A Libertarian reader recently sent me a link to a blog post by FoxNews commentator Radley Balko in which he invites readers to state what their limits would be on “size, cost, and limits of government.” What specific number, Balko asks, should be the maximum allowed for tax rates, inflation, federal spending as percentage of GDP, and so on?
The question itself illustrates one of the biggest problems facing the Obama administration—or anyone else who tries to get things done in Washington: the ingrained American cultural habit of “thinking” emotionally.
Let’s use an analogy to illustrate why this is a ridiculous exercise. Suppose when they were building the first space shuttle, NASA asked the American public—who, after all, were footing the bill for the project—for similar input; for example, “What kind of fuel should we use in the boosters?” or “What materials should we use for the heat shields?” And most importantly, “What is the maximum number of dollars we should spend on the program before pulling the plug on it?”
Had such questions been asked of the general public, would NASA have received any meaningful answers? And if they had, should the progress of the human race have hinged on the collective opinions of a handful of ordinary citizens who know little or nothing about physics, materials science, or human anatomy?
Ah, you might say, but the economy isn’t rocket science.
In a way it is. Both physics and economics consist largely of nonlinear patterns of progression, which the human brain is not equipped to instinctively understand. This is why so many people get into trouble in terms of their own personal finances—they simply don’t feel the effects of compound interest rates, for example. The human brain needs sophisticated training in mathematics to account for the effects of time on numbers—and only specialists have that knowledge, just as only specialists know how to build a space shuttle.
How am I supposed to know how much is too much when it comes to, say, Medicare? As an individual citizen whose expertise is in psychology and education, I don’t even have a good feeling for what the price of bread should be. Like everything else in the world of economics, the price of bread—and of Medicare—can only be judged in terms of many other variables. Economics, in other words, is relative—and when it comes to the big-ticket items, prices are relative to economies in other countries, which fluctuate on a minute-to-minute basis. It takes sophisticated computer technologies and the experts to run them even to make educated guesses.
In response to Balko’s challenge, one reader commented that “106 trillion is a scary number.” Well, yeah—especially since the unaided human brain can’t begin to conceive of numbers in the trillions. That’s why we need to rely on specialists who have the mathematical skills, knowledge of history and economics, and access to computational tools to make informed decisions. In other words, we have to trust the experts.
Trust? Now there’s a scary concept. How do we know whom to trust?
The answer is, we don’t always know. But as a nation, we elected a well-educated man with good communication skills to assemble teams of experts capable of addressing particular problems. We elected a body of legislators with the collective responsibility of working with him to achieve our national goals. Now I suggest that we give them a little time to do their jobs without constantly having to respond to ignorant questions and objections from people who confuse thinking with feeling.
It’s one thing to try to make the intellectual effort to be informed. It’s another to assume that any one of us has the expertise to pass absolute judgment on matters of enormous complexity about which we have no specialized training. From the economy to education to global climate change, our national leaders are dealing with problems about which few of us have in-depth knowledge. A little humility would be in order here.
I suggest that, in matters about which we have no expertise, we withhold judgment and encourage others to do the same. Later, as we are doing with respect to the last president and his administration, we can analyze results. But for now, let's avoid pooling our ignorance and trying to micromanage what we don’t understand.