Combatting the region’s ‘delusive sophisms’

Combatting the region’s ‘delusive sophisms’

Public officials, elected and appointed, have had a tough year ‘round these parts in their prosecution of “public policy” that all too often disrespected the public and gave policy a bad name.

But the truly tragic part of all this is that the public has been disrespected for so long, and that dubious policy prescriptions have been foisted on them for just as long, that it has become inured to most of it.

Take, for instance, the ballyhooed multibillion-dollar bid to lure Amazon to Greater Pittsburgh. As bad as the precept of underwriting one of the world’s richest concerns with public dollars is, far worse was the subterfuge employed by public officials to keep details of the package hidden from those who would foot the bill.

So antithetical was the behavior to open government and sound public policy that a judge even accused the principals of using the Allegheny Conference on Community Development to establish a shell entity to “launder” the proposal out of public view.

Yet, there are no real repercussions for those who eschew sunshine and operate the laundry. They are free to launder again, and again, with impunity.

Then there’s the textbook case at the Allegheny County Airport Authority of how government interventionism is the lie that keeps on giving – and requiring successive interventions to cover up the failures – the lies — of past interventions. The practice of blindly throwing public dollars at airlines with questionable financial wherewithal has morphed into subsidizing airlines at Pittsburgh International Airport to kill off other subsidized airlines.

Some public officials have blamed the vagaries of the marketplace – the “shakeout” going on in the airline industry – for subsidized failure after subsidized failure. Never mind that free markets require honest failures to have successes. Never mind that government interventions so pervert the markets that their functions are so skewed that just about everyone becomes a loser.

Yet such behavior continues in Greater Pittsburgh. It long has been the norm instead of the exception. “It’s the way business is done,” we are told, ad nauseum, by those, who through their market-perverting behaviors, prove repeatedly they know neither sound business practices nor what truly sound public policies are.

But as Arthur Goddard wrote long ago in the preface to French economist Frederic Bastiat’s “Economic Sophisms”:

“The public has been despoiled of a great part of its wealth and has been induced to give up more and more of its freedom of choice because it is unable to detect the error in the delusive sophisms” that “exploit its gullibility and its ignorance of economics.”

Indeed, shame on the exploiters in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. But shame on the public that, knowing no better, so subserviently succumbs to the notion that the proper role of government is to attempt to command the economy, never mind the repeated examples of predictable failure.

And, in typical fashion, as Bastiat himself wrote:

“Yes, we must admit that our opponents in this argument have a marked advantage over us. They need only a few words to set forth a half-truth; whereas, in order to show that it is a half-truth, we have to resort to long and arid dissertations.”

This is what the legacy-seeking pols practice. And this is what a more engaged public must work harder to counteract. Governments at any level don’t exist to “create” or “command” markets.  They exist to protect them by not facilitating their demise.

But as the late great economics author Henry Hazlitt also cautioned:

“It does no good for (the fundamental principles of economics) to be discovered unless they are applied, and they will not be applied unless they are widely understood.”

That must apply to government policy makers and the public that pays for these policies in equal measure.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).