Take the religion out of regulation

Last month, President Trump garnered attention when he gave a thumbs up on Twitter to states’ efforts to introduce Bible literacy classes in public schools. The tweet, and the state legislation that Trump was alluding to, made some commentators squeamish. It raised questions as to whether government and religion are too cozy.

Reasonable people can disagree about the appropriate degree of separation between church and state. But there is one way faith seems to be creeping uncomfortably close to policy. It has nothing to do with evolution, the Pledge of Allegiance, or Bibles in public schools.

Instead, it’s the idea — common among our leaders in Washington and elsewhere — that a mysterious singular being called “society” exists, and the goal of our government is to maximize His welfare.

Society is, of course, a useful and valid concept that binds us together. We work toward common goals while keeping an eye on the welfare of our neighbors. But society is also a limiting concept when crafting policies that are more accurately described as trying to help hundreds of millions of distinct individuals.

The economist F.A. Hayek warned about a human tendency to conflate the characteristics of individuals with the characteristics of society as a whole. Hayek argued that when we do this, we can turn the sometimes-useful word “social” into a “weasel word,” stripping whatever language follows it of content and meaning. The phrase “social justice,” for example, means important things to plenty of people, but it’s an opaque term and makes for opaque arguments.

Consider cost-benefit analysis, a technocratic tool government regulators use to analyze the good and bad outcomes that result from their regulations. Cost-benefit analysis is underpinned by a mathematical “social” welfare function, supposedly telling us, in one handy equation, how a policy will impact the wellbeing of “society.” This society has characteristics like a person: He is impatient, doesn’t like risk, and tries to maintain a relatively comfortable level of consumption…