My friend Chauncey, a bright political science and philosophy student, is currently reading Richard Epstein's essay "Free Markets Under Siege" and has raised an interesting challenge to Epstein's thesis.

    First, some background on the essay. Epstein argues that economists, policymakers, and the like should spend less time trying to solve "hard problems" and more time trying to solve "easy problems." (Epstein uses, and the book's cover includes, a nice visual metaphor of picking low-hanging fruit) When I first read the essay last spring, I agreed with Epstein. It seemed like nothing more than a simple application of economic analysis to the policy world.

    My friend's first attack was the "false dichotomy" argument. This, we agreed, may be used to critique Epstein, but does nothing substantive. There will be– as I believe Epstein acknowledges– certain grey areas along the "easy/hard" spectrum. His second challenge was much more damaging. The question was this: where does this this world of easy and hard problems leave us? What about human agency? Our impulse to better the world?

    Epstein touches on this briefly, arguing that we can learn a lot by looking at the idealistic individuals who are willing to dive headlong into the world of high-hanging fruit. And if we see Epstein's argument as calling for a devolutionary politics in which local solutions mesh together to address wider societal problems, I think there's no reason not to hop on board. But a problem remains. What if this economic analysis causes us to meet our challenges with a sort of fatalistic attitude? For example, you are a county engineer who wants to solve the county's transportation crisis. Your budget is quite thin, so the "low-hanging fruit" for you is the potholes on smaller side streets. Do you hang it up and call it quits because of a budgetary limitation or do you innovate and push through to solve your broader goal?

    Economic analyses are not bad at root. Indeed, many times, they show us better ways to solve the big problems. But economic analysis can also lead us to cynical world views (think of the argument about abortion and the crime rate in the bestseller Freakanomics) and fatalistic attitudes toward problem solving. All of this, of course, begs the question: how far should we take economic analysis?

Daniel Corbett

Advertisements