The Frying Pan Fable: On Asking the Wrong Questions

Frying pans are really great for cooking things, after all, that is what they are designed for. From scrambled eggs to sautéed vegetables, there are numerous types of foods that can be prepared in a frying pan. However, besides this obvious use, a frying pan can be utilized for a variety of other tasks. If someone breaks into your house, a frying pan can be used as a self-defense tool. If you are concerned about small objects falling on your head, a frying pan could be used as a helmet.

Despite these alternative uses, frying pans are generally just used for cooking. Why is that? What prevents people from seeing frying pans as multipurpose tools and using frying pans for all sorts of tasks? Well, besides the fact that frying pans are not all that good at accomplishing these other tasks, people use frying pans for cooking because they were designed for that task. I could try to use my lawn mower as a fan or my shoes as soup bowls, but these items were not designed for those jobs and would do a poor job.

Economist Gene Callahan illustrates this idea that different tools have different roles and different levels of effectiveness, “Simply because a sledgehammer does a good job breaking up stones does not mean that it’s the right tool for slicing tomatoes” (“Economics For Real People” page 35)

The majority of fabricated items in this world were created with particular purposes in mind. That’s not to say there is no place for experimenting with alternative uses or making do with limited resources. However, I think I’m correct in saying that, generally, things work best when they are put to use according to their design. If I am holding a vacuum cleaner and wondering how to use it, I should ask for what it was designed for. On a bigger scale, if I am wondering how I should live, I should attempt to find out what I was created for.

This leads into the main purpose of this blog post, which is about how to evaluate government. I spent to preceding paragraphs making the point that things in life should (generally) be utilized according to their design. Why do we not apply this same framework to government? Why do we not spend more time considering the proper role of government? From handling education to regulating the food industry clearly government is capable of many things. But, like using the frying pan for self-defense, some of these tasks might be outside of the realm of its design. To evaluate government in terms of capability, or even its propensity to act according to my personal values is to ask the wrong questions. Rather, we should step back and attempt to determine the proper role and purpose of government. From there we can evaluate aspects of government action, such as effectiveness, from a more stable foundation.

When thinking about government involvement in healthcare, for example, I could start by thinking about the effectiveness of government regulated healthcare. Additionally, I might consider my personal feelings on the matter. However, if I don’t start by considering whether or not regulation of healthcare is within the realm of government’s role, I will have missed the fundamental issue.

I would challenge everybody reading this post to think hard about government’s role. Think through why government exists and what purposes it achieves. From there try to determine if the policies that you support agree with this foundational framework. Hopefully, this exercise will enable you to have a more consistent and thoughtful view of government.

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As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email. Thanks for reading!

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One thought on “The Frying Pan Fable: On Asking the Wrong Questions

  1. Pingback: The Frying Pan Fable Follow-Up | Wright On The Mark

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