Politics in One Lesson

If you’ve ever read Henry Hazlitt’s timeless book Economics in One Lesson, you’ll recall that Hazlitt stresses that “the art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.” Hazlitt cites the abuse of this particular lesson as the greatest of all economics fallacies.

While Hazlitt’s description is certainly accurate in regards to efficient economics, part of this principle may be well adapted in dealing with government policies on a more general spectrum. For instance, is not seemingly every piece of government legislation typically fueled by targeting a specific group for an immediate satisfactory gain regardless of the potential long term problems that may arise?

When Congress first considered the Patriot Act, was it not claimed to target only those who would support terrorists or specific groups posing similar threats? While it may have received an overwhelming amount of support initially aimed at quickly disrupting the chances of another seemingly immanent terrorist threat, the groundwork it was laying for future atrocities and abuses of civil liberties was overlooked. People were uneasy and eager to feel a sense of protection. Many were willing to relinquish certain liberties and rights for a false sense of immediate security.

Only in future time was the act’s true nature revealed and its long term consequences felt as they still are.

Hazlitt notes that in economic terms, the most often heard fallacy of recent time “is to concentrate on the short-run effects of policies on special groups and to ignore or belittle the long-run effects on the community as a whole.” Particular interest groups such as those who advocate stricter gun control laws or clamor for more government run healthcare are all guilty of perpetuating this fallacy. And of course government will often follow through on the chants of these particular groups for what seems like an instant victory for their supporters. However, much of this is done with ill disregard for its long term effects on the rights of all others and the gradual erosion of our liberties over due time.

Perhaps the best current example of government operating under this adopted fallacy is with Arizona’s recent attempt to curb illegal immigration through stricter enforcement of certain laws. These laws were aimed to benefit one group (its supporters) in the short-term while the potential threats to civil liberties in the future were not well contemplated by the government. Supporters justified the implementation of these laws in the realm that they did not violate anyone’s rights on the count that only specific duties were granted to law enforcement which did not allow for the disrespect of personal liberty. But as in most instances of government action, the indirect long-term consequences were ignored for what seemed like a short-term gain. Even though the law was meant to be directed at those who were believed to be in the State illegally, the potential for abuse would have eventually spread to effect innocent American citizens.

When adapting Hazlitt’s principle from economics into politics, it should be of no surprise that the government’s embracement of the greatest economic fallacy perpetuates into its use of the greatest of political fallacies.

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