How Back-to-School Shopping Is Like Modern Politics

The frequent parent-child conflict of back-to-school shopping illustrates why politics expands Americans’ disunity.

As 2019’s campaign unpleasantness has accelerated (OMG—there’s still way over a year to go), many Americans have been going through another sometimes-unpleasant experience: back-to-school shopping. Seemingly overlooked, however, is that the frequent parent-child conflict of back-to-school shopping illustrates why politics expands Americans’ disunity.

Parents and Children Have Different Values

Parents and children value back to school items differently. And the difference is often large. That is because parents’ more practical considerations can be way out of line with children’s “where will this put me on the social pecking order at school?” concerns. And when their valuations differ substantially, requiring them to make decisions jointly can cause serious disagreements.

There is also often 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 do not pay the bill. Given that decision-makers will want more of things when the cost to them is lower and less of things when the cost is higher (which economists call the law of demand), this, too, causes disagreements.

That is also why modern politics heightens Americans’ disunity. Americans’ preferences for what they want government to do are very different.

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 use the government to expand their to-do lists out of others’ pockets. Many desires are also mutually inconsistent (e.g., if I want “A” and you want “not A,” we cannot both get what we want) in areas ranging from taxation and regulation to health care, education, and the environment.

Further, different people face vastly different tax and regulatory price tags for what government chooses to do, as when particular property owners are forced to bear virtually the entire cost of preserving an endangered species habitat, making that preservation free to others, or when some pay disproportionate shares of the tax burden (including future taxes, when deficit financing is used or other unfunded liabilities are created by current programs) for government expenditures.

Conflict in Elections

In fact, electoral conflict is like back-to-school conflict, except that the disagreements are worsened when they concern what the government is to do. The government decides who will be treated as “children,” including what and how much they will be given and who it will force to bear the “parent’s” tab. 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, but this creates more disunity among citizens.

One common means of reducing back-to-school disagreements also illustrates part of the problem with our current redistributionist state. That is to give children back-to-school budgets for clothing, and let them choose what to buy. Unfortunately, American politics has trended away from freedom, with an ever-expanding array of redistribution.That forces them to compare the value they see represented by each dollar spent on each item with the value offered by alternatives they could pick instead. And a beneficial byproduct is dramatically reduced conflicts.

Such a back-to-school approach to government would increase each American’s freedom to make their own choices with their own resources by reducing government dictation in areas where our preferences and circumstances differ widely (i.e., almost everywhere). Our disunity (which ironically seems inversely proportional with candidates’ claims they will be unifiers) would be reduced. Unfortunately, American politics has trended (and not just on Twitter) in 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.

Further Reading

{{article.Title}}

{{article.BodyText}}