Pre-Socratic Policy Analysis

It’s tempting, but wrong, to analyze a policy proposal by asking whether we’d be better off if the policy were adopted than we are now. It’s wrong because, if things are getting worse on their own, the proposed policy might leave us worse off than we are now but better off than we would be without it.

My favorite example here is the Clinton health care proposal, which was offered as providing a benefit though it was actually designed to somewhat soften the blow to health-care consumers from the shift to managed care that was happening anyway. The health insurance companies killed the plan by convincing the voters of what was true: the plan would result in their having less choice of providers, and more bureaucratic controls over what their providers could do for them, than most of them then had through private insurance.

As is often the case, the lie in the “Harry and Louise” ads was in what they didn’t say: that the insurance companies themselves were even then in the process of taking away choice and instituting bureaucratic control over medical practice, and that Hillarycare would have preserved some choice and provided some due process rights for patients when the care managers said “no” to some recommended treatment. But having told the voters that Hillarycare was going to leave them better off, the Clinton team couldn’t really respond to “Harry and Louise” by explaining that the plan would actually leave them only somewhat worse off, while in its absence they would wind up much worse off (as indeed they — we — have). [Whether Hillarycare would in fact have been better than doing nothing we will now never know.]

I’ve never had a name to apply to this particular mistake. Philip Bobbitt of the University of Texas Law School offers one in this New York Times op-ed, linked to and commented on by Eugene Volokh: Bobbitt calls it “Parmenides’ Fallacy,” after the philosopher who claimed that the real world must necessarily be entirely unchanging. [What is not is not. Therefore the void does not exist. Therefore there is never empty space. If there is no empty space, nothing can move, because there’s no empty space to move into. If there is no motion, there can be no change. Therefore, everything must always remain as it is. Q.E.D.]

Bobbitt believes that opposition to a war with Iraq represents an instance of the fallacy. He (and I) may or may not be right in thinking that the consequences of not invading now are likely to be worse than the consequences of invading now; he seems far more confident than I. But surely he’s right that “But war would be awful!” doesn’t really count as a complete analysis of the situation; one needs to argue that no-war would be less awful.

Or as the economist replied when asked “How are you?”:

“Compared to what?”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: