Thursday, February 13, 2014

Should Policymakers Be More Like Doctors?

The core of the Hippocratic oath taken by doctors for hundreds of years is primum non nocere, which translates as “First, do no harm.”

Is this the way politicians an bureaucrats behave?

The hot new reading for Libertarian/Austrians is entitled “In Praise of Passivity”, by the philosopher Michael Heumer.

Voters, activists, and political leaders of the present day are in the position of medieval doctors. They  hold  simple,  prescientific  theories  about  the  workings  of  society  and  the  causes  of  social problems, from which they derive a variety of remedies–almost all of which prove either ineffectual or harmful. Society is a complex mechanism whose repair, if possible at all, would require a precise and
detailed understanding of a kind that no one today possesses. Unsatisfying as it may seem, the wisest course for political agents is often simply to stop trying to solve society’s problems.

This motivates a basic question about policy. Can we define what constitutes harm?

For example, how would we know if, say after 10 years, Obamacare actually made things worse? How would we measure that? Compared to what?

I’m not sure most people can answer that. Now, if you can’t even define what harm would look like, how do you feel about pursuing the policy?

I think this is a cogent point. But, as a macroeconomist, I’m not sure that most policies don’t already pass this test. Through the middle of the semester we’re going to be discussing how we’d measure trends. The evidence we already have, that real GDP growth through time is broadly similar across countries suggests that most policies aren’t actually taking countries far away from the path followed by other countries.

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