The Mosquito Bite Analogy
By Bryan Caplan
Free-market economists often lament the difficulty of communicating
their ideas to a popular audience. Why? Because the free-market
prescription is often, “Government should leave the problem alone.
Trying to fix it only makes it worse.” How is anyone supposed to sell such counter-intuitive ideas?
I’ve think I’ve got a way to make the counter-intuitive intuitive. Just say: “Many social problems are like mosquito bites.”
When a child gets a mosquito bite, every adult gives him the same advice: “Don’t scratch it! Touching the bite only makes it worse.” The child’s standard response: “But it itches!” The adult rebuttal: “Sure it itches. But now that you’ve got a mosquito bite, this itching is the best outcome you can hope for. Don’t blame me, I’m only a messenger.”
This mosquito bite analogy doesn’t just make the case for do-nothing solutions easy to understand. The analogy also instantly answers the “If your ideas are so great, why are they so unpopular?” objection.
No one seriously denies that scratching mosquito bites makes them worse. But almost all children – and most adults – keep scratching. Why? Because, as Bastiat would say, “good is apparent to the outer eye” while “the harm reveals itself only to the inner eye of the mind.” To keep your hands off your bites, you must constantly remind yourself that your impulses are folly. No small task. The rarity of do-nothing policies is no more puzzling than the rarity of keeping your hands off your mosquito bites.
To be sure, there is one fundamental difference between mosquito bites and social ills: People have a strong incentive to control their urge to scratch, but no incentive at all to control their urge to vote for whatever superficially sounds good. After all, if an individual focuses on the long-run costs of scratching bites, he personally captures the benefit. If, in contrast, an individual focuses on the long-run costs of government solutions, nothing changes. That’s democracy for you. For all his brilliance, Bastiat suffered under the same short-sighted policies as every other citizen of France.
The mosquito bite analogy has two big lessons – one hopeful, one depressing.
The hopeful lesson: There is a better way. Counter-productive “solutions” are all too real. Adults scratch their bites, and citizens vote to make bad situations worse.
The depressing lesson: The better way is unlikely to be adopted. Many adults keep scratching their bites even though they personally bear the costs. What are the odds that adults will stop voting to make bad situations worse when they can make all the mistakes they want, free of charge?
HT: My dear son Simon, whose legs are covered with well-scratched mosquito bites despite my advice. Well, at least he has the good sense to welcome mosquito repellent.