Sunburn, TARP, and the Activist's Fallacy
By Bryan Caplan
Like Conan O’Brien, I don’t tan in the sun; I burst into flames. The most painful moments in my life have been due to sunburn. I was burned so bad in 1981 that I didn’t get another until 1994 – when I made the mistake of lotioning my own back before snorkeling. And I was burned so bad in 1994 that I didn’t get another serious burn until two weeks ago at Hurricane Harbor. (Apparently my “waterproof” sunscreen wasn’t all that waterproof).
While suffering, though, I achieved enlightenment. In my anguish, my constant thought was, “Must do something or other about this!” Rationally, I realized that any action I took would be ineffective or counter-productive. I’ve tried it all; nothing works better than nothing. But my skin kept screaming at me to try something… anything. And through my pain, I finally understood the TARP mentality of 2008.
Call it the Activist’s Fallacy: “Something must be done; this is something; therefore, this must be done.” It’s inane. But when your body’s on fire – or you see the economy collapsing in your mind’s eye – this silly syllogism becomes a siren song.
The right response, of course, is to steel yourself against the Activist’s Fallacy before the crisis arrives. Drill yourself with the courage to sit idly by. You might even build up enough surplus discipline to urge the frantic people around you to do the same. It’s tough, but it’s better than something.
Oh, and triple-check your sunscreen.