The case against policy analysts

Robin Hanson writes,

On the other side, however, are most experts in concrete policy analysis. They spend their time studying ways that schools could help people to learn more material, hospitals could help people get healthier, charities could better assist people in need, and so on. They thus implicitly accept the usual claims people make about what they are trying to achieve via schools, hospitals, charities, etc. And so the practice of policy experts disagrees a lot with our claims that people actually care more about other ends, and that this is why most people show so little interest in reforms proposed by policy experts. (The world shows great interest in new kinds of physical devices and software, but far less interest in most proposed social reforms.)

Tyler Cowen adds,

Policy analysis, while it often incorporates behavioral considerations, when studying say health care, education, and political economy, very much neglects the fact that often both the producers and consumers in these areas have hypocritical motives. For that reason, what appears to be a social benefit is often merely a private benefit in disguise, and sometimes it is not even a private benefit.

Some comments of my own.

1. This is where George Mason has a very distinctive point of view. Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education will be out soon. There is Hansonian medicine. And of course The Elephant in the Brain.

2. My minor contribution is to say that whatever the policy analyst inputs to the policy process, the output is usually policies that subsidize demand and restrict supply. See my book Specialization and Trade.

3. And of course there is the whole Hayekian theme that about what policy analysts do not know about complex problems.

It is too bad that there is so much resistance to these ideas, all of which seem persuasive to me.

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12 Responses to The case against policy analysts

  1. asdf says:

    “It is too bad that there is so much resistance to these ideas, all of which seem persuasive to me.”

    Why is there resistance?

    What actions are likely to cause less resistance?

    What empirical evidence can you marshal to defend the above answers?

  2. Matthew Young says:

    Policy is a term designed for obfuscation. The entire purpose of policy is for government to do something uneconomic.

    The opposite of policy is payments, make sure the voters are billed as soon as possible so they do not lose the connection between purchase and price. Government is really a last resort. No one in the private sector seems profit motivated for some necessary function so voters reluctantly hire government.

    Policy in the California is pure fraud because a third of people in California do not even know what Congress is, much less its policy. Hence, most of us likely never really see that payment due until the state goes through a major bust. Then we are suddenly unemployed and don’t know why.

  3. Paul says:

    I guess I would personally be more convinced if the professors at GMU put their money where their mouth is and forgo insurance, medical care and/or education for their children (the latter the case is the weakest since the signal is presumably still valuable even if you are wasting your children’s time). Otherwise it seems like it’s just cheap talk meant to troll liberals.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Bryan Caplan home schools his children. If you try to forgo government, they come after you for nonpayment of taxes.

      • Paul says:

        Yeah, fair, re: home schooling. That is something tangible, though if he’s just reproducing the same curriculum as they would get at school, isn’t that question begging? Why is home schooling necessary? Why not simply let your child teach themselves since learning is all about self motivation anyway. I’m sure Bryan addresses this in his book — I should probably just read it :)

        The medical insurance one though is the one I’m really curious about since the upshot is that we shouldn’t bother to try and insure poor people. It’s easy to say that other people shouldn’t get medical care (and that we should hold onto our own money rather than give it up since it doesn’t benefit them anyway). To this liberal, it feels like it’s just an excuse to be heartless.

        • BC says:

          There are many people, if given the choice, would indeed choose not to buy comprehensive health insurance, especially if the non-used premiums were still tax free. If that weren’t the case, then it wouldn’t be necessary for Obamacare to require that people buy comprehensive insurance. Government is just the name we give to those activities that people wouldn’t do or pay for voluntarily on their own.

        • RogerSweeny says:

          the upshot is that we shouldn’t bother to try and insure poor people. It’s easy to say that other people shouldn’t get medical care

          One of the complications of the American debate is that hospitals have long had a legal duty of care. Emergency rooms can’t turn away anyone because they can’t pay. And, though the literal might think otherwise, “emergency” in the name simply means “you don’t have an appointment.” Surprisingly, mean selfish Republican politicians never tried to get rid of that legal obligation.

    • Robin Hanson says:

      I’ve said we should “cut medicine in half”, and I think I roughly do that with my personal medical consumption.

      • Paul says:

        Thanks for replying!

        How do you decide which half to cut? Is this like the advertising adage that half of all spending is useless, we just don’t know which half? How would you decide how to restructure the way people of need receive medical care? Sorry if you’ve written about this somewhere already, happy to receive a link :)

  4. edgar says:

    “This is where George Mason has a very distinctive point of view.” Respectfully, I have no desire to demean or diminish Caplan or Hanson who do fine work indeed and must be considered among the top 50 public intellectuals in the USA today. However, when you discuss policy and economics and George Mason, it would appear that the elephant in the room in this discussion is the Mason law school (Now the Antonin Scalia Law School or something like that). Mason economics has always dwelt in the shadow of the Law and Economics Center which was the first such center in the USA and remains the most important. The colllective body of law and economics work accomplished by Mason law school professors has been innovative, highly influential and important, but sadly under recognized and under appreciated. The law schools revolutionary pedagogical approch to cross-disciplinary studies and legal specializations as well as incorporating economics as a foundation of legal education has been of incalculable benefit to the intellectual climate of the judiciary and policy studies generally. The often denigrated Mason Judicial Education Program has done more to improve governance in the United States than any other institution bar none. Even when the economics department had giants like James Buchanan and Walter Williams in their prime, the law school had collossi like Henry Manning, Larry Ribstein, Henry Butler, Frank Buckley, and many, many others. If you want to talk about Mason and policy analysis but you are only reading the economics department blogs, you really need to acquaint yourself with Todd Zywicki, Ilya Somin, and David Bernstein at The Volokh Conspiracy. And unlike the economics department, Law and Economics Center professors actually step into the public arena and put their ideas to work. You of all people, Dr Kling, after your recent telemarketers post, should hail Professor Timothy Muris who introduced the National Do Not Call Registry while serving as the chair of the FTC. Douglas Ginsburg, Jeremy Rabkin…I could go on and on. Something tells me the faculty at the Law School are not sitting around debating the merits of policy analysis, a good number of them are doing it where it counts.

  5. Lord says:

    But is it their motives that are hypocritical or their assumption those of others are that is at issue? It would seem the same results would occur.

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