Mona Charen writes today about the hubbub surrounding Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”  Slaughter’s realization that she was in fact missing something—time at home with her sons—by pursuing a high-powered D.C. career is a story that’s familiar to many of us who follow the feminist debates about career and motherhood.  Many women are surprised that they find themselves not being satisfied with just a few hours before bed time with their kids and are willing to give up even glamorous, well-paid positions to be there for mundane, but viscerally important, moments with offspring.

Charen notes that feminists often seem to mislead young women about these tradeoffs so that women are surprised that they cannot actually do both—be in the office from 8 am until 7 pm each day and also welcome kids home from school at 3 pm. 

This made me think of the other ways that so many people fail to understand the tradeoffs that are inherent in public policy questions. 

Politicians sell people on the most obvious transaction and beneficiaries from a new policy or program:  This new mandate means that all workers of this type will get this benefit.  Those beneficiaries applaud and they are joined by anyone sympathizing with that group.  Yet a big part of the story is missing from the equation.  Who is paying for this benefit?  How else might the money have been used that will now be transferred through this mandate?  How will this change the behavior of those benefiting, and those providing the benefit? 

The Wall Street Journal’s amusing—though also horrifying—description of the obstacles facing a would-be Italian entrepreneur is a tutorial in the consequences of just looking at one side of the policy ledger.  All of the clearly burdensome, self-defeating requirements listed in the editorial were advanced and sold to the public as helping someone—some particular group that is considered in need of a leg up.  Yet what it all adds up to is a thicket of regulations and mandates that hurt everyone—including those the public sought to help—by destroying dynamism, entrepreneurship, and job creation. 

Surely if the Italian public was presented with this full list they would resoundingly reject it as a cruel joke that would destroy their economy.  Yet when it was done piecemeal and without an appreciation for the full costs, it slide by and has in fact gone a long way toward destroying their economy. 

There is something similar when it comes to our personal lives.  It’s no big deal to miss a couple of dinners with one’s kids, or even have to be gone for a week and miss a game or play.  Yet when those exceptions, start becoming the rule, they can chip away at some of the most important things of life and actually backfire on those you wanted to help in the first place.  It sounds like Slaughter became aware of these tradeoffs and saw a bigger picture.  Perhaps voters will too.