Even in a Crisis Reality Is Not Optional

Russell Roberts has a great article here. Some excerpts:
“Understanding the emergent phenomena economists call a market is the essence of the economic way of thinking. In contrast, the human brain seems more accustomed to what might be called the engineering way of thinking where human action and human design work together. If I’m dissatisfied with the size of my kitchen, I make a plan and by following the plan, if it’s a good plan, the result is a bigger kitchen. A person who sits around hoping for a new kitchen without design or action is going to be disappointed. Or if I notice the leaves falling from the trees, I don’t hope that they’re going to clean themselves up. I have to plan to rake them and then do the actual raking. Changing my thermostat to alter the temperature inside my house is another such example.
But the engineering way of thinking doesn’t work with emergent phenomena. Trying to change emergent results is inherently more complex than building a bridge or expanding your kitchen or even putting a man on the moon. Understanding the challenge involved is to begin to answer the old question that asks why we can put a man on the moon but we can’t eliminate poverty. Putting a man on the moon is an engineering problem. It yields to a sufficient application of reason and resources. Eliminating poverty is an economic problem (and by the word “economic” I do not mean financial or related to money), a challenge that involves emergent results. In such a setting, money alone—in the amounts that a non-economic approach might suggest, one that ignores the impact of incentives and markets—is unlikely to be successful.
Thomas Sowell likes to say that reality is not optional. But we oh so want it to be. We want to change outcomes without consequences with the ease of adjusting the thermostat on the wall of our house. We want to dial incomes upward and gasoline prices downward. We want to blame Wal-Mart for the fact that its employees earn below the national average. We want to blame China (or Mexico or Japan or India) for our trade deficit. We want to blame or honor the occupant of the White House for whether new jobs are high-paying or low-paying. This worldview that flies in the face of reality and that ignores the inherent complexity of the real world is the bread-and-butter of journalism and the breeding ground for unintended consequences.”
Following a cogent explanation of the confusion of well-meaning opponents of Wal-Mart (that you should read), Roberts goes on:
“As I write these words, New Orleans is in chaos. A number of oil refineries have been knocked out of commission by Hurricane Katrina. Gas prices have spiked upward. Politicians are threatening suppliers with legal action for “price gouging,” raising prices at a time of crisis. Politicians from President Bush on down are asking drivers to drive less or “only when necessary” as if that phrase had meaning. These politicians evidently believe that begging and lecturing citizens can perform the role that prices do in creating and sustaining order, an order where I never have to think twice or even once about whether gasoline will be available at the corner for my vacation or drive to work or to take an emergency trip to the hospital.
But reality is not optional. You cannot have a sudden reduction is gasoline available to the market and low prices at the same time. There is no dial for gasoline prices. The result of these threats is easily predicted—suppliers are already rationing. Drivers are worried about shortages and in the face of threats to punish ‘gougers.’ They are right to worry. As a result, lines are forming in some cities, and gasoline retailers are closing early in the day, out of gasoline, the same results we saw when explicit rather than implicit price controls were put in place in the 1970s.
Friedrich A. Hayek, in The Fatal Conceit, wrote that “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” Unfortunately, when politicians try to dial down prices to preserve order, they only worsen the problem. We would do well to remember the emergent nature of prices, especially in times of crisis.”
I recommend you read the entire article.

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