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How Back-to-School Shopping Is like American Politics

Tags Taxes and SpendingCalculation and KnowledgeInterventionism


As 2016’s campaign unpleasantness has accelerated, many Americans were going through another often-unpleasant experience — back-to-school shopping. Unnoticed, however, was that the common parent-child conflict of back-to-school shopping can explain much of Americans’ growing electoral disunity.

Parents and children value back to school items differently. In particular, parents’ practical considerations are often inconsistent with children’s “where will this put me on the social pecking order?” concerns. And when parents’ and children’s valuations differ, often sharply, requiring joint decisions triggers disagreements.

There is also a large difference in the relevant costs facing parents and children. A parent footing the back-to-school bill weighs the value they perceive against each item’s price, because they must pay it. But children need not pay the bill. Given that the law of demand tells us that decision-makers will want more of something if the cost to them is lower and less if the cost is higher, this too causes disagreements.

In sum, back-to-school shopping often involves strident confrontations due to large gaps between the values parents and children place on the items in question and the very different costs that they must bear to get them, because those decisions must be jointly made.

That is also why modern politics heightens Americans’ disunity. Americans’ preferences for what they want government to do are very different, and various groups are always lobbying to expand their to-do lists out of others’ pockets, via government. Many desires are also mutually inconsistent, in areas ranging from taxation and regulation to healthcare and defense. Further, individuals face vastly different tax and regulatory price tags, as when particular property owners are forced to bear virtually the entire cost of preserving endangered species habitat, making that preservation free to others, or when some individuals or groups pay disproportionate shares of the tax burden (including future taxes, when deficit financing is used) to finance spending initiatives.

Electoral conflict is like back-to-school conflict, with disagreements worsened by government intervention. Government decides who are to be treated as “children,” what and how much they will be given, and who it will force to bear the “parent’s” tab. And every added government freebie expands American discord. Consequently, every proposal promising more handouts benefits politicians by expanding their power to be the distributors of costs and benefits, yet guarantees more disunity among citizens.

One common means of reducing back-to-school disagreements also illustrates part of the problem with our current redistributionist state: give children budgets, and let them choose what to buy. That forces them to compare the value they see represented by every dollar spent for each item with that offered by alternatives, and letting them choose dramatically reduces conflicts.

Such a back-to-school approach to policy would increase each person’s freedom to make choices with one's own resources, by reducing government dictation in areas our preferences and circumstances differ widely (i.e., almost all areas). Our disunity would be reduced. Unfortunately, American policies have moved in exactly the opposite direction, with an ever-expanding array of redistribution, backed by what we recognize as theft when government is not involved. That is a major reason we are now so divided, and why so many electoral promises can only divide us more.

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. He is the author of The Apostle of Peace: The Radical Mind of Leonard Read.


Gary Galles

Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is also a research fellow at the Independent Institute, a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network, and a member of the Heartland Institute Board of Policy Advisors.

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