Acton Institute Powerblog

A Fallacious – And Damaging – Premise

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Via The New Editor, a restatement of a basic economic rule that we all need to remember as government in America swings back to the left. Clive Crook, in the course of reviewing Robin Williams’ Man of the Year, notes the potential unintended consequences if an anti-business mood overtakes our representatives:

Case by case, the merit in these proposals varies from substantial (executive pay) to less than none (taxing profits), but put the merits of the individual policies aside. What they have in common is a fallacious premise — namely, that the cost of a new fiscal or regulatory burden stays where you first put it, with the companies concerned. The idea is very appealing: If businesses are told to give their workers more-generous benefits, or to pay higher taxes, or to use alternative fuels that reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions, or whatever it might be, the rest of us — workers and consumers — get that benefit at no cost.

But that is rarely, if ever, true. In the end, the costs of those policies, as well as the benefits, mostly find their way back to voters at large as higher prices or lower wages (and this is to say nothing of the dynamic effects on incentives to grow and innovate). In short, business is not a separate segment of society that can be squeezed to advance the interests of the other segments. Economies are not built that way.

A very basic idea, to be sure, but one far too easily overlooked by populists who promote governmental intervention and regulation on behalf of “the poor” or “consumers” or whatever other group happens to wander into their line of sight. And having worked in political offices in the past, I know all too well the pressures that politicians face to “do something” when economic problems begin to mount. But we all need to step back and remind ourselves that in many (probably most) cases, governmental action to correct perceived economic injustices ends up penalizing not only the intended target of the action, but also the intended beneficiary.

Marc Vander Maas