The Big Failure

Scott Sumner:

Most of the really important public policy issues are not even part of the ongoing debate in the press. Here are some examples:

1. The huge rise in occupational licensing.

2. The huge rise in people incarcerated in the war on drugs, and also the scandalous reluctance of doctors to prescribe adequate pain medication (also due to the war on drugs.)

3. The need for more legal immigration.

4. The need to replace taxes on capital with progressive consumption taxes.

5. Local zoning rules that prevent dense development.

6. Tax exemptions for mortgage interest and health insurance.

These 6 policy failures impose enormous damage on the country, far more than the issues typically discussed on the evening news. Why aren’t they discussed? I would argue that it is partly because the disagreements tend to break down on values, not ideology. Most idealistic intellectuals agree with me on all of these issues. They are not issues that divide the left and the right. It’s also true that most real world politicians agree on these issues. However their views are exactly the opposite of the views of intellectuals. Hence there is no “policy debate” in either the political or intellectual arenas, and hence no “fight” for the media to report.

Adam Ozimek:

The missing piece of this puzzle is that the intellectual agreement on these issues isn’t just the opposite of real world politician’s, but the opposite of the rest of the real world. At the average dinner table in this country, anyone advocating what Sumner might call the intellectual consensus on any of these issues would face a lot of disagreement, and would frequently be greeted by surprise that a reasonable person would ever dream of advocating for, say, for more immigration or less occupational licensing.

The key questions are, of course, why is it so hard to inform the public that intellectual elites disagree with them on such issues, and if being informed of this fact would be enough to change their minds.

If telling the public that elites disagree would be enough to change their minds, well then a public info campaign targeting this ignorance could yield huge rewards. Then we’d face the question of why no philanthropists care enough to fund such a campaign. Could it be that they also mainly care about taking ideological sides?

Talking to the public may not be enough, however, if the public just does not want to hear that elites disagree with them. It is hard to tell folks things they do not want to hear. It might also be that even if the public does hear it, they would not change their minds. In which case democracy just loses.

A variation on democracy, like futarchy, that relies more on expert judgement on what causes what, could do better. But to get from here to there, you’d have to convince the public to accept a form of governance that relies more on something other than on their personal opinions. Not impossible, but not easy either.

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