Economists have been so busy in recent years fighting over government policy that we have forgotten to take time to do what we do best, freakout people of all political stripes with our hyper-rationality. I will take this opportunity.
Lots of things have been said in the wake of the Arizona shootings about the need to rethink congressional security, gun laws, etc. Most of this has gotten some pushback except for the idea that the shooting is a reason to tone down rhetoric. This has lots of people nodding.
But is it true? Is the shooting a reason to tone down rhetoric?
One of the things that got everyone in a tizzy over the last few years is the debate over ObamaCare. I have argued that this is a much smaller deal than people believe because health insurance is a much smaller deal than people believe. In particular I argued that health insurance is not very effective at delivering health and so either way you slice it, its hard to break something that doesn’t work very well to begin with.
However, this is a minority view. Most people think health insurance does matter. And, indeed I could be wrong. If health insurance does matter then our health insurance policy likely matters. Especially if what is on the table is the potential to expand health insurance coverage or institute death panels. The Urban Institute for example estimated that 22,000 people a year were dying because of a lack of health insurance. Those people are just as dead as people who are murdered by a gunman. Lets use those numbers as our health insurance baseline.
Now, suppose that you have the choice of providing gruesome rhetoric that will increase the probability of a killing spree but will also increase the probability of the passage of Universal Health Insurance. Suppose using the Arizona case as a baselinewe say that the average killing spree causes the death of 6 people. Then if your rhetoric is at least 6/22,000 = 1/3667 times as likely to produce a the passage of universal health insurance as it is to induce a killing spree then you saved lives by engaging in fiery rhetoric.
Let me go over this again. Suppose that every politician and pundit chose to” tone it down” out of fear of a killing spree. Now suppose that because of that ObamaCare did not pass and the Urban Institute is correct that 22K people died every year as a result. However, the tone down also worked and there were no killing sprees. Then because of the choice of everyone to tone it down 19,994 people more people died. That is, the toning down of rhetoric killed nearly seven times as many people as were killed on 9/11. This would be among the worst policy choices available.
I used numbers that argue in favor of universal health insurance because they were easily at hand. However, the same thing holds for those who believe that Universal Health Insurance would worsen the quality of care. They too believe that at stake is the lives of thousands of people and so sensibly engage in hostile rhetoric.
One of those two positions is wrong. On net passing ObamaCare must either increase, decrease or hold constant the number of premature deaths. However, the key is to realize that its really bad to be wrong. Not that it’s really bad to engage in hostile rhetoric.
If there is one thing to take away from the shooting its that being wrong has consequences. And, if you genuinely care about the shooting death of six people then you ought to really, really care about endorsing wrong public policies which will result in the premature death of vastly more people. Hence you should devote yourself to actually discovering the right answers to these questions, rather than than coming up with ad hoc rhetoric – violent or polite – in support of the policy you happend to have been attracted to first.