Public policies as instruction

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Minimum-wage hikes also send the wrong message to voters. Yes, there is literature suggesting that such increases destroy far fewer jobs than previously thought, and may have considerable ancillary benefits, such as preventing suicides. Still, a minimum wage is a kind of price control, and most price controls are bad. Voters may not realize the subtle ways in which minimum-wage hikes are different (and better) from most price controls. Instead, they get the message that the path to higher living standards is through government fiat, rather than better productivity.

If you think that far-fetched, consider the initiative passed by the California Senate this week. The bill would create a government panel to set wages and workplace standards for all fast-food workers in the state, and labor-union backers hope the plan will spread nationally. That may or may not happen, but those are precisely the paths that are opened up by minimum-wage advocacy. Many people hear a bigger and more ambitious message than the one the speaker wishes to send.

So what messages, in the broadest terms, should policies convey? I would like to see increased respect for cosmopolitanism, tolerance, science, just laws, dynamic markets, free speech and the importance of ongoing productivity gains. Obviously any person’s list will depend on his or her values, but for me the educational purposes are more than just a secondary factor. When it comes to prioritizing reforms, the focus should be on those that will “give people the right idea,” so to speak.

The mere fact that you are uncertain about such effects does not mean you can or should ignore them.  They are there, whether you like it or not.

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