Sunday, August 17, 2008

Why some ideas fail

"Suppose we made, let us say, French our "official" language for fifteen years, then Japanese for the next fifteen. The English language would still be spoken by nearly everyone, but in thirty years, we would all be trilingual."

That's from Neil Postman's The End of Education, and I think it is a terrible idea. What makes it so bad is the blatant disregard for opportunity cost. Sure, it might be marginally better if everyone in the country was trilingual, but is worth all of that time and effort? No way.

This is a general rule: most bad ideas suffer because they don't take into account how much time or money or effort will be necessary to implement them. It's not that the outcome wouldn't necessarily be an improvement. But whenever we consider a course of action, we have to consider what we could accomplish instead of that action as well.

I am not great at this, and I'll admit that it is hard. But some people, like those proposing compulsory national service, an invasion of Iran, or making French the official language of the US, are clearly not even trying.