Newton's law worth remembering when crafting public policy

The Oklahoman Editorial Published: April 2, 2013

PEOPLE respond to incentives. That's obvious, yet it continues to catch policymakers by surprise. The validity of this concept could be seen in December when countless businesses issued dividends and took other steps to maximize profits in advance of the January tax increases enacted at President Barack Obama's insistence.

Another obvious truism often ignored by politicians is that actions can have unintended consequences. This can be seen in the response to Obama's demand for gun control. Americans reacted by purchasing weapons and ammunition — particularly the AR-15 model used in the Newtown shooting. The unintended consequence of gun control proponents' zeal was to encourage people to stockpile weapons.

After Newtown, lawmakers in New York rushed to enact gun control laws. They're now dealing with the unintended consequences. Mental health doctors object to a provision requiring them to report patients they consider a risk, saying this may cause fewer people to seek needed treatment and ultimately increase the likelihood of tragedy.

The New York law banned magazines holding more than seven bullets, putting police in violation of the law. The legislation also banned carrying guns on school grounds. Under the letter of the law, should a school shooting occur, police might be required to disarm on school grounds even if the shooter remains active. Apparently, New York's politicians didn't bother to consider what behavior may be incentivized by that provision, but it's safe to say the unintended result isn't necessarily a deterrent to school shootings.

In Oklahoma, restrictions on drugs with pseudoephedrine briefly reduced the number of local meth labs, but incentivized an increase in meth imported by international cartels — and also incentivized meth cooks to develop a “shake and bake” formula requiring smaller quantities of precursor drugs.

The biggest case of incentives impacting behavior is likely to occur in 2014, when many Obamacare provisions take effect. Numerous companies are already preparing for the law in ways the bill's supporters should have expected, but didn't. Since companies with more than 50 workers face penalties if they don't provide the government-sanctioned level of coverage, many businesses are reasonably reducing the number of full-time workers to avoid the penalty. The incentives of Obamacare often mean reducing the number of full-time jobs instead of increasing insurance coverage.

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