Politics and Governance

What Can Policy Actually Control?

By Connor McMann

Before kickoff of every Michigan football game versus Ohio State, my father used to light a large wax candle, emblazoned with a blue Block M, and place it in the room for good luck. By the time Michigan lost to our bitter rivals for the eighth straight year, the middle of the candle melted so deeply that the edges around it looked set to cave in. A diehard, superstitious Michigan fan though he was, my father was not a fool. He knew that the candle couldn’t actually change the Wolverines’ on field performance. But that didn’t stop him from trying to exert some level of control over the game, imagined or otherwise. 

Psychologists call this phenomenon the illusion of control. It’s why we knock on wood to dispel jinxes and wear lucky socks on game days. The term was coined by Ellen Langer, the Harvard psychologist whose research first demonstrated the effect. In one of her studies, participants systematically overestimated their influence on the outcome of experiments, even when they had no control at all. In the real world, car drivers believe that accidents are far less likely to happen when they are driving than when someone else is driving. Gamblers playing craps will roll the dice harder if they need high numbers and softer if they need low ones. We’re often unaware of the limits of our own agency; we think we’re always in control. 

Do we fall victim to this illusion when attempting to exert control through policy? Many attempts to control behavior are obvious successes. Every U.S. state besides New Hampshire requires the use of seatbelts, which have been credited with saving almost 400,000 lives since 1975. Nevertheless, whether through softheartedness or foolhardiness, policymakers often turn to policy in an effort to exert control where we simply cannot do so. By turning an eye to history, we can begin to recognize the limits of our control and learn from the mistakes of the past to make more effective policies in the future.

A century ago, and for a brief period of thirteen years, the Eighteenth Amendment banned the importation, production, transportation, and sale of alcohol in the United States. Prohibitionists successfully changed U.S. policy, but the policy itself was unsuccessful in changing the underlying human behavior. A black market emerged to serve the unwavering demand for alcohol. Crime and violence rates climbed, as did the fortunes of organized criminals and gangsters like Al Capone. It was not long before the Twenty-first Amendment repealed the Eighteenth, bringing Prohibition to an end in 1933. 

As a policy, Prohibition failed for various reasons. The movement aimed to stop people from drinking alcohol–a deeply normalized, culturally ingrained activity that humans have been doing for thousands of years. Prohibitionists failed to appraise the economic incentives encouraging the production of alcohol and the neurochemical incentives encouraging its consumption. Alcohol is easy to produce, lucrative to sell, and addictive to consume, so demand for alcohol remains high even with changes in the price or supply. All of this should have been obvious to policymakers at the time. But prohibitionists, driven by a genuine belief that banning alcohol would reduce rates of poverty and violence, fell under the illusion of control.

The lessons we ought to have taken from the failed Prohibition experiment were at best overlooked and at worst willfully ignored. Less than forty years after Prohibition ended, President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one” and set the U.S. on a path with disastrous outcomes: mass incarceration and the proliferation of private, for-profit prisons, to name just two. To the extent that the actual goal was to stop the consumption of psychoactive drugs, it failed miserably. The war on drugs represents a shameful period in U.S. policy history not merely because of its devastating impact on predominantly Black communities, but also because even a cursory reading of history should have warned us that the policy was never likely to work. 

Now consider the issue of immigration. When Donald Trump promised to build a wall at the southern border with Mexico, he touted it as a solution to the entire issue of illegal immigration. Many of his political opponents were quick to point out a number of flaws with the idea, for example that most unauthorized immigrants do not illegally cross the border but instead arrive legally and overstay their visas. Fewer of Trump’s opponents asked the deeper question of whether established borders have ever deterred human migration. 

In her book The Next Great Migration, Sonia Shah offers an answer. “We’ve been moving all along,” Shah writes, “and there’s no singular factor that explains why… Migration is a force of nature, rooted in human biology and history.” Shah argues that for humans, the simple act of moving from one place to another has always represented an endogenous solution to exogenous threats. It is only the modern creation of nation-states whose borders are illegal to cross that makes this innate behavior problematic. 

To believe that we can stop migrants from moving by erecting walls or telling them not to come not only flies in the face of what we know of human behavior–it’s also unsupported by the data. A Migration Policy Institute (MPI) study suggests that fortified walls in the U.S. and European Union do not prevent but instead shift crossing attempts to more remote and dangerous border areas. When sections of the California-Mexico border were rebuilt and more heavily patrolled, migrant death rates dropped in California but skyrocketed in Arizona. In the 1990s, the Tucson morgue “recorded an average of 18 migration-related deaths per year,” but that average swelled to almost 200 by the 2000s. 

Nevertheless, the global construction of border walls is increasing rapidly. At the end of WWII, there were just a few border walls in the entire world. As of 2016 there were nearly seventy, and “countries as diverse as Austria, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia announced or began work on new border barriers.” Will these walls be effective in stopping migrants from attempting to cross them? The history of human migration and past policy attempts to control it suggest not.

The mere fact that certain human behaviors are difficult or impossible to control does not mean that we should not try. Murder is an obvious evildoing, illegal in every country in the world, and the unfortunate fact that laws often fail to stop it from happening will not lead us to scrap laws against it or cease enforcing them. But in cases where a behavior is already commonplace, and controversial only insofar as some people are against it, we must be extremely wary of calls for greater control or regulation of this behavior.

One such behavior—and one of the most divisive single issues in the U.S.—is abortion. The U.S. legalized abortion nearly fifty years ago through the landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade. Nevertheless, access to abortions varies greatly by state–Texas made headlines in September with its passage of the nation’s most restrictive law yet–and the 6-3 conservative majority Supreme Court looks set to weaken or strike down abortion rights with their impending decision on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. When asked about the issue of abortion, Justice Kavanaugh acknowledged the bifurcation of public opinion and said the problem is that “you can’t accommodate both interests. You have to pick. Why should this court be the arbiter rather than Congress, state legislatures, [or] state supreme courts.” 

His eventual decision ostensibly bound by the Constitution and established legal jurisprudence, Justice Kavanaugh raises a fair point: the Supreme Court is not the only governmental body that can affect federal policy on the issue. If Congress were to approach this issue legislatively–and that is a big if–how should they do it? How should they pick sides? Not by weighing the merits of each side’s moral claims. Pro-choice and pro-life activists each appeal to deontology, or rule-based ethics, to argue that abortion should or should not be made legal. Liberals see abortion as an issue of women’s health and reproductive rights; conservatives view it as a violation of the rights of the unborn. Each side lays claim to immutable and mutually incompatible rights. Regardless of which moral claim is stronger, neither side is likely to change their mind; appeals to rights cannot help us escape the deadlock. Instead, we should opt for consequentialist ethics and choose whichever route we believe will result in the best outcomes. We should begin by recognizing two facts: (1) abortion has been legal for nearly fifty years in the United States and (2) previous attempts to restrict women from receiving abortions have been unsuccessful, with disastrous effects on women’s health.

The fact that abortion has been legal for five decades greatly shapes Americans’ current sexual behaviors, contraceptive practices, and healthcare decisions. Absent from many debates about abortion is the deeper question of whether policy can or should exert such control on adults’ sex lives. (Twentieth century sodomy laws did little to deter gay men from having sex before being declared unconstitutional in 2003, instead providing legal cover for discrimination.) Banning abortion would mean radically transforming millions of Americans’ sex lives–and for the nearly twenty million American women living in contraceptive deserts, it would spell the elimination of all legal means of terminating unwanted pregnancies. Any responsible policymaker endeavoring to so drastically influence and control others’ lives must have good reason to believe that their efforts will be successful. The burden of proof therefore lies with those who would ban abortion to answer this question: do we have good reason to believe that doing so will stop women from seeking them?

It seems that we do not. Laws restricting women’s access to abortion services do not result in fewer abortions. Instead, they lead women to seek out riskier abortion care options, jeopardizing their health and livelihood. A recent study estimates that an abortion ban would lead to a 21 percent increase in pregnancy-related deaths and a 33 percent increase in pregnancy-related deaths among Black women, “simply because staying pregnant is more dangerous than having an abortion.” This estimate does not include deaths due to unsafe abortions, which women seek out at much higher rates when their access to abortions becomes restricted. If what we really hope to achieve is fewer abortions, banning them will not work. Instead, we should opt for evidence-based methods of reducing abortion rates by providing higher quality sex education, reproductive healthcare and contraception, and well-paid employment to the women who are most vulnerable.

Our inability to appraise the limits of policy’s control over alcohol consumption, drug use, immigration, and abortion yields one final insight: failed attempts to control common human behaviors often come with disproportionately negative consequences. Let this serve as a warning and an inspiration to current and future policymakers. Falling under the illusion of control can be fatal. Learning to see past it can help us craft effective policy.

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