Suppose you own a car that has enormous amounts of muscle but whose suspension system is primitive and, worse, whose steering and braking systems are extremely limited. The driver of this car can turn it only very gradually – no sharp turns; no dodging unexpected objects in the road; no quick changes in direction. Similar issues plague the car’s braking: it brakes more like a long railroad train going downhill than like a passenger car on a flat, dry road. Indeed, the brakes often outright fail.
You want to get from point A to point B by driving this car. Alas, there is only one road connecting point A to point B. This road is very winding and hilly – much like San Francisco’s Lombard St. Children often play by the side of this road and, as children will, frequently run unexpectedly into it. This road also has lots of potholes and construction sites.
If you could harness all of the horsepower of your mighty muscle car and make it, somehow, navigate this road successfully, you’d get from point A to point B quite speedily.
So being a hopeless romantic, you tell yourself and others that “Yes I can! Yes I can use my mighty muscle car to drive from A to B! I’m an American and there’s nothing we Americans can’t do if we put our minds to it and our hearts in it!”
Your nephew pleads with you not to try to drive that car from A to B. “It’s dangerous, Uncle,” advises your nephew. “The car simply isn’t designed for such a journey. You’ll get yourself in a mess and likely hurt others as well.”
“Lemme ask you, m’boy – and I want a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer,” you respond, “Isn’t it possible to make this journey in this car? If I anticipate perfectly all of the turns that are coming, all of the obstacles and children who might be in the road, as well as anticipate precisely when I must bring the car to a halt, isn’t is possible that the car will work as the vehicle to take me from A to B?”
“Uncle, almost anything is possible. But in practice it’s foolish and dangerous. Why don’t you use other means of getting from A to B?”
“Thanks for the advice, kid. I take that as a ‘yes.’ And let’s be honest, all other means are probably slower than using my muscle car. And, further, none of those other means are guaranteed to work, are they now? Are they now?!”
“Well, no, Uncle. Just as almost anything is possible, almost nothing is guaranteed. But other means are more likely, I believe, to transport you successfully from A to B than is that muscle car of yours.”
And off you drive in your mighty muscle car on the road from A to B.
Given this car’s construction and fundamental properties, is it scientific for a professional driver to advise you on how to navigate the car from A to B as if the car were more like a nimble Honda Accord than like a locomotive? Of course not. Everyone would see that any such advisor would be committing professional malfeasance. To assume X when in fact all that is available is very non-X-like Y is to be unscientific.
And yet economists do a virtually identical thing all the time. Economists advise governments on how to correct this problem and that problem – internalize that externality and stimulate that slumping economy – without bothering to ask if the vehicle is appropriate for the task.
Economists’ (and others’, including voters’) abilities to imagine the vehicle succeeding at its assigned task – the possibility that the vehicle might work at the task to which it is applied – is too often taken to be sufficient justification for using the government to do what deeper and more clear-eyed inspection might well reveal is best not attempted by government.
Economists who offer advice to drivers of public policy without pausing to ponder the nature of the vehicle – the state – to be driven often appear to be non-ideological and scientific. In fact they’re too often irresponsible fools.