Antony Davies & James R. Harrigan: View political promises with healthy skepticism |
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Antony Davies & James R. Harrigan: View political promises with healthy skepticism

Antony Davies and James Harrigan
U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez waves to the crowd after speaking at Women’s Unity Rally in Lower Manhattan in New York Jan. 19.

Fewer than 18 months stand between us and the next presidential election, and politicians are tripping over each other to offer voters more “free” things, including everything from health care to college to a guaranteed basic income. But voters should be fostering a healthy sense of skepticism. If there is one eternal and immutable fact in economics, it is that nothing is free. Nothing. And no quantity of political promises, wishful thinking or government policy can change that.

There is no explaining why American voters lose all semblance of skepticism every four years or so. In many respects, Americans are generally quite skeptical as a rule. From an early age, no one takes the stories about alien abduction and Batboy in the Weekly World News seriously. Everyone knows the only factual thing on a tabloid’s front page is the price tag. We even come to be skeptical of what we see on the evening news and read in the mainstream press.

As consumers, people are skeptical. We know that everyone selling anything is probably telling a lie of some kind, or at least stretching the truth to its legal limit. None of us takes seriously the claim that some new toothpaste will change our life. Save for the most gullible among us, we meet every marketing claim of this kind with a healthy measure of skepticism because we know that businesses are only interested in getting hold of our dollars. That we understand that marketing claims are largely lies is so obvious, we never even really talk about it. When was the last time you got on Facebook to argue with strangers about how your favorite brand of mouthwash can improve your social life?

But as voters, our healthy skepticism seems to go right out the window. When politicians promise all sorts of “free” things, it doesn’t occur to many of us that those things can’t possibly be free. It doesn’t occur to us that, like businesses seeking our dollars, politicians will tell us whatever it takes to get hold of our votes. Instead, we get on Facebook and argue with strangers about how our favorite brand of politician will give us free stuff.

If you really think any politician has the ability to circumvent the laws of economics, be it Bernie, AOC, Trump or even Mitch McConnell, you should remember what you mother told you in the supermarket all those years ago when, in the checkout line, you asked whether Elvis was really back from the dead and hanging out with Bigfoot in Area 51.

Don’t be so gullible.

And when you hear Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders tell you how health care and higher education will be free for everyone, remember that Donald Trump said he would pay off the federal debt in eight years, build a giant wall between the United States and Mexico, and get the Mexicans to pay for it to boot. Everyone with an ounce of sense knew that none of those things would ever happen, just as sensible people know now that health care and higher education cannot and will never be free.

The facts of the matter are perfectly clear, and it’s long past the time when Americans should be looking at political promises with the same degree of skepticism that they view other nonsense claims.

Antony Davies is associate professor of economics at Duquesne University. James Harrigan is managing director of the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom at the University of Arizona. They host the weekly podcast, Words and Numbers.

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