What is it about politics that makes us focus on things instead of people? It makes for neat elections, but sloppy thinking. Seductive sound bites, but ugly policy. Maybe it's in our DNA, one of those things hard-wired in human nature that are tough to fix.
But that shouldn't stop us from trying.
Take gun control. "Guns kill people", "guns are a public health problem", and similar phrases are a common refrain from the left. This ignores both the people who murder and law-abiding gun owners who don't.
Gun owners are absolutely right to point this out. Gun control is people control. It's absolutely essential to focus on the people involved. Who should have access to guns and who should not? That's the right discussion to have. It's the only discussion that can make progress.
But it's not just the left that ignores human behavior in favor of blaming something else. We all do. How many times have we heard that "the economy" needs fixing? That the "trade deficit" is too high? That "Germany" sells too many cars in the U.S.?
Talking about things in this way may be convenient, but it obscures some fundamentally important ideas. Germany, for example, doesn't sell cars. Human beings who claim allegiance to the country called Germany do. Once sold, those cars don't drive themselves up to American homes and declare themselves the property of their astonished occupants. Americans bought those cars with their hard-earned money. They were exactly what they wanted.
All that is forgotten if we fall for the sound bite "Germany sells too many cars". Too many for whom, exactly?
Similarly, talking about "the economy" as some nebulous thing that smart people in Washington can fix is sloppy thinking. The economy is us: You, me and millions of other human beings deciding what to do with what they have, under the laws, rules and regulations that human beings before them have put in place and agreed to live by.
If something is wrong with the economy, something must be wrong with us and/or the rules we've agreed to. Any action to fix "the economy" is really about fixing human beings, making them behave differently from how they are behaving now. But who exactly needs to behave differently? Why? How? That is the discussion we should be having. But as long as we keep sweeping human action under the rug of rhetorical convenience, it's a discussion that will never happen.
If economic policy is too boring to hold your interest, here's something more visceral: Anyone heard of the "opioid epidemic"? That's the latest example of focusing on things instead of people.
Am I the only one who thinks that, just as guns don't kill people, neither do opioids? Sure, bacteria can kill people, and when they do we call it an epidemic. But bacteria are a lot smarter than opioids. Is it really necessary to state that oxycodone tablets don't jump out of a bottle and burrow into your stomach? That heroin doesn't spontaneously materialize inside a syringe, tie you to a chair, and inject itself into your bloodstream?
People kill themselves with drug overdoses because they are deeply and profoundly miserable. Perhaps they made bad choices in life. Perhaps their bad draw in the genetic lottery has made them particularly susceptible to addiction. Perhaps they have endured terrible hardship, given up hope, and see no future for themselves. Perhaps they prefer to live in a world that offers escape from pain, sometimes permanently. Perhaps it is all, some or none of those things. Not being inside their heads, we will never truly know.
Fortunately for our personal comfort, when we say things like "opioid epidemic", we don't have to think about any of that.
If inanimate objects like firearms or pills are the root cause of our problems, we can happily skip down the path of the easy answer. If we just vote for the right people and pass the right laws, we'll legislate bad things into oblivion and our problems will be solved.
That's far more comforting than thinking about mental illness, hopelessness, and the lousy economic prospects for America's poor. Those issues, the real, substantive ones, are much more painful to confront.
Barry Fagin is Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute in Denver. His views are his alone. Readers can contact Dr. Fagin at firstname.lastname@example.org.