Laws That Make Us Worse Off

Bernie Sanders wants a lot: “Our campaign is about transforming our country and creating a government based on the principles of economic, social, racial and environmental justice.”

As a rule, attempts by lawmakers to engineer economies, societies, racial disparities and environments fail to achieve their advertised goals of benefiting the public. As a rule, laws that are supposed to transform these systems increase rather than decrease injustice. If we make our own non-aggressive decisions, there will be more justice than when lawmakers make decisions for us, using aggression as they do.

There is a utilitarian side to lawmakers’ power. Government power is the tool of interest groups seeking private advantages and privileges. Many officeholders are bought off. They do not act in the interests of people at large.

There is a complexity side to lawmakers’ power. Among most lawmakers there is a large amount of ignorance. There are honest and well-meaning people in power who really do believe that their laws will accomplish the good ends they aim for. However, systems like economies, societies, environments and cultures are so complex and dynamic that they can’t as a rule be controlled by passing laws, even when lawmakers aim to solve some problem. There are too many intricate, convoluted, historical, psychological, and other ever-changing factors involved for lawmakers to grasp or be able to control.

Bernie Sanders may be one of the well-meaning, but he cannot get anything of what he wants by many of the means that he proposes: $15 minimum wage, raising tax rates, higher taxes, increased infrastructure spending, trade protectionism, public ownership of the means of production, expanding the Federal Reserve Board to make it more democratic, preventing mergers, and transforming energy sources away from fossil fuels.

Poverty is one of these intractable outcomes of complex economic, cultural, racial, social and other unmentioned systems. It has so many facets that no one can fathom them all by any amount of study. No one can fashion laws to eliminate it, if that is made into a goal by lawmakers. Their attempts to reduce or eliminate poverty as a rule will fail to do so. They’ll probably make it worse. Attempts of lawmakers to solve some other problem are likely to impact poverty.

The libertarian approach to complex systems is to allow freedom to operate as much as possible as long as the activities are just in disallowing aggression. This idea would guide lawmakers to reduce most of the laws on the books, instead of constantly devising new ones on top of the old ones.

Freedom entails people making the best decisions they can based upon their own circumstances. Freedom entails being rewarded if one’s decisions work out for the better; and since they do not involve aggression against others, this is a desirable outcome. Conversely, if one makes bad decisions, one loses; but one learns.

Freedom involves continual feedback about one’s decisions, good and bad. That helps it to work. Lawmakers don’t know individual circumstances and they don’t get such feedback. They are out of touch with the changing conditions that each of us personally faces. They are out of touch with our personal evaluations of what to do next that will provide a benefit. Lawmakers cannot cope with such complexity.

Marco Rubio wants an industrial policy. Donald Trump wants U.S. steel plants. Bernie Sanders wants government to provide social justice. Kamala Harris wants reparations. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants a renewable energy economy. They may really want to feather the nests of some interest groups, but if they really want what they say, as a rule they’ll still only make matters worse by applying their laws to the complex reality that they are ignoring.


9:26 am on February 27, 2019