It’s difficult to be a good economist and simultaneously be perceived as compassionate. To be a good economist, one has to deal with reality. To appear compassionate, often one has to avoid unpleasant questions, use “caring” terminology and view reality as optional.
Affordable housing and health care costs are terms with considerable emotional appeal that politicians exploit but have absolutely no useful meaning or analytical worth. For example, can anyone tell me in actual dollars and cents the price of an affordable car, house or myomectomy? It’s probably more pleasant to pretend that there is universal agreement about what is or is not affordable.
If you think my criticism of affordability is unpleasant, you’ll hate my vision of harm. A good economist recognizes that harm is not a one-way street; it’s reciprocal. For example, if I own a lot and erect a house in front of your house and block your view of a beautiful scene, I’ve harmed you; however, if I am prevented from building my house in front of yours, I’m harmed. Whose harm is more important? You say, “Williams, you can’t tell.” You can stop me from harming you by persuading some government thugs to stop me from building. It’s the same thing with smoking. If I smoke a cigarette, you’re harmed — or at least bothered. If I’m prevented from smoking a cigarette, I’m harmed by reduced pleasure. Whose harm is more important? Again, you can’t tell. But as in the building example, the person who is harmed can use government thugs to have things his way.
How many times have we heard that “if it will save just one human life, it’s worth it” or that “human life is priceless”? Both are nonsense statements. If either statement were true, we’d see lower speed limits, bans on auto racing and fewer airplanes in the sky. We can always be safer than we are. For example, cars could be produced such that occupants could survive unscathed in a 50-mph head-on collision, but how many of us could buy such a car? Don’t get me wrong; I might think my life is priceless, but I don’t view yours in the same light. I admire Greta Garbo’s objectivity about her life. She said, “I’m a completely worthless woman, and no man should risk his life for me.”
Speaking of worthlessness, I’d be worthless as an adviser to either the White House or Congress because if they asked me what they should do to get the economy going, I’d answer, “Do nothing!” Let’s look at it. Between 1787 and 1930, our nation suffered both mild and severe economic downturns. There was no intervention to stimulate the economy, but the economy always recovered.
During the 1930s, there were massive interventions, starting with President Herbert Hoover and later with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Their actions turned what would have been a sharp three- or four-year economic downturn into a 10-year affair. In 1930, when Hoover began to “fix” the economy, unemployment was 6 percent. FDR did even more to “fix” the economy. As a result, unemployment remained in double digits throughout the decade and reached 20 percent in 1939. President Roosevelt blamed the high unemployment on his predecessor. Presidential blaming of predecessors is a practice that continues to this day.
You say, “Williams, the White House and Congress should do something.” The track record of doing nothing is pretty good compared with doing something. None of our economic downturns in the century and a half prior to 1930 lasted as long as the Great Depression.
It would be political suicide for a politician to follow my counsel — and for good reason. Americans have been miseducated into thinking that Roosevelt’s New Deal saved our economy. That miseducation extends to most academics, including economists, at our universities, who are arrogant enough to believe that it’s possible for a few people in Washington to have the information and knowledge necessary to manage the economic lives of 313 million people. Good economists recognize our limitations, making us not nice people to be around.
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.
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