Sanity Injection

Injecting a dose of sanity into your day’s news and current events.

Public policy primer: The theory of collateral damage

Posted by sanityinjection on March 2, 2010

“Collateral damage” is a military term applied when an action results in damage suffered by persons or things other than the intended target.  It’s a useful and easy to understand phrase which I propose to apply to the realm of public policy. I argue that one of the major reasons that government initiatives fail is that their creators fail to anticipate “collateral damage”.

Lemme ‘splain. Let’s say you are a politician with a public policy goal – maybe extending health insurance coverage to more people, or creating more jobs to bring down unemployment. As a politican you also have a secondary or even primary goal of good PR – it is even more important that you appear to be doing something about the problem than that you actually solve it. This creates a desire to move as quickly as possible, and that in turn leads to a tendency to fail to anticipate the “collateral damage”, or unintended consequences of the primary action. Almost nothing that government does is going to be without side effects.

For example, the collateral damage of a military build-up – however justifiable in terms of national security – is usually an increase in the deficit. That may not be a reason not to do the build-up, but it certainly should be taken into account and minimized as much as possible. The collateral damage of raising the minimum wage might be an increase in unemployment, as companies that have to pay higher wages compensate by hiring fewer workers. This incremental effect should be analyzed and used to calibrate an increase that is neither too little to help or so high that it causes harm.

The bigger and more complicated a government initiative, the more instances of collateral damage it’s likely to create, and you reach a point where that damage is collectively worse than the benefit you hoped to gain. This is one of the reasons why conservatives tend to reflexively view the expansion in size and scope of any government program as a bad thing. In far too many cases, the end result is that you are actually worse off in big-picture terms than you would have been had you done nothing at all. But the politicians get their photo-ops and press releases and can boast about the good they’re doing while ignoring the bad side effects.

Of course, not every consequence can always be fully anticipated. And some collateral damage is predicted and controlled for, but government, and especially Washington, could do a far better job than they do, with resulting benefits for the people they are elected to serve.


One Response to “Public policy primer: The theory of collateral damage”

  1. Jason said

    Sanity. The “Great Society” Program.

    I know you know.

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