Everyone has heard the saying “When God closes a door, He opens a window.” I summarize an important principle of libertarian political policy with my own spin on this, by saying: “When the government opens a window, it closes a door.” The funny thing about doors and windows is that, when you think about it, you can escape to freedom through a door, but not, usually, escape out a window. I call this principle, summarized by the above saying, as Windows and Doors Theory, and it really is central to my politics and economics.
What Windows and Doors Theory states is that, when you consider a political or economic policy, you should consider it as a complete package of every policy that flows from its underlying principle, and you take the bad with the good, and the good with the bad. Three basic principles exist (there may be more, but let’s not worry about that here): the libertarian principle, the conservative principle, and the liberal/socialist principle. What Windows and Doors theory really means is that if you have identified something good about one of these principles, your analysis is not complete until you also consider all the bad things about the principle, and, in the end, you should add up everything good and bad and see if there is a net benefit or net disadvantage to choosing that policy.
Let’s play with some examples. Assume that there is an epidemic of obesity and diabetes among the poor in the United States. Assume that a politician proposes a tax on soda (or “pop”, as they say in the West Coast--I am an East Coast guy, and we call it “soda”) and junk food like McDonalds and potato chips. Suppose that experiments are run in cities and towns which adopt this tax, and it is proven that it does, in fact, improve the public health. Is this a good policy?
Windows and Doors theory states that you must look at the underlying principle, and identify the policy as a whole, to evaluate it. This principle here is liberal regulations to manipulate the sale and consumption of food. Assume, in this example, that there is a Midwestern state--let’s call it “Iowa”, as a purely hypothetical example--which has a politically important role in Presidential primaries, and which has an economy based on the farming of a food product, corn. Let’s assume that corn, if paid with taxpayer dollars, can cheaply be processed into high fructose corn syrup, a substance which when added to food makes food extremely prone to cause obesity and diabetes. Let’s assume, in this example, that the government is providing vast farm subsidies to the Iowa corn farmers, which results in a huge supply of artificially cheap high fructose corn syrup.
Windows and Doors Theory simply states that you cannot consider the soda tax without also considering the corn subsidy, because they are, in fact, a package deal. In this example, you could have the soda tax and the corn subsidy, so you are helping and hurting obesity at the same time. Or, you could reject the principle, and thereby reject the package of policies that flows from it. In this example, this would look like voting no on the soda tax, voting to end corn subsidies, and then see whether the obesity epidemic is solved by the end of cheap high fructose corn syrup added to virtually every food in the stores. In fact, there is no such thing as the soda tax or the corn subsidy, there is instead one policy, liberal food regulation. But the liberal politicians want you to see only half the story, and see the soda tax while being blind to the corn subsidy, despite it being one and the same principle that underlies them both.
One can see hundreds of different areas where Windows and Doors Theory can be used for political analysis, but I will only go through one final example here, and then let you apply it to other areas yourself. Assume, in this next example, that a poor person is living in a slum. This poor person just recently lost their job, and has no money. Now, let us consider the liberal policy of giving this poor person free healthcare, and government-subsidized low income housing, and welfare money so they can buy food. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that this poor person will literally die, would starve to death or get deathly sick, absent government welfare. The liberal politician will point to this as the triumph of liberalism, and accuse the libertarians (and conservatives) of issuing a death sentence to this victim, by proposing to cut taxes and slash welfare.
But Windows and Doors Theory says you must look at the fundamental principle and every detail that results from it, to evaluate a policy, and you take the good with the bad, and you take the bad with the good. Let us assume, in this example, that this poor person is fond of cutting hair, and is a talented hair stylist. Let us assume that in his or her state, in order to get a job as a hair dresser you need a hair-dresser’s license issued by a state occupational licensing board, which requires taking classes in hair styling, and this poor person is illiterate and can’t read and can’t afford the classes, and can’t even afford the filing fee to apply for the license. Assume that, in the absence of this occupational license regulation, this poor person can, and would, get a job at a hair salon cutting hair, would be very good at this job, would make an okay salary, and could pay for his or her own food, shelter, and medical treatment, without needing any help from the government. So, is welfare and liberal politics really helping this person, or hurting them?
The example can have further details added to this same example. Assume that, in addition to getting a job as a hair stylist, this person would be willing to work as a factory worker in manufacturing. But in this state there is a minimum wage law, and there are laws that mandate a slate of employee benefits that employers must give to employees. The liberals point to this law as a success, saying it helps the poor. But the law has made it so expensive to hire employees, that the companies in the state’s manufacturing industry have closed most of their plants in the state, and moved those plants, and those jobs, to Mexico and China, where the wage they must pay is lower, so that it is cheaper to hire employees overseas. Did the liberal policy really help this poor person, or, as a net result of adding up all the pluses and minuses, did it hurt them? In this example, we have conceded that this poor person, right now, will die if welfare benefits for them are cut. Does this mean that liberalism is a good policy for them?
Another interesting thing to consider is that, based on this, a libertarian could concede that abolishing the welfare state might cause great short-term harm to the poor masses dependent upon it, and that the poor might die without it, yet, as a matter of reason and logic, this might not mean that the net result for those poor masses would be bad. In fact, the libertarian could concede the death sentence argument as part of the story yet still argue that libertarianism is ultimately much better for the people than liberalism, because the supposed death sentence that will result from the end of welfare is not really a death sentence after all, since libertarianism will create new jobs so that the people won’t need to rely on welfare to survive any longer. Of course, it is the job of the economists to analyze whether the benefits to the people of job growth are greater or lesser than the loss to the people from welfare benefits ending.
Right here I am not going to go through all the hundreds of different policy details that flow from the three central principles of libertarianism, liberalism, and conservatism, and make arguments as to which of the three is actually best. You can probably guess what I would say, anyway. That is not the point. The point is to make you understand the Windows and Doors Theory, which states that, when analyzing a political policy, look first at the underlying principle, then identify every detail in practice which flows from it, and then, to decide whether it is good or bad, consider both the good it does and the harm it causes, and sum up the net result. Just because you can look out an open window, does not mean you should ignore the sound of a door slamming shut. This is a more wise and intelligent method of analysis than what politicians and pundits do right now, namely, looking at some details that are good and turning a blind eye to the associated bad, or blaming some things as bad and refusing to consider other good things that go hand in hand with them. Windows and Doors Theory is the principle of principles-based analysis.
In conclusion, sometimes in order to open a door you must close a window. And sometimes, when you close a window, then a door swings wide open, so that people can actually exit the room through the open door.
Footnote: Do not confuse Windows and Doors Theory with two other theories with similar names, the Fallacy of the Broken Window (in economics), and Broken Windows Theory (in police procedure). They all sound similar but are not related. Also note that Windows and Doors Theory is not precisely identical to the Principle of Unintended Consequences, which states that economists must consider both intended and unintended consequences of a policy. My theory argues that you should look at all policies that flow from a principle as one package and take the bad with the good, which is not quite what Unintended Consequences Theory says, and, also, some of the bad that flows from a principle may, in fact, be intended, as the policy’s advocates may not see some intentional consequences as a bad thing at all.