When Politics Makes It Impossible To Plan

For more than a decade, politicians have moved toward seizing short-term wins through any mechanism available to them.


The boy in the video is crying. He is 10 years old, and he has been walking alone on a rural road outside of La Grulla, Texas, for a long time. He was traveling with a group, he says to the Border Patrol agent who has found him, and got left behind. "I came here looking for help," he sniffs. "I'm afraid." He doesn't know what will happen to him, or why the adults around him are behaving so unpredictably.

There's no doubt that this boy was in mortal peril. Hundreds of bodies have been found at the Texas border in the last year alone. But whose fault is it?

Commentators have blamed everyone from his parents in Nicaragua to President Joe Biden, but the real problem—not just at the border, but in so many areas of American life—is something more complicated and difficult to grasp, let alone fix. When the rules that govern people's lives are subject to repeated change at the hands of politicians who are focused on short-term electoral gain or partisan point scoring, it becomes increasingly difficult to make responsible decisions and plan for the future.

To make good choices, people must have a fairly solid sense of what the consequences of those choices will be. But an ever-greater sphere of American life is subject to political risk. A lack of clarity about consequences can lead even people who want to do the right thing down dubious paths.

For more than a decade, there has been a move away from generating lasting policy through conventional means and toward short-term wins through any mechanism available. This is reflected in everything from the disintegration of the congressional budgeting process to the increase in the use of executive orders to the vestigial involvement of the legislative branch in decisions about treaties and warmaking.

All of this would be less likely to do damage under a government more constrained in its size and scope, since you cannot generate political uncertainty in areas where politics have no place. But as a starting point, a political culture that takes more seriously the costs of uncertainty and that values the rule of law would be an improvement.

If we want immigrants and asylum seekers to come only when they have a legitimate claim to entry and to do so in an orderly manner, we must communicate the terms of admission clearly and consistently. Congress should do its job and hammer out a durable immigration policy, then provide the means to implement it. This is not a matter to be dealt with via tissue-thin executive orders, as it has been for the last few administrations. People fleeing violence or political persecution should not have to parse White House press releases to guess at what will happen when they arrive at the U.S. border.

Likewise, if we want entrepreneurs to take risks, they should have a decent sense of what regulatory hoops they need to jump through to get to market and how long that will take. As the journalist Matt Ridley recently tweeted, "The problem for entrepreneurs, watching their capital dwindle as they try to bring an innovation to market, is not so much that regulators say no, but that they take an age to say yes. If we are to return to prosperity after the virus, that has to change."

If we want businesses to grow, they need to be able to predict the cost of labor and material inputs as much as possible given the vagaries of the market. The notion that a couple of swing votes in the Senate might, at any time, force a total reworking of the books of every restaurant, retailer, service provider, and manufacturer in the United States by setting a wage floor should put fear in the hearts of every business owner—and every employee. The fact that presidential pique at a trading partner might cut off the supply of raw materials at any time creates similar uncertainty and suppresses vital investment.

If we want students to be responsible borrowers, we should be clear about the terms of repayments for the college loans they take out. Dangling the prospect of loan forgiveness for years at a time will incentivize riskier behavior and higher prices while generating resentment on the part of those who have followed the rules.

If we want colleges to take both due process and sexual misconduct seriously, they should not be asked to cater to politicized dicta from the federal government every time executive power changes hands.

If we want Iran to cease to produce weaponizable nuclear material, the U.S. should be clear and consistent about the costs of doing so, whether that is reduced access to markets or other sanctions. Yet as The Wall Street Journal noted in April, "Iranian officials have repeatedly said they don't trust a future American president to stick with a new nuclear deal, given the decision by the Trump administration to abrogate it."

If we want Afghanistan to take responsibility for its own national defense and domestic peace, Afghans should have a clear sense of how long American troops will remain in their country. After half a dozen plans and reversals by the Trump administration, the Biden administration looks set to miss the latest withdrawal deadline of May 1.

The list goes on, through health care, retirement, taxes, criminal justice, land use policy, and more.

In each of these cases, I have a policy I would very much like to see implemented. I believe a lot is at stake and that the outcomes matter. But taking shortcuts via executive order or bureaucratic fiat—or scoring cheap, speedy wins at the expense of durability—comes at the cost of rendering planning difficult or impossible. Those costs have been systematically underestimated by a political class for whom changing the rules (again) is something to brag about, not apologize for.

In every one of the examples above, people with more resources will have an easier time negotiating a rapidly changing landscape. Faced with higher individual and corporate taxes, for example, the people with access to lawyers and accountants will figure out how to smooth out and minimize their tax burdens; others will be thrown into crisis when a tax bill arrives that they didn't expect. Faced with regulatory barriers, some people will have the wherewithal to hack through the thicket of paperwork and rules; others will give up along the way because they run out of money or time. Immigrants who can afford to wait for a visa at home are better positioned than those fleeing for their lives. Rival nations can wait for years to see if they will get a more favorable negotiating partner after the next U.S. election.

Just as unpredictable bans and barriers are more costly than predictable ones,  unpredictable benefits or windfalls are worth less than predictable ones. Many families and businesses have had to make wrenching financial decisions in the last year that were made more difficult by the prospect of an undetermined number of checks of an undetermined size coming to them on an undetermined schedule. In fact, the last year has been an object lesson in the stress imposed by a murky future. The rapidly shifting guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention repeatedly threw the plans of schools, businesses, and individuals into disarray. Ridley is right: If we are to return to prosperity after the pandemic, that has to change.

When children play games, they spend a lot of time fighting about the rules. So much so that sometimes it can seem like fighting over the rules is the game. In politics as on the playground, the result too often is that the game collapses, no one gets what he really wants, and someone ends up crying.