, many on the Left value taking from the rich more than giving to the poor, perhaps to the point of valuing the taking per se.

Augie writes:

I have to agree that this is terrible analogy and you lost me. I am admittedly a liberal, but if you convince me a toe fungus cream doesn't work, I am going to try a different cream or a different method. Not throw up my hands in despair and conclude on some kind of ideogical basis that there is simply no cure for toe fungus.

Jameson writes:

I will also join the "terrible analogy" crowd. I agree with your point, but you gotta admit, Thomas Sowell already made it better:

“No matter how disastrously some policy has turned out, anyone who criticizes it can expect to hear: ‘But what would you replace it with?’ When you put out a fire, what do you replace it with?”

James Wynn writes:

I don't think this will work. Programs are typically stalking horses for ideological imperatives.

Consequently, it is not enough for the GOP to demonstrate that the ACA is a medical, fiscal, constitutional, and implementation catastrophe. The most important thing is that they offer an alternative system for a government program that solves such-and-such problem.

Chase writes:

You've spent time trying to convince 'liberals' that their belief in a government program is wrong and they should stop funding it immediately and it isn't working. By your logic you should stop trying to convince liberals to defund government programs. Are you going to stop?

The point is the same as most other comments. Convincing someone that the current investment in a program isn't providing the return to justify continued investment doesn't justify the screeching halt of that effort, but a revised consideration of the correct method. I suspect the reason you are unsuccessful is not because of pure ideology, but because you not only need to convince people the current system doesn't work, but you have to convince them that you, or any non-governmental/market-based method, know how to do it better. Maybe you do, maybe you don't. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. I am guessing very few people are going to submit to the defunding of something as important as education programs simple due to a conversation with one person. I would hope people do more research and than that.

dullgeek writes:

This analogy doesn't hold. Presumably, when I buy toenail fungus cream, it's because I value the anticipated releif it will provide more than the money that I have to spend on it.

If you convince me that the cream isn't working, the value proposition for *that particular cream* has changed, but it hasn't changed in comparison to the desired outcome. I now value my money more than that failed cream, but I still value the relief more than the money. So the rational result is to search for another cream that will actually work.

Yes, it's easier to not do anything. But it also means suffering toenail fungus.

Frankly, the analogy that you came up with better explains your opponents propositions than yours, even though I'm much more ideologically biased towards yours.

Daniel Goodman writes:

I think what Prof. Caplan is saying is that if your first-best approach doesn't work, that's probably a sign that you need to step back and rethink your decision making process in order to stop the hemorrhaging. Not that you should never try to fix the problem, but to reevaluate your alternatives and understand how to get the most bang for your buck before blindly spending on things that may or may not work in order to "do something."

The analogy may be a little off in that the personal cost of trying another antifungal cream is relatively low; however, I think it works at a larger scale. If you bought a house in Tornado Alley and lost it to a tornado, you probably wouldn't want to keep buying houses there hoping that changing the paint color will keep that from happening again.

MikeP writes:

If you bought a house in Tornado Alley and lost it to a tornado, you probably wouldn't want to keep buying houses there hoping that changing the paint color will keep that from happening again.

Except that rebuilding in Tornado Alley is exactly what actual people actually do.

Your analogy is as bad as the original one. Indeed, it also plays into the hands of the oversubsidizers. If a tornado wrecked my inexpensive mobile home, I should budget more money on a reinforced brick home. What's the alternative, that I sleep in a ditch? That might be good for tornadoes, but the much more common ordinary rainstorms become very unpleasant.

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