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Reality Really Is Really Complex. Really.

My latest column for AIER was inspired by my reading of a young woman’s growing recognition of reality’s complexity – and of her failure, nevertheless, to adequately grasp the full extent of this complexity. A slice:

Sarah’s healthy refusal to take the product labels and advertising copy of corporations at face value should, but I fear doesn’t, also carry over to the political arena. Indeed, skepticism of politicians’ claims is far more justified than is skepticism of the claims made by private corporations. Whatever is the scope for corporations to mislead consumers, that scope is narrower than is the scope for politicians to mislead voters. Corporations that get caught being deceptive or misleading can, in extreme cases, be sued and, in almost all cases, immediately lose customers to rivals who are revealed to be better actors. In contrast, no politician can be sued for having lied about the consequences of his or her policies. The politician who promises that, say, the higher minimum wage that he successfully enacted will increase the incomes of all low-skilled workers cannot be prosecuted for false advertising if this minimum-wage hike does not deliver as promised and even if it can be proven that the politician knew that the consequences of the minimum wage would be the opposite of what he promised they would be. The worst that can happen to this politician is that he’s voted out of office when his term is up.

But even this latter threat is unreliable. Because the full consequences of almost any public policy extend over a large expanse of time and space – and because other economic and social changes are always occurring simultaneously – the full consequences of almost any government intervention are impossible to ‘see’ with the naked eye. These consequences can be perceived only with considerable intellectual effort, and never perfectly. The public’s inability to ‘see’ with the naked eye any but the most obvious consequences of government interventions ensures that politicians confront only very weak incentives to be truthful and concrete about the likely full consequences of their interventions. There is, in short, far more reason to be skeptical of President Jones’s and Senator Smith’s boasts about the splendors of the policies they peddle than there is to be skeptical of whatever boasts a corporation puts on its products’ labels or makes in its advertising campaigns.

Perhaps as she matures Sarah’s skepticism will widen to encompass political claims. My hope is that it will.

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