The Volokh Conspiracy

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Setting Issue Priorities

How to prioritize public policy issues - and why it matters.



If you follow politics and public policy, you are likely to be bombarded with messages about a vast range of different issues. How do you prioritize among them?

Setting priorities is essential for a number of reasons.  Time, energy, and money devoted to Issue A are thereby denied to issues B, C, and D. Thus, we need to think about where these limited resources can do the most good. In deciding which candidate to vote for in an election, other things equal, a candidate who is good (or less bad) on high-priority issues is preferable to one who is bad on them—even if he or she is superior on less-important issues. Most electoral decisions involve choosing a lesser evil. Who that is depends in large part on the relative priority of issues.

It doesn't necessarily follow that we should always devote our time and effort exclusively to the most important issues. A large gain on a small issue might sometimes outweigh a small gain on a big one. And you can sometimes to do more good focusing on a small issue where you have real expertise than focusing on a big one about which you know very little. Nonetheless, the relative significance of issues should be a crucial factor in many decisions, even if it can't always be the only consideration. Thus, we need criteria for determining that.

Issue prioritization is partly a matter of values. For example, a utilitarian who cares only about consequences for human happiness and welfare is likely to have different priorities from a rights theorists who believes some rights should never be violated, regardless of consequences.

I won't try to resolve fundamental disagreements over values in this post. I will merely say that the values I consider most important are liberty (including property rights as well as bodily autonomy) and human happiness. I want people to be as free as possible, but also as happy as possible. These values are of obvious significance to libertarians (excluding, perhaps, some who completely reject consequentialism). But they are also important for most in the broader liberal tradition. Non-libertarian liberals still tend to value "negative" liberty, even if they don't give it as high a priority as libertarians do.

Given those values, how should we prioritize issues?

In a recent guest-blogging post, Bryan Caplan argues that housing deregulation should be a high-priority issue for libertarians, because of its enormous effects. Millions of people would enjoy lower housing prices and be free to "move to opportunity." Magnitude of effect is definitely an important criterion for prioritizing issues. An issue where there is a lot of freedom and happiness at stake is more important than one where the quantity is low.

The assessment of such impacts on liberty and happiness should focus on net effects: the overall impact of the policy. A policy that increases liberty or happiness in one way, but also results in a decrease of comparable magnitude by some other pathway, is less desirable than one that has a large positive impact on net. The same goes for issues where there are difficult trade-offs between liberty on one side and happiness/welfare on the other. Other things equal, they deserve a lower priority than ones where liberty and happiness are in alignment.

Caplan also argues that housing deregulation deserves high priority because there is a relatively simple fix available for the problem: to enable a massive increase in housing construction, government need only "get out of the way" by cutting back or eliminating exclusionary zoning and other regulations that current block it. That's relatively easy to do! By contrast, some policy issue might require competence and "state capacity" well beyond anything that currently exists. Issues that require a major increase in competence or capacity deserve lower priority than ones where there is a simple fix that can be implemented quickly.

I would add that there is a related distinction between issues where there is room for incremental progress, and ones that are "all or nothing" propositions, where only a massive, radical change in policy can accomplish anything of value. Other things equal, the former deserve priority over the latter, except in rare "revolutionary" situations where radical change becomes more feasible than it usually is. For example, the conditions of the Civil War made immediate, nationwide abolition of slavery politically feasible, in a way that it clearly wasn't in earlier eras.

Thus, we have three criteria for prioritizing policy issues:

1. Magnitude of effects on human freedom and happiness. Big effects deserve priority over small ones.

2. Easy to implement solutions. Problems with simple, quick, fixes deserve priority over ones where the solution is difficult and/or requires a massive increase in competence and capacity.

3. The possibility of incremental progress. Issues where incremental progress is possible deserve priority over "all or nothing" issues, except in unusual revolutionary situations.

With these criteria in mind, here are three issues that I think deserve much higher priority than most people—including most of my fellow libertarians—give them: housing deregulation, easing immigration restrictions, and legalizing organ markets.

Bryan Caplan's post, linked above, is a good summary of the case for deregulating housing construction. It would make millions of people better off by reducing housing costs, and enabling more people to "move to opportunity" and "vote with their feet." In addition, this is a huge issue for people who care about liberty and property rights. Exclusionary zoning restricts property rights more than any other type of government regulation. It prevents hundreds of thousands of property owners from using their own property as they see fit. If you believe that property rights are a crucial component of liberty more generally, than zoning and other similar regulations are a massive affront to your values.

And, as Bryan also points out, there is an easy fix: simply repeal the regulations that stand in the way. Doing that does not require any great technocratic competence on the part of government.

Finally, there is tremendous room for incremental progress. Abolishing some exclusionary zoning rules but not others can still enable a lot more new housing to be built, and still strengthen protection for property rights. Ditto for deregulation that applies in some states or localities, but not others.

Regular readers won't be surprised that reducing immigration restrictions ranks high on my list of priority issues. Immigration restrictions literally consign millions of people to lives of poverty and oppression. Dropping them would massively increase freedom of virtually every kind: economic, personal, religious, and more. Think of people fleeing oppressive dictatorships like those escaping Cuba and Venezuela, people fleeing war (such as Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine), political and religious dissidents fleeing persecution, and so on.

Ending all or most immigration restrictions would also greatly increase liberty for native-born citizens of receiving countries, as well as the migrants themselves. I go into the reasons why here and here.

The positive impact on human happiness is also enormous. Economists estimate that free migration throughout the world would roughly double world GDP, by enabling millions of people to move to places where they can be more productive. In addition, immigrants disproportionately contribute to economic, scientific, and medical innovation, thereby further increasing the gains migration—including for natives, who also stand to benefit from all that progress. As an extra bonus, increasing opportunities for legal migration is also the best way to reduce chaos and disorder at borders, like the US border with Mexico.

Negative side effects of migration are nowhere near large enough to offset these enormous gains, and those side effects can be further reduced by "keyhole" solutions. I discuss how and why in more detail in Chapter 6 of my book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom.

The policy fix here is simple: mainly, governments just need to cut back on laws and regulations that exclude migrants. Some keyhole solutions are more complicated. But they are nonetheless well within the competence of most existing First World governments. Examples include such things as restricting immigrants' eligibility for welfare benefits (which we already do under the 1996 welfare reform bill).

As with housing, there is plenty of room for incremental progress. Increasing the annual number of immigrants admitted to the United States by 10% would still enable about 100,000 more migrants to attain vast increases in freedom and happiness each year, as well as facilitate substantial gains for natives. The list of ways in which immigration restrictions can be incrementally liberalized is almost limitless.

My third under-rated issue is legalizing organ markets. Repealing the law banning the sale of kidneys would save some 40,000 lives every year, in the US alone, and also spare many thousands more people the pain of spending years on kidney dialysis.

Legalizing organ sales is also an important liberty issue. Exercising control over your own body is a fundamental element of liberty. If you believe in "my body, my choice," legalizing organ markets is a logical implication of your position.

Objections to organ markets are generally weak, and certainly nowhere near strong enough to justify the enormous death and suffering restrictions cause. In previous writings, I have critiqued standard arguments, such as concerns that it would be too dangerous for organ donorsclaims that it amounts to to immoral "commodification" of the body, and fears that it would lead to exploitation of the poor (see also here).

The fix for this problem is an easy one: simply repeal current laws banning organ sales! Implementing rules against coercion and fraud in organ markets is a bit more complex. But we already have such rules in other markets. There is no need for any major new type of state capacity that doesn't currently exist.

Incremental progress here is somewhat more difficult than with housing and immigration. It may seem as if legalizing organ markets is an all-or-nothing proposition. But that is far from entirely true. There are various ways in which we can legalize some types of payments for organs, while continuing to ban or restrict others. The recently proposed End Kidney Deaths Act is one example of such a proposal. We can also imagine legalization limited to some sellers, but not others (e.g.—if you are worried about "exploitation" of the poor, you can advocate legalizing sales only by the non-poor). In addition, survey data suggests the public is more open to broader legalization than usually thought.

This list is far from an exhaustive one. I chose these issues because they are particularly stark examples, and because I have relevant expertise about them.

There is, of course, the danger that these issues just seem important to me because I spend a lot of time on them. I can't definitively disprove that conjecture. But I will note that all three are issues to which I have gradually devoted more of my time and attention, as I came to realize how important they are. For example, my early work on property rights focused more on eminent domain. But I have written more about exclusionary zoning in recent years, because I have come to recognize its greater importance. There is a similar story in my work on "voting with your feet," which started with a focus on  domestic migration, but gradually shifted more to the international kind, because the gains from the latter are larger.

I won't try to do it here. But, applying the same criteria, we can easily come up with a list of issues that get too much attention, rather than too little.

There is, obviously, plenty of room for disagreement with both my criteria for prioritizing issues, and the application of those criteria to particular cases. But, at the very least, we should recognize that issue prioritization matters, and we need rigorous criteria for deciding which issues matter more than others.