Heuristics and Public Policy: Being Faithful With Little to be Trusted With Much?
By Art Carden
I got off the
parking lots roads leading to Samford at around 7:55 after leaving my house three miles away 20 minutes earlier. My time stuck in traffic gave me ample opportunity to think about what my beloved dismal science can tell us about the world–particularly with regard to heuristics and public policy. As co-blogger Bryan Caplan pointed out in an EconTalk episode a few years ago (I forget which, but here’s his archive), heavy traffic is a problem every economist in the world knows how to solve: price road access, and charge high prices during rush hour. With technologies like E-ZPass and mobile apps, it’s easier than ever (and, as The Onion points out, it might have saved Sonny Corleone’s life).
That we don’t pick this low-hanging fruit is a pretty serious indictment of public policy.* If we can’t address what is literally a principles-level textbook example of a negative spillover with a fairly easy fix, what hope do we have for effective public policy on other margins? As with many policy debates, the problem isn’t that those who would balk at road pricing have careful, nuanced arguments for why we shouldn’t. They often reject out of hand the idea that people should have to pay to use the roads.
Jesus said, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” The KJV and a few other translations say “unjust” instead of “dishonest,” and that probably gets at the idea regarding public policy just a little bit better. You don’t need bad intentions in order to produce bad outcomes. Translated to public policy, if governments can’t get road pricing right, why should we expect them to get other things right?
Here, though, is a more charitable interpretation. In his book with Charley Hooper Making Great Decisions in Business and Life, I recall co-blogger David Henderson talking about being counseled to focus on the part of the budget with the most zeroes when he worked for the government. Perhaps that’s what’s going on here: officials are working on problems of such great importance that they don’t have time to fry small fish like road pricing.
That’s possible, but I really doubt it.
*-I’ve been thinking about the themes in Bryan’s “Why Do Government Enterprises Work So Well?” post for some time and will offer some of my own answers at my earliest convenience.