A Titanic Question of Public Policy

Ok, I’ll admit it. Last month I became perhaps the last human being in this section of the solar system to see the movie "Titanic." Why, I reasoned, should I pay seven bucks to see a catastrophic disaster when I could just watch the Republican Congress for free? Nevertheless, curiosity finally got the better of me, and I dragged myself down to the multiplex to take a look.

The basic plot of the movie is well-known: boy meets girl, iceberg meets ship. Ship, boy, girl all sink. Also well-known is the movie’s rather simplistic view of the Titanic’s class system. Steerage is where all the good people are, and all the bad guys are in first-class. What did surprise me, however, was a series of scenes in which these class distinctions were illustrated. After dinner one night, the steerage folks had a real party – singing, dancing Irish jigs, doing some serious drinking. By contrast, the first-classers, including the likes of John Jacob Astor, were just sitting around in their tuxedos discussing . . . the Sherman antitrust act.

Now, that really got my policy wonk dander up. Out of all the things in the world, was antitrust really the most boring thing the screenwriters could think of? Indulge me a little bit here. I know it’s not Irish dancing, but there were some lively debates going on about time that would have had far-reaching effects on the nation.

Think about the times. In April 1912, the nation’s tradition of economic liberty was under assault by pro-regulation "progressives." Teddy Roosevelt was carrying the progressive banner in a dramatic challenge to President William Howard Taft. A key issue was, boring or not, antitrust. The Supreme Court had decided two historic cases only the year before: one breaking up John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, another breaking up the American Tobacco Company. These cases helped establish the popular legend of brave trustbusters fighting evil robber barons. (Never mind that the actual charges included claims that prices were too low, not too high.) The case also increased political momentum for more and even more restictive laws, leading in 1914 to passage of the Clayton Act and creation of the Federal Trade Commission.

Along with nearly contemporaneous increases in taxes, government spending and other types of regulation, the era of big government was born. That was an impending disaster the folks dancing on the Titanic never imagined.

To be fair, I can’t really fault the makers of Titanic from painting the Sherman Act as less than riveting. Heck, even I know better than to start off conversation at a party with "Hey, what’s your view of Brown Shoe?" Most people simply don’t care much about regulatory policy in itself. They have their own lives, careers and families to take care of. As the late Aaron Wildavsky often pointed out, they don’t have the time or inclination to learn about things that they don’t think affect them: they are "rationally ignorant."

That is the core challenge facing CEI and other groups like us. We need not just to make good economic arguments, but show why they are relevant to the average guy. People may not care about network externalities, but they might care if the Justice Department keeps their computer from getting better. They might not care about predatory pricing, but they might care if regulators keep them from getting discount air fares. If we don’t translate public policy into something that makes a difference to the average guy, we’ll get just about as much attention as a certain iceberg.