Name That Principle

It’s not merely important to have principles, it’s important to name them.

Name them well.

One of the central insights of the French Liberal School of economics — and, since that school’s heyday, all of free-market economics — has not, to my knowledge, been given a technical name. Or, at least, a technical term that’s good enough. The principle in question is that of overlooking the unseen effects of an event or a policy in favor of the immediate, positive effects on the chief beneficiary. Bastiat wrote about it in “That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Unseen.” Classic essay.

The basic notion has been recently described in a fairly rigorous way as the problem of dispersed costs and concentrated benefits. Surely someone has called this The Principle of Dispersed Costs and Concentrated Benefits, or somesuch. But I’m not aware of a pithier academic formulation that sticks. In my head, anyway.

And, getting it to stick is important. People forget, otherwise. And what’s the use of a principle that people forget?

So I’ve reformulated the problem as a cognitive bias: The Beneficiary Focus Illusion.

Basically, when costs or harms are dispersed or postponed while a benefit remains concentrated and immediate, that benefit is all one tends to notice. This focusing on the immediate amounts to a cognitive bias, and it is one of the building blocks of modern statist theory, the policy preferences of most politicians, but especially of so-called “progressives” or “liberals.”

Once one understands the illusion, one should be able to see through most redistributionist policies and regulatory agendas. It is the chief purpose of economics, Bastiat insisted, to see beyond the knee-jerk observation, to think, in Thomas Sowell’s term, “beyond Stage One.”

Another such principle was identified, today, on this blog, by Manuel Lora. He humorously dubbed it “Statist The-daism,”  and explained it as the presumption that there is one problem to be solved requiring one solution. He identifies this presumption by the use of the definitive article: “How are the schools in your area? How good are the police? How are the roads?”

Now, at first glance you might think Mr. Lora is being overly picky. We use the definite article as a manner of speaking. It’s English. It’s an idiom. Live with it.

But Lora notices that, though we use the definite article even along with plural constructions, we do so mainly in areas where government is heavily involved. Roads are basically run as a vast socialist enterprise. Schools, too. The police, “of necessity.” But we don’t say “How are the groceries in your area?” We ask, instead, “What’s your favorite grocery store?” “Which store is cheapest?” “Which has the freshest vegetables?”

Interesting, eh?

This sort of hidden-in-plain sight bias should not come to us as a shock. We have a statist history, a statist society. Our language reflects that.

And our language is filled with such hidden biases. Feminists were surely right to notice that some features of our language assumed an obvious (but by no means easily defensible) primacy to the male sex. Though some feminist revisions are just fine (“chairperson” or “chair” instead of “chairman”; “humankind” or just plain ol’ “humanity” instead of “mankind”) others proved ludicrous (“herstory” instead of “history”).

Fortunately, we need not go to such lengths to de-throne statism in our language. We can just revise our sentences. “Do policemen tend to be brutal in these parts?” “Are there any private schools here? Are the government bureaucrats sending out goon squads to round up home-schoolers as truants?”

Our use of “the” can be made just a tad more parsimoniously, less loaded than is now common. Just because an industry can be grouped, and modified with the definite article, doesn’t mean we must do so at every opportunity. Rephrase.

But the principle needs a name. In the comments section to Lora’s post I suggested a few, and one sticks out: Call it The Fallacy of Assumed Exclusivity. Adding the “the” to “schools” or “hospitals” assumes that these entities must be exclusively controlled by one over-arching entity, government. Rather than many things solved in many ways by competing firms and emprises, the “the” implies that these many things are one thing, and require exclusive attention by an exclusive bunch of bureaucrats and politicians, the Brain Trust of our otherwise clueless and lowly society.

I don’t know how dangerous this trick of language is — surely not nearly as dangerous as the one Bastiat identified, the problem of the beneficiary focus illusion. But it does deserve some attention. And a name.

So I call it the Fallacy of Assumed Exclusivity. Do you have a better term?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • I’ve mostly refered to this as the broken window fallacy.

    • That’s a subset of the larger issue. The Broken Window Fallacy refers to specific types of benefit-from-harm arguments, used to a assuage us from feeling so bad about hurricanes and war and the like. It’s not usually used more broadly. To my knowledge.

  • For the first principle you mention, there is a very well known acronym that already describes this concept- TANSTAAFL. So you can continue using TANSTAAFL or try TWISATWIU (Twe-sat-wyoo? Twisat-wyu? Twy-sa-twyu?)

    • TANSTAAFL – I’d forgotten this.

      Of course, it does not define a principle so much as deny a hope.