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Aftermath – The Unintended Consequences of Public Policies: Book Review

Public policies can give rise to unintended consequences. It is needless to say that government forms policies with good intentions – usually to eliminate existing social or economic issues and to bring socially desirable changes within the country. However, when government adopts a certain policy with the shortsighted vision of positive impact it may generate without any regards to possible ramifications such a policy could have on a long term, the policy ultimately perpetuates and aggravates the very problem it was trying to mitigate in the first place.

This book—Aftermath— raises the question of efficacy of public policies by looking into several instances when they failed to carry out their fundamental function – enhancing social well-being. From minimum wage law to alcohol prohibition, Thomas E. Hall delves into inevitable repercussions the United States faced and is still facing due to hasty implementations of several policies by the government.

In a free market, wage rate is determined by the worker’s marginal productivity. There is a voluntary agreement between the employer and the employee regarding the amount the employee gets paid. However, when the government intervenes in this consensual relationship between the employer and the employee, by setting a minimum wage rate that mandates the employer to pay no less than the stipulated amount to the employee, adverse consequences can arise. According to Hall, minimum wage law, passed with the objective of giving every employee – mainly unskilled and teenage workers – enough wage to sustain a basic standard of living, has been proved to be counterproductive. When employers are forced to pay the employees more than what they originally used to pay or when the law is binding, they either lay off workers to reduce the cost or replace them with someone more skilled. This leaves unskilled and teenage workers bereft of employment. Hall further rebukes this law for encouraging discrimination by employers on the basis of race, sex, or physical appearance when selecting a potential candidate for a job, as evidenced by employment rate of white teenagers exceeding – by a large amount – that of black teenagers in the 1950s (minimum wage rate was increased from $0.75 to $1.00 per hour in 1956).

Hall talks at length about how minimum wage law increases cost for firms, which in turn induces these firms to layoff workers in order to maintain their profit margin. Nevertheless, he neglects to address the cost incurred by taxpayers for the public assistance programs implemented to financially support citizens earning below cost of living. The author’s assessment would have been more convincing if he had provided an analysis on how much the public would have to contribute in tax in the absence of minimum wage law (for such assistance programs) and if this cost to the public is higher/lower than the social cost of implementing minimum wage law.

The author also examines the effectiveness of cigarette tax. Revenue generation along with discouraging cigarette consumption was the primary purpose of cigarette taxation when it was first implemented in Iowa in the 1920s. However, what policymakers failed to take in account while pushing this agenda was the possible outbreak of illegal activities it could entail. Hall explains how the tax incentivizes people to engage in smuggling to make substantial profit by exploiting large price disparity in different countries. This leads to the rise in organized crimes and criminal groups resorting to violence to monopolize the profit generating trade of cigarettes. Furthermore, he illustrates how the government incurs revenue loss if the tax is increased beyond a certain threshold. He argues that the government will only increase tax to the point up to which there is positive revenue growth even after factoring for the people who give up smoking as a result of increased cost of smoking. Hall concludes that excessive tax on cigarettes leads to intensified smuggling along with diminished revenue.

In retrospect, inefficiency of these public policies is clear to the government as well as the public. Hall reasons that despite the evident social and economic costs they engender, large share of public and well defined interest groups support these policies making it difficult for the government to repeal them – middle and lower income groups are proponents of progressive income tax; labor unions are convinced minimum wage makes poor better off; and non-smokers want cigarette consumption to decline.

I personally gained profound insights from this book on the history of several public policies – how they came into existence – and how they have affected well-being of the country over the years. Aftermath is definitely a constructive read for those who have ever wondered why public policy matters spark controversies; it will make the readers critically reassess government’s role in the market and whether government intervention is always justified on the grounds of “enhanced social welfare” within the country.

About Sambriddhi Acharya

Sambriddhi is a researcher at Samriddhi Foundation.

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