The Right Coast

May 27, 2005
The Wild Kingdom of Public Policy
By Gail Heriot

One of my favorite Monty Python skits was entitled "Life or Death Struggles"--a spoof of pompous nature shows. As the screen depicts men dressed up as horses fighting with each other, a German-accented voice intones:

"In the hard and unrelenting world of nature the ceaseless struggle for survival continues. This time one of the pantomime horses concedes defeat and so lives to fight another day"

After a few more shots of animals (or people pretending to be animals) involved in "life or death struggles." the narrator goes back to the pantomime horses:

"Here we see a pantomime horse. It is engaged in a life or death struggle for a job with a merchant bank. However, his rival employee, the huge bull pantomime horse, is lying in wait for him. [Smaller pantomime horse is killed.] Poor pantomime horse."

It didn't occur to me until much later in life that the guys at Monty Python were really onto something. Human beings will fight like animals to preserve their jobs. It's seldom a pretty sight. And it's surprising how many major public policy issues are driven by such considerations. A few years ago when I worked on the Proposition 209 campaign, I noticed the folks who argued in public against Proposition 209 were overwhelmingly employed as affirmative action officers and felt their jobs to be in jeopardy. And many of them were as scrupulously devoted to truth and accuracy in debate as ... well ... a pit bull ... or a pantomime horse.

This leads me to what I will call "Heriot’s Iron Law of Public Policy: No matter how silly, wasteful, wrongheaded and/or harmful a particular program might be, it will take an extraordinary exercise of political will to eliminate it once someone’s job or other substantial financial benefit depends on its continued existence." Please remember that, Gentle Reader, whenever you are in a position to make policy. Unless you are really sure that a policy is a good one, make sure no one is hired specially to execute it or it will be close to impossible to terminate the program.

There is, of course, a corollary to this rule that has been thoroughly grasped by the Left: If you want to entrench a policy that your opponents object to, the best way to do it is to make sure someone is specially hired to execute the policy. Even if the person you hire is not initially a true believer, he will be by the time his first paycheck arrives. And he will fight tooth and nail to preserve the program you love if it is ever threatened.

I thought of this today when I took a look at the proposed new "Five-Year Plan" for diversity at the University of Oregon. Among other things, it calls for aggressive hiring of up to 40 new faculty members in areas like "critical race studies, critical gender studies, queer studies; disabilities studies" who will be teaching in a variety "Cultural Competency" programs for faculty, students and staff. Yup, 40 new faculty members, that ought to just about do the trick....