Do No Harm

In medicine, there is a principle: do good, or at least, do no harm.  It is well-recognized that sometimes, in the face of a problem, it is best to do nothing than risk doing more harm than good.  For some reason, in economics, this is not the case. But policy-makers would do well to keep this simple principle in mind.

Let’s look at minimum wage, for example.  In the economics profession, it is known minimum wage causes some job losses, or otherwise poor outcomes for the group minimum wage is trying to help.  Despite what some would like you to think, this conclusion was never, ever in question (although some economists do fancy themselves rather intelligent and can come up with models that argue, in theory, minimum wage can increase employment, but that is not the topic here.  Those far smarter than I have addressed this argument).  The disagreement is whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

But let’s look at this matter through the lens of “do no harm.”  Given that there are known negative effects of minimum wage (and that those effects tend to fall disproportionately among the poorest), does it make sense to advocate a policy of minimum wage even if the benefits outweigh the costs?

I contend no, that even if the benefits outweigh the costs, it is still improper to advocate a policy like minimum wage.  Minimum wage, like all other price controls, is a political action, not an economic one; the action is artificial as opposed to natural.  That means, then, that the costs involved are artificial, too.  Those who bare the costs are essentially being sacrificed upon a political altar: the politician gets the glory, others get the benefits, and that person bears the cost, all without his consent.  If people are no longer treated with dignity and respect, but rather used for political or other reasons, then where is the humanity?  It is not humane to condemn a person, to harm a person, for votes.

When forming a policy, a little humility upon the part of the policy-makers can go a long way.  Primum non nocere

4 thoughts on “Do No Harm

  1. You need to fix a few typos, Jon. It’s “altar” not alter, for example. Other than that, this is an excellent approach to attempt to revive what many see as a dead horse.

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  2. Political action, not an economical action. Yes indeed. Now let’s try and get politicians to keep their attention on politics, and let nature handle the economy. (Nothing more spontaneous than nature.)

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