Schansberg: The ‘Meat Loaf’ Test

May 8, 2019

by Eric Schansberg, Ph.D.

I’m not comparing government to dinner, but I could. Meatloaf the meal is a decent metaphor for government. It contains a mish-mash of ingredients. It can be pretty good, but only if it’s done just right. And like government, meatloaf is often mediocre and sometimes rough.

Unlike government, meatloaf probably won’t kill you with a drone strike. It won’t take your money and give it to poor people or politically connected interest groups. It won’t lock you out of labor markets or make you pay a lot more for imports. On the other hand, it won’t deal with pollution, protect your property, or defend you from the Chinese either.

No, I’m talking about the singer — Meat Loaf, the man. Born Marvin Lee Aday, he changed his first name to Michael.

But his stage name is the memorable moniker, Meat Loaf. (He got the nickname from his high school football coach as a commentary on his weight.)

Meat Loaf has been in dozens of TV shows and movies. His early work included the musical and the movie for “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” His most popular song on the Top 100 charts was “I’d Do Anything for Love”. But his most iconic song is “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.” It only reached #11 on the charts, but everyone knows it — well, at least everyone over 30 years old. It even has its own Wikipedia page.

The classic line behind the title is a famous earworm: “I want you. I need you. But there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you. Don’t be sad, ’cause two out of three ain’t bad.” The genius of the lyric: We know that we shouldn’t settle for less than three out of three — in love — but often, people do.

So, how is Meat Loaf related to government and public policy analysis? I often say that you need to pass three tests to invoke government as a means to any given end: a proposal for government should be Constitutional, Ethical and Practical. As with love, we know we should strive for all three, but often we settle for “two out of three ain’t bad.”

First, is the proposal consistent with the relevant constitution? If a proposal violates the Constitution, then it is illegitimate and undermines the rule of law. If a constitution is illegitimate in some way, change the constitution, don’t violate it.

Second, is the proposal an ethical use of force on people? When is it OK to have government force someone to do something or prevent them from doing it? Should I make it more difficult for you to work? Is it ethical for government to prevent people from smoking weed or eating too much pie? Is it moral for government to take your money and give it to poor people, wealthy farmers or businesses?

Third, is the proposal practical, will it actually work? Even if it’s constitutional and ethical, if it won’t work, then don’t do it. The minimum wage is dubious on constitutional and ethical grounds. Practically, the law makes it more expensive to hire those with fewer skills. So, we make life more difficult for marginal people we’re supposedly trying to help. We reduce their ability to earn money; we remove the dignity that comes with work; and we take away their best opportunities to build skills and experience through work. How is that attractive — practically (or ethically)?

Economists have two broad concerns about government in practice. Austrian economists emphasize “the knowledge problem.” Think about what government agents need to know to implement effective policy. Consider something “easy” like fixing potholes. Bureaucrats still need to know a ton: the location and size; the resources required, how many machines and workers; what about temperature and road surfaces; and so on. Then, consider the knowledge required to improve something like the American health care and health insurance systems.

Public Choice economists describe motives in political markets, noting that self-interested pursuits in politics will result in everything from altruistic self-sacrifice to crass selfishness, using the power of government to enrich politicians and interest groups at the expense of the general public. Government might look good in theory, but in practice, it’s often a different game.

Bottom line: When you advocate more government, you should be required to surpass my Meat Loaf Test. Most proposals for government don’t meet more than one of the three tests. It’d be great to pass all three. And maybe you’ll think I’m a compromiser, but I’d usually settle for two out of three. For unfortunately, with the government in most cases, “now don’t be sad, but two out of three ain’t bad.”

Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast.


Leave a Reply