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Almost Anything’s Possible … But Very Little Is Probable

Here’s a letter to political-science student Brandon Mortensen:

Mr. Mortensen:

You’re correct that “economic theory identifies conditions” under which labor-market interventions by government – such as minimum wages or mandated paid leave – when performed ideally “increase social welfare.” But it’s incorrect to conclude that these theoretical possibilities “delegitimize [my] stance opposing all these interventions.”

In the past I’ve explained why I believe that not all theoretical possibilities justify policy actions. See, for example, here, here, and here.

Let me, though, try again.

It’s easy to describe conditions under which social welfare will be increased by permitting government officials to summarily execute – without trial, warning, or even explanation – sleeping individuals. Such a policy plausibly passes a cost-benefit test if we simply assume that government officials invested with such permission will summarily execute only individuals who otherwise, after waking up, would commit mass murder.

Such a constructive use of this power is theoretically possible. Yet I trust that you don’t find that this theoretical possibility “delegitimizes” my – and, I presume, your – stance against government officials summarily executing without restriction whichever sleeping persons they wish. In this case, you correctly recognize two features of reality that justify a policy of blanket and unyielding prohibition of such executions: (1) although our real-world often has in it sleeping individuals who, after awakening, will commit mass murder, it’s impossible in practice for government officials to identify such persons; and (2) even if government officials did possess the knowledge and information of god, they possess the self-interest and weakness of humans.

I don’t mean to ethically equate labor-market interventions with a government policy of such summary executions. But I do mean to insist that the theoretical conditions necessary to ensure that social welfare will be improved by labor-market interventions are no less unrealistic than are those necessary to ensure that social welfare will be improved by summary executions of people in their sleep.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030


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