Max Borders on epicycles and Obamacare

November 4, 2013 by History in a Hurry

Epicycles and Obamacare


Ever heard of Ptolemy? He’s the guy whose model of the universe lasted for more than 1,000 years. The earth, thought Ptolemy, is at the center of the known universe and the planets dance around the earth. But this is where things got unnecessarily complicated.

To explain the apparently strange planetary motions, Ptolemy and astronomers after him used epicycles. It took centuries before Copernicus figured out that the need for epicycles could be reduced by putting the sun at the center of the known universe. Improvements by Tycho Brahe, Galileo, Kepler and Newton eliminated epicycles altogether.

Regulators are much like Ptolemaic astronomers—only they can meddle directly in the economy to try to get it to fit their model. The regulators perceive some “market failure,” then apply their linear logic to justify an intervention. When the intervention fails or causes some perverse effect, the regulator’s epicyclical thinking kicks in. He decides to fix the bad consequences of the earlier fixes. Intervention begets intervention.

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