All Commentary
Saturday, July 1, 1995

The Economic Safety Net (a parable)

Economic Safety Nets Have Unintended Consequences

Mr. Beard is an attorney in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Once upon a time, far, far away, people lived in a village on an island where life was difficult. But the people were good and worked hard and the village grew. The people called their island “Economy” and they were happy.

On one side of the island of Economy was a big lagoon. The lagoon had warm, crystal clear blue water and beautiful beaches, but the lagoon also was home to dangerous sharks. And the beach had quicksand that could swallow a person clean away, so fast they could not be pulled out before they vanished, never to be seen again. Because everyone on Economy knew of the sharks and the quicksand, almost no one went to the lagoon. They stayed away even though it was the most beautiful place on the island, where the sun was always bright and the birds gave their songs in wondrous and enchanting voices.

At first, life in the village of Economy was so hard almost no one ever had time to do anything but work, and no one thought about the lagoon. When they did think about the lagoon they always thought about how dangerous the sharks and quicksand were and stayed away. People saved and planted crops and made buildings where they could work better. Life became easier, but only a little.

By and by, the people in the village came to have enough food and shelter that they did not need to work unceasingly. Sometimes one of the foolish young men of Economy went to the lagoon, never to be seen again. Each time it happened, perhaps once or twice a year, people of Economy would be sad and would cry about their loss. Then they warned their young again of the dangers of the lagoon.

And it came to pass that the village had a great leader who promised to make life better and safer for all on the island. The great leader said Economy was too rich and too strong to let young men be lost to the lagoon. He had a plan to stop it from happening.

He would cover the quicksand holes with safety nets to catch anyone who strayed upon the quicksand. Parents would still tell their children to avoid the lagoon, of course, but the great leader’s nets would save the foolish who did not listen. He called his plan the Economic Safety Net.

The people applauded the plan. They said that it proved the great leader’s greatness. Everyone said it was good to save foolish young men who went to the lagoon.

In the following years, his Economic Safety Net caught many young men before they slipped into the quicksand. But each year, young men became less afraid of the lagoon because of the efforts to keep them safe. And each year more and more young men went to the lagoon. For the first time, after the Economic Safety Net, some young women also strayed from the village to enjoy the beauty of the lagoon.

As more young people visited the lagoon, more also slipped into uncovered quicksand. This happened even though the great leader forever increased areas of the beach covered by the Economic Safety Net.

The great leader said Economy could not let this happen. He promised to cover the whole beach with a new safety net to protect everyone, but he said parents should still remind children of the lagoon’s dangers.

The next year, after the great leader’s new Economic Safety Net was in place, ever more curious young men and women went to the lagoon. For the first time some parents also went there. All who saw the lagoon were amazed by its beauty and wanted to return.

But the new safety net was imperfect. As ever more people went to the lagoon, still greater numbers disappeared into the quicksand. Some people slipped right through the safety net, though the net still made the beach safer than ever before. Some people felt so safe they went to the very edge of the lagoon’s water. From the water’s edge, some found the crystal clear blue water so beautiful they felt they had to go in.

Once in the water, the sharks often ate the people.

The great leader could not tolerate shark attacks. He called on the village of Economy to protect everyone from quicksand and sharks.

The great leader said Economy could do more to protect those going to the lagoon. He said he would make the whole lagoon safe. The people needed to give him more money for stronger nets. The biggest and strongest men of the village also needed to stop their village work so they could be special lifeguards at the lagoon. The special lifeguards would fight off sharks that attack villagers going into the water.

Some villagers didn’t like the new plan. They said it cost too much. The biggest and strongest men of the village did not want to give up their work to be lifeguards. They said their families needed them on their farms and in their shops.

But the great leader said he was disappointed that people of Economy wanted to put a price tag on lives. He said that if his plan saved only one person it was worthwhile, and he convinced his people that no price was too great to save even one life.

The great leader moved on with his plan, assuring all villagers that together they could make the lagoon safer.

The biggest and strongest men of the village trained to fight the sharks, and Economy spent great sums to improve the Economic Safety Net.

Then the great leader said the improved safety net would save more villagers than ever, both from quicksand and sharks. He repeated his warning that people should avoid the lagoon. But those who did go would be safer than anyone had thought possible.

Now ever greater numbers of villagers than before went to the lagoon. The great leader’s Economic Safety Net saved many, but with the large crowds now at the lagoon ever more still slipped away into the quicksand. The lifeguards also saved countless villagers, but the sharks grew fat both from villagers swimming in the crystal blue water and from lifeguards.

By now hard times returned to the village. More and more shops and fields lay idle because those who worked in them did not come back from the lagoon. Other shops and fields lay idle as the biggest and strongest men who had been working in them worked instead as lifeguards.

Years had passed since the great leader started the safety net. He was now weak and old. From his sickbed he said the village now had but two choices.

The great leader said Economy was close to completing his dream of a real Economic Safety Net. He said Economy could make the island safe by fully protecting everyone from the terrible dangers of the lagoon. Economy just needed to cover the beach more completely with yet heavier nets. Economy also needed more men as lifeguards and needed to pay for better lifeguard training for fighting the sharks. The safety net would then make the water safe if Economy built special shark-fighting boats for the lifeguards. The lifeguards could use the boats to lower wooden shark-protection cages around swimmers in danger. The great leader said his long years at building safety nets showed only that Economy merely had not done enough to keep villagers safe. If Economy only again redoubled its efforts the Economic Safety Net would work.

The other choice was to give up efforts to make the lagoon safe. The great leader insisted that it was simply too cruel for the good people of Economy to let those going to the lagoon fend for themselves with no Economic Safety Net.

By now many villagers said all of the great leader’s safety-net efforts were useless. Some even said the safety net was actually bad. They said more people were lost now to the lagoon than ever before, more than when the village of Economy did nothing at all to make the lagoon safe. Critics said Economy should return to doing nothing. They said it was better to have no safety net. With no safety net, they would tell their young that the beauty of the lagoon might be tempting, but that it hid terrible dangers from which there is no protection.

The great leader was now near death, but said Economy had changed since the simple days of the past and could not possibly return. He said too many people now went to the lagoon to end the Economic Safety Net.

With that the great leader died, and the people were left to decide between the two options.