Death Panels as Unintended Consequence

by Conor Clarke

Interesting email from a reader (which I've condensed a bit):

The great modern conservative insight about public policy probably has been the way unintended consequences follow from otherwise well-meaning policy efforts. So, for instance, I think even defenders of certain welfare policies now have to admit the possibility that such policies can, among other things, lead to dependency or perhaps create a variety of perverse incentives. You might disagree with this -- but at the least it is part of the conservative self-understanding. [...] For a certain type of conservative, the lack of an actual legislative proposal even resembling "death panels" proves nothing; they reason that increased government involvement with health care will lead to the perverse consequence of a "death panel."

It seems to me that the scope of the "unintended consequences" argument gets overstated. You sometimes hear the very existence unintended consequences brought up and plopped down like some devastating and impenetrable roadblock in the path of government. But even the dimmest of utopian social planners should know that all does not go according to plan.

What matters, obviously and entirely, is the likelihood and severity of unintended consequences.

It's easy to imagine an undesirable consequence that is extremely likely (like the effect of a direct money transfer on the incentives of its recipient) but is still worth the tradeoff (as I believe in the case of, say, unemployment insurance). And it's easy to imagine a consequence that is quite severe but rather unlikely. It's always possible that a NASA satellite could deflect a giant radioactive asteroid into the orbital path of the earth. But no one should take this seriously as an argument against the space program.

Anyway, death panels fall into the second category. It seems to me that if you're going to make the unintended consequences argument in the case of health care, you have to do more than merely cite the abstract possibility of a future government euthanasia program. You have to tell a story about how we get from point A to point B. And since death panels are not in the bill and no one wants them, I don't think that story has a very convincing place to start.