Megan McArdle makes a very good general point in her post on the illusion that socialism will reduce health-care costs:
We have been trying to control health care costs since the 1970s made it clear that Medicare was going to get really, really expensive. And any idea that you care to name, from comparative effectiveness research to healthcare IT to preventive medicine . . . these have all been on the table for more than thirty years, under one name or another. They haven’t happened.
The answer that those promising magical cost reductions need to ask is “Why haven’t they happened?” and “What has changed to make them feasible now?” But when I ask this question, I get angry demands that I put forward my plan for cost control, rather than merely critiquing everyone else’s. This seems rather like demanding that I put forward my design for a perpetual motion machine before I am allowed to point out problems in the US energy market.
I was reminded of this style of argumentation by Harry Angstrom’s comments in my previous post, where he makes this exact argument. In thinking about it, I realized that a lot of debates with leftists often come down to this type of, “I have an idea and you don’t, therefore I must have the best plan,” argument.
I see this a lot in debates over energy. People will argue that since they believe fossil fuels cause global warming, and since nuclear power is too dangerous, therefore solar and wind power must be viable technologies. Unfortunately, the fact that one specific technology has problems has nothing to do with whether another unrelated technology will work. Just because we can’t use fossil fuels and nukes has no bearing on whether weather-dependent energy sources can actually power our civilization.
The urge to do something, anything, to solve a problem can backfire badly. Before scientific medicine, doctors could do little to treat disease yet they felt compelled to do something, anything to try and help. That is how we ended up with bleeding and other counter-productive treatments. Likewise, Herbert Hoover felt he had to do something about the recession that started in 1929, so he raised federal spending, raised taxes and the Congress pitched in by raising tariffs. Their urgency to do something, anything, ended up turing a bad recession into an unprecedented depression that lasted a decade.
People immersed in politics begin to think that that since there are only two major divisions in our politics there must be only two altnerative solutions to any problem. They begin to think that if one side’s idea is bad then the other side’s idea is good. These people forget that there is only one optimum solution for any particular problem but a functionally infinite number of ways to make a problem worse. If we implement policies based on the idea that any idea is better than no idea at all, we are more likely to implement a policy that does more harm than good than a policy that helps. There are more ways to go wrong than to go right.
A bad idea is a bad idea independent of any other ideas. It doesn’t matter if that idea’s critics don’t have a superior idea themselves. You don’t have to know how to make a practical jet-pack yourself to know that it is a bad idea for someone to try to fly by strapping 50 roman candles to their back and setting them off.